The word ‘essay’ strikes fear into many hearts, with its connotations of heavy academic papers or boring school assignments. Essays don’t need to be dull – some of the best writing out there is in the form of personal essays. If you have an opinion or an experience, then you probably have an essay in you. Here’s a round-up of advice on how to get it out.
To start with, Michael Naghten Shanks gives a comprehensive and smart overview of the essay here on Writing.ie. If you’re not sure if essay-writing is for you, definitely check this out. Michael includes a list of his favourite essayists – I’d add Cheryl Strayed, Steve Almond, Lindy West and Sara Hepbola to his excellent list.
Essays don’t command the kind of popular attention that novels do, so it’s not quite as easy to know where to begin digging into reading in your chosen form. Salon.com chooses their top ten essays each year, and Longreads.com is a great way to find good narrative non-fiction (albeit longer than most essays) to get you thinking about the possibilities. Closer to home, check out Irish literary journals such as gorse and The Dublin Review – and keep these folk in mind when your essay is finished and looking for a launchpad into the wider world.
Once you’ve read some essays and gotten a feel for how they work, TheWriteLife has some thoughts on where to start with writing memoir, which translate very well to shorter forms of personal writing. Going deeper, Writers’ Digest covers some of the emotional aspects of writing about your life, as well as practical tips for producing a strong essay. CreativeNonFiction.org takes an innovative approach, with pictorial examples of how to structure an essay – fantastic for the visually-minded among us. The Huffington Post shares an editor’s view of the personal essay, with tips on how to impress editors reading your submission.
There are many outlets for personal essays both at home and abroad. Writing.ie features short memoirs, about both life in writing, in Mining Memories and Writing and Me. The annual Fish Short Memoir Contest runs each spring and this RTE Guide article gives a rundown of some of the major literary journals in Ireland – check them out individually for submission guidelines, which vary. More internationally, Entropy updates their site with submission opportunities every two months, which include outlets that accept essays. Finally, radio shows such as Sunday Miscellany often accept shorter essays.
Wishing you all the best of luck spinning your life into stories!
(c) Ellen Brickley