Making sense of life: One goal of a personal essay

by Rick Nowlin

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the newspaper where I’ve worked for over 17 years, runs a weekly column called “Saturday Diary” for which staff members are encouraged to write personal essays on topics they choose. Over the past few years I’ve become one of the more prolific contributors, tackling issues such as patriotism, sports fandom and online dating, and publishing three this year alone.

When I first came to the PG, I received this guideline from an editor: “A Diary takes a current event in your life — from the mundane to the momentous — and makes it interesting to other people. The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the op-ed page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception” [emphasis mine].

While thinking about this recently, I began to understand one of our goals as writers: Making sense of life. People may hear a sound bite or a conversation that may capture their views for a moment, but for my money only on the printed page or a screen can things be truly fleshed out. And it is in the writing in which the magic unfolds — what truly happened and the time it takes to understand and reflect upon it.

It took me a while to learn this, but a personal essay is supposed to have a “takeaway” — that is, what is a reader supposed to learn that he or she didn’t know already? We writers in a sense are supposed to take readers on a journey, to bring something to light they hadn’t thought of.

In 2005 I won a carnival prize for a woman friend in quite dramatic fashion, and after thinking about it just after it happened I realized that the experience was somehow transforming me. I thought it might make for a good story, admittedly shooting for an “Aw … ” factor, so the next year I decided to enter a piece in the “personal experience” category at St. Davids. Apparently the judge agreed, as she gave it a second place, and it was published as a Diary in the PG the year after that.

I realized in 2006 just what the takeaway was. That year on my church’s singles retreat I fell into conversation with a woman who knew the friend for whom I won that prize. We talked about that a bit — she thought it a noble gesture, to which I responded, “But [we men are] supposed to do that.” As the cliché goes, “Some gifts just keep on giving,” and a solid personal essay has the power to do just that.

Contributed by Rick Nowlin, who has covered jazz for the Post-Gazette since 1998, is a SDCWA board member.