Welcome to Thrive! A weekly advice column for creatives and the generally confused.
When writing personal essays do you start with a story from your life you understand or do you use the writing of the essay to make connections? I want to start writing pieces like this but I never feel like I have well-rounded tales to tell.
I love that you’ve asked this question because I’ve been attempting to get back to my own essays. I took some time off to collect my thoughts and feelings but lately it has felt like I’ll never go back. Thanks for the swift kick to remind me!
To answer your question, I would love to start every essay knowing where I want to take the story, but unfortunately, I rarely see connections or meaning or relevancy until my second or third (or fourth or fifth) draft of a piece. As I am working, I unearth feelings I didn’t know I was hanging on to or finally understand where someone is coming from years after an argument. It’s a hard process to work through because you’re not only crafting a readable, understandable story, but you’re facing your own demons around each and every corner.
That said, there are times when I know exactly the story I want to tell, I have a beginning and middle and end in mind I cannot wait to get it all down on paper. This is super rare. But even then, even when I think I have the story, new things come to light as I work and I have to adjust and pivot. Often, what comes up as I work is the real story and what I thought was real story is merely a nice backdrop. I love these moments because the light comes on its own, I don’t need to work as hard to shake it out. It works out better for everyone if you can allow yourself this kind of flexibility. I fight it often–trying to keep the original story in the limelight– but do your best to be less like me in this scenario.
Here’s what I’ll say to you. Write anyway. Have a story you want to tell? Cool, start it. Not sure if there’s anything worth telling? Start anyway. I don’t want to alarm you when I say I have close to 30 unfinished essays (I really do) but sometimes you have to work through all the gunk to get to the one really good thing you have to say. If you aren’t afraid of hard work I’d get started right now. Having a story in mind doesn’t make it boring and having to work hard to make your story meaningful doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Don’t get too caught up in how you are doing it, just do it.