The Art of the Personal
Notes taken and edited by
On Tuesday March 11, 2003 PWAC Toronto held its
panel on The Art of the Personal Essay. The reasoning behind the panel:
as more media outlets make space for readers to write stories that
spring from their personal lives and experiences, the personal essay is
increasingly becoming a viable writing outlet.
Brian Fawcett has been an urban
planner, journalist and even for a short spell, a professional hockey
player -- an experience he drew on for his first book, My Career with
the Leafs. He has followed this up with eight more books including
Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow, and Gender
Wars: A Novel and Some Conversation about Sex and Gender. He is also a
former Globe and Mail columnist and a founding editor of www.dooneyscafe.com,
an alternative Internet News Service.
Christmas fell in love with the typewriter when she realized
its potential for forging permission notes to get out of gym class. She
is the author of countless newspaper and magazine articles about family
life, and of first-person stories dealing with social trends and
attitudes. Her 15-week series for the National Post, a chronicle of her
four-month escape from urban life to Pelee Island, Ont. led to a full
memoir about the experience called The Pelee Project: One Woman's
Escape from Urban Madness. The book was published in September 2002, by
ECW Press, and sold out of its first printing three months later. You
can find out more at www.janechristmas.com.
Leslie C. Smith, an award-winning
writer, is known for her humour. While a contributing editor to En
Route magazine, she was once approached by its editor to write a
feature on fitting in -- in Los Angeles. The resulting piece, L.A.
Woman, was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Smith says the old
adage that dying is hard but comedy is harder certainly holds true,
especially when it comes to trying to convince other magazines to give
her a shot at writing humorous pieces. Nevertheless, she keeps plugging
away at what she hopes are amusing personal essays. You can sample some
of her wares at www.smithleslie.com.
Brian Fawcett opened the evening with a short
personal essay on the genre: personal essay. In his opinion, every
essay is personal. In this age, where the verity of facts and images
can no longer be trusted, writers must testify in person to the events
says three main rules govern his writing:
Identify the groups involved
Use no passive voice
Write himself into the story.
Two main principles govern his story
Select a difficult subject
Let the subject matter define the form the story is going to take.
added that it is a writer's duty in Canada, where we have free speech,
to speak the unspeakable. In personal essay, he said he feels that the
writer must write personally without making the subject him or
Christmas followed up by saying that she is seeing a surge of
popularity in memoirs. Something she says Heather Mallick has called
'the new self help.' Memoirs - the writing of them and the appetite for
them - have largely sprung from the personal essay genre.
feels that with the dominance and concentration of mass media, our
identities are being stripped away. Perhaps people are turning to
memoirists and personal essayists as the 'rogue observers' of life. In
a world that seems increasingly impersonal, personal essays create an
intimacy with the reader.
enjoy the 'cult of celebrity' that personal essayists develop with
their audience. This is because it is critical for the newspapers
themselves to develop a following.
in this age, many of us don't take risks anymore and with mass media,
we tend to live vicariously through other peoples' experiences.
Essayists provide this outlet. They also help people vent vicariously
about issues of the day.
that end, the Globe and Mail has expanded its weekend essay section and
the National Post contains a lot of personal journalism - i.e.: items
such as the 'Personal Life' column.
C. Smith talked about how she started her career as a columnist and
after she found people were laughing at her work, she decided to focus
on writing humour. Her tips are:
You have to be a good writer to write engaging personal essays. The
skill is in taking the most mundane subject and making it sparkle. That
takes some talent and lots of confidence.
You have to have a strong point of view. This genre is not for those
who are self-effacing.
Once you have a premise, you start by interviewing yourself...digging
for answers and providing that twist that turns it from mundane into
something that will make your reader laugh out loud.
thing about humour pieces is, says Smith, you often cannot land them
with queries. You have to write them on spec. So, if you want to enter
into this field you have to be prepared to write the whole thing and
then have editors slavishly reject you.
says she things that personal essay is experiencing a resurgence
because more and more there is room in the media for not only a factual
but an emotional response to the issues of the day.
Q: To Brian. Don't understand what you mean about how
personal essay is about writing in the first person without being
personal. Explain this some more.
BF: I started my books by picking the most
difficult subject matter to tackle that I could think of and then
started the research. I never ask myself how I feel about a subject,
instead the work is personal in the sense that I pick the topics and
let them preoccupy me. I write in order to understand things. If you
take a close look, all of my books have been about violence. I have
never been able to find out why people hit each other. Why does a
country hit itself? My material becomes much bigger than
you take a look at my writing you will see that I write about small
though you may be writing about yourself, your work is cannot be void
of the basic fundamentals of good writing: you need a plot; structure;
point of view; you have to build to a crescendo. You have to shape the
material into a story.
More and more magazines are offering space for readers to write about
their personal experiences for really low pay. I see this as a way for
magazines to get cheap content. What are your thoughts?
not necessarily a big reader of these pieces but I do understand how
they are important. There is a lot of shock journalism out there: leads
that read Jenny Joe's tears hit the river in which, only five hours
earlier, her daughter had drowned....
type of storytelling, by an outside observer is not as powerful as a
personal account from the person who has gone through it.
Question about the comment that you can't be self-effacing to write
can appear to be self-effacing, but ultimately you have to be very
strong in your point of view.
be funny you have to be angry. Funny people are not fun to be around.
How many life partners have Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld been
through? Humour is the bitter truth served up in a sugar
What kind of credentials do you need to write personal essay?
don't necessarily need credentials but you do need research.
You'll have an easier time 'breaking in' to this genre if you have
written a book.
tend to be typecast so you have to be careful when you start out that
you are writing in the direction in which you want to go.
How accurate do you have to be? How much can you take poetic
Again, you have to do your research. You can't do this type of writing
without a strong curiosity and drive to follow it.
essay can be purely anecdotal but these are not the strongest pieces.
They tend to work if you are at the beginning of a new trend.
What do you think the influence of the Web has been/will be on the
personal essay genre i.e.: the emergence of Web Blogs? There are Blogs
out there where people read and donate money to the writer...
think the web is influencing writing and will influence it in some ways
but I think Blogs will disappear. I've read a couple and my eyes just
glaze over... the Web as a medium to date has been one that has not
cared whether or not you can write I think this will change. I have no
facts to back this up of course....
What is the worst personal essay writing you have ever done?
trap with personal essay writing is that it can become whiny. Actually,
the bad writing I've done...I've erased it from my memory bank...
worst thing is to get something wrong. This happened to me in the book
that is due out next week - I have been working on it for 12 years. I
walked around the block with a guy from the far north who told me that
during one of the first broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada, the show
was not broadcasting the Toronto Maple Leafs game so the father of one
of the Leaf players walked into the station and demanded they switch to
the Leafs game. Police shot the guy. I later found out that this
actually hadn't happened. That the guy had recollected the anecdote
me to become interested in the process of memory. So I wrote the error
into the book, admitted I screwed up and explored the mistake. I think
the key is to not let your ego get in front of the story. Be willing to
take it where it needs to go.
Question about first time venues.
recommend that you do your time as a stringer or a reporter. You have
to have something to write about and you have to have the basic tools -
a grasp of the fundamentals of writing. I couldn't do this until I was
40. I always tell writers that we live in a culture that is so complex
that it takes very bright people 30 years to understand it.
There are publications out there, magazines, who are willing to take
short pieces. Part of the job is getting to know the market for
There are consequences to personal essay. I was fired and then wrote a
piece about it. Turned out the owner bought a string of trade magazines
that are in my field....
draw on my family a lot. I don't know whether my friends and family
really appreciate my doing this...Are some cases where something will
happen and I can feel people looking at me...will this end up in a
column? I have written under a pseudonym but basically there are
consequences. You know that when you go into it.
you are worried about consequences, get out of the business. If you
have no enemies you haven't lived an interesting life.
use a journal but I don't use it directly in my writing. What I do find
useful is e-mail. There are times when I can't figure out how to craft
something and then I'll write it in an e-mail to a friend and it
crystallizes the topic...comes out a lot funnier than when I just sit
down to write. I've started to cc. myself on these to keep them as
Letters are useful because you know someone is listening. You are
writing to an audience.
information about workshops, seminars and events for writers
in and around the GTA,visit www.networds.ca
Please see PWAC Toronto's list
Seminars and workshops
conducted by PWAC members.