Archive for January 23rd, 2008

Writing and Selling the Personal Essay: Finding Your Material in the “Ah, ha!” Moments

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBecause I’m a nut for the personal essay, I’ve decided that for me (and for this column), 2008 is The Year of the Personal Essay.

The personal essay is about life your life. Those moments of self-discovery that make you laugh or cry or shake your head or hop up and down on one foot. The ones in which you feel completely alone. The ones that remind you how connected we all are. The ones that make you say, “Ah, ha!”

You know, THOSE moments.

Like the one I experienced this summer when I walked into a coffee shop in Shanghai, organized my writing gear on the table in front of me, folded my feet cross-legged on the chair and immediately found myself under attack by a very angry German woman.


Because I put my feet on the chair.

For nearly an hour, this woman ate, ranted at me (in English and German), complained about me to her partner (in English and German) and stared viciously at my feet (which I refused, out of principle and a bit of Croatian stubbornness, to remove from the chair).

As a human being, I was hurt and bewildered by the attack, but as a writer of personal essays, I said, “Ah, ha!” By the time the woman stuffed the last bit of salad into her mouth, I was already writing a blog entry about the encounter. And because many of my blog entries turn into longer pieces, by the time I finished typing, it was a full-blown essay called “The Rabid German” (due out in the Winter 2007 issue of The Baltimore Review.

If I wasn’t such a nut for the personal essay, this incident with the German might have simply passed into history (or even worse, developed into fisticuffs); but I am, and as I move through life, I’m constantly aware of “personal essay moments” as they happen. This is a skill you develop over time. The more personal essays you write (and sell), the more tuned in you are to potential subjects.

So, readers, get your radar up and running! For the next month I want you to move through life being aware of the moments that will make lively personal essays-the ah, ha moments! Write them down as they happen. Make a list.

And oh, yeah, have a very Happy New Year!

Personal Essay Marketplace: The Christian Science Monitor is a great market for personal essays. Check out the guidelines for “The Home Forum.”
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. 

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