The 4 Types of Personal Essays Narratively is Looking For Right Now

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Narratively publishes a wide range of short memoir/personal essays, and we’ve recently divided them up into four categories. I’m sharing those four categories in the hope of giving writers a clearer idea of what we’re looking for, and maybe sparking some new ideas.

SECRET LIVES

These stories focus on obscure or unusual jobs or pursuits, taking readers behind the scenes of these experiences, showing them what it’s like to live another life. Most importantly, they tell a story and show the shared humanity in even the oddest of jobs. Secret Lives stories are:

-Fresh and surprising: The experience at the heart of the story is not something you hear about every day, it piques the reader’s curiosity from the start because it’s unusual, maybe even a little strange.

-Narrative: Like all Narratively pieces, “Secret Lives” stories are narrative-driven, not topic-based. This means they go beyond “this is what it’s like to have this job” and take the reader through a *story* about the job or experience at hand. There needs to be a narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end — the writer or subject needs to be transformed in some meaningful way over the course of the story, and that transformation needs to be communicated through active, engaging, vivid scenes.

-Human: Every good story has emotional stakes; something universal that’s being unraveled and examined throughout the narrative. The most successful “Secret Lives” stories draw the reader in thinking that they have nothing in common with the writer or subject, and by the end leave them feeling connected to their experience in a way they never imagined possible.

Here are a few of our favorite examples:

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

Why I Dodge Speeding Cars to Rescue Rattlesnakes

Confessions of a Failed Self-Help Guru

THE DEFINING MOMENT

These stories are similar to Secret Lives pieces, but they zero in on one key moment that defines how the writer thinks about their job or their unique situation. Think of these as having all of the elements of the Secret Lives stories listed above, but distilled into the one moment that you would use to describe your experience. These are usually moments of change, or dramatic incidents that cause the writer to reevaluate their relationship to the job or role they’re writing about.

Here are a few of our favorite examples:

I Was a Cop for 31 Years. This Is the One Night That Still Haunts Me.

Every EMT Has One Day That Changed Their Life. This Was Mine.

How a Trip to Disneyland Changed My Trans Family Forever

IDENTITY

These are stories about events in your life that shift your perception of what it means to be you. They’re about how your identity (or identities) (such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc.) informs the way you move through the world, and intersects with your everyday experiences. They’re stories about “what it’s like to be you,” but illustrated through gripping narrative and active scenes (that part is important! We don’t publish meditations/topical essays — there has to be a narrative).

Since there’s a lot to be said — and a lot that’s already been said — about many of the topics that would fit under the Identity umbrella, we’re especially diligent here about making sure there’s a fresh, surprising angle that we haven’t heard before. It can be helpful to think of not just the identity that you’re writing about, but what that identity is in conflict with in your story — whether that’s another element of your identity (ie your sexuality vs. your religion), or an external expectation (ie your gender identity vs. wedding traditions).

Planning My Wedding as a Non-Binary Bride

How I Used My Hijab to Hide — and Why I Don’t Anymore

My Life as a Public Health Crisis

Can a Black Feminist be Sexually Submissive to a White Man?

FAMILY MYSTERIES

These stories a cross between memoir and investigative journalism, stories where writers set out to uncover and untangle a family secret. The most important elements of a successful Family Mysteries story are:

-Stakes: We need to understand from the start why the writer is searching, and what they hope to find. Idle curiosity about where you come from isn’t enough here — there needs to be a specific question you’re trying to answer about your family, and yourself.

-Pay-off: You need to actually uncover something, and show us how that discovery changes your understanding of your family and how you fit into it.

Going to Vietnam to Face My Father’s Ghost

Searching for the Woman Who Saved My Immigrant Family from Homelessness

Searching for the Nazi Who Saved My Mother’s Life

Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between these categories. You might have a Secret Lives story that’s very much about Identity, or a Family Mystery that hinges on a Defining Moment. If you’re not sure which category fits best don’t sweat that too much — if it fits in at least one, there’s a good chance we’ll be excited about it!

Before submitting, please read several of the examples linked above to get a clear sense of our style and approach. Once you’ve done that, if you feel your story would be a good fit for us, head over to our Submittable page.

For more information about how to pitch and the specifications of what we look for in an essay, check out my post How to Pitch Personal Essays (to me, and Narratively Memoir)

Want to see more stories I love, and hear about it when I’m looking for something specific? Follow me on Twitter: @lillydancyger

And sign up for Memoir Monday, Narratively’s memoir newsletter, co-curated by Catapult, Tin House, the Rumpus, Longreads, Granta, and Guernica.