November 08, 2011

The Truth About Personal Essays - Kathleen Gibson

We are honoured to have Kathleen Gibson guest post for us today.

A few times (countable on my fingers, thank God!) over my decades as primarily a personal essayist, someone who may share a memory I’ve written about has accused me of either telling half-truths, misleading truth, or an outright lie.

Delving deeper, what I hear is, “That’s not the way I remember it!” Siblings with shared memories encounter this frequently. I call it the sibling-story-squabble. As the Synoptic Gospels demonstrate, no two people—even no two disciples—tell the same story the same way.

Nevertheless, comments like that always cause me to stop and check both my motives and my memory. Sometimes (and this has happened more often than I can count on my fingers!) I need my memory adjusted regarding unimportant details—colours, numbers, comments, times, etc. Things that don’t change the thrust of the story, but may make at least one reader feel the work is more accurate. I’ve gone back and adjusted plenty of details like that over the years.

But the strongest objections to my personal essays have come not because I forgot the true colour of the carpet, or didn’t include a name, or called evening, morning, or 1993, 1994. They come primarily because, though our memories may be almost identical, our interpretations are vastly different.

"That's not the way I see it!" is usually how those discussions start. Oh, dear.

I have never changed a word where interpretation is involved. “Thank you,” I say. “Your perspective is valid. But it’s YOURS, not mine, and I need to be true to the thoughts and memories that have camped in my soul.”

Personal essay writing is vastly different from straight journalism, where the driving motivation is (or should be!) objective, unbiased and fair reporting, with opinions garnered from as many points of view as possible. Things get a little fuzzy sometimes, but though it may include quotes and references, the primary medium of the personal essay is subjectivity: the experience of the essay writer and their interpretation of that experience.

If you’re a published personal essayist, you should know (if you don’t already) that at some point, someone will object to you publishing an experience involving them, even to the point of trying to stop you. But regardless of who else they involve, the files stored in your heart and memory belong solely to you. They are yours to recall, yours to discuss, and yours to convey to others as you please. But so too, are the consequences for doing so wisely or unwisely—and that may include accusations of slander or libel.

Choose to publish sensitive essays with care and prayer, considering others’ hearts and the motives of your own. Always ask, “Would I want my worst enemy to read this?” Because sure as dandies have lions, that enemy will find it, and know how to use it against you.

Aside from making it a constant practice to study genuinely good writing, the most foundational tool of the personal essayist is truth. Staying true to one’s beliefs, memories, perspectives, and opinions reveals to your readers a developing, live, personality. In this genre, the maxim “to thine own self be true” must be followed.

That’s not ego, by the way. Publishing something that, while truthful, is unnecessarily hurtful to someone else, is. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Change names and unimportant details, if you must. I sometimes write under a pseudonym, for those reasons.

The intentional personal essay (as opposed to the spill-your-guts social media genre of lazy writing) always serves more than a desire to “let it all out.” It has an agenda, artfully disguised, to move its readers in some way—towards new ideas, opinions, even beliefs. The effective personal essay is always ultimately not about its writer, but its reader.

The more experienced the personal essayist, the more their writing resonates with their readers’ stories. Consider authors like Erma Bombeck, E.B. White, Anne Lamott, Robert Fulghum and Phil Callaway, for starters. Their lives, revealed through the medium of honest reflection, help us see our own in new ways. We spy the truth of our stories through lens of theirs.

Some of my essays, to my surprise, have stumbled into the spotlight of a few major media outlets, some national, some international. I’ve addressed the issues of gay marriage, spousal abuse, lack of integrity in the church, fallen leaders, conservation and politics, for starters. My words have incensed some, and sent others scurrying for pen, phone, or computer to protest or agree, or simply spill out a little heart. I’ve had responses to my articles, books and blog entries from around the world. Even my newspaper faith columns, and 90 second radio spots (very short personal essays) bring some of the same results. The responses I value most are always those that come in the shape of a readers’ own personal story.

Ultimately, even when the details may be a little skewed—the tree a cedar, not a spruce—the medium of the personal essay is all about truth—your readers’ as much as your own.

So tell it already.

Find author, columnist, and broadcaster Kathleen Gibson at


  1. Kathleen, thank you for this post! I've often thought I'd like to write personal essays so I appreciate your insights.

  2. Well said, Kathleen. Thank you.

  3. Very true. I've written a few personal essays and often find it easy to write the story, but harder to grapple with "why" this story has stuck with me and wants to be told. I'll admit to a bad memory (can't recall what someone looked like or exactly what they said), but the emotion of the moment sticks with me, and that's what I want to convey to my readers, to spur them to think about their own life through my story. Thanks for sharing your tips.

  4. Thank you for your suggestions on writing personal essays. I found it very helpful to the extent that I'll share it with my writers' group this evening.

  5. Thanks for this insightful glimpse into your style of writing, Kathleen. I never really considered before how writing from personal experience could be so fraught with 'danger'! I have experienced telling a story, though, and someone else who was there disagreeing on the details!

  6. Kathleen, I enjoyed your posting and appreciate your insights. I don't think I ever had a really clear idea about the focus/purpose of a personal essay.


  7. Interesting insights! A question for you... do you ask the subjects of your stories for permission to tell your/their tale?

    I once heard Mark Buchanan (whose books are full of personal anecdotes and stories from the lives of his parishoners) say that he (or his editor) got clearance from every person whose story appeared in his books. The thought of doing that kind of diligence has always scared me away from writing personal essays.


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