How to Write an Impersonal Essay

Happy Summer Solstice!

This is a lovely time to learn how to write an impersonal essay,  a form where you can swiftly set down your observations.  In an impersonal essay, a writer spends as many or as few words as he/she  likes, describing a summer day, emphasizing the day itself, for example.

The writer removes him/herself and discusses an idea, a person, a civilization, a situation, a thing, an idea, a concept. The writer doesn’t step up front and talk about her/himself or give long opinions. The writer mainly stays in the background and serves up food for thought.

You get the idea. Like all other writing, it helps all the other aspects of your writing. That is, (i.e. in journalese) your poetry will be stronger and more alert, your novel’s dialogue will be more natural-sounding.
There are a few ways to learn to write impersonally. To begin, read a good example of an impersonal essay. Notice how the writer shapes sentences to get the maximum ‘punch’ across.
For example, when I wanted to learn how to write romance novels, I read everything on earth about learning that skill.  One little book I read (on the Net) perfectly conveys the idea of ‘an impersonal essay.’
After reading the book, I read about the author: she was a senior editor of a publishing house in New York, well-traveled…etc. The important thing about her writing was that she never breathed a word of her importance in the how-to book; she stayed on topic — how to write romance novels. She wrote completely for her readers.
She didn’t chat about her household cares or her office staff, babbling about how they influenced her writing; she didn’t moan about missing her son’s graduation ceremony because she was in Fiji writing a travel sketch. She crafted her 5,000 words so carefully that every syllable related to the art of romance novel-writing (her topic).
All those personal notes — the son’s graduation, Fiji, office staff, etc., are vaguely legitimate but they’re sloppy and unprofessional. I say: stick to your topic.  If you have a 1,000 word count to fill, fill it professionally. Even if you’re writing to yourself, stick to what your topic is.

By the way, Jane Austen wrote good solid English prose,  even when she wrote in her journal/diary, or for her household.
Let us begin, then, with writing a short impersonal essay.
Choosing a topic.  Look around you, and choose something that lifts your mind out of itself (so to speak).  I believe that writing can draw what’s best out of a person.  Show yourself, now, some of the intelligence that’s waiting for you.   (You could write 250 words about the topping on a pizza, but I don’t think that would be very satisfying, in the long run.)
Try this method. You can’t help integrating other writing skills, refining what you know and making you eager to learn more.
OK.  Choose a topic. Looking at my desk, I chose the malla (Tibetan prayer beads) I bought in Boudhanath, Nepal a few years ago.  I put my hands behind my head and relaxed into the memories of buying them, then put my hands on the keyboard and let my memories start to express themselves.

The “I” — the writer — appears briefly, introducing the framework, but the scene itself — Tibetans in Nepal — hold the stage. Here is an example of a brief impersonal essay.

*  *    *

The Night I Bought My Malla in Boudha

© M. Davis

320 words

Riding from northern China to the south in a crowded sleeper was slightly disorienting.  The rail journey began in Taishan and ended in Guangzhou; then I caught a plane to Kathmandu. After three days and nights in the train my prayer beads broke and scattered and were lost.  Owning a malla — from Kathmandu — and taking it on my travels is important to me.  One of the first things on my mind, then, was to buy a new one, the second my feet touched Nepal.

I knew just where to go.  Early spring in Boudhanath, a couple of weeks before Losar — the Tibetan New Year —  is the time when hundreds of Tibetans walk together around the  famous Buddhist monument, proclaiming their solidarity and respect.  More than the usual number of Tibetan traders, too,  are always there, on the scene.

At dawn and dusk the sidewalks are five people deep with Tibetan refugees, pilgrims and residents.  Most folks join the throngs of devotees walking clock-wise, but others engage in commerce — and that’s where I bought these beads.

A half dozen Tibetan merchants were sitting with their merchandise beside and behind them. There were ten huge duffel bags filled with mallas —  ‘thung-a’ in Tibetan. The vendors were also surrounded by 3’ high clear plastic bags that held crisp Tibetan kaapse, a kind of sweet braided flatbread. They sat between the stalls and shops that surround the circular monument and the monument itself.  Both photos are good views of Boudha.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tegiscollection/4259161935/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/rehvonwald/822457570/.
That evening, the men had shoulder-length hair, some braided with bits of red cloth;  some wore coral and turquoise earrings, bracelets and necklaces; otherwise, their clothes were of casual Western design, and made of coarsely-woven fabrics.  Most women wore Tibetan national dress (chubas, silk blouses and hair tied neatly in buns at their necks). They also wore earrings, though more delicate ones, of gold and pearls and rubies, and pearl necklaces. Each person wore a malla (religious beads) and most of the mallas had charms dangling from them.  Some people also wore tiny bags around their throats. When a woman left, I noticed that she was poised and well-organized, with a shoulder-bag fitted under her arm, her chuba sweeping the ground and her malla in her left hand.

*   *    *

The topic sentences break the ground, and then the writer steps back.   Hereafter the setting, atmosphere and people  take charge. The writer describes things lovingly and clearly, in detail. The paragraphs are linked, last sentence to first. This sample essay ends rather abruptly; we’ll use the full essay for other purposes.

Try your hand at this form of writing. Another good method for describing things/events from a detached point of view: write your dreams every morning before you get up.  It sounds like you’d be quite wrapped up in your subconscious’s stories and visuals, but it’s really not like that.  This exercise teaches you how to record exactly what’s in your mind.

Keep a pad and pen by your bed. (Jung said he brought his pad of dreams to breakfast with his colleagues each morning.) I also keep a flashlight with the pen and paper, in case inspiration comes along at 2 am…

Happy Trails to You! Write me in China; see you in Nepal.

Mary Ann

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