Writing Personal Essays: Craft a Powerful, Unique Piece in Three Steps | Meghan Daum | Skillshare

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Writing Personal Essays: Craft a Powerful, Unique Piece in Three Steps

teacher avatar Meghan Daum, Author and Essayist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      The Power of Personal Essay


    • 3.

      The Three Steps to a Strong Essay


    • 4.

      Case Study: "Invisible City"


    • 5.

      Step One: Finding Your Stories


    • 6.

      Step Two: Adding the Bigger Picture


    • 7.

      Step Three: Discovering the Hook


    • 8.

      Revising Your Draft


    • 9.

      Taking Risks


    • 10.

      Final Thoughts


    • 11.

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About This Class

Learn to use your personal experiences as the foundation for powerful, affecting essays in this three-step class on personal writing!

Join author and columnist Meghan Daum to learn her process for writing personal essays that give voice to the things we struggle to express. Through examples and exercises designed for writers of all levels, Meghan reveals a simple framework for writing about the most powerful and mundane moments of your life with honesty, humor and craft. 

Designed for aspiring and working writers of all levels, this 50-minute class will cover:

  • Choosing personal experiences that will connect with readers
  • Finding a hook that elevates your story into a universal truth
  • Striking the right balance between vulnerability and control
  • Overcoming doubts and blocks in the face of fear 

Additionally, Meghan walks through several writing projects of her own, sharing her thought process and reflections on the experiences that shaped her life – and tangible tips and tricks for translating them to the page!

Whether you’re drafting a personal essay, polishing a memoir, or wondering how best to share a memorable experience, by the end of this comprehensive class you’ll have a roadmap for crafting powerful pages and taking risks to grow as a writer and a person!

Meet Your Teacher

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Meghan Daum

Author and Essayist


Meghan Daum is the author of five books, including the forthcoming The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars. Her last book was the collection of original essays The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, which won the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for creative nonfiction. She is also the editor of the New York Times bestseller Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers  on the Decision Not To Have Kids. Her other books include the essay collection My Misspent Youth, the novel The Quality of Life Report, and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a memoir.  

In 2019 Meghan became a biweekly columnist for Medium. From 2005 to 2016 she was an oped columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Her work has been included in The Bes... See full profile

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1. Introduction: What you get from writing about yourself is the feeling that you're making a reader feel less alone. I am Meghan Daum and I am a personal essayist among other things. But I'm probably best known as a personal essayist. Today's class is about how to write a personal essay. How to take your own experience and put it on the page in a way that all kinds of people can relate to. Today I'm going to walk you through the steps that I think are the most useful for writing an effective and truly interesting and original personal essay. Writing from experience, connecting that experience to larger ideas, revising, and then finally putting those ideas out into the world. I'm going to offer examples from my own work as well as suggest exercises you can do at home. You should take this class if you have something to say, something to share about your own life or your own experience that you're not quite sure how to shape it and make it something that people will actually want to read. You don't need any writing experience to take this class. All you need is experience of yourself as a person. So I'm really excited you're here. Let's get started. 2. The Power of Personal Essay: Welcome to the class. I'm so glad you're here because there's really very little that I like talking about, more than the personal essay. I love talking with people about the personal essay and how to take their own experience and turn it into literature or at least something people want to read. So when I say personal essay, what I mean is that you have taken some kind of personal experience and elevated it to a level where you're talking about something more general, something more abstract, something universal, something that has almost a cognitive element to it. The definition of essay, the root of the word is to try. It means you're trying out ideas. Montaigne who was really considered the original essayist, would emphasize that this is all about submitting an idea, let me think about this, let me invite you to think alongside me. So an essay doesn't have to be an argument. You don't have to convince anybody of anything, you're really just offering up a set of ideas. One thing I like to point out is that, essays are actually all around us. Stand up comedy is very often an essay. If somebody's on stage, throwing out their ideas and offering up observations in a way that has been structured with very specific intent, that's an essay. Writing a letter is an essay. Writing a letter to a friend where you're talking about your life, what's going on in your world in this particular moment, that in a lot of ways is an essay. So maybe it can be liberating to think about how in a lot of ways just thinking about your life is an essayistic process because you're trying to figure out what it all means. So even though I'm sitting here today talking to you about personal essay writing, I've done all kinds of writing in my career. One of the things that I did for a long time was that I was a newspaper opinion columnist. For over 10 years, I wrote a weekly op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times. I wrote about politics and social issues, pretty straight off the headlines, whatever was going on that week. So one of the things that made me a little bit different as a newspaper columnist was that I approached the column as a mini essay. I was not out to really convince anybody of my point of view. I wasn't making an argument as much as I was making a suggestion. I was saying to the reader, "Come alongside me while I think this issue is through." I would invite you to think about all the different kinds of writing that you read or write yourself and the ways in which you can think of your message in terms of a suggestion rather than an argument that you're putting forth. It's a much more intimate experience with the reader I think. You're not saying, "Hey, you have to agree with me." You're saying, "Hey, this occurred to me, let's think about it together." So what I take from all of this and what I want to bring to you are just certain techniques for lack of a better phrasing, thinking about what you think. I want to help you learn to think as well as learn how to write better because writing is really just thinking. Joan Didion, one of the great modern essayist always said, "I write in order to figure out what I think." I think that's really true for all of us. So the way I want to approach this in terms of this class is to boil these ideas down into four simple lessons. The first is maybe really simple. Think about what you're thinking about, think about your life, think about what is preoccupying you these days, what's annoying you? What's obsessing you? What's constantly churning over in your minds? Start from there and think about all the different directions that you could go in terms of a piece of writing. The second step is to take those ideas and do the brain work and think about how they relate to the culture at large. Is there something about this thing that's annoying you or fascinating you or obsessing you that has to do with the larger culture, that has to do with maybe the political moment? The third step I hate to tell you is revising. You have to rewrite. A lot of writers, a lot of writing teachers will tell you writing is rewriting and it's really not as bad as you think. So we'll talk about how to make it less painful. The fourth step and actually this is something that I think you can incorporate all along the way but very much it's the fourth step, it's just forcing yourself to take the leap, take a risk, and put the piece of writing out into the world. Along the way, I'm going to be incorporating examples from my own work as well as encouraging you to think of your own ideas, jot notes down, write a draft of a piece and we'll take it from there. You may be wondering what you need for this class. Well, the good news is, you almost certainly already have it right in front of you. You need your mind, you need something to write on, a piece of paper, a laptop, your phone. I guess I can't do that myself but you probably can. Be open to your own ideas, generous with yourself and, really take some time and think about what you'd like to say. 3. The Three Steps to a Strong Essay: So for many years now maybe even many decades, the way I've thought about essays in terms of structure really boils down to three steps. The first step again really simple. Is this something that compels me enough to write a whole piece about it? Is there some experience I have, some feeling I have, some theory I have about the world or my life that has enough juice to propel an entire piece? The second step is, is there something about this particular experience that transcends my own personal experience? Is there a way of connecting this to the larger world? You're not just gazing at your navel, you're maybe gazing there for a second and then looking up and saying this is not just about me, this is about the way we all live in some fashion or another. Now the third step is the trickiest. It's the hardest to come by, but it is also the most deeply satisfying, and I call that step the intellectual hook. That does not mean that it's intellectual in terms of being especially erudite. I'm not talking about writing scholarly material, anything like that. I'm talking about almost a cognitive leap that you make. So that's when you are talking about something that interests you, talking about how it relates to the larger world, but also making a turn in the narrative, in your explanation of your own thoughts that's surprising or unpredictable, you're pointing out an irony. You are getting to a place at the end of the essay that the reader would not have predicted from the start of it. So you're really talking about a twist of fate or a twist of intellectual enterprise as you go through the piece. The way I stumbled upon the three-step idea was really through the process of thinking back through my work and looking at what kinds of pieces succeeded and what kinds of pieces maybe were less successful. I've found that the ones that were really the most structurally sound incorporated these three steps. Now, I will say that not all essays get there. Sometimes you just get to the second step, and that's perfectly fine. In fact, that's what happens most of the time. But the essay that is really going to knock it out of the park, that's going to be the game changer for you in terms of your artistic journey will take all of those three steps. 4. Case Study: "Invisible City": So I'm going to talk about the three-step process by way of an essay called Invisible City which appeared in my collection, The Unspeakable, in 2014. Invisible City in terms of the story is about an incredibly strange and wonderful experience I had when I was invited to a party by a wonderful writer the late Nora Ephron who is also one of our great contemporary essayists. What happened was Nora invited me to a party in Los Angeles. I knew her a little bit, I didn't know her well but she was a bit of a mentor to me, and I assumed as one would that it would be a huge party because otherwise why would she invite me? I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so I got in my car and I drove to this party which I assumed would have 200 people at it and I got there and there were maybe 20 people there and they included Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman, Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Larry David, Arianna Huffington, David Geffen. So needless to say, it was very surreal experience and it became even more so when Nora announced that we were going to play a game of charades. What happened at this party was that we ended up dividing into teams and playing this form of charades called Running Charade. Anyway, I won't bore you with the details but needless to say it was one of the strangest nights of my life and one of the strangest things about it was that nobody seemed to see me. Because I was not a celebrity and nobody really knew who I was or what I was doing there, it was almost like I became invisible. They didn't know who I was, they didn't know what I was doing there. I would call out answers in charades, that would be the correct answers and they wouldn't hear me. It was the strangest experience. A few times I called up the right answer and Steve Martin, God bless him, heard me and repeated it on my behalf and the message was received. Anyway, that was the general vibe of the party. So as this went on, I began to realize that I loved this feeling of invincibility, it was like a dream come true, I was a fly on the wall in this room filled with a list movie stars. As I was watching all of them, I was paying particular attention to Nicole Kidman which isn't hard to do because she is unforgettable, she is the furthest thing from invisible, she's got to be six feet tall, she's blonde, she's [inaudible] , she's incredibly beautiful. As we were playing charades, there was a clue that came up that was a movie and the movie was Days of Thunder and people were commenting about this movie and saying that they had never heard of it. Larry David was saying, what is that movie? I never heard of it. Nicole Kidman was just very quietly sitting in the corner with her head down as just about everybody in the room was exclaiming that they had never heard of this random movie. The truth was that Nicole Kidman herself had been in that movie and she in that moment was rendered invisible and it was a really moving and unsettling and beautiful thing to be hold. So the reason I tell all this to you is that the piece became about invisibility. The essay itself was not about the charades party. I could have written a piece about playing celebrity charades and plenty of people would have read it and it could have easily been published because who wouldn't want to read that? But I actually don't think that's nearly as interesting as a larger piece about the notion of invisibility. It turned out to be an essay about Los Angeles really and about how Los Angeles is a place where you can be in a bubble, you can be invisible, you can drive in your car and nobody can see you, it's a place where houses are behind hedges with all hidden spaces. So it really became about a much larger concept and so the third step was really the intellectual leap and what does it mean to be invisible. The fact that Nicole Kidman can be rendered invisible at a party seems to underscore the whole thing and make it a very powerful piece. So this is an example of the three steps really working. The first step is, I had this experience, it was crazy, I definitely want to tell you about it. The second step is, everybody feels strange in situations, everybody knows what it's like to be at a party and feel like you don't belong, and the third step is, oh my gosh, there's something about this city, this world, that can render even the most famous movie star in the world invisible. So having said all that, I want to invite you to start your own essays, to think about what topics you could explore that would ideally take you to the third step. Maybe it just gets to the second step and that's totally fine. But ideally down the road, you'll get to that third step and it'll feel great 5. Step One: Finding Your Stories: So let's talk about, what your idea is going to be. I can't help you there, I don't know what's in your head, but I think you know what's in your head. I can give you a couple of starting points to maybe help you bring up some stuff that might be deep in there, that needs to get to the surface. You may be thinking, well, I don't really have enough to say about my life. I don't have any big dramatic thing, my life's not interesting enough, I don't have a specific intense urgent story to tell, and I'm here to say to you, that's okay. I, myself, don't have any especially dramatic, harrowing stories to tell. I'm fortunate that I grew up in a pretty boring way. I live a relatively unexciting life. I sit at my desk writing stuff most of the time, and that life does not necessarily lend itself to having a lot of great stories to tell. But that's actually an illusion. We all have great stories to tell, but sometimes they exist in the form of ideas. We have the ability to take maybe mundane, the null, day-to-day things that happen in life, and turn them into exciting and urgent ideas. So I really emphasize in my own work and in my own teaching, an intellectual process. It's really a matter of taking your experience and thinking about what makes it unique and what makes it something that's going to resonate with readers. As a journalist, and especially as a columnist, I always go through life thinking maybe I can write something about this, maybe I could get a column out of this, maybe I could get an essay out of this. Now, that sounds cynical, and maybe not the best way to go through life. But in terms of thinking about ideas, and in terms of getting past the fear that you don't actually have enough raw material to make something, that's going to be unique. It's very helpful to realize that even a very mundane experience can be thought of in a larger context, and that's really what your piece is about. You could write about the most boring thing in the world, but if you really do some heavy lifting in your mind and think hard about what it might mean in terms of a larger cultural context, then that's your essay. You've got it. But you have to do some brain work, as well as some heart work, if you will. So there a couple rules here, they're not hard and fast rules because nothing really ever is, but it's helpful to just keep in mind a couple of points. The first is that, it's almost always easier to write about an experience that isn't urgently going on in the moment. Something that is in the past, at least enough, so that you have some perspective on it. It's really difficult, for instance, to write about maybe a relationship that's going through a hard time if that time is right now. You cannot back up and get perspective on it. So even if you have to say, I'm going to write about this experience up until like two weeks ago, that's better than trying to capture what's going on right now. The second thing to keep in mind is, how much of this story is your story. One of the things that students ask me the most is, well, I don't want to tell this story because my sister is going to be upset, my friend's feelings are going to be hurt, my aunt is going to be arrested if I tell this story. This has actually come up in a class. I'm going to put the legal issues aside for a second, and say that you can really tell any story you want, as long as it's your story. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Anything that happens to me, happens to everybody around me. But my experience is solely my experience. So I can tell that story from my point of view. I'm telling you my version of events, and you just have to make clear in the writing, that that's where you're coming from. You can even say out loud to your reader, I'm telling you my version of events, my sister might have her own story, but come along with me now as I tell you things as I see them. The third thing to keep in mind, is just tell the story you want to tell. Don't try to anticipate what people want to read, what the market is interested in, what will sell, what is your brand. None of that stuff matters. I guarantee you that if you tell the story that feels most urgent to you, that is going to be the one that's the most successful. Nora Ephron, the great essayist who I alluded to earlier in the essay Invisible City, she was the one who invited me to that amazing celebrity charade's party, had a great line be the hero of your own story. So with that in mind, I want to invite you to do an exercise. I want you to think back on a really embarrassing experience and tell the story of your embarrassing experience. Give us all the goods, show your shame, show how mortified you are, just lay it down on the page. Write that, then start over again. Write another version of that exact same story where it's a comedy, where you're telling it at a dinner party, you're making people laugh, you're laughing at yourself. You have enough perspective on that story to really see it for what it was. 6. Step Two: Adding the Bigger Picture: Sometimes people wonder if an experience is either too minor to write about, or even too big, is it too broad, is it too expansive? Yes, those things can be true, but that is where we need to hone our ideas and think about what we actually have to say about this maybe little thing or this big thing, because it's not the things in and of themselves that we're writing about. It's our ideas about the things, it's the way we're metabolizing those events. That's what we're bringing to the page. When I say universal truth, I'm really just talking about ways that you can take your personal experience and make it broader, maybe not even necessarily universal. It doesn't have to be as broad as the whole universe. But I'm talking about thinking about yourself as a piece of a larger ecosystem. You are just one person in a population around you. You're one person in your neighborhood, in your city, in your state, in your country, in the world, you are not necessarily the center of the story. So when I say universal truth, what I'm really saying is take your own story and think about how you're not necessarily the only character. You're definitely not the only character. I'm talking about starting small and branching out. A lot of this is a matter of learning how to go about your day to day life and thinking of it in terms of an intellectual experience as well as an emotional experience or a relational experience. So say that you have an interaction with a family member, a partner, a friend, a pet, whatever it is, and maybe you have a certain feeling about it. Maybe you feel embarrassed about something that you said, maybe you're annoyed with the person for not taking your own feelings into consideration, whatever it is. So on the surface, that stuff is really boring, everybody has that kind of experience. You might say, "Well, that's not enough to hang a whole essay on." I'm telling you that it can be enough if you start thinking about what those kinds of interactions mean in terms of the larger world. Are a lot of people having these kinds of interactions? Is there something about the times that we live in, this moment in history, the political culture, whatever it is? Is there something about the world now that gives these mundane interactions particular residence and particular importance? So where do you start, what do you write about? I'm going to start a sentence and you can finish the sentence, and that will hopefully be a springboard to write a whole essay. The thing people don't often realize about me is blank. So having given you those prompts, I would say take 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever, just write whatever comes into your head. Pretend we're all sitting here in a classroom in real life, and I'm going to make you write in a notebook, on your laptop, whatever, I'm going to start the clock, you have 10-15 minutes to write whatever comes into your head. After you're done with that, we'll move on to lesson 3 which is all about getting to that intellectual hook. You've figured out what excites you, you've figured out how to connect it to universal ideas. Now how do we get to that ironic moment, that leap of faith, that twist of fate, that intellectual hook? 7. Step Three: Discovering the Hook: I think the intellectual hook is powerful because frankly, a lot of essays don't accomplish it. A lot of writers don't think of it. It's tempting to think that we should run through a mental checklist of all three steps before we sit down to write the piece. I wish I could tell you that I did that every time, but I have found more often than not that the third step only becomes available to you in the course of writing the piece. You want to write the piece when you have the first step and the second step. I don't want to sit down to start a piece really unless I can think of a way to connect this particular subject to a larger set of ideas. But in terms of that intellectual hook, in terms of the story or the essay taking a turn that is surprising where you're offering up a really fresh insight, that's not always something that you can get before you sit down to write. Like Joan Didion said, "I write in order to figure out what I think. " That's exactly what she was talking about right there, how to get to that third step. The intellectual hook really requires some thought. It means that you are going to sit down and do a draft of the essay and spend some time really thinking about what you want to say that goes beyond the obvious. There's really no hard and fast rule for finding it, it's more like there are some methods for allowing it to come in. You really just have to give yourself time to let it come upon you. I mean, I don't think there is a creative person I've ever met who doesn't say their best ideas probably came from like, "I was taking a shower one day and suddenly this dawned on me." "I was driving in the car and suddenly I realized that this is the end of my novel. This was the end of my screenplay. This is how this story wrapped up." You can't force the intellectual hook. So what I would say is in the process of writing, you want to build in time for just almost resting from the writing process and taking some breathing space. It might be a few hours, it might be a few days, it might be a few months, and I'm pretty sure that if you just keep chewing on the idea for awhile, that third step will come to you. It'll suddenly enter your brain and you'll say, "Oh, that's what this is about." One thing to remember about the intellectual hook is that it does not have to be airtight. Like I said, it's not an argument, is a suggestion that you're making to the reader. You're saying, "Let's look at it this way. What would happen if we take what I just talked about and looked at it in an unpredictable way?" So you can think of it in terms of this sort of construction. While we might assume X about what I just said, I have to wonder if what's really going on is Y. Now, important there is that I said I have to wonder if. I didn't say while we assume that this is about X it's really about Y, I didn't say that. I said what would happen if we thought about it as Y. So it's a suggestion, you're not demanding that your reader agree with you. That is a really great trick to remember, is something that I picked up writing a newspaper opinion column for years. You don't have to say this is my conclusion. You can say it's worth considering that this, so nobody can come down on you for being wrong. I can give you an example of a piece I wrote that managed to find a third step, but I really did not know what it was going to be until I was well into the piece. I honestly thought it was going to be a two-step piece. But the third step arrived at the 11th hour. So this is a piece called Advice for Millennials: The Case for Spacing Out. So this essay came about because I was going to write about what I as a Gen Xer felt I could impart in terms of wisdom to Millennials and to younger people in general. A student of mine had said, "Oh, how did you spend your 20's? How did you get through?" Because she was in her 20's and she felt at sea and she wanted to know what I had done to cope professionally, personally, whatever. I literally blanked out, I could not think of what to tell her because the world has changed so much. There are so many things that are different, the world now, the world back then, technology, people like me had dial-up hello and we're getting excited about direct messaging the strangers. So it occurred to me that the fact that I was drawing a blank actually was the answer to her question because my thought back on my 20's and how I spent a lot of my time, it occurred to me that I spent a lot of time staring into space, literally spacing out. There was no Internet, there was no social media, there were no iPhones. So you ended up just looking out the window or staring at a wall or walking down the street, looking around the city. I think that that opened up a lot of space for ideas. So anyway, this was a pretty simple piece about how back in my 20's I spent a lot of time staring into space. That's the first step. The second step is a lot of Gen Xers spent a lot of time staring into space because our technology was limited back in the '80's and '90's and that's just the way it was. So there's your second step. Not great, not the worst, there you go. I did not think I had a third step. But as I was riding along, I started to think about this concept of mindfulness. I started going through the essay and I was noticing that I was trying to make a point about spacing out and that somebody could conceivably say, "Well, but a lot of people meditate now. So how is what you're talking about different from mindfulness or meditating?" So I anticipated that argument and I thought, "Huh, what is the difference?" I stumbled upon this idea that mindfulness was different than thoughtfulness, and that I was making a case for thoughtfulness and then that was different than mindfulness. So you can see right here, I get to it basically on the second page here. I say, "I don't mean meditating, I mean spacing out. Meditation is about clearing the mind of thoughts. Spacing out is about inviting thoughts in. Instead of mindfulness, I'm talking about thoughtfulness. Not in the sense of being sensitive toward others, though that's always good, but in actually being full of thoughts." So this is a great lesson because not only is that an example of the intellectual hook, it is the way that we find the intellectual hook because you really do need to clear your mind and let thoughts in. There's a lot of talk these days about clearing your mind and not letting any thoughts in. But I'm talking about something else. We need to allow our brains to stay on while we also clear space for new ideas. I will also say this about the intellectual hook; not every reader hears it, not everyone gets it. A lot of your readers are just going to read your piece on the first and second levels. They're going to say, "Oh, this person is telling me a story about their life. It's interesting, I want to hear about it." That's great. Maybe that's all they get. Maybe they get to the second step where they say, "Oh, this person is telling me a story about their life and it relates to something larger in the world. I relate to this. It's bigger than just this one story, and therefore I'm enjoying reading this piece." Then they've gotten to the third step. I would say not even half of your readers are necessarily going to hear the third step. You ideally, as the author, want to get to that intellectual hook, want to get to that third step because you know your own integrity it makes it a better piece. But that doesn't mean that your reader necessarily has to take that in, to here it, to comprehend it. They can still enjoy the experience of the piece. It can still be worthwhile to them at the literary level. But you know in your heart that you got to the third step. So I'm going to now offer you an exercise that will hopefully find you in intellectual hook, and this is what it is. Think back on an experience you had, maybe five years ago, maybe 10 years ago, maybe three years ago, it doesn't really matter. Something that seemed really confounding at the time, really difficult. A challenging time. Something that was painful, that was confusing, that you were embarrassed about. Something that's really stayed with you, and think about how it feels now when you look back at that experience. Are you laughing at yourself? Are you shaking your head? Are you saying, "Oh my gosh, that was no big deal and at the time I just thought it was the end of the world." What is the perspective that you now bring to that story, that experience of your life? Write about that, tell us what it's about. So the purpose of this exercise is to help you work with perspective. What you realize now that you didn't back then because the intellectual hook is at its root about perspective. It's saying, what happens if we back up, if we change the framing, if we take a longer view of this? That's exactly what you're doing when you're looking back on your past self, your younger self, and interpreting that experience through your older wiser self. So now you've written an entire first draft. Congratulations, that's the hard part. It's in some ways the fun part, but not as fun as actually getting to the end and having something you're really satisfied with. So how did we get there? We have to revise. So that's what we're going to be talking about in the next lesson. 8. Revising Your Draft: So now that you have a draft, and congratulations by the way. We're going to talk about, how to make it even better. We're going to talk about how to take what you have, and make it more effective, snappier, funnier, more poignant whatever it is. Just take what it is, and make it even more that way, make it more you. So, there are several things we can do, and most of them have to do with thinking about tone. Thinking about who your reader is, and what kind of relationship you want to establish with them. So much of personal essay writing, is about establishing a rapport with your reader. So one of the assumptions a lot of people make about writing, is that it's more about showing, then telling. You hear that a lot in fiction workshops, and it makes sense. Personally, I think that the personal essay is about telling. You're talking to your reader, you're telling them the story, you're being in a rock and tour. I want you to free yourself of the notion, that you have to show the story in scenes exclusively as if you're a fiction writer. In personal essay and memoir, we can tell the story, we're talking to our reader. That means you're even allowed to say you, you can say to the reader, "I want to tell you about this". You're totally allowed to do that. I want you to achieve a conversational tone. Your reader wants to feel like you're having a conversation with her, and not just showing her a bunch of information. You want to have the feeling, that you're sitting across the bar table with an old friend, and telling them about what's been going on with your life. You want to give them the sense that you're confiding in them, and the way you do that, is you're vulnerable. You don't want to be trying to impress them. You don't want to be bragging, even humbled bragging. You want to be vulnerable without being like all over the place, because we all have that friend, who is vulnerable and tells us all about their life, but then it goes a little bit too far, and we're not quite sure what to do with it. That is what you're probably doing in your first draft, and you want to get rid of that by the final draft. So my particular emphasis when it comes to personal essay writing, is to get away from the confessional. It's very tempting to write down all your gripes about the world, to share your most embarrassing moments, your worst qualities, to overshare. You can do that, you can put it on the page, and for better or for worse, we live in a day and age where you can put that up on Facebook and plenty of people will tell you you're brave and give you some likes, and make you feel like you've done something productive by putting your first draft down for all to see. Personally, I'm not such a fan of that approach. I want you to recognize the first draft for what it is, and then go on to the next draft and refine your interpretation of your experience. It's not just about letting it all hang out. You can let it all hang out in the first draft, but by the end, by the time you have a finished piece, you want your reader to not have to do a lot of work. You don't want to have to burden your reader with your most upsetting, disturbing, vulnerable, confessions, and then ask them to kind of do something with it. That's actually an imposition, and as professional, or at least professionally minded, creative people, our job is to give our audience something that's already been thought through. So the question is, how do you know if you've gone too far? How do you know if you're not confiding as much as you're confessing? Really, the only way you can know is, if you hand the piece to a friend, if you tell them what you've written about, even if you read it back to yourself. If there are parts that are making you cringe, that's where I'd invite you to look at that part and see why is it making me cringe? Is it because, it's too honest or because it's honest in the wrong way. Now let me explain what I mean by that. I want you to be honest. I want you to make yourself look bad. The last thing we want to do is, be critiquing the world and yet somehow holding ourselves up on a pedestal, "We're much better than all that, were much more virtuous, were much smarter, whatever it is." None of us are any smarter, or more virtuous than anyone else at the end of the day. So, we always want to be harder on ourselves, than we are with anybody else in the piece. But at the same time, we don't want to be self-fragulating. We don't want to be beating ourselves up throughout the piece. That's something that really needs to go away by the final draft, because that's an imposition to your reader, that makes them feel achy, and that's not the job of the author. The other thing you want to make sure you have, as you revise are many specific details as possible. Anytime you make any reference to some sort of object, any sort of noun, ask yourself, "Am I being specific?" Don't just say the car, say the Toyota. Don't just say the dog, say the golden retriever, to use two very very basic examples. Don't miss an opportunity to be specific. It takes just as much time to say golden retriever, than it takes to say dog. It's a few more syllables, but it's basically the same amount of time. Then the next and final lesson, we're going to talk about, how to be honest in your writing, how to say what you really want to say without worrying about people getting mad at you. 9. Taking Risks: The final lesson is about taking risks, being vulnerable, saying what you want to say without worrying too much about people getting angry with you. Now, I know I've been talking a lot about this stuff. I've been talking about taking risks, I've been talking about not worrying too much about what people are saying on Twitter, people being angry with you, that thing. I know it's easy for me to say because when I started out as a writer, none of that stuff existed. If people were angry at what I wrote, they would maybe write a letter to the editor, and maybe that letter would be printed six weeks later, and maybe I would read it. But I really think it's imperative that we all say what we want to say. In fact, it's never been more important. So in this final lesson, we're going to talk about strategies for coping with people being angry with you and not really caring what people say because ultimately what you care most is about what you have to say. One of the most common questions students come to me with is, how do I write about somebody else without making them angry with me, without violating their rights, without getting them in trouble in some way? It's really hard to answer that question because obviously, it depends entirely on what the piece is, what you're writing about, who that person is, what their relationship is to you. But I can tell you that a good starting point is to keep in mind that you are telling your story, you're not telling their story. They might be part of your story. People all around us are part of our story, but if you can convey to the reader that you are speaking for yourself and this other person happens to play a role, and you are sharing what you perceive to be the whole situation, and the dynamics between everybody, then generally, you're safe. Another rule of thumb is very simple, just share the piece with them. I think you would be surprised at how forgiving people can be. I know it can be scary to go to somebody and say, hey, I wrote this piece and you factor into it and I'd like you to take a look at it. But the thing is, nine times out of 10, the person ends up being okay with it. Maybe they're not okay with it right away, maybe they say this part makes me uncomfortable, I would like you to change a little bit here, and you take that into consideration, and then you revise the piece. This is why revision is so important. I can't emphasize enough how much peace of mind it's given me to run things by other people. There is nothing worse than writing something about someone and they don't see it until it's published. Obviously, it's great to get published, but it's not worth it if the experience is going to be tainted by somebody feeling really hurt and betrayed by you. So the high road is always to share the piece with them. You don't always have to say, I'm sharing this piece with you and I want your permission to publish it. You're saying, I'm sharing this piece with you, I want to let you know that this is what I wrote, and I welcome your thoughts. Leave it at that, and then see where it goes. So here's the thing. At the end of the day, you can't please everybody. Everyone knows that. Everyone in business knows that, everyone who ever endeavored to do anything on a grand scale or even a medium-scale knows that you can't make all the people happy all the time. So when you're writing personal work, when you're doing any kind of creative work, but especially the personal essay, you cannot make your critics the center of your consciousness. You have to put them aside. The fact is, you're not going to make everybody happy, some people will probably be upset. Some people will say, I can't believe she wrote this, I can't believe she would confess this, I can't believe she would put herself out there like this. The thing is, if you know that you didn't really confess, you can fight it. If you know that you didn't put yourself all out there, that you made very conscious choices, what you included and what you didn't, that kind of criticism shouldn't bother you. You know what you're up to artistically, you know why you made the choices that you did. Ultimately, if you're not going to tell the truth, if you're not going to tell an honest story that is original, and fresh, and offering something that you haven't read before, what's the point of writing at all? We're not here to say the obvious thing. We're not here to say the predictable thing or the thing that's going to make people feel the same way they felt yesterday. We're here to be generous to our reader, we're here to articulate the thing maybe they feel deep down, but can't articulate themselves or are afraid to say out loud. We need to do what they cannot always do, and that means, having some people not be so happy with us. But again, for every 500 people that are upset with you, there are probably a thousand people who are really grateful that you said what you did. Here's a really important thing to remember; No matter how careful you are, no matter how many drafts you do, you're probably never going to be 100 percent satisfied with what you wrote. You actually shouldn't be, we can always do better. There's always more we could have included. As you go through your life as a writer, you will eventually learn where the boundaries are. You can't know what makes you cringe until you actually cringe. You have to publish something and have the experience of saying to yourself, oh my gosh, I shouldn't have gotten that far in order to know how not to go too far the next time. So it's really trial and error and it's okay to make mistakes. With that said, I'm going to invite you to do our final exercise, and that is to think of a thing that you are most afraid to write, what are you most afraid to say out loud, and write that thing. Think about what it would be like to publish that. Think about what it would be like to write the thing you're most afraid of saying and have somebody read it and react to it. Now, think what it would be to go through your whole life never having said that thing you want to say. Now with that, I invite you to write it down. Just say it, think about connecting with that one reader out there who's going to really be grateful for what you're saying. 10. Final Thoughts: So that concludes the class. I hope what we've talked about helps you break through sum of your barriers, and have the courage to say what you really want to say without people getting angry with you or telling you not to say it. I would urge you to upload your work to the project gallery, so your classmates can read what you have to say and I'm sure you're very curious to read what they came up with. I will also include links to all the articles we discussed, as well as information about how to take my personal private workshop in New York City, in my apartment, where we go over all this material plus plenty of stuff I didn't have time to include here. So again, thank you for your time, go forth, be brave, speak on, and I hope to seen you again. 11. Explore More Classes on Skillshare: