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. 


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

  1. 1 Chryselle January 23, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I’m a personal essay nut, too! In fact, this year, I’m determined to focus on getting my essays out and not relegate them to my journal.

    Great post. Looking forward to more. I love the idea of dedicating a whole year to the Essay!


  2. 2 movingmama January 23, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Oh gosh – I thought I was alone 🙂 Okay, maybe not based on the number of submissions! Count me in for the Year of the Personal Essay 🙂

  3. 3 CD January 30, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Hi Kristin-

    I love the idea of 2008 being the year of the personal essay!
    I was wondering if you have any “How to…” books or articles on essay writing that you could suggest. I;m looking for tricks on how to get my essays published.



  4. 4 The Writer Mama February 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm


    I’m posting these comments for Kristin, as she cannot access this site. The government controls access when you live in China.

    So, I sent her your comments via email and she responded back.

    Here goes:

    Response to: #1 Chryselle

    Glad to know I’m not the only nut out there, Chryselle! To discipline myself and keep my essays organized, I’ve made a calendar of ten submissions I must send out before April 1. How about you?

    Response to: #2 movingmama

    Nope, you’re not alone. In fact, it looks like there’s a whole team of us determined to get our personal essays into the public eye this year. It’s great! Let me know how you’re progressing.

    Response to: #3 CD

    Hi CD. I suggest heading to your favorite newsstand and buying sample copies of the publications in which you want to publish. Study the personal essays in those publications. Turn them inside out. Once you figure out what a particular publication is looking for AND you believe you’ve got a good story that will work for it, go for it. (More on all that in upcoming columns!) Also check out Chapter 11 in Christina Katz’s Writer Mama (yep, it’s targeted to writing moms, but there’s lots of great info throughout for all writers).

  5. 5 The Writer Mama February 4, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Almost forgot, when you buy a copy of Writer Mama during the month of February and send me the receipt, you’ll receive ten essay markets. More info in the Writer Mama blog.

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