When it comes to writing about our own lives, sometimes just deciding the parameters of a story can seem so nebulous and confusing, terrifying even, that we may back-burner the idea for a while, or step away from it altogether, or write the story from such a guarded distance that the benefits of sharing it are lost (and the piece ends up deep-sixed). If you’ve spent your career primarily interviewing and writing about other people, it can be unsettling at first to shift the spotlight to yourself. But these days, with the world in upheaval, we all have stories to share, and editors are clamoring for fresh voices and a unique spin on topics, old and new.
Significant experiences stick with us long afterwards, compelling us to reflect upon them in greater depth, relive the thoughts and emotions we felt at the time, process what we’ve learned from the events, and acknowledge how we may have changed as a result of them. When writing personal stories, it’s easy to become bogged down in extraneous information and supporting characters. It’s the writer’s job to distill the event down to an engaging yet manageable read, thereby allowing its deeper meaning to emerge as the story plays out.
If Uncle Biff or Aunt Mimi played a small but important part in your story, it may be tempting to give more detail about these wonderful people and the positive impact they’ve had on your life. Resist the temptation! The impulse to over-include is natural, so culling is critical. Be vigilant as you edit, deleting all non-essential and self-indulgent passages. Relatable threads can readily become tangled or lost amid a web of superfluous details. You want to engage your readers in the linear drama of the situation rather than overload them with details. Paring down often yields a cleaner, more powerful narrative.
When writing personal, I imagine a majestic, deep-rooted tree, bare branches reaching skyward. My story is hidden in the roots, and it’s my job to send it surging up through the trunk. I can branch off into supporting material, when necessary, as long as I promptly return to the trunk, or heart of my tale. By the time I reach the tree top, if I’ve skillfully crafted my piece, I’ll have an emotionally honest story that readers can relate to and, perhaps, learn from.
Personal pieces can be long, short, and everything in between, depending on the complexity of the story and the market for which you’re writing. Years ago, post-divorce, I lightened my emotional load, and beefed up my wallet, by writing lengthy, anonymous confessionals. By sharing my mercurial emotions through well-crafted stories, I came to understand myself and my situation far better. That feeling has held true for every personal piece I’ve written since. Ultimately, I always hope that other people will find my stories as therapeutic in the reading as I’ve found them in the writing.
On the shorter side, if you’ve got a great personal anecdote to share, consider writing it up as a filler. Conveyed quickly and concisely with punch, fillers are challenging and fun because every last word must propel the story forward, adding to its value. Just for fun, try visualizing your anecdote in cartoon format. Block the event into three or four panels and, then, write one sentence per panel. If that’s too barebones to do your story justice, give yourself another two or three sentences per panel. The cartoon strip approach is a great way to practice thinking and writing ‘short ‘n sweet.’
Aim to infuse your personal piece, regardless of length, with the details and emotions that made the incident stand out in your mind in the first place. Resist the temptation to clutter your story with too much extraneous information, and keep your ego in check. Stories that smack of me, me, me are off-putting to readers. A successful personal experience piece is inclusive. It offers readers the chance to step into your life, share one of your most significant, life-altering experiences, and walk away inspired.
Wendy Hobday Haugh’s short stories, articles, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications, including Woman’s World Weekly, WritersWeekly.com. and Simply Saratoga. Her personal stories have appeared in 15 different Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. To learn more, visit WendyHobdayHaugh.com.
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