ward-winning author and writing coach Adair Lara dares writers to shed their inhibitions. Then, Lara says, writers can construct a personal essay that gets to the very essence of the piece: the shared bond of humanity offering a confession that unites us all.
Lara’s no stranger to the art of the personal essay, although she took a staggering path from editor to author. After joining the staff of San Francisco Focus as a copy editor, Lara realized she wanted to write. She wasn’t alone. Her pal Cynthia, the production editor at SF Focus, spilled their writing dreams to each other and brewed their own writing club.
“We exchanged 500 words a day. It didn’t have to be good, but it was due,” Lara says, chuckling. “It was amazing.”
The duo started submitting pieces to the San Francisco Chronicle. Three months later, Lara landed a columnist job with the paper. For a dozen years, the stories from her life appeared every Tuesday and Thursday.
Lara’s latest book, Naked, Drunk, and Writing, pores through years of first-hand experience as an editor, writer, and writing coach and offers practical advice and exercises to spur writers through writing, revising, and publishing.
“Not all stories surface with a story structure.”
Start with a Straight Shooter
Everyone has a story to tell. In her book, Lara compares writing about yourself to stripping down to your bra in public, so others can see the stretch marks.
Fortunately, not every stretch mark is worth others’ scrutiny. Unfortunately, not every story is worth telling.
“Not all stories surface with a story structure,” Lara shares.
Writers need to realize that for an essay to work, meaning and coherence must play a part in the storytelling.
A specific event offers the best framework for an essay. It limits long, drawn-out storytelling and gets to the main point: the lesson learned.
“Not all stories lend themselves to shaping into a personal essay, and it happens for a variety of reasons—because they aren’t older and don’t understand the full consequences, or it’s a victim story that lacks focus.”
Lara insists that for many writers, it’s difficult to step back from his or her life and see what readers want to read instead of what the writer wants to tell.
Writers may believe they have a subject, but that does not add an angle to a piece. “An idea doesn’t tell the writer what the piece will be about.”
Lara cautions writers who rely only on an idea because it will appear to readers that the essay is all over the place.
“Writing [an essay] is a craft. It seems easy because it’s from experience, yet all techniques from writing apply.”
The art of the personal essay boils down to one word: focus. While life combines bits and pieces of memory to formulate a picture, an essay needs to pack as much punch as possible into a single snapshot.
“There has to be a reason for telling the story,” Lara insists. “The experience should be a window into the reader’s life.”
“It’s like a conversation between two people. An essay creates intimacy with people who are vulnerable.”
Follow with a Chaser
What’s the story?
A solid question slings an essay from sour to a smash. Remember writers, the question doesn’t need to have large implications. The little questions tend to produce the best window into a situation.
Those questions and ultimate answers—in essay form—create a bond with readers. Questions also power conflict, intensifying hurdles placed in our collective paths.
“It’s like a conversation between two people. An essay creates intimacy with people who are vulnerable.” It’s the a-ha moment when both writer and reader realize how a situation changed their lives.
Outlining helps a writer see the direction a piece is taking. She shares the following format in Naked, Drunk, and Writing:
I wanted _____.
I wanted it because _____ (backstory). (This is where character comes in.)
To get it, I _____ (action).
However, something got in my way: _____.
I had to try something different, so I _____. (There may be several action-reaction sequences, depending on length.)
All the time I was thinking that _____.
The turning point came when _____.
When that happened, I realized _____ (the point of the story and what you realize are the same thing).
Resolution: After that I _____ (what you did as a result of your realization).
According to Lara, answering those questions develops the tone and creates intimacy or humor without driving away an audience. If a piece veers toward opinion, a reader may agree with the author and the lesson; but if it comes off as didactic or scolding, the tone may make readers feel unsafe, even if they agree with the author’s intent.
Lara believes essayists need to be unsafe.
“Maybe you haven’t figured things out yet, but you have insight into the situation and passion that lets you examine what change really happened.”
“The point is...I was different after this happened. This changed me.”
Provide a Pick-Me-Up
Solution. Payoff. Transformation.
In essay writing, Lara calls the moment of change the epiphany, and she believes life is filled with these defining moments.
“People read a piece or you even hear them say, ‘You’re telling me this because...’ The point is...I was different after this happened. This changed me.”
There’s a universal truth in the words you write. After that, things may never be the same.
Lara suggests essayists begin with the turning point and work back because once writers realize the revelation, they’ll instinctively know where to start. Since the intended goal of an essay is the turning point, its placement comes toward the end of the piece. Often, it’s in the next to last paragraph.
Is the piece finished?
No, order another round, bartender.
Now, the personal essay illustrates the writer in a new routine, performing differently than before the epiphany took place.
“If people can’t get over their dislike of revision, they aren’t writers.”
Revise On the Rocks
During the writing process, an author figures out what’s happened in the story and keeps going back to it, producing one (okay, one hundred) drafts. Lara suggests that writers don’t abandon a piece.
“There are two kinds of writing: pieces that don’t work and pieces that don’t work yet. Let a piece marinate and come back to it.”
Lara offers several techniques to ease the hangover of (what can be) revision hell. Basically, writers need to avoid feeling overwhelmed. A lot of tricks and tips make it a less scary process.
- Establish what you’re looking for. Lara recommends setting a kitchen timer for five minutes. During the first read through, spelling may be the focus. Next, it could be consistency in voice or grammar or word choice. This works because you center on one item and fix what’s broken.
- Find a writing partner. A writing partner provides dependability. Lara maintains that a writing partner points out improvements without wrecking a piece. Set up a schedule and stick to it. Feedback shows strengths and weaknesses in a piece and helps you tune in to tune up the essay.
- Find a new location. Print the piece, move to a new room, and read. Don’t revise on the screen. A location change supplies a new outlook.
- Upload the piece to a Kindle. Seeing it in print on a different screen gives a piece a different look. Plus, something which did not seem obvious may now stand out.
If these ideas don’t clear the mist from your essay or writing in general, Lara suggests these revision exercises. Most writers tend to write too short or too long. These procedures aid both the lowball and highball author.
- Add three sentences after each written sentence. This technique lets a writer see what’s missing and what exists. “It forces a writer to slow down and see what’s there.”
- Use a long work, cut it in half, and then let it grow back to the original word count. Lara suggests this practice makes a piece better. “When the piece grows again, it’s not right off the top of your head. You’re cutting material, adding new. You don’t have to worry about revising because you’re taking out what’s boring or complex; you’re slowing the tempo.”
- Record and listen. When you listen, you become familiar with how a piece works. Lara compares it to attempting to rebuild a car engine without making it go. “You need to know how the story works.”
“A piece can be very well written; but without a strong voice, it’s boring.”
Lace it with a Strong Voice
Lara believes voice remains a key ingredient in a successful essay. With the steady flow of information coming from us and at us, a person gets to the point that you don’t care or listen to the message.
But if you build it, they will read.
“A piece can be very well written; but without a strong voice, it’s boring. Provide that clear voice, and you can write anything; and people will follow you anywhere.”
Especially if they’re naked, drunk, and writing.
LuAnn Schindler is a full-time freelance journalist living on the eastern slope of the Nebraska Sandhills on a dairy farm with 200+ Holsteins. She currently blogs for The Muffin, the WOW! Women On Writing daily blog. Her work has appeared in the Pregnancy, 2: The Couples Magazine, Denver Post, Rural Electric Nebraskan, Absolute Write, in addition to other publications. LuAnn is a member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. She won a 2010 Nebraska Press Award for feature writing.
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