As a widely published writing coach, guest editor for Narratively, and an adjunct instructor in writing for New York University and Writer’s Digest, I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing ultra-revealing stories for clicks that never take their careers anywhere.
I recall writers detailing embarrassing physical deformities (that couldn’t be seen), affairs with married men they later married, or a hidden sex life as a Dominatrix, divorces, mental illness, missing limbs, and cheating spouses. Every day I see them exploited by editors of sites who are looking for clickbait over quality.
I also see the aftermath of their mishaps (“I wrote about cheating on my husband, and now the neighbors shun me.” “I wrote about skipping paying our taxes for years, and now people won’t do business with us.” “I shared about my daughter cutting herself and now she won’t talk to me.”).
When I analyzed first-person pieces like I do in my series on analyzing essays, it boiled down to some basic tenets. The clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something humiliating that happened to the writer, but that offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep. Each sentence didn’t move the story forward or show greater depth beneath the surface.
In this day of letting everything hang out, writers and storytellers need to remember the key is crafting a strong story that offers some sort of redemption or transformation and isn’t just fodder for fulfilling a reader’s prurient voyeurism. Writing this way requires deep emotional courage. Here’s how to do it.
An Exciting Entry to the Essay
All great revealing first-person pieces get your attention, make you want to read on, and often pose a question that you feel needs to be answered.
Here are some great examples of powerful opening sentences.
The Love Of My Life by Cheryl Strayed for The Sun
“The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet-black hair and skin so white it looked as if he’d powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.”
(She is writing about cheating, but we later understand she is driven by grief for her mother’s loss)
My Blind Date Took Me to a Sex Club by Estelle Erasmus for HuffPost Personal
“The hypnotic techno music surrounded me with the acoustic thump of a porno flick. Naked from the waist up, I looked at my date―clad in a towel from the waist down. Then, flush with anticipation and a little fear, I put my hand in his, and together we stepped into an exclusive sex club for couples in New York City.”
(This seems salacious, but the story goes deep into my search for love and self-worth, and how I find myself in the process).
So you’ve started your first-person piece in a provocative way that either uses dialogue, scene setting, or action to get you into the story. What next?
Cancel the Cursing and Work with Words
Writers want to make an impact, but instead of sprinkling curse words throughout your piece, try to use them sparingly. It might even be better to use them in dialogue that moves the story forward. If you overuse any word, after a while it makes the mind numb, and the reader moves on. In my story about an inappropriate therapist I had when I was a girl, I used the word f*ck as the story escalated, mostly in the dialogue to show the depravity of the therapist. I also recommend not sharing every single detail of your ordeal or story, unless it provides greater depth, a look at your emotional state, or further insight into your mindset at the moment. At the same time, it’s important to use sensory details (sight, sound, touch, and taste) to paint a vivid picture for the reader and invite them into the story.
Leave the Reader with a Gift
I teach my students that the reader should get a universal takeaway message from their essay. This means that some transformation or learning or understanding has taken place. That’s what needs to be conveyed in those last sentences.
Ann Hood, the essayist, does this particularly well with her stories, which often start out with the ordinary (an object, a scarf, a recipe) but always connect to a deeper meaning about grief, loss, love, and how it resonates.
Examples of the transformative ending:
Confessions of An Outsider in Black Elite America by Ajah Hales for Narratively
“What I had learned from my experience in elite society was that as a black woman I wasn’t free to take risks that might not pay off. But I decided to take the leap anyway. Becoming a writer has been an act of liberation because I am freeing myself to do what I love. I have chosen to live life on my own terms instead of by the unwritten rules society has designated for me. By abandoning my pointless quest to become an insider, I have become what I always wanted to be: myself.”
Bagging the Office Bully by William Dameron for Hippocampus Magazine
“Sometimes on a hot summer night, I lie on my bed and peel back the layers. I guess I could be angry about all of the years spent faking it, about the seemingly unanswered prayers and how it was not until after my fourth decade that I figured out how to sort, stack, and arrange my normal little life. But then, my husband throws a tan leg over mine, rests his bulging arm on my shoulder, and it feels—sacred. It starts to rain, and I can hear the rumble and clacking of thunder in the distance. It sounds like God laughing.”
Savannah Guthrie had this to say at a recent commencement speech at George Washington University, and I think it applies to writers most of all.
“And what you will find is—your obstacles, your broken places, the spots where you’ve healed, the things you’ve overcome—this is the source of your strength, and it also is the source of your beauty.”
So write something deep, beautiful…and yes, revealing. If you do it the way I suggest, you’ll never regret it.