by Danielle Corcione
Social media was recently shaken by an ableist essay on xoJane in which the writer claimed her friend’s suicide was a “blessing.” Many reaction pieces followed, some of which mentioned the state of the “personal essay industrial complex,” or what happens when our experiences are reduced to controversial headlines to drive traffic, often attracting trolls.
However, there’s another side that shouldn’t be lost in the clickbait: personal essays bring light to experiences not otherwise represented. While platforms churn out predictable stories without nuances, they can also highlight silenced, oppressed narratives.
“Essays lend a megaphone to moments that aren’t warranted as worthy by mainstream,” essayist Sherisa de Groot explains. “Visibility is validation that my words have power.”
If you’ve been thinking about publishing a personal essay, consider this guide to help you mediate your decision. First off, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my essay perpetrate a negative stereotype or other type of systematic oppression?
- If I’m of some sort of privilege, am I looking to profit from my privileged experiences?
- Does my essay reflect a perspective commonly addressed and vocalized in mainstream media?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above, you reconsider your decision or revise your essay. Even if you’ve answered “no” to these questions, there are still a few pointers to keep in mind. I interviewed a few published essayists about their decisions to publish their work. Here’s what they said:
1. Read a site’s submission/contributor guidelines.
Linh Le contributes personal essays to HelloGiggles, Femsplain, and more. Before she emerged in the realm of digital publishing, she adored Chicken Soup for the Soul and the first-hand narratives printed in Seventeen magazine.
“Make sure you have a clear idea of your personal essay and how it can add to the publication you’re submitting to,” explains Linh Le. “Read what they’ve already published to see if your voice fits their brand, and then pitch!”
Don’t be discouraged if you are rejected the first time around. For instance, Linh’s essay, What I Learned From Going Through a Scrapbook My Boyfriend’s Ex Made Him, received several rejections from different publications before HelloGiggles said yes.
2. Don’t send a submission or pitch to an editor if you’re not ready to share it.
Sherisa de Groot founded Raising Mothers to create a community through unraveling the unspoken in essays and interviews. However, as an editor herself, she reads submissions about difficult life experiences.
“I’ve read essays that I asked the writer if they are sure of their decision,” de Groot explains. “I don’t believe in pressuring work out of people.“
While writing a personal essay might be therapeutic for you, it may also cover territory you’re not ready to conquer in the public sphere. Only send off a submission if you’re absolutely ready for your story to be out there. Make a conscious decision to avoid withdrawing your piece later on, after you’ve already established a relationship with an editor.
3. Bridge the gap.
“I think essays, in many ways, bridge an otherwise exhaustingly long gap,” says Keah Brown. She focuses on a combination of writing forms, both online and in print: personal essays, fiction, and journalism. Her work has appeared Femsplain, Catapult and several others.
Offer any nuances to your angles if possible. If you have a perspective not commonly seen, now is your chance to amplify it. Own it. Make it your own. Chances are, there are others out there who can relate.
“I have an essay about disability and movies that was published at Catapult and I am still receiving emails thanking me for writing it because there are apparently many disabled black girls and people of color who wanted to say what I said in the essay but couldn’t figure out how,” she mentions.
4. Share truth and vulnerability.
“I enjoy reading truthful stories,” de Groot says. “I am not interested in happy endings as much as I am interested in the fact that the writer is at peace with what’s on the page. I am an advocate of standing in your truth.”
Be honest. Don’t hold yourself back from compelling emotions; after all, those feelings are likely what urged you to tell your story in the first place. Portraying events as they are, no sugar added, gives the audience an opportunity to connect with your work, whether they have experienced something similar or not.
“I look for vulnerability and a semblance of truth,” Brown says. ”I know the idea of truth in a personal essay seems redundant, but I think it’s important because even if it’s not the truth that I can relate to, I still consider it an honor to have read it or listen to it.”
5. Check in with the people you’re writing about.
Naseem Jamnia has written essays for the Establishment, the Coffeelicious and many more. Several of their pieces focus on gender non-binary identity. Already, Jamnia’s work presents a perspective of gender not commonly expressed in mainstream media. Last month, in their newsletter, Jamnia wrote about a family friend’s death.
“Whenever I talk about someone else’s experiences, especially in an intimate way, I always check with that person first,” Jamnia explains. “If it’s my reaction to, say, a fight with my parents, then I won’t, because that focuses on me. But if it’s my reaction to a woman dying, then I absolutely check with [a family member] first and send it to them if they want.”
While this isn’t exactly asking for permission, it helps you understand, as a writer, where other people personally affected by your writing stand. For example, will your piece potentially damage a relationship with someone close to you? Perhaps it isn’t worthwhile to publish if it could have negative effects on your loved ones.
Following these steps could prevent you from embarrassing and hurting important people in your life, in addition to strangers on the internet. Additionally, it could keep you from publishing an essay you’ll regret later.
Danielle Corcione is a freelance writer. Their work has recently appeared on Upworthy, Care2, the Billfold and more.