This year, Chinese New Year falls on February 7, and according to the Chinese zodiac, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. (I know, I know, the rat? But believe it or not, there are some pretty cute little rodents being sold in Shanghai. Many are stuffed. Some are carved. Others are gilded in gold. Thankfully, none are alive—at least as far as I’ve seen.)
Luckily for us writers, the Rat symbolizes hard work and renewal. (It is, after all, the first sign in the Chinese 12-animal zodiac cycle.) This year is a great time for thinking and planning, digging in and getting the work done. Opportunities abound!
So how do you get the work done when writing a personal essay? One thing you must do is to offer a universal truth.
Yep, every good personal essay offers a universal truth. Remember when your elementary school teacher told you to write down the main idea of a passage? Well, a universal truth is a similar concept, with a little more soul. It’s the feeling readers are left with that makes them say, “Mmmm hhhhmmm, I know exactly what you mean.”
For example, in the September 2007 issue of Food & Wine, four writers share travel memories in a collection of short personal essays called “Passages to Italy.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, is one of them. In her fewer-than-500-word essay, she plunges us into a moment in Italy in which she is eating artichokes, suffering sidewalk rage, and learning a lesson about slowing down and enjoying the ride.
Okay, so what’s the universal truth?
No, it’s not about eating artichokes. Try again.
Got it! Slowing down and enjoying the ride. Something we all need to do a little more of.
A few years ago, I wrote a personal essay about catching my first fish (titled, “My First Fish”) that was published in The Larcom Review. And yes, it was all about my private, personal fishing experience—the rust-colored woolly bugger with which I caught the fish, the fact that really I should have stopped fishing because it was almost dark and I had a long walk back to the truck, the very special rock on which I was standing when I caught him, and so on. It was a very personal story, BUT it also offered two universal truths, to which all (or hopefully most) readers could relate: 1) good things take time, and 2) humans need to nurture their deep connection to nature.
In other words, in a personal essay, you tell YOUR story, but readers also get a truth that speaks to their lives as well. If you’re just telling a story for the sake of telling a story, it’s probably not a good choice for a personal essay. Be sure you choose your subject matter carefully and thoughtfully.
Now pull out that personal essay you’ve been working on, give yourself a pat on the back for having written a good story, reread it and then ask yourself, “What’s the universal truth?”
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.