I just got back from teaching at The Sun magazine’s three-day writing retreat in Rowe, MA. The retreat is called “Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal writing.” In all my sessions, but particularly in the last one that I offered on Saturday night, I invited participants to walk into that fire to see what they might find. The title of this session was “Who Are You?” My objective was to make the participants aware of what they could gain in a piece of personal writing by paying attention to the multiple selves that aree in conversation on the page. By investigating our experiences from a number of vantage points and perspectives, we create more rounded characters of ourselves, and we also produce a more tonally textured piece of writing as the voices of the various parts of ourselves vibrate against one another.
I want to share the writing prompts that I gave the people who came to my session in case you might find them helpful for your own personal essays.
1. Start by recalling someone from the past who calls up in you a moment of shame, guilt, or regret. Spend about five minutes writing from the prompt, “I can’t tell you. . . .” The objective is to get down the facts that led to the shame, guilt, or regret.
2. Shift to something from your present-day life that memory of the past invites into the conversation. Again spend about five minutes writing from this prompt: “Instead, let me tell you about. . . .”
3. Spend about five minutes writing from the prompt, “When I think of the person I was then, I. . . .” The idea here is to look at your past self from the perspective that you have now.
4. Complete these two sentences: “Back then I thought. . . .” And, “Now I see (or understand) that. . . .”
5. Then complete these two sentences, applying them to either the past experience or the present-day one: “Part of me wishes. . . .” And, “But another part of me. . . .”
6. Spend as much time as you need with this final prompt: “If I could rewrite that moment (the one from the past), I’d. . . .” And “But I can’t. All I can do (or all I have) is. . . .”
When I write a personal essay, I usually have a story to tell, and it invites another story, one that I’d rather not tell because it makes me uncomfortable to do so. It’s that second story that makes the essay resonate. This exercise will leave you with the fragmented bones of an essay. The sections may not cohere until you flesh them out and rearrange them to create an essay in which past and present merge. The results can be startling. Many of the people who attended my session said afterwards that this exercise took them to significantly life-changing and healing moments of clarity. Isn’t that exactly what we’re after in a good personal essay?Isn’t that the reward for walking into the fire?