Goldilocks and the Art of the Personal Essay
So, one of the best things about my job is reading personal essay submissions. I love having people share bits of their lives and thought–it really feels like an honor to be trusted with personal writing. There are few things that I find more frustrating, though, than a really wonderful story or idea embedded in a bad essay.
One problem I’m running across often is the failure to find some midpoint between narration and preaching, between anecdote and position paper. Lots of times people submit as “essays” pieces that are simply short stories that happen to be true. I like reading them, occasionally I’d consider publishing a particularly well-written one, but usually I want more. I want the anecdote to do some work, to help make sense of some problem that transcends a particular episode in the author’s life.
The opposite problem, of course, is just as bad–abstractions wrenched from their context in a particular life end up sounding preachy or just plain boring.
I think I do a decent job of recognizing when someone has gotten it “just right,” but I’m often unsure of how to advise someone to revise to get from sermon or anecdote to essay. Do you all have practical advice? Or a really good theory of the essay that makes it all clear?