How Do You Motivate Yourself to Write Personal Essays?

I have a lot of ideas for personal essays that I’ve been wanting to write about lately, but a busy work and social life have led to weeks of procrastination. When I do have free time, distractions get in the way, and I’m left thinking, “Tomorrow. I’ll write tomorrow.”

I have no problem churning out stories for work, mainly because I have deadlines that leave me with little time to worry about being overly self-critical or about perfecting my leads. These inhibitions seem to get in the way, as does the uncertainty of where to start.

The more I think about wanting to write a memoir, the more I wonder: How do you start a memoir? When there’s so much to write about, how do you find focus in a lifetime of memories and experiences?

I think it helps if you decide to write for yourself instead of writing to impress an audience. Thinking about writing for publication, especially when it comes to writing intimate personal essays, can be intimidating and can lead to unnecessary delays in the writing process.

Maybe writing down my ideas will motivate me to pursue them and carve out more time for personal writing. Doesn’t hurt to try.

Ideas:

An essay about Sundays. Growing up, Sundays were always family days. My mom, dad and I would take day trips to Boston, go for bike rides and snack on mocha almond chip ice cream. But that all changed when I saw my mom for the last time on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1997. Her skin was yellow, her eyes sunken in, her face a portrait of pain. She died that day. We should have been at church together. We should have been strolling along the streets of Boston, laughing and forgetting that we had to return to the reality of work and school the next day. Since mom died, Sunday has been my least favorite day and has continued to be difficult for me, try though I might to make it a good day. Funny how what’s supposed to be “the day of rest” is a day that I often equate with pain and suffering.

An essay about father-daughter bonds. In my dad’s mind, I can do no wrong. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and he can spoil me like that. More so, though, it’s because we have been through so much together. My dad has always believed in me, even when others were doubtful. He’s always encouraging, instilling in me a sense that no goals are too lofty and that failure is not something to be feared. We live more than 1,000 miles apart now, but we remain close, even despite the fact that he’s “not a good phone talker,” as he says. It frustrates me that he’s not a man of many words on the phone — unless, of course, he’s talking about cars or guitars. Sometimes, though, his silence is enough.

An essay about people not understanding what “a little bit” means. This is one of my pet peeves. I’ve stopped asking for whipped cream on my drinks at Starbucks because whenever I ask for “just a little bit,” I get a huge scoop of it. I’ve tried “just a teeny bit,” “just a smidgen” and “just a dollop,” but the mounds of whip cream seem to get bigger every time! I used to experience this in college, too. I’d ask for “one slice of cheese, please” on my veggie wrap, and inevitably the woman making the sandwiches would say, “Oh, I’ll give you two!” Sometimes I just want a dollop, a slice, and nothing more.

An essay about bugs. Lord knows I’ve had my share of bug problems since moving down to Florida. But who hasn’t? Fleas (twice), swarming termites that forced me to move out of my old  apartment, black ants in my car. And lizards, too! Talking about the bugs I’ve encountered, and my reaction to them, would make for a funny essay, especially given my phobia of creepy crawlers.

What tips do you have for motivating yourself to write personal essays?

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Motivate Yourself to Write Personal Essays?

  1. I love your blog, and this is an interesting post. An idea: having an audience helps a lot. I keep a “writing journal” by emailing friends my ideas or experiences as they come up and pasting my jottings into a Word file.

    In your case, these are great essay ideas, and you might just write about them on this blog, or on a companion blog. You don’t try to be perfect that way, but you do get something down, which you can later expand for separate publication somewhere, or not. In my case, for the last four years I have been writing and rewriting a memoir and I break out stand-alone essays as they occur and as I notice them. For me in this phase, essays have mostly been a byproduct of a larger work. And I think that’s helpful, whether you are writing things for a blog or for a book . . .

    1. Thanks so much, Richard. I think you’re right about having an audience. And as you suggest, writing in chunks helps, as opposed to thinking you have to sit down and start writing page one of your memoir.

      I often try to start with not a year of my life, or even a week, but rather a moment. How can I capture that moment? What does it say about who I am? How can I help others relate to it?

      I find that there’s usually a common thread in my “moment essays” that could someday be woven into a memoir.

      I wish you luck on your memoir! Hope you’ll keep reading this blog and sharing your thoughts.

      1. The idea of capturing a moment is an important one, definitely, in memoir. Virginia Woolf talks about this in some of her non-fiction essays, and identifies it as ‘moments of being.’ Her writing on writing/memoir in particular is really helpful in isolating these moments, or at least it was to me.

        I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with Meredith Hall (http://meredithhall.org/) this semester in UNH’s creative non-fiction program. I definitely second the idea of writing for an audience, however small, as well. Taking a memoir workshop has helped me cultivate that audience–luckily, a friendly one that gives good feedback, though it is often very critical. Taking a workshop-style class is also helpful in terms of framing the memoir–to help find the emotional threads that connect the essays and ‘big ideas.’ I’ve found that my readers are able to help point those things out to me as I embark on my memoir of growing up as a first-generation American with a multitude of cultural influences on both sides of my family. I didn’t realize how interested my readers would be in certain parts of my story (such as my grandmother’s accented voice in dialogue), which has helped me amplify those moments in my own writing as I go forward. I would love to read some of the stuff you’re working on; I’m about 50 pages into mine, if you ever want to read it, too.

        In any case, I’d love to read some of your essays. And while posting them to your blog is a cool idea, I’d vote for not doing that–and getting a lit mag or journal to publish them instead! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the great feedback, Kristina! Now I’m tempted to enroll in UNH’s creative non-fiction program. 😉 I like the idea of compiling and capturing “moments of being” when writing personal essays or a memoir.

    I actually just finished a new personal essay that I’m going to publish on my blog tomorrow. It stems from an incident that happened to me tonight involving cheap shoes and lost keys. (It’s kind of comical, actually, but it made me think about a lot of deeper stuff in my life.)

    … I’d love to read your story! Can you send it to me?

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