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When You Write Personal Essays or Memoir, Go Deeper. And Then Go Deeper.

By June 11, 2010October 15th, 20102 Comments


We all know people who are really good conversationalists.  They not only ask you about yourself; they ask follow-up questions.  They’re never just being polite; they’re truly interested.

Part of writing memoir (or personal essays) is using reflection, or analysis.  You re-examine an experience you didn’t fully understand when it happened.  You write about telling your nursery school teacher you wanted to sing a song for the class, how you walked to the front of the room and sang the entire song without making a sound, just moving your lips.  In your memoir, you explore what it felt like to be you at that time.  More important, you explore what you see now that you didn’t see then.

One way to find your way into these large observations is to pretend you’re telling your story to a great conversationalist.  Allow that imaginary person – your ideal reader — to ask questions:

But what else did you feel?

Is there another way to look at what you just said?

By questioning, by going deeper, you’ll discover the unknown.  You’ll embrace the complexity of wanting to know and getting to know all the contradictions that reside within a life.

Your reader wants to witness your struggle toward discovery.  By observing you reaching conclusions, the reader will reach conclusions about her own life.


Memoirist Helen Epstein says, “Most good memoirs are like picaresque novels of the soul, journeys of intellectual quest where the author’s gradual understanding of the meaning of experience is as interesting as the experience itself.”

So, there’s your reader, sitting across from you, leaning forward, her thumb under her chin, forefinger pressing softly into her cheek, staring at you with that intense gaze, asking you yet another question.


  • I had heard Obama quote something similar when talking about the differences in opinion between he and former-primary-competitor, now running mate, Joe Biden. He said that he wanted to surround himself with people other than yes-men, so he could hear and debate thoughts different from his own.

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jamal. Interesting.