Personal Essays, The Ability

Today, I was looking for writing prompts to practice my pen. I opened a list of prompts from the New York Times, and read through some of their reference articles. And it’s here I saw that even the top calibre writers are sometimes not all that good… Every story, even a personal essay (as these were), needs a reason, so there’s some inciting event, drama, issue, problem in the very beginning. But so often that thing is actually trivial and not worth the time it takes to read the words that follow.

In an attempt to engage readers who couldn’t care less, writers begin to do something akin to gesticulating on the page, dramatizing and sensationalizing the same boring thing. But like one of my writing teachers used to say, reality is more interesting than fiction. If something, a story, is not interesting, you just don’t know enough about it or you’re considering the wrong angle.

At some point, we have to put our fingertips to the keyboard or we’d never write, but it’s so important to take the time to discover and think before just typing something. Typing is not writing and grammatically functional sentences are not enough when it comes to creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction is a slow Sunday morning’s afterthought while sitting on the front porch with nothing to do but savour the moment, not Monday morning’s coffee-running-up-your-nose necessity reading. In full view, with nothing to impede its birth in the reader’s mind, it simply needs to rise to the occasion. It needs to be better, to be something more.

Reading it should feel like the outer shell of a candy giving way to the syrup-filled centre, an irresistible explosion of sweetness. Irresistible. That’s a good word for the sort of elective reading material that personal essays are always comprised of. It should always be at least that.

Beyond the prospect of a sweet explosion or the fear of a pinch of pain, does anything matter? Without the threat of embarrassment for not knowing, or that of a stock portfolio crash, what prompts reading? Do essays myopic in scope, not because the dancing electrons of stories within are worthless but because the authors have missed the bigger picture (the connection of those particles to life), matter?

My answer is that they don’t. But they should… That is the actual skill; that is the ability. Not the use of literary devices, knowledge of commas or periods. It’s to make a personal essay important to a stranger on a day without prospects or threats.

 

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