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Emotional Authenticity & the Personal Essay, with Author James Marcus

The beauty of a personal essay lies in its ability to capture the writer's voice and experiences with authenticity. "Real feeling is the engine of the greatest essays," argues James Marcus, Guest Judge for our Personal Essay Competition. "Don’t try to sound like other people; let the piece sound like you."

Read on to learn all about choosing an essay topic, balancing fact with storytelling, and ensuring emotional honesty in your writing.

Guest Judge James Marcus

In your career, you’ve written a biography on renowned essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited stories at Harper’s Magazine, and penned a “funny, contemplative” memoir about working at Amazon – in all cases, circling around the world of personal narrative. What is it about the personal essay that drew you to it? Why do you think it’s an important genre?

I gravitate to the personal essay for several reasons. First, there’s the intensity of personal involvement. We like to write about the experiences that mean the most to us. And not surprisingly, readers like to read about those things, either because they’ve gone through similar things or because they’re struck by the novelty of lives so unlike their own. Also, this sort of essay entails two challenges at once. You need to get the facts right, of course: you need an accurate accounting of a particular experience. But you also need to aim for emotional accuracy, which can be much harder.

In a lifetime of content, it can be hard to know which moments are worthy of their own personal essay! How do you know when something is rich enough – and specific enough, while also being relevant to others – that it can be expanded into an essay?

Lots of great essays start with something that seems to be trivial. In fact, the secret argument of many essays is that something small can explain something very large. A stubbed toe, a luminous cloud, a fight with a friend: all of these might get the ball rolling. This doesn’t mean that every single moment of your life is worth a personal essay. Sometimes, all you’ve got is an anecdote—it doesn’t lead to anything beyond itself. But if some aspect of your life stirs you up and makes you want to dig deeper, then it’s probably worth pursuing.

A challenge with personal narrative is that some stories can come across as overly sentimental or melodramatic. How can writers avoid this cliché?

The best way to avoid sentimentality or melodrama is to be honest about your emotions. I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is such an important point. We are taught to have certain emotional responses by movies, TV, books, songs, memes, and so forth. But those emotions are often robotic or easy or fake. Our real feelings are more complicated and sometimes embarrassing or even shameful. The reader can tell the difference. If you’re honest and if you’re willing to be vulnerable, you will earn the reader’s trust.

Being so close to a topic makes it difficult, if not impossible, to remain objective. Do you think objectivity is something a writer should strive for when writing a personal narrative? Do you have any tips for navigating the fact-checking process for an essay?

Being close to a topic can certainly make it harder to be objective. Nobody is a scientist when it comes to writing about, say, family members or romantic partners. Your goal as an essayist, I would argue, is not objectivity but fairness—a kind of decency. It’s an instinct. You know when you’re simply settling a score, which is not a great reason to write an essay. As for fact-checking, you do the best you can. If you’re writing about events that took place years earlier, there may be little to no documentation. You reconstruct it as best you can, and you don’t knowingly make stuff up!

What are you looking for in a winning entry? Any other advice for the writers, especially those who are new to writing personal essays?

I’m looking for honesty, intelligence, originality, and emotion. Sentimentality, which is a kind of fake emotion, is the enemy here—but real feeling is the engine of the greatest essays. Also, the sense of a personality on the page. I guess that means a voice, which is to say: don’t try to sound like other people; let the piece sound like you.

About the Guest Judge: James Marcus is the author of Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut. He edited and introduced Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage and has translated seven books from the Italian, the most recent being Giacomo Casanova's The Duel. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, VQR, The American Scholar, and many other publications. He is also the former editor of Harper's Magazine, and currently teaches at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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