Tuesday, 18 January 2011

GUEST BLOG: In Praise of the Personal Essay - Diane Girard

Here's a new feature that we're introducing this year, guest posts by friends of the blog. Here, in the debut, is a post by our friend Diane Girard, writer and observationist...

I enjoy reading and writing personal essays. If your only experience with the essay format was writing the academic essay during your school years, then you could discover that reading a personal essay or perhaps writing one, is not at all boring. It can be fun and even, dare I say it, enlightening. Imagine that! And allow me to tell you why I believe it.

Fortunately, especially for writers like me, a personal essay need not adhere to a strict format. To quote Wikipedia, the source of many definitions, both dubious and correct, “the definition of a personal essay is vague.” Although like any other piece of writing, it should have a subject, thoughts about the subject and an ending, there is room for opinion and for tangential thoughts. It can even include an aside like this one:

My earliest memory of writing an essay for school is not pleasant. We were charged with the task of writing about our summer vacations and I did. Unfortunately, I did it so well that the teacher assumed my mother had written it and she blessed my words with an F.

Personal essays can include anecdotes and mini-stories that illustrate the subject and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions and very occasionally, because it wouldn’t be wise to do it often, they might point gently toward a moral. I use anecdotes frequently and readers tell me they enjoy them.

The focus of a piece can be as small as what kind of pajamas you prefer. In the winter, I like flannelette ones and I have written about them and other types of lingerie, in Keep Those Paws off My Pajamas. Or, the focus can be on something that most people have experienced, or will experience; like the possibly negative effects of gym membership, which I attempted to explain in Fitness Follies: My Life at the Gym. (These essays and others appear on www.seniorwomen.com.)

There is really no limit to what you can write about, provided you are not the only person who would be interested in your thoughts. I’ve considered serious subjects like greed, (the stock market fiasco and the desire for higher and higher returns on money), Canada’s decision not to participate in the Iraq war, and Remembrance Day among other topics.

Since most personal essays are not very long, they do not require the months, and in some cases years of concentration that are required to write a novel. And, if you have are opinionated -- I’ll bet you are -- you have an opportunity to present your personal view on a topic of your choice.

I’ve found it’s the concrete details that make words come to life and since the personal essay is a form of creative non-fiction, an occasional slight exaggeration of the facts is permissible and sometimes more humorous than the literal truth.

I should also tell you that there are a lot of markets for personal essays. You’ll see them on the Op Ed pages of newspapers, in magazines and journals, and collected in books. Although I haven’t worked hard at marketing my essays (I’m lazy) and I don’t write tons of them, they have been published in diverse places including Adbusters Magazine, The Western Producer (newspaper) The Waterloo Record (newspaper) and my blog at http://upwritewoman.blogspot.com/

So, if you are tempted to write one, read some: you can find them everywhere, and then take the plunge. The water is warm and full of other friendly swimmers. Have fun.


Nancy said...

S'truth! Fun - I should do more, just for the fun of it and I do enjoy reading them in magazines and newspapers as they often either poke fun or deliberately raise cain.

Anonymous said...

Love this guest post - well done!

Pat Hollett said...

An insightful read Diane! Thanks for sharing these thoughts and your views on the personal essay. I enjoyed it. :)

Danielle La Paglia said...

Congrats to you both on the first guest post. The term "personal essay" somehow brings tremors to my finger tips, but you do them quite well, Diane.

Angela Addams said...

I can't believe your teacher gave you an F - I had a hard time moving on from that!

I like writing and reading personal essays - there's a lot of creative freedom in putting one together.

Seleste deLaney/Julie Particka said...

I still remember my mom's comments the first time a teacher accused her of writing one of my stories. Priceless.

Personal essay sounds so...scary to most of us. But IMO it's much of what we do when we blog: take stuff that has happened to us (or people we know) and put a spin on it.

For myself, I fear getting too personal. I'm a sharer by nature and sadly, once I start, I tend to overshare and it gets me in trouble LOL.

Great post :)

J.A. Campbell said...

Never looked at it quite like that before. Essays have always been things filled with dread... ahh what school does to us.

Heh, speaking of that, I took a creative writing class (part of one) that almost stopped me writing (did for 3 months). I got over it obviously, but that might be a fun story to tell sometime.


Jessica Peter said...

Interesting! I hadn't heard much about personal essays, except that today I read an article about how creative non-fiction is kind of taking them over. I guess the personal essay is different because it is more of an opinion/mood/feeling, and creative non-fic because it's a story? Hm. Maybe.

And Adbusters! Very cool.