Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a London-based freelance journalist and trainer. She is also the creator of the Freelance Pod podcast.
For decades, the personal essay has drawn strong feelings from writers and editors. Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1905 personal essay that there were too many personal essays. The New Yorker declared the form dead in 2017; then, two years later, that article's writer, Jia Tolentino, had Trick Mirror published, her book of personal essays about growing up with the internet. Just the other day, The Writer Magazine declared: "The personal essay, frankly, has never been hotter."
I could not agree more - writing personal essays has boosted my career as a freelance journalist, and so I am running an online masterclass in August to help others make the most out of the life stories they want to tell.
The personal essay is an incredibly versatile format for a journalist to play around with. They work across genres: I have written about my emotional connection to a medieval Italian fresco, a vintage London Underground map and the zebra crossing on the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.
They can also fit into any kind of publication. Responding to an editor’s call for pitches has allowed me to get my first byline on websites as different from each other as CityMetric (New Statesman's urbanism magazine), The Muse (careers website) and The Outline (now sadly defunct, always impossible to define, but its tagline was: "It's not for everyone. It's for you.").
I received a wave of messages from readers around the world who recognised their own journey in the one I had written downSuchandrika Chakrabarti
When I pitched that essay about grief to Brandy Jensen at The Outline, she responded: "I'm not against running a personal essay in this series but they are notoriously tricky to pull off." In the end, between my writing and her editing, we managed it. Grief had been a large part of my life, but invisible to others, up until this point. In writing about it, I released a weight that I had been carrying around for many years. Publishing that piece was exactly like opening a floodgate. I received a wave of messages from readers around the world who recognised their own journey in the one I had written down.
The emotional personal essay will touch readers, and they will travel the length and breadth of the internet to find you on social media, to figure out your email address, to tell you just what your piece meant to them. You have to ask yourself if you are ready for this kind of contact, which can be overwhelming if your essay goes viral.
Writing for publication in any form is not, and should never be, therapy. You need to have had the therapy, and processed the pain, the negative feelings and the possibility of hurting people in your life by revealing moments they are not proud of. All of this is necessary before writing anything close to the bone.
"Personal essays can be life-changing and affirming at best, but exploitative at worst," writes journalist Micha Frazer-Carroll in a classic analysis of the form and its appeal to new, young journalists, desperate to break into the industry. She is writing from the point of view of a commissioning editor in this piece - and Frazer-Carroll has commissioned two personal essays from me for gal-dem magazine - so her conclusion understandably puts some of the responsibility on the editors. I would still encourage writers to be very sure that they have found sufficient distance from the traumatic event to be able to deal with edits and criticism on the essay without taking them to heart. A level of detachment is needed to see your own experiences as content, ready to be shaped.
Not all personal essays are commissioned by an editor these days; getting paid for self-publication is entirely possible. In the digital age freelance journalists need to work tirelessly on their own branding, and writing a newsletter helps with that. It can also become a stream of revenue. Personal essays are the backbone of the new wave of newsletters, mostly on the platform Substack. A willing audience can opt to pay for special, locked editions of a freelancer's newsletter, and personal essays help build that trusting relationship between writer and subscriber.
Substack recently gave development grants to 44 newsletter writers in the US who had subscription numbers ranging from less than 100 to nearly 18,000. Their publications tend to rely on the personal essay format. The winners include Fiza Pirani, whose newsletter Foreign Bodies features commissioned personal essays including Why am I so afraid of medication?; Katie Hawkins-Gaar, whose newsletter My Sweet Dumb Brain explores her young widowhood through personal essays; and Fariha Róisín, whose newsletter How To Cure a Ghost lays bare all the ways she is healing her own traumas through biweekly personal essays. The editor can now be removed from the process of publishing a personal essay, so it is even more important for the newsletter writer to be sure that they are ready to share their secrets with the internet.
Of course, personal essays can be light-hearted, even funny. I have written about the meanings behind my long name, how much I love my neighbourhood, and the shortcomings of the shuttle train that runs from the local station where I grew up, in a quiet corner of suburban London. Writers such as David Sedaris, Nora Ephron and Samantha Irby have made careers out of the humorous personal essay, proving that everyday experiences can be mined for comedy just as much as they can for strong emotion.
A personal essay is, above all else, a very detailed memory, illuminated by later revelation. It is important to start with a strong sense of place: a medieval chapel in Florence; a childhood home full of relics from the parents' past; the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios in London, where The Beatles recorded and were photographed. Wherever it begins, the scene must be set.
Where you were when this story began is important, because the essay is about a new understanding or an event that changed you. You must take the reader there with you, to experience the shift just as you did. There was a before, and now there is the after, in which you live. Show us your journey. Tell us how you got to your happier ending, so we can begin to imagine one of our own.
Suchandrika Chakrabarti’s Zoom masterclass Using personal essays to break into a new publication or niche is at 6:30pm on Tuesday 4 August 2020. There are a few tickets still available.
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