Artists – be they writers, sculptors, painters, glassblowers, etc. – all claim a particular niche. Ask them for their specialty, or their genre, and you’ll get a hefty description. For instance, when someone asks what I write, I follow two paths: I can describe the work I do as a freelancer, OR I can go into what I pen for my speculative fiction. Rarely will you find someone with artistic leanings who will supply you with a quick-and-dirty, monosyllabic reply. (It’s a side effect of all of that imagination, in case you wondered) However, if you ask those same people what they’re looking for out of their work (once you distill down more creative wording), it boils down to a flavor of:
You want someone to see a piece that left your hands and comment, “That’s so-and-so’s work.” Maybe your story won’t bring funds or fame, but knowing that a person out there knew you wrote it? Nothing beats that feeling. You managed to stand out from the sea of other writers. Someone identified your unique voice and tone. And that’s what every artist is trying to do, at the heart. They’re developing a way of viewing and translating the world. Then they’re hoping someone out there will see it, appreciate it, and pick them out as different.
As writers, we have almost endless opportunities to gain that recognition – if you’re willing to look for it. And one of the avenues people overlook is the personal essay. I can’t figure out why, either. Personal essays lend appeal to ANYONE. They combine fictional storytelling to a non-fiction situation. And (with rare exceptions) you only have around 1500 words to complete the tale. It’s an exercise in concise, captivating narratives. Not to mention that you need to dive immediately into the action (1500 words – or less – doesn’t give you room to warm things up). And the best personal essays include dialogue. It has EVERYTHING any detailed story needs – with a bonus of a chance to relate something from your life.
Talk about a two for one!
You have the opportunity to place your tone, your voice, and your style on paper while relating a part of yourself for the world to share. The personal essay is one of the best writing forms available. It doesn’t matter WHAT you write, it exercises that part of your brain to the fullest. And finding markets? Not a problem:
- Meghan Ward: 20 Great Places to Publish Personal Essays
- Published to Death: 41 Paying Markets for Personal Essays
- Writing to Heal: List of Paying Markets for Personal Essays
If you have a story, you can find a market willing to listen. Especially if you take the time with your essay. You’re a writer. You KNOW how to put sentences together. And you know how to capture the attention of a reader from those first moments. If you can eliminate glaring grammatical and spelling errors, you’re already going to stand out from plenty of other people that submit to these markets. Editors WANT people that can pass those first hurdles of competent writing. If you’re already successful as a freelancer? You have what it takes.
As for the topic? No one else has lived your life. That makes your experiences, your stories unique. Add in a touch of imagination (only a touch, though – personal essays AREN’T fiction), and you’ve got something people want to share in and engage with. Suddenly, people want to learn more about you. They start looking for your name and finding other things you’ve written. All because you wrote an essay about fishing with your father on Puget Sound, or finding a salamander in your garden, or watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, or photographing a soap bubble in subzero temperatures.
Seriously – anything with a fresh perspective that speaks to the human condition is free game!
Look through back issues of the market you’re interested in and read other essays. (Side note: if you aren’t already doing this with your markets, you should start) Then flip through your scrap books, your photo albums, your journals. What material do you have to work with? Meditate and think back over moments that stick in your head. And start jotting down ideas. People have made entire careers out of writing personal essays. Others have found themselves receiving new clients because of a single, well-written essay.
Opportunities exist EVERYWHERE. And if you’re not exploring all of them? You’re missing out. I admit, I thought personal essays sounded silly. And then I started playing around with the format. (For the record, it isn’t as easy as you might assume!) Now I have several I’ve cleaned up and started circulating. The first article I published with Offbeat Bride? That came out of a personal essay on dealing with planning the wedding in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown! And when I’m feeling frustrated with my other writing? I start a new one (Evernote is nice enough to keep a record of my ideas for me). It stretches a different part of my writing brain.
You can’t abandon a potential writing tool from your arsenal. Personal essays flex creative muscles. Not in the same way as your typical stories or freelance work, true. But you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. Put yourself out there. Take your writing to the next level of vulnerability. What do you have to lose?