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The Intersection of the Personal and Professional, or, Why My Attempts at Nonfiction Essays in Grad School Bombed

Jul 5, 2008 • creativity, general

I wrote this post for last year, but I like to keep my own writing consolidated on my site, so I've added it here.

Literary nonfiction gets its energy, Richard Locke says, from the intersection of the personal and professional. The tension and appeal of literary nonfiction comes from the interplay between the writer's personal experiences and the topic he or she is exploring.

Richard Locke headed the Literary Nonfiction Writing program at Columbia while I was there. As a creative writing student, I'd get all jazzed up about the infusion of personal elements into an essay. These personal elements breathed life into essay topics; they made otherwise boring subjects come alive.

I used to read personal essayists like Philip Lopate, Joseph Epstein, and Ian Frazier with reverence and awe. They perfected the art of carefully weaving personal experiences into the subjects they explored. They gave us glimpses into their lives. Their authentic voice was transparent, and showed meaning for why the topic truly mattered.

Last week I watched Scott Abel, who usually writes professional articles on his site, jump into the personal essay form. I'd criticized him in the past for avoiding the first person. Finally he published an article that had a much more personal style. The main focus was still on a professional topic (helping clients find what they need), but he integrated aspects of his personal life (finding what he needs in relationships) to give the topic more depth.

It was a big shift in his writing style. A number of readers left praising comments like -

* “I enjoyed the way you wove together the personal and professional stories so seamlessly.” (Lisa)

* ” It was a nice change of pace to read about your struggles and personal challenges.” (Chip Gettinger)

* “A little transparency about your background and experiences can go a long way.” (Anne Gentle)

For someone who avoided personal opinions and experiences in his writing, this shift was refreshing and welcome, especially amid the dry content management articles.

In grad school, I tried integrating my own experiences and viewpoints into my essays, but – like many aspiring nonfiction writers – I failed because I lacked substance. I didn't have a professional framework other than my own life to apply a personal lens. As such, I often created memoir essays that had narrative arc and strong images, but in the end were boring, navel-gazing, and superficial.

I didn't realize that the tension of literary nonfiction comes from the interplay between the personal and the professional. Overdo one or the other – especially the personal – and the essay falls flat.

Without professional substance, an essay lacks force and is empty. It can't keep readers around too long. This is why someone like Oliver Sacks, who is a neurologist first and an nonfiction essayist second, finds so much success. And it's why writers like Scott Abel, who focus mainly on professional topics, can pull off a successful essay with just a few simple personal flourishes.

Balance is what's key. Scott Barney, commenting on Scott Abel's article, summed it up best when he said:

“At the end of the day it is the personalities of the blog that cause me to return with any frequency. Having said that, I'm still looking for substance over style. As long as the postings continue to have valid content, I will be happy – personality-infused or not.”

In other words, make sure the substance is there first. With that in place, most readers will welcome the personal style.

If you are set on infusing personal elements into your nonfiction essays (or blog posts), exactly how do you go about it? When do you integrate the personal elements? How do you know if you've gone overboard, or haven't done enough? Can you jump back and forth between personal and professional, or should you keep them in clearly different sections?

My answer is that it comes naturally if you begin with substance first. If you set out to explore a topic for the purpose of the topic itself (rather than as a device for injecting your own experiences), your own point of view naturally fills in the right gaps, naturally oozes into the right spaces of the essay. And when you add the personal – often subtly and in small amounts – it ignites what would otherwise put readers to sleep.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.