Sometimes I can be dense when it comes to realizing the potential of my own life experiences as essays for magazines. I, of course, fully believe that everything in my life is newsworthy, but sometimes have trouble figuring out which experiences will hit home with other people.
I recently learned the secret, and it can be summarized in one word: “Really?”
My friends know that I can talk. I mean, I can talk! Get me on the phone and I’m likely to tell you all about my day, from my breakfast to my editor’s latest comments to my insomnia. I don’t inflict my tendency toward verbosity on everyone, but at least a few trusted souls get to bear the brunt of my solitary lifestyle and my need to dish.
Their reactions tell me whether or not I have the material for a marketable personal essay.
My all-time best-selling essay is a simple story about a boy who won a stuffed animal for his little sister in a crane machine. When I saw it happen, I was so touched I almost cried. When I retold it to my mom, the tears welled up again. I got to the climactic moment--“And then he bent down and gave the stuffed animal to his little sister and kissed her on the forehead”--and my mom asked, “Really? That’s so sweet!”
Bing. “Really?” translates to “That’s a great story.”
When I tell mom about the new toy I bought for my cat, she never asks, “Really?” She doesn’t press me for details. She probably can’t wait for me to shut up so she can hang up the phone and do something productive that doesn’t involve listening to my escapades with my cat. But when I’ve hit on something that might actually warrant an article, her reaction won’t be a simple “Mmm-hmm,” or “That’s great.” It’ll be a question, or a plea to share more.
The reactions to listen for, in addition to “Really?” are:
- Then what happened?
- What did you do?
- How did you (/he/she) react?
- Tell me more!
- That’s amazing!
- That’s so cool!
A few weeks ago, I was talking to Jamie Blyth (I’m helping to write his book, Fear Is No Longer My Reality) about how far I’ve come in beating my anxiety disorder. One of the things I mentioned was that I used to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder related to food. He wanted to know more. I explained that I went through a two-year phase where I ate nothing but canned foods and other food with really long shelf lives.
“Really?” he asked.
Oh. I hadn’t thought about that phase of mine in quite some time, and had forgotten that it might be intriguing to people who’ve never experienced OCD. OCD as an overall topic has been done many times, but this detail-- the canned foods and my almost deadly diet-- hasn’t. It doesn’t belong in a how-to article. It works because of the telling, because of the personal nature of the story. And as I sat down to write it, a beautifully marketable essay formed almost effortlessly.
Think about what details of your story set it apart from similar stories. Countless essays have been written about alcoholism, eating disorders, miscarriage, drug abuse, abusive marriages, finding God, giving birth... that doesn’t mean you can’t tell your story. You just have to find a unique angle, a new way of telling it, a nugget that people will remember.
The same effortless type of story formed when I told people how Anthony and I bought our house. We fell so in love with it that we kept coming to visit and take pictures-- we would sit on the other side of the lake, facing the owners’ backyard, and just hug and dream of what it would be like to live there.
When it came time to make an offer, we were immediately outbid by thousands of dollars and couldn’t match the price. We went to say goodbye to the owners, and they told the Realtor to take it off the market—we were the people they wanted to live in the home they’d loved for 40 years. They had seen us from their back window all the times we came to admire the house from afar, and they knew we would appreciate the gardens, the greenhouse, the lake. So they took a loss of thousands of dollars because they wanted us to live our dream.
Quick, what was your reaction to that story? I hope it was “That’s amazing!,” because that’s the reaction I got from nearly everyone who heard the story. Within a couple of weeks of moving in, I sold the essay to A Cup of Comfort and sent the anthology to the previous owners of the house.
If someone’s eyes light up when you tell a story, chances are excellent that there’s a market for it. If one person finds it interesting, inspiring, hilarious, or moving, others likely will, too.
Consider your friends and family your test audience. Test out your experiences on them. If they don’t press you for more details, either the story isn’t there, or you need a more compelling way to tell it.
You can also test by e-mail