Today we are continuing the subject of crafting short fiction. In December I wrote a post on essays I have read and why we should write them. While this post expands on that subject, we’re digging deeper today, going into the mechanics of writing a specific type of essay. For Indie authors who wish to earn actual money from their writing, the narrative essay appeals to a wide audience and is sometimes more salable. Narrative essays are often anecdotal and not necessarily completely true.
They may detail an experience or event, and how it shaped the author on a personal level. However, we must keep in mind, the first-person narrator is frequently unreliable. This purely human tendency to embellish or slightly twist the truth is what makes the narrative essay an engrossing tale.
One of my favorite narrative essays is 1994’s Ticket to the Fair, (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by the late David Foster Wallace, and published in Harpers. Told in the first person, it is a humorous, yet eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair.
Sandra Allen describes this essay as, Laugh-out-loud hilarious and almost ridiculous in its level of detail, it explores the author’s fractured identity, the Midwest versus the East Coast, and the American experience at large.
At the outset, Wallace states he was born several hours drive from the fair, but had never attended it. A city boy, he has no knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals, and hasn’t really thought about the fair beyond the fact that in the course of covering the fair for Harpers, he is getting his first official press pass. After high school and college, he had left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back.
Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how the Illinois State Fair is representative of Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.
Writing thought provoking content is the prime purpose of an essay. Because the essay is the vehicle for conveying our ideas in a palatable form, writing narrative essays require us to think, not just about the content, but also about the structure. You must include:
- an introduction
- a plot
- one or more characters (can be the narrator)
- a setting
- a climax
- a summary/ending
Writing with intentional prose is critical. A good essay has been put into an entertaining form that expresses far more than mere opinion. Narrative essays may center around larger concepts, but they present ideas in such a way the reader feels connected to the story. Good essays offer a personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way. (Names changed to cover your backside legally, of course.)
Literary magazines want well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics, and some will pay well for first publication rights. Therefore, it is essential you pay strict attention to grammar and editing, and never send out anything that is not your best work. After you have finished the piece, set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:
- Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
- Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
- Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
- Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
- Dropped and missing words.
Don’t be afraid to write with a wide vocabulary. Never use jargon or technical terms only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece geared for publication serving that segment of readers.
Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be a little bold. I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace and George Saunders because they are adventurous in their work.
A list of publications that are accepting narrative essays can be found here: NewPages.Com
And on that note, we must be realistic. Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to. Put two people in a room, hand them the most thrilling thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions, and they probably won’t agree with you.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.
This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.
And when you receive that email of acceptance—celebrate! There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.
Credits and Attributions:
Harpers, Ticket to the Fair by David Foster Wallace, pdf https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-1994-07-0001729.pdf
17 Personal Essays That Will Change Your Life by Sandra Allen for Buzz Feed, August 2013
Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=815132504 (accessed January 9, 2018).