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Notes from PWAC Toronto Seminars

 
 

 

 
 
The Art of the Personal Essay

Notes taken and edited by Angileen Gallop

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. 

Panellists included: 
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. 

Jane 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 they cover.

Fawcett says three main rules govern his writing: 
1. Identify the groups involved 
2. Use no passive voice 
3. Write himself into the story. 
Two main principles govern his story ideas: 
1. Select a difficult subject
2. Let the subject matter define the form the story is going to take.

He 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 herself. 

Jane 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. 

Christmas 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. 

Newspapers 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. 

Also, 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. 

To 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. 

Leslie 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: 

1. 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. 

2. You have to have a strong point of view. This genre is not for those who are self-effacing. 

3. 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. 

The 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. 

Smith 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. 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS 

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 myself. 
LS: If you take a look at my writing you will see that I write about small mundane things. 

JC: Even 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. 

Q: 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? 

JC: I'm 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....

This type of storytelling, by an outside observer is not as powerful as a personal account from the person who has gone through it. 

Q: Question about the comment that you can't be self-effacing to write personal essay. 

BF: You can appear to be self-effacing, but ultimately you have to be very strong in your point of view. 

LS: To 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 pill. 

Q: What kind of credentials do you need to write personal essay? 

BF: You don't necessarily need credentials but you do need research. 

LS: You'll have an easier time 'breaking in' to this genre if you have written a book. 

JC: You 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. 

Q: How accurate do you have to be? How much can you take poetic licence? 

BF: Again, you have to do your research. You can't do this type of writing without a strong curiosity and drive to follow it. 

JC: An 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. 

Q: 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...

BF: I 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....

Q: What is the worst personal essay writing you have ever done? 

JC: A 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... (laughs) 

BF: The 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 wrong. 

This led 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. 

Q: Question about first time venues. 

BF: I 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. 

JC: There are publications out there, magazines, who are willing to take short pieces. Part of the job is getting to know the market for personal essay. 

Q: 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....

JC: I 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. 

BF: If you are worried about consequences, get out of the business. If you have no enemies you haven't lived an interesting life. 

Q: About journaling...useful? 

JC: I 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 material. 

BF: Letters are useful because you know someone is listening. You are writing to an audience.


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