I’m a big fan of memoir and personal essay, which are shooting-the-shit-over-a-couple-drinks’ (an activity I’m also a fan of) slightly-more polished cousins.
When writing (what I’ll term) “personal stuff,” we tend to mine for topics our tough times; the unhappy milestones most of us—all of us?— experience. Death and illness and abuse and heartbreak. Loss of all kinds. Maybe it’s a childhood. Maybe one indelible moment. On and on and on.
No matter your topic, the point is: to make an impact on your audience, write the uncomfortable story. Don’t assume you know what others will find profound. Don’t assume you know yourself where the heart of your story lies until you start digging and dig past—way past—where you expected you’d stop.
Throughout the painful process of separating from my husband I told myself, I should write something about this. I wrote (literally) 10s of 1,000s of words and all of it was trash. I wrote poems. I wrote personal essays. I wrote something I thought might become a memoir. I wrote non-fiction disguised very poorly as fiction. All of it was garbage. But I came to realize it’s because my approach was all wrong: I didn’t humble myself enough to write honestly about my role in the split, the ways I hurt him, the ways I embarrassed myself. I had to dive into the mess and the myriad grey areas, write about the parts I never wanted to reveal.
There are a million divorce stories out there and what makes the moving ones moving are the details, the writer’s personal and unique perspective. My divorce story (and poems and essays) sucked so hard because I wasn’t digging deep enough. In some vain and semi-subconscious attempt to protect my ego I was writing a story both boring and cliche. I had to write the uncomfortable story.
(A group I’ll term) grown-ups tend to be critical of today’s youths’ over-sharing, TMI culture—the personal details in their status updates, the endless selfies. As an early 30-something on the eldest edge of the millennial generation, I’m torn between critiquing this behavior and kinda-sorta-sometimes joining in the fun.
But maybe the kids are alright. Maybe if we look deeper at the public personal reveals, curated as they are, we can see this over-sharing—well, some of it at least—as inspirational. While admittedly the voyeuristic part of me (don’t judge) wants to read your day’s daily details, maybe there is something valuable here for even the non-creeps among us, amidst the party snaps and emojied vaguebooking. We all have friends and family who see nothing wrong with broadcasting their every emotion, including their darkest days, on Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram)—and you know what? Go, them. From them maybe we can learn something.
Write the uncomfortable story. Delve into the greyest areas, the places where right and wrong blur, bleeding into one another, the stories where there’s no obvious winner and loser. Dig deep. Write the thing you don’t want to write, the story you thought you’d never, ever write. Over-share. Give ’em TMI. Because that stuff’s powerful. That’s the kind of personal writing that moves people to feel things. And you know what? It’s good for you, too.
—Josey Rose Duncan