Going Beyond Truth-Telling in Personal Essay

When I was a teenager, I had braces, but quickly stopped wearing my retainer after the braces came off. Now, twenty years later, I’ve sorely regretted my lack of diligence. It turns out that teeth have a long memory about where they used to be, and wander back to their original starting position. So I visited an orthodontist for a consultation, and sheepishly alluded to my vanity-oriented goals. The orthodontist gave an answer that was immediately empathetic: This wasn’t a superficial concern. It was one of well-being.

In his answer—in the practiced manner he delivered it—I could tell this was an issue he had to address with many patients, a shame that adults in particular may have in seeking non-essential treatment. It reminded me of how I find myself addressing student writers (of all ages) who are often reluctant to write about themselves—they believe they have led ordinary lives that would bore others.

In an essay at Glimmer Train, writer Katherine Vaz tackles this issue in part, when she discusses an assignment that is given to every student at her university: to write about “the most important thing ever to happen to me.” Immigrants may have breathtaking and heartbreaking stories, she notes, but what about the average student, a “So Cal surfer guy”? Vaz asks:

What’s the nature (or even the point) of truth-telling here? [One student] wrote that the most important thing ever to happen to him was…the night he and his pals got drunk and knocked down the mailboxes in the neighborhood. The easiest thing would have been to dismiss him out-of-hand. But I asked him if this was indeed what he wanted to write about—he did—so I asked him to tell me more about that night.

What Vaz discovers is that the act of writing each story can be a vital exploration about the nature of truths you might not even know you carried. Read the entire essay.

Also this month in the Glimmer Train bulletin:


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Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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2 Comments on "Going Beyond Truth-Telling in Personal Essay"

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Marcy McKay

Vaz’s essay made me cry, Jane. I’ve never had a “Killing Fields” event like the young man from Cambodia, nor am I a surfer dude from California (though my middle-class upbringing from Texas sounds similar to #2). The whole essay conveyed the central truth in the the final line … why stories matter.

That took my breath away. Thanks for sharing.

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