An Essay by WLT Board President Kian Zozobrado
We’ve all got a story to tell. That’s what it means to be a writer in my opinion: saying, “I’ve got something to say, and dammit, I’m gonna share it with the world.” Some of those stories are fantastical, some are heartbreaking, some are so funny we end up gasping from laughter (oftentimes the best are a combination of all these elements and more). And because writing is about connecting with others, there’s a certain element of truth in each narrative we share. For personal essays, that truth is at the forefront.
July’s Third Thursday, WLT on the Craft of Writing: Personal Essays, featured essayists Krys Malcolm Belc and Melissa Faliveno. One thing that really stuck with me was the conversation around truth, and how to find and refine and lean into what that truth might be. Memories are faulty by nature, tinted by how we felt, who was involved, and even the sights and smells of the environment around us. Faliveno and Belc talked about how recall is rarely perfect. Luckily, they had some tips on how to help bring back the moments you want to recount, including photos and ephemera, visiting where the memories occurred, and checking out pop culture from around that time (I can remember the horror and awe watching The Mummy (1999) for the first time anytime I walk into a movie theater and smell the popcorn).
Even still, some of those details remain out of reach. I found an old Crock Pot in my cabinets the other day, and called my mom to ask if she wanted it back. Plot twist: It’s not hers. I’ve had this for years and, apparently, stole it from someone. Couldn’t tell you from who, when, or why. In moments like these, Belc and Faliveno recommend leaning into the unknown. Own it. Tell your reader what gaps you have in the memory and why it’s important to you anyways. Add that level of authenticity, and figure out how to make a lack of content key to the narrative.
It was delightful to also hear about the different ways both authors approach personal essays. From starting with long-form and almost stream of consciousness drafts to nowadays writing flash nonfiction because of time constraints and the feeling of home. I loved the idea of finding what format feels like it belongs. Braided essays, mixed media, novels—finding that style that makes you think, “Yes, this is the one for me” is a goal I’ve never considered but will certainly take into account after listening to this conversation.
Writing, as we all know, is a journey. The process of finding your voice, the best format, the readers you want to speak to, and even finding yourself are all things that happen along the way. As a personal essay writer, I love the intimacy that the method requires. Listening to Faliveno and Belc talk about their experiences of looking back at their lives with the lens of figuring out how to connect with people and giving a voice to the moments that were most important to them—the fantastical, the heartbreaking, and yes, the humorous—was inspiring and insightful. If you want to elevate your personal essay writing, this is a recording you don’t want to miss.