How to Write a First-Person Essay
First-person essays span space, time and subject: the city dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s–all subjects of essays I’ve published–are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. Mongrel lot or not, it’s never the subject of an essay that tells, but the style and stance of its author–what might seem the least likely of essay subjects can be made a piquant page-turner by a writer’s winning hand. We’ll look here at choosing the topic, slant and voice of your essay, constructing a lead, building an essay’s rhythm and packing a punch at essay’s end.
Tackling a Topic
Because one of the great appeals of the personal essay is the conversational tone essayists take, it seems a given that it’s best to be conversant with your subject. But “write what you know” can also be an inkless cage; some of the best essays are a voyage of discovery for both writer and reader. You might accidentally flip some breakfast cereal with your spoon and have an epiphany about the origins of catapults. That little leap might take you seven leagues into the history of siege engines and voila!–a piece for a history journal comparing ancient weapons to new.
Subjects sit, stand and float all around you: should you write about baseball, bacteria or bougainvilleas? The key is engagement with your topic so that the angle your writing takes is pointed and penetrating. You don’t write about cars, you write about the fearful symmetry of a 1961 T-Bird. The essayist should be, to paraphrase Henry James, one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Idly looking over at a fellow driver stopped at a traffic signal might be a moment to yawn, but it might also be a moment to consider how people amuse themselves in their vehicles. An essay here about new car technology, an essay there about boredom and its antidotes.
Essays are literally at your fingertips: consider a piece on how fingerprint technology evolved. Or at your nosetip: my most recently published essay was about a lurking smell in my house that led to a mad encounter with attic rats. Humble topics can spur sage tales: Annie Dillard’s recounting of seeing a moth consumed in a candle flame morphs into a elegy on an individual’s decision to live a passionate life. You don’t need glasses to find your topics, just a willingness to see them.
Slant and Voice
Which way should your essay tilt? Some essays wrap blunt opinions in layered language, ensnaring a reader with charm, not coercion. Louis Lapham’s essays often take a political angle, but any advocacy is cloaked in beguiling prose. A how-to essay might explain a process, but its steps wouldn’t be the mechanistic ones of a manual, but more the methods of throwing procedural doors open, lighting from within. Personal-experience or “confessional” essays done well deftly get away with impressionistic strokes: words evoking sensations, scents, and subtleties. Consistency in tone is compelling: leading your reader through your essay with sweet conceptual biscuits only to have them fall hip-deep in a polemical cesspool at essay’s end is counter-productive. Essays need elasticity-they can feint and jab at ideas, but shouldn’t sucker-punch.