I’d rather teach a week long class or a series of classes where we meet once a week than teach a weekend or one day class. My students need time to learn to trust each other. A beginning writer must be brave and confident in those around him before he divulges his feelings in his writing.
In a good personal essay, the writer must be willing to tell his own story without worrying about being judged. I often tell my students, “Don’t ask you spouse or your family to read your work in progress. While you may have definite ideas as to what you want to write, others can place doubts in your mind and second guess you.”
I found family to be the worst judges of my stories. I’ve heard “you didn’t mention me and I was there.” I’ve also been told that I was completely wrong and the events didn’t happen at all. I understand the fear of offending others with my personal viewpoint. But, as I tell my students, I can only write what I remember or what I took from the experience. I can’t write my sisters’ memories or my brother’s story.
Memory is a tricky thing. No one of us remembers an event the exact way others remember it. Five witnesses see an accident and tell five different stories to the police. We can only tell what we remember.
One student came into class one day and said, “I read my story to my wife last night and she said I had it all wrong.”
“What did she say was wrong?” I asked.
“She said I didn’t tell any details about our son’s birth. I didn't tell about her long labor and the doctor’s words when Jeff was born. But I don’t remember that.”
“She needs to write her story,” I said. “You can only write your memories.”
I heard President Jimmy Carter in an interview say that he and his wife, Rosalind wrote a book together and differed so much in what they remembered and the way they felt about the subject that he finally told the publisher the book could not be written. He and Rosalind could not agree. Thankfully, the publisher told them to each write their own views and memories and he would take care of how it was presented in the book.
If we write about our lives and tell simple facts that provoke no emotion, we will spend many, many hours writing something that will set on a shelf and no one will bother to read it. I could tell how my father bought a farm in 1942 and lived there until he died in 1987.
But, if I want to pass on a book that will resonate with generations to come, I must show how my father struggled. Give examples of the sacrifices made by both parents. Make my reader feel his heart break when his crops failed, when his livestock was killed by lightning, and he almost lost all he and his family had worked so hard to keep. And in a personal essay or memoir, I can tell how his perseverance affected me as a young child and how I see him now that I’m an adult.
That is what I enjoy about writing personal essays and memoir. I can put myself right in there, and give my opinions and thoughts on the subject.