Personal Writing That Helps Oneself, and Others

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’ve thought a lot lately about the power of personal writing. “Anyone can have a blog and just write about themselves,” some people have recently told me, as though blogging about oneself is not a worthwhile pursuit.

The beauty of personal writing, though, is that it can be both personal and universal at the same time. Whenever I write personal essays, I try to ask myself: How can others benefit from what I’m writing? How might my feelings, thoughts and actions relate to other people? How can I help others feel as though they’re less alone in the joys, struggles and challenges they experience?

Good personal writing speaks to universal truths. It doesn’t say, “Look at me, I’m special.” It says, “Here’s what I’ve experienced/am experiencing. Here’s how I’m dealing with it, and here’s how it might relate to you.” And it does so in a way that doesn’t tell, but shows. In a recent piece I wrote about being grateful this holiday season, for example, I didn’t write, “It’s difficult not having a mom around the holidays.” Instead, I showed why it’s tough: “If Mom were here this Christmas,” I wrote, “she would have gone to midnight Mass with my dad and I, and she would have already filled my stocking with care. Dads do things differently. They fill stockings after midnight Mass, and don’t have as much to fill them with, not because they don’t care, but because they’re not Mom.”

In the same essay, I also included the pronoun “we” a couple of times, which I try to do in all of my personal essays to help people feel as though they’re part of the overall narrative: “The holidays are notorious for bringing up memories of people we’ve lost. It can be difficult to embrace these memories because they remind us of what we no longer have, and they make us yearn for better times,  for desires unfulfilled, for the kind of joy that comes from loving relationships with parents, spouses and friends.”

I’m still learning a lot about personal writing, and I hope to get better at it in 2009. For people looking to write a book someday, like myself, it’s good practice. Writing smaller essays over time, rather than sitting down one day and trying to start a memoir from scratch, seems like a more feasible way of going about the process.

Sometimes, writing short, daily snippets of life can help too. I use Twitter daily as a way of communicating with people, but also as a way of keeping track of what I do day-to-day. I can look back on my Tweets a year or two from now and know what I was thinking, doing or feeling on a particular day. Mediabistro ran a piece earlier this week about using Twitter for personal writing.

Yes, “anyone can have a blog and just write about themselves.” The challenge is figuring out how to make your writing speak to others in such a way that will make them say, “Wow, I’m not alone. Someone else understands.”

What advice do you have for people interested in personal writing?

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