A few years ago I enrolled in a workshop on writing memoirs and essays. It taught me a lot about what I should try to be doing when I try to write just about anything, including a memoir or essay. And what I learned really wasn’t much different than what I knew about writing peer-reviewed articles for research journals. The course was described this way:
Personal narrative shares with fiction writing the obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, and deliver a bit of wisdom. But whereas a fictional "I" can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator, in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth. How does the memoir/essayist pull from oneself the truth-speaker who alone can tell the story that needs to be told? Personal memoir becomes literature when it is shaped, shaped by a form. Ask what is the form that surrounds this memoir?
I took a great deal of notes at the workshop. Some deserve to be remembered, as well as communicated, and so I will pass along a few of the ideas I took note of during the two-week session.
A personal memoir should attempt to understand an experience that you have had, to know what it means. The understanding or your attempt to understand it becomes the form.
Try to achieve a wisdom beyond yourself, ask what is the organizing principle of the essay? It need only to apply to yourself; don't worry about it's generality.
For example, the instructor’s essay on letter writing tried to use her own experience to explain why people don't write letters any more.
In reading essays, consider the following questions:
1 Can you see the larger picture?
2 What is understood?
3 What is the essay about?
4 How to make some sense of what has happened to you?
A personal essay needs also to be going somewhere, to be in motion, to answer a question, to solve a problem, to provide some insight, to make some sense of your experience.
A mood piece must have a revelation to be an example of a personal essay. Revelation develops from a cumulative building of incident after incident until clarity or insight is apparent or the revelation emerges.
The writer should be different at the end of the essay than they were at the beginning. They are different because of the revelation. If you write about your migraines, understanding what they are and what brings them on should deepened.
The charge is to inquire more deeply or to try. To work through, in a step-by-step fashion, a self-inspection, to introspect about the situation(s) you are describing.
Page after page of feelings is not a journey. Simply exposing yourself is not literature. You need to be going somewhere and be a different person when you get there than you were when you started, even if you don't fully understand the situation.
The workshop was taught by Vivian Gornick whose work, The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative, expands upon many of workshop themes. If you find a few of the workshop notes at all instructive, I encourage you to read her volume on the difficult art of writing about personal experience.