I began my first feature journalism class in 1993 by asking my students to write a “humiliation essay,” three pages revealing their most humiliating secret. I was so immediately blown away by all of the brave, beautiful, intimate essays they handed in—and, later, by how many of those wound up selling for publication—that it soon became my signature assignment. It’s tough to argue with results: Over the last 20 years, this assignment has led to more than 1,000 wise, well-crafted first bylines for my students.
So when I penned a New York Times column a few months ago confiding my specific “rules” for enhancing these very personal pieces, I thought I was sharing helpful secrets for breaking in to a tough biz. I was surprised when my own three-page essay touched off a firestorm. More than 300 readers left negative comments about how much they hated confessional writing and even the memoir genre as a whole—calling it self-indulgent, a cheap and overused literary form, self-exploitative.
—by Susan Shapiro
The thing is, despite what you may sometimes hear, readers across the board still want and in fact love to read personal writing—bestseller lists show millions of memoirs sold every year. Aspiring writers who desperately want to be published understand what laymen breezing through the national paper of record don’t: The chance to get paid for a big byline has been dwindling—along with newspaper and magazine pages—for a decade. And my experience has shown that when it comes down to it, the humiliation essay is one of the best ways to beat the odds and break in.
In my class, the rules are: 1) Chronicle your worst obsession. 2) Lead the least secretive life you can. 3) Embrace the uncomfortable fact that the first piece you write that your family hates is likely a sign that you’ve found your voice.
Here’s why the apparently incendiary humiliation essay is a great way to jump-start any writing career.
1. IT CAN BE THE FASTEST WAY TO THE TOP.
When was the last time you saw someone who hasn’t been published before get a byline for a feature-length news story, theater review or profile prominently displayed in a major newspaper or magazine? Probably never. Yet my students of all ages have debuted provocative personal essays in The New York Times, Newsweek, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, Slate, Salon, Self, Elle and Marie Claire. People want to read them and top editors want to print them, often on a daily basis. Sixteen spots that fall under The New York Times umbrella alone publish personal essays from freelancers, including the new online Townies and Anxiety columns.