Writing the Unspeakable: Don’t avoid the tough topics in your personal essays.

By Claire • In CraftNo Comments

by Keith Ecker

A little more than a year ago, I was sitting in the Book Cellar Café talking to my writing and performance buddy Monte. I had been going through one of my periodic identify crises in which I feel all my writing is cliché and that my voice stands out about as well as an albino in a snowstorm. After listening to me self-indulgently complain about my first-world problem, Monte leaned forward and said, “Write something embarrassing. It’ll force you to be yourself.”

That message struck me. Perhaps I was feeling stifled because I had been playing it safe, writing a series of coming-of-age and fish-out-of-water stories that would have fit perfectly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul collection, but didn’t accurately reflect me. So I vowed to tackle the tough topics—fear, loneliness, rejection, disease, death—by pulling from personal anecdotes that would require incredible vulnerability as well as a heaping dose of self-deprecation.

Saving face and preserving my pride before an audience diminished in importance as I focused on being brutally honest about myself, my personal experiences and my shortcomings. I did not hold back, exploring my more embarrassing memories for personal meaning. For instance, there was the time I faked heat stroke at an amusement park just so I could gain access to the private, first aid bathrooms. (I was too self-conscious to use a public restroom.) I explored my childhood struggles with body image and food, and I wrote about an incident in college in which I drunkenly made an ass of myself in front of a girl. (The story involves both vomiting and accidental public indecency.)

What I discovered was that by diving head first into uncomfortable territory, my creative non-fiction (and my live readings) improved. Taking risks during the writing process imbued my work and my performances with a certain vibrancy that wasn’t there before. Plus, I realized writing had become fun again. Rather than using personal experiences that mimicked some kind of trite motif, I was finding new and original ways to convey life’s lessons through my most unique, albeit revealing, anecdotes.

Now, as much as I’m an advocate for being bold in personal storytelling, I do think there are some guidelines to keep in mind. The following are some tips to help you ensure that your personal narratives strike at the core of the human experience without relying on the melodrama of a Lifetime movie or the cheap shock of a grindhouse horror flick.

  • Do not shock for the sake of shock: Bold does not mean explicit scenes of sexuality, excessive mentions of bodily fluids or bragging about your extensive drug use. It just means not shying away from these and similar subjects, granted there is an actual story worth sharing.
  • There are no villains: Good personal storytelling has no villains. Everyone’s actions and behaviors are motivated by factors that are rational and valid in his or her own mind, no matter how irrational they may seem to others. Writing a good work of creative non-fiction requires the ability to consider, and to some extent justify, your personal villains’ motivations.
  • If you’re not making a self-discovery, you’re doing it wrong: Personal essay writing requires taking the bold step of objectively assessing yourself, your values, your actions, your pre-conceived notions, etc. If you’re not prepared to question yourself and admit you have been wrong or that you have played the fool, your personal narratives are going to come off as dishonest.
  • Relate the trauma; don’t relive it: Personal tragedy is a go-to source for many essayists. And that’s perfectly understandable since our life’s tragedies test our character and reveal to us the truest nature of ourselves. But it’s important to remember that as a writer, your job is to serve as a tour guide through your personal misery and avoid coming off as a masochistic freak. After all, the last thing you want is for your audience to pity you. If you’re writing about something deeply personal and tragic, make sure you’ve given it the introspection it requires before putting pen to paper.
  • Supplant the ego: Personal essays might seem like they are all about the author, but really, they are all about the author connecting with the audience. It is the goal of the memoirist to convey the human experience through personal experience. You are a microcosm for humanity. It’s a heavy job. Be a good conduit, and don’t be afraid to depict yourself honestly, as unflattering as that may be at times.

Keith Ecker is a founder, producer and host of Essay Fiesta and Guts & Glory: Live Lit for the Lionhearted. Featuring the boldest and brashest storytellers in Chicago, Guts & Glory challenges performers to take personal risks in their writing and performances. To date, both showcases have helped raise more than $5,000 for charity.


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