In personal writing—or, for that matter, fiction—a few tears go a very long way. They are not a legitimate shortcut to emotion. If misused, overused, or used too soon, they’re a bobsled to sentimentality. You have to earn your tears.
You often don’t need to mention them at all. (I’m constantly editing them out.) If you’ve successfully conveyed the emotion of a scene—through, say, halting dialogue, body language (hand movements can be key), or the way the light or the knickknacks on a shelf have changed—it can be redundant or over the top to say you were crying. Yes, even if the tears flowed in real life. “But that’s how it happened!” is, ironically, a specious argument in personal writing.
When it is important to introduce tears—and such times do exist—think of indirect ways: You suddenly realized the Kleenex in your hand was damp or matted. Your vision blurred. You felt a cold stream on your cheek. Okay, that one might need work. Just, please, no lump in the throat.
No one is contractually obligated to read past your first sentence.
Feature writers—journalists who write profiles, trend pieces, nonfiction narratives, and the like—are trained to grab readers right from the start, but essayists (particularly personal essayists) often seem to have the idea that the same imperative doesn’t apply to them, so they take their time, they dip their foot in tentatively.
But why shouldn’t it apply to them? Why assume readers picking up your essay in a doctor’s office, or the New Yorker that arrives in their mailbox, will read to the end simply because it’s an essay (or is in the New Yorker)?
This is not a crass, commercial concern. It’s a literary concern. You want people to keep reading, and they can put your work down at any time. Especially after the first sentence.
Names. Give people names. For personal essays, make them up if you need to, for privacy or protection. But repeated and unwavering references to a key character as, say, “my brother” or “my neighbor” become tedious.
Don’t refer to your mother solely as “my mother” or “my mom.” What do you call her, in memory or life? Such a difference in intimacy, that simple act of deleting the possessive pronoun and capping the word: Mom, Ma, Mother—whatever you know or knew her as. That’s how she lives in your head. Let her live on the page.
(“She” and “he” serve useful functions, too.)
Today in class when we were talking about sending work out—something I always do in the last workshop—a student asked where I stood on following up on a submission to a magazine or journal.
I was a little stunned, because while my regular spiel includes a reminder to keep track of where and when you send essays (Submittable makes this super-easy now) and to follow up, I’d never been asked—before I’d even gotten it—about the advisability of doing so. The way she worded the question implied there might be times when it wasn’t a good idea to check on the status of writing you’ve shed blood for and taken the leap of faith to see into a world of strangers.
So yes, if you haven’t gotten a reply after the publication’s stated response time (assuming such exists), you should without question or apology follow up. Things get lost in transit all the time. They get buried in in-boxes, physical and electronic. Editorial processes are slow and complicated in ways outsiders can’t imagine.
But here’s what surprised me: I then heard coming out of my mouth words I’d never heard myself speak before. I said, “Just like your kids or your partner, you should have your writing’s back.
It deserves it.
Ending an essay or article with a quote can strike a powerful note, but it’s so much more effective to close on the speaker’s words than the attribution. (Same goes for the end of a section.) I’m struck by how often writers—especially journalists—seem content to send readers on their way with “. . . he says” or “. . . she says.”
It usually takes just a minor restructuring to conclude with the quote, and I can’t remember a single person complaining when I’ve edited a story this way. (I do it a lot.)
“And that,” he said, “is the truth.”