On Writing: Opening Your Personal Essay

Photo: © S.V. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Adapted by Thomas Mira y Lopez from his craft class at the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2018 Spring Conference. Click the links to display excerpts of representative essay openings.

1. Openings should show both a sense of control and a sense of mystery.

2. That mystery doesn’t have to be something the essay necessarily solves.

3. The entire essay—or, in other words, the concerns of the entire essay—should be present on the first page.

4. That’s not to say the essay needs to state what will happen at its onset, but that, when we go back and reread, [sg_popup id=”1″ event=”click”]all the moving parts should manifest themselves in some way from the get-go[/sg_popup].

5. I’m thinking of those high school math equations where you have to figure out if a smaller triangle is proportionate or correspondent to a larger triangle. Of how that smaller shape can be nestled into that larger shape.

6. And the essay should establish multiple tensions that exist, for the moment, in some state of suspension.

7. i.e. I am writing this on a plane on my way to visit a beloved yet ill family member, and the drink cart is approaching and I am wondering if I will be able to finish this sentence before the cart arrives and, if not, what drink I will choose on the fly.

8. The essay’s job is then to activate that suspension, to stretch tighter or relax.

9. I choose ginger ale.

10. I originally wrote that an essay’s job is to establish multiple conflicts, but I don’t think that’s the right word. Sure, a tension often develops into a full-blown conflict but a successful essay, I’d argue, can survive on tension alone.

11. That tension can be between [sg_popup id=”13″ event=”click”]narrator and character[/sg_popup], character and character, past self and present self, reader and writer, [sg_popup id=”15″ event=”click”]you and I[/sg_popup], etc. etc.

12. The woman next to me also chooses ginger ale and, like me, is reading a book. The book is Hillbilly Elegy and she is on Chapter Twelve. I’m shy about talking to people on planes but after we finish our drinks I ask her if she likes the book. “It’s terrific,” she says, and then explains the plot to me. Her statements are couched in qualifications—“I don’t know if you’re interested in the topic matter”—to safeguard some of her own political inclinations or perhaps suss out my own. I have recently grown a mustache and, while it is ridiculous, I also think it makes me harder to read. I mention that I own the book but haven’t read it, which is partly true. I have read some of the book, but I left it in one of those little free libraries at the apartment complex from which I just moved.

13. The other month, I heard a writer read the prologue to his manuscript-in-progress. It began with, “I remember.” To which, that old workshop twitch kicked in and I wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Where’s the mystery? Where’s the tension in that?”

14. My complaint with memory isn’t the saw that’s often tossed around when it comes to nonfiction: that the genre is more about what we don’t remember or what we misremember than what we remember.

15. Sure, that can be true—that’s why it’s tossed around so much. But my complaint is the same as what my mother says about the members of the Cosmopolitan Club in New York, a club her mother belonged to and which she stepped foot in exactly once.

16. The woman on the plane points to the author’s name. It turns out that she is very distant relatives with him. I say she should tell him that, but she shakes her head, then jokes that maybe she’ll send him her ancestry.com information.

17. “You walk in there and they’re all dead,” my mother says. “Everyone’s dead. Dead, dead, dead. They’re in their armchairs and you blow on them and puff, they fall over and turn to dust.”

18. There is, nevertheless, something appealing about “I remember.” Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of [sg_popup id=”16″ event=”click”]the slow opening, the quiet opening, the matter-of-fact opening[/sg_popup]. “I remember” is not a good opening, probably, but it’s at least half-aware of [sg_popup id=”17″ event=”click”]the virtue of simplicity without being simplistic[/sg_popup].

19. I am also a fan of what I call [sg_popup id=”18″ event=”click”]the Simpsons opening[/sg_popup], which in many ways is a false opening. The episode begins with one plot and then, about six or seven minutes in, it swerves to what feels like an entirely different concern, the plot that will consume the rest of the episode. It’s a meta-opening in some ways, an interruption that involves a wink to the reader, a hand offered then slipped away. It establishes its playfulness by signaling its control.

20. Simplicity without being simplistic is the basic lesson I imagine taught in Art History 101, Drawing 100, etc. etc.: when you look at a portrait of someone, think of the landscape or scene in the background of the portrait, of why you might overlook it and what that says.

21. Which is another way of calling attention to how one concern operates in relation to another. To the inherent tensions there. [sg_popup id=”19″ event=”click”]The self and the world in which that self lives[/sg_popup]. The contradictions within a self. How simplicity in style often reveals a complexity in thought.

22. That I’m a fan of the quiet opening does not mean that I dislike overtly flashy openings. But I do get suspicious. I question an essay’s control, as well as its sense of the unknown, if it begins with too big a bang. How will the essay maintain that flash? Where will it move from here?

23. The sensation I get is of a writer hawking their goods—really pressing them on you—and then you walk over and see they’re mostly knockoffs. Of course, there’s pleasure in a knockoff. But a reader shouldn’t enjoy the comfort and ignorance of a perusing tourist; nor should a tourist, for that matter. It can feel as if the writer is pandering to the reader, worried about the reader—that they’re trying to tap into and address our distractibility, short attention span, and penchant for clickbait by dressing something up as clickbait itself. And if we’re distracted into it, we can be distracted out of it.

24. That is, I worry when beginnings show no interest in a capacity for wonder.

25. I would rather see the writer take control of the reader and, while the flashy opening appears to promise that—here I am and look what I’m doing—some can amount to false bravura.

26. Because that’s really what I want when I read: to be taken control of, to be fooled out of what I think I know.


by Thomas Mira y Lopez


Works Referenced

Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” Beacon Press, 1955.

Baxter, Charles. “What Happens in Hell.” Ploughshares, Volume 38, Number 2&3, Fall 2012.

Beard, Jo Ann. “The Fourth State of Matter.” The New Yorker, June 24 1996.

Boully, Jenny. “A Short Essay on Being.” TriQuarterly, 2010.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “A Small Place.” Jamaica Kincaid, 1988.

Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “Upon This Rock.” GQ, January 24 2004.

Willis-Abdurraqib, Hanif. “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America.” MTV.com News, 2016.

About the Author

Thomas Mira y Lopez.jpg

Thomas Mira y Lopez is the author of The Book of Resting Places (Counterpoint Press). His work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, and The Kenyon Review Online among others. He is an editor of Territory, an online literary project about maps and other strange objects. He lives and teaches in Cleveland, Ohio.


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