Personal experience and writing skill engage in a warm embrace in the personal essay. They need each other and they know it. In the personal essay the writer carefully and prayerfully chooses to bare their soul to the reader, offering up some of their most ordinary, tender and difficult experiences to the world as a gift. In those we find meaning.
In the best of personal essays the writer reveals herself and the reader finds himself. In the essay you write on loneliness, I see that I am not alone. This is the gift. This connection – which helps to keep us alive and whole in a hard world – happens by telling the truth. By that we do not mean we always tell everything – the whole kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes – but what we do tell is always true, and skillfully wrought with careful attention to the choice and flow and beat and rhythm of the words we wrap around our very selves, our hearts.
Writer and pastor Nadia Boltz Weber spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College about this kind of personal writing. She advised writers to write from their scars and not their wounds. This is profound and important. Writing from our scars – as ugly as that sounds in itself – means that some healing has occurred. We are not bleeding all over the page, making a mess for everyone. It is better to write about how you failed as a parent a few years after you locked your teenager out in the backyard that awful night, and not write about it the next morning. You need time to forgive yourself a little bit, and write your way into the lesson in your experience. Also, your son may ask you not to tell that story and that must be the most important thing.
Do confess to your priest or your pastor. But pause a beat before you confess to the world. This is not a way of stopping truth but it is a way of slowing down truth from its reckless run. Sometimes truth takes time, it needs to simmer. And we want to be careful with the people we love, and the people who tried to love us and failed, and perhaps especially with the people who have never loved us at all. There are different opinions on this. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
You will have to find your own way through that forest. But this is what we know, most of the time. True stories beautifully rendered can change lives and touch hearts. Christian writers above all others must always tell the truth. That also means not covering our messy lives with a sugar coating, because who besides ourselves is glorified when we do that? We write about others as we would want ourselves written about. It is just as difficult to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated in writing as it is in heavy traffic, but that’s not an excuse not to try.
For the writer of church newsletters and feature articles, of speeches and scripts, the personal essay may terrify us. We are accustomed mostly to telling the stories of other people. To turn inward to our own lives, and then outward to the world holding our own story in our open hands is a risk. Some people may misunderstand or not like us anymore. That is very difficult for some of us. You could write a personal essay about that very thing, and help writers everywhere. That’s the magic.