On How to Begin a Personal Essay

Deciding how to start an essay — or any piece of writing, really — is for me one of the most difficult aspects of writing. (The other two are deciding on the middle and the end.)

I stress especially about the beginning, probably because I want to ensure that my beginning begins adequately: with the right focus, the right tone, the appropriate style. Get that wrong at the beginning, and the entire essay follows suit. As Tracy Kidder and Richard Tood explain in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction: “You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away.” It’s a thought that’s all too present with me when I write.

This applies to blog posts, as well.

Several years ago, when writing a memoir / family history, I had more than a dozen first chapters. Why? I couldn’t decide where the best place was to start. Do I start from when I first became interested in family history around the age of 12? Do I start with the mythologized story of how my great-etc-grandparents met, seven generations back? Or do I start from where I presently am in life, and then write primarily in flashbacks? I tried all these methods, and more.

But the problem was, I kept getting updates, both in my own life and in the research I was doing. When something new happened in my life or I found out some important family history detail, the previous beginnings I’d attempted no longer seemed relevant or right. It also meant that the “where I presently am in life” was continually shifting.

If I ever return to the manuscript, I’ll probably have another go at the beginning again.

That is all to say, I’ve struggled with beginnings for a long, long time.

But I’ve learned some valuable things about beginnings during my MFA, and as I’ve continued studying personal essays. And while I’ll be speaking specifically about personal essays, what I’m saying may be applied to other creative nonfiction in general, to blog posts, and perhaps to other genres as well.

One of the things I learned is that I can start my personal essay from where I am, right now, writing. (And I don’t need to update it!) For instance, as I write this, it’s currently afternoon and I am sitting at my desk with a few stacks of books piled beside me, looking out the window to one of the first spring days this year. I am the writer writing.

I like how Patrick Madden begins his essay, “Laughter,” in this way:

“As I write — not specifically now but generally in these days — my two-and-a-half-month-old daughter is just beginning to laugh, and I am sharing in her joy, or, if it not joy that she feels, still I feel the joy of her laugh.”

It is a perfectly acceptable way to begin, with an awareness of the writer writing (even if in this case he is not doing so at the moment), and sets up a meditative expectation for what follows.

Another way is to start by telling the reader why the particular topic is of interest. I used this technique for my first sentence in this essay (“Deciding how to start an essay . . . is for me one of the most difficult aspects of writing”). I’m telling you why I’m interested in the topic right off – and even give you my take on it (my struggle with beginnings).

Here’s an example of this kind of introduction-to-topic technique, from Katherine Anne Porter’s “St. Augustine and the Bullfight”:

“Adventure. The word has become a little stale to me, because it has been applied too often to the dull physical exploits of professional ‘adventurers’ who write books about it, if they know how to write; if not, they hire ghosts who quite often can’t write either.”

Her take on the topic, her wry humour, and her delicious tone immediately made me want to keep reading the essay to its end (which did not disappoint).

A third way is to mention some recent event (in personal essays, these are usually very small) which sparks the idea to write in the first place. I recently read and reviewed Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, in which he has an entire chapter on “First Sentences.” It interested me, in part because I’ve been keeping a commonplace book category of beginnings – mostly first lines from novels and personal essays, a fact I mentioned recently in response to a comment on my blog. And so you see, my mind has already been wandering over the subject of how to begin an essay over the past few days. (And this essay could very well have begun here.)

“First sentences have what I call ‘an angle of lean’:” writes Fish, “they lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate. . . . Even the simplest first sentence is on its toes, beckoning us to the next sentence and the next and the next, promising us insights, complications, crises, and, somethings, resolutions.”

Who is to say which beginning is right, or wrong? Right seems to me a question for the individual essayist and the particular essay she is writing.

But there do seem to be some good practices one can follow.  Some pointers from Kidder and Todd about beginnings are: “You can’t tell it all at once,” “There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning,” and “. . . a good beginning achieves clarity.”

Again, here’s Fish: “There can be no formula for writing a first sentence, for the promise it holds out is unique to the imagined world it introduces, and of imagined worlds there is no end.”

Again, the discussion comes full circle from where I began: the possibilities of how to begin a personal essay are seemingly endless.  And yet, it’s my hope that this essay has  given you a few ideas, guidelines of how one may begin.

As it is, the sun has now set (at least it’s no longer visible in the sky) and I am sitting on my couch in the not-quite-evening.

I end, not with my own words, but those of Madden, again, near the end of his essay “Laughter”:

“As I write — now, in this moment — I can hear my daughter’s muted laughter behind me. . . . It is not clear to me what she is laughing about, but that laughter without motive is beautiful. I listen closely, watching her, and I laugh out loud.”


Question: How do you begin your personal essays, blog posts, or other writing?