By Dawn Goldsmith
By Dawn Goldsmith
Author Peggy Vincent introduced me to the quirky world of personal essays. She enlisted my help and those of several other members of the Internet Writing Workshop to critique chapters in her memoir Baby Catcher: Memoirs of a Modern Midwife (Scribner).
Up to that point in my writing career I wrote nonfiction upon demand. By that I mean I wrote assigned articles for the various editors I worked for in newsrooms, assigned reports in college, and a few freelance articles about groups, historic events, organizations, and individuals, but I didn't write about me.
Once I began writing personal essays, events of my past began to take on new meaning. I sat at the kitchen table, looked at my almost 50-year-old hands and realized they were my mother's hands. The initial realization took me back to memories that involved her hands and mine leading to an essay that appeared in Skirt! Magazine. It seemed too easy to draw on memory with almost no research involved.
But I quickly learned that anecdote or memory alone wasn't enough to make the sale. There needed to be a universal theme, something the reader could identify with or at least understand. When I wrote "Snow Angel," a personal essay about the friendship between my mother and a neighbor woman in the winter of their lives, I struggled to convey the emotion yet not get maudlin. I tried to demonstrate the heart of the story, which for me was about living and dying with dignity and how important friendship is in the whole scheme of both. Cup of Comfort Inspiration published that piece.
Perhaps my most popular essay involved gender roles and when to ignore them. Who knew I'd sell that piece four times, certainly not me. It began with the potholder my brawny husband knitted during the boring factory night shift he worked when we were first married. It was simply an anecdote about his curiosity, his resourceful use of materials at hand (string for yarn, a couple of bolts shaped into knitting needles), and the resulting potholder. But as I wrote, I contrasted his approach to life with my own by-the-book, perfectionist ways.
While he knitted, I worried that his fellow workers would ridicule him. He said, "so what" and continued with his project. When the men saw what he had made - they wanted him to make more potholders - for them to give their wives. As I wrote, I realized that he taught me about bending or ignoring gender roles through his ability to focus on the task not on other people's expectations.
I first sold the essay to the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor where the editors of Knit Lit Too saw it and requested to include it in their anthology. The piece also sold to Chocolate for a Woman's Soul and to Skirt! Magazine.
An unexpected perk of writing personal essays: the free therapy. I've learned so much about myself, my family, and my life experiences by picking apart and searching my individual memories. As I dig for the universal theme, the deeper meaning in my essays, I find the truths about myself that previously eluded me.
Personal essays can be about current events. I sold a piece to Birds and Blooms magazine about my husband's interaction with the birds while mowing our yard. My essay "The Vigil" depicted the final days of a baby robin and sold to Flashquake.
These essays have brought me not only publishing success, but also a soul-satisfying peace. For the first time I am writing about things that are important to me, things I feel compelled to write. The icing on the cake is finding a market as hungry as I am for the truths I uncover.
Anyone seeking to write and publish personal essays will find editors clamoring for them at every turn. Once you find the hidden truth, the deeper meaning, the sales will come quickly.
- Literary Mama (no pay)
- Birds and Blooms
- Christian Science Monitor
- Good Housekeeping
- New York Times: Lives
- Notre Dame Magazine
- Skirt! Magazine
- Woman's Day
- Woman's World
- The Washington Post
- Christian/religious magazines
- Trade magazines
- Hobby magazines (Quilt, etc.)
- Wildlife/Environment magazines
Dawn Goldsmith is a long-time member of The Internet Writing Workshop and a successful essayist. Read a sample of her work here -- Growing Up in History's Flight Path. Dawn also blogs regularly at Observations.