March 13, 2017

First-Person Realness

By Kara Martinez Bachman

From the time I was a young girl of ten years old, I’ve enjoyed writing in the first person. I wasn’t unlike many other young girls who carefully jotted stories, wishes and dreams into the lock-and-key diaries that really were our first training grounds for learning to write well. The best lesson from these young writings is they were unskilled, but nonetheless infused with absolute honesty and sometimes, real passion.

As professional writers, though, the essay format should be much more than the stream-of-conscious navel-gazing of the journal or diary. The form requires creating content that’s not just about us, but is somehow understandable as a part of the overall human experience.

Sure, we can all babble on about ourselves, our thoughts, and the events of our lives. Making readers care about it, though, is a whole other challenge. Taking on this challenge and defeating it can make all the difference in creating work editors--and readers--will really love.

In fiction, the sky’s the limit for creating the world as we’d like it to be. In the nonfiction essay, however, we don’t have that luxury. If either your narrative or opinions don’t ring true completely, there’s no way readers will connect with them.

Be sure before you begin writing that your subject is something you’re completely free to write about honestly. Anything else will seem like withholding--at the least--or outright lying at the worst.

Anyone remember the brouhaha over James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces”? Don’t let that happen to you. Remember: Creative nonfiction implies creativity with expression, but NOT creativity with facts.

When writing in first person, we, ourselves supply the voice and give the narrative direction. What’s more, we pull the whole thing together and arrive at a purpose by providing our readers with bits of analysis. It’s a reflective process that begins as a nugget exposed in the writer’s mind, flows into and through a relevant narrative situation, and then wraps back around full circle as the writer analyzes--for the reader’s benefit--all that has transpired.

To be effective, the reader must TRUST the essayist. This means stripping down, revealing things about ourselves--the good, the bad, and the ugly--from life experiences to feelings.

For instance, in my essay collection “Kissing the Crisis,” I write about everything from what happens in my bed at night with my husband (no, this is not erotica) to my own unpleasant faults and weaknesses. Overcoming the fear of exposure and disclosure, though, will help the essayist jump that hurdle and create an essay that rings true. Be brave.

Focusing on these two important issues … truthfulness and willingness to self-expose … will go far in setting your first-person work apart.

Readers can sense when the world you paint isn’t genuine. What’s worse, they can sense even more so when their guide, the essayist, is scared to open his or herself up to scrutiny, or has something to hide.

When the reader doesn’t get a barebones, one-hundred-percent-honest peek inside, you’ve lost the opportunity to teach, to inspire, to ask questions, or to commiserate.

When you keep your own truths under lock and key, your essay becomes far less interesting than that poorly-written, but completely honest diary of a ten-year-old.
Kara Martinez Bachman is author of the humorous essay collection, “Kissing the Crisis: Field Notes on Foul-Mouthed Babies, Disenchanted Women, and Careening into Middle Age.” She has read her writing for broadcast on NPR and it has appeared in The WriterFunny Times, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, websites and anthologies. She’s a former staff and current freelance entertainment journalist for and the New Orleans Times-Picayune and is Managing Editor of three editions of Parents & Kids magazine. Find out more at

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