The three most important elements of a personal essay are reflection, honesty, and discovery.
Reflection can be almost invisible—for example, in a narrative from an adolescent perspective, the teenage you asks a question of yourself that then lingers in the background (ideally for the reader to answer). Or it might be a section in which you actually step back for several paragraphs or more to take stock. (See tip 10, “Wanna Make Something of It?”) But on some level, an essay needs a reckoning.
Honesty is the sense that you’re being truthful as you remember events and aren’t holding back to protect someone or make yourself look better. Readers can pick up on such subterfuge.
Discovery means you’ve discovered something in writing the essay. That may end up on the page as an aha moment or might be between the lines, the transformation that got you where you are as the person telling the story. But if you don’t discover anything, the reader won’t. (See tip 8, “Throw Away the Map”), and discovery is one of the joys of reading.
Of writing, too.
When you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, have an idea of what you want to say. Or, perhaps less intimidating—especially with a personal essay—what you want to explore. Keep in mind the direction you want to go in. Jot down points, examples, details, anecdotes you’d like to include.
But don’t work toward a particular conclusion or, even worse, a specific last line.
Smart readers (they’re the ones you want, right?) can always tell when the ending is one the writer was planning all along. No discovery for the author = no discovery for the reader.
Go where your story or essay wants to take you. Listen to what it’s telling you.
This isn’t stream of consciousness. It’s consciousness.
When you come to what feels like an end, take a deep breath. Then go back and edit, delete, change, reorder, add, flesh out—and maybe end up in yet another place entirely.
Your own careful thought is your best outline.