The Put-Ons Of Personal Essayists

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Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.

And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.

Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.

People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.

Final Thoughts In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page.

This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives. Trouble is, the number of essayists lobbying for space on the page far exceeds the available slots.For example, The New York Times’ Modern Love column sees thousands of submissions each year — of which only 52 run.Here is his opening: A year ago today, my mother stopped eating.She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was.They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion.An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going.Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign: Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?

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