Personal Essay Elements

“For more than four hundred years, the personal essay has been one of the richest and most vibrant of all literary forms.” (The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate.) The personal essay is also one of the most popular forms of creative nonfiction. A personal essay can be based on a personal experience that results in a lesson that you learn. A personal essay can also be a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is important to you. This article defines the personal essay.

Personal Essay versus a Formal Essay

The personal essay is different than a formal essay. In the personal essay, the writer writes about experience without having to prove the point. The author needs only to introduce the subject and theme. It is based on feeling, emotion, personal opinion, and personal experience. It is autobiographical. On the other hand, in the formal essay, the writer states the thesis, and then attempts to prove or support his point with facts—to provide proof. To do this, the author must do research.

Definition of the Personal Essay

A personal essay is either a personal narrative in which the author writes about a personal incident or experience that provided significant personal meaning or a lesson learned, or it is a personal opinion about some topic or issue that is important to the writer.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Narrative

A personal narrative has the following elements:

  • It is based on a personal experience in which you have gained significant meaning, insight, or learned a lesson. It can also be based on a milestone or life-altering event.
  • It is personal narrative. The writer tells the story by including dialogue, imagery, characterization, conflict, plot, and setting.
  • It is written in the first person. (“I” point-of-view)
  • It is an autobiographical story in which the writer describes an incident that resulted in some personal growth or development.
  • A personal essay is a glimpse of the writer’s life. The writer describes the personal experience using the scene-building technique, weaves a theme throughout the narrative, and makes an important point. There must be a lesson or meaning. The writer cannot just write an interesting story.
  • It does not have to be objective. However, the writer must express his/her feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
  • The writer uses self-disclosure and is honest with his/her readers.
  • The writer writes about a real life experience. The incident or experience must have occurred. The writer must use fact and truth.
  • The writer must dramatize the story by using the scene building technique. A scene includes setting/location, intimate details, concrete and specific descriptions, action, and often dialogue.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Opinion

A personal essay can also be an opinion piece, an opinion that is based on a particular political or social concern or topic of interest. In this type of personal essay, the writer can states the problem, provide solutions, and then write a conclusion—which must state an important point. Whatever the writer discusses, the topic is of interest to the writer. The writer frequently seeks to explain the truth or reality has he/she views it. Sometimes the writer ponders a question. Other times the writer explores a topic from his own perspective. The writer must not lecture, sermonize, or moralize. In other words, the writer must present his/her opinion in such a way that allows the readers decide for themselves.

In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach provides an excellent definition of the personal essay, one that is based on a personal opinion. He states that the personal essay that is based on a personal opinion has these attributes:

  • A personal essay is a conversation with your readers.
  • The personal essay is an informed mixture of storytelling, facts, wisdom, and personality.
  • The personal essay examines a subject outside of yourself, but through the lens of self.
  • The subject of the personal essay may be the self, but the self is treated as evidence for the argument.
  • Passages of narrative often appear but generally get used as evidence in the inductive argument.
  • The personal essay strives to say what is evident, and to come to a conclusion that the reader may agree or disagree.
  • A personal essay can wonder through its subject, circle around it, get the long view and the short, always providing experience, knowledge, book learning, and personal history.

It should also be noted that a personal essay doesn’t need to be objective. It can be purely subjective. You don’t have to prove a point or show both sides of the argument. But you must express your own personal feelings, thoughts, and opinions on a topic or issue in a logical manner.

Subjects for the Personal Essay

Your subject can be about anything that you are passionate about. You can write about a “turning point” in your life, or a milestone, or adversity, such as death, illness, divorce. The subject you choose must have provided you with significant personal meaning or a lesson that you have learned. But, keep in mind, you are not just reflecting or remembering, you are going to make a point, some universal truth that your readers can appreciate. Otherwise, your story is just a story. So, write about the following:

  • Personal experience
  • Incident
  • Anecdote
  • Topic
  • Issue
  • A memory

Your subject can also be a personal opinion on an issue or concern that is important to you, such as the garbage strike, crime, or unemployment.

How to Choose a Topic

Choose a topic in are interested in and passionate about, and that resulted in a lesson that you learned or personal meaning. Here is how:

  • Your writing needs to be a process of inquiry. So answer the 5-Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Brainstorm your topic. Create a list of topics. Then create subtopics.
  • Mind map your topic. For more information on mindmapping, search the Internet. This is a popular form of creative thinking.
  • Narrow your topic. Instead of writing about global warming, you can narrow your topic by writing about “going green” or “how you should recycle in your home”.
  • Think of a milestone, or something memorable, or a turning point in your life. What were your impressions? What did you learn? What meaning came from the personal experience?
  • Be sure that your topic has a universal theme—such as hard work, love, death, bravery, wisdom.
  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.

Make the Most of Life Experiences

  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.
  • Include your opinions, point of view, feelings and thoughts.
  • Be truthful and honest. In other words, state the facts and evidence.

Resources for Writing Personal Essays

There are some fantastic books available to help you learn to write a personal essay. Here are the books I recommend:

  •  Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote

The personal essay has loose structure and conversational tone. It is usually written in the first person. The writer uses self-disclosure, honesty, and truth. The writer can write about any subject, topic, or personal experience. But the personal essay must have a universal theme and conclude with a major point. Otherwise, the reader says, “So what?” It was a nice story, but so what is the point?

In the next post, I will explain how to structure/organize your personal essay and what to include.

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By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Personal Essay on .

Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”

Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay

Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.

But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”

Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.

Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.

Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.

Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.

People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.

Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.

Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:

This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.

Or:

Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.

And there are more artful ways.

Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.

For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:

Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.

Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?

Well, consider that Rodriguez has

  • introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
  • informed us that writing is central to his life,
  • clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
  • provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?

These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.

Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.

Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.

Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.

The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.

And then you’ve lost the reader.

Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.

Here is his opening:

A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.

Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.

Are these emotions true?

Yes, they are.

Are they interesting for a reader?

Often, they simply are not.

The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.

These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.

In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.

Final Thoughts
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.

This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.

Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.

And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.

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