Writing & Selling Personal Essays: Making An Artful Exit

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

How do I write the ending of a personal essay?

I am asked this question all the time-a general question that is often followed by more specific questions, like:

· Can the ending be a ta-da moment?
· Can it summarize the body of my essay?
· Can I reflect on the essence of my essay?
· Can I offer an opinion about things?
· Can I reinforce what I’ve already said?
· Can the ending really be a beginning?
· Is it okay to repeat myself?
· What about cliffhangers?

And so on.

My answer (to all questions listed above) is always yes, yes, absolutely yes-as long as it feels like the right way out.

While in the U.S., exit signs in buildings are dependable tools for finding your way out; here in Shanghai, exit signs written in English are not always what they seem. Thus far, I’ve noted three particular types:

1. the exit sign on which the arrow leads you to an exit
2. the exit sign on which the arrow leads you to a dusty shop where you can buy small animals carved from peach pits or, better yet, a fancy spa where you can settle in for an hour-long foot massage
3. the exit sign on which the arrow leads you nowhere at all

Just yesterday, I was at a market that has three floors of stalls and shops that sell everything from genuine pearl earrings to fake Gucci bags. After finishing my shopping, I looked up to get a little help from the exit signs. The first one I saw had an arrow on each side of the word exit. Happy to discover I had two options, I turned left. After 50 yards or so, I came to a wall. A blank, white, very solid wall. No exit. No shop with carved peach pits. No spa. No nothing.

Used to such surprises in Shanghai, I turned and headed in the opposite direction-the direction in which the right arrow was pointing. After a brisk walk, I found myself in a shop that offered underwear, socks, watches, and DVDs.

Undaunted, I took the third and final option-a hallway that jutted off at an angle that was not indicated on any exit sign at all. Before I could say, “Where am I?” in Mandarin, I was down an escalator, out a door, and in the parking lot.


The lesson here?

There is no easy exit-from a market in Shanghai or from that essay you’ve been working on for the past week. Instead there are options-the white wall, the underwear shop, or the neat escape. And guess what? The only way to discover the one that works is to try out your options.

So get to it! Look for the exit signs, follow the arrows, and if those don’t feel right, try the unmarked path.

Personal Essay Marketplace: Believe strongly in anything? I’ll bet you do. If so, submit a 350-500 word essay to NPR’s “This I Believe.” Each week a chosen essay is aired on “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition Sunday.” This is a cool project!


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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