A personal essay reveals something about you or your understanding of (or
questions about) life in a significant moment. You may want to share an emotion
or insight with the reader, or you may want to provoke the reader to think more
carefully about an issue which does not have any easy answers. You need to
refer to your own personal experience(s) but should move beyond your own frame
of reference to consider how your experience might relate to your audience.
Avoid preaching at the reader but let your actions, the narrative, or your
questions push the reader to some sort of insight. Personal essays rarely have
a thesis statement although many have a sentence somewhere in the essay that
clarifies what you learned, or the question that you ask, or some tentative
conclusions you offer.
Criteria to Consider
personal essay generally contains some or all of the following elements: a
personal experience; self revelation; a specific anecdote or story presented
through narration (conflict, point of view, plot, suspense, resolution,
characterization, dialogue); vivid description; context or background
information; an indirect "thesis" or central purpose/focus.
a form of narration, the personal essay requires a degree of fictionalizing the
experience in order to convey meaning rather than recount events. We all
enjoy the storyteller who creates an experience for us rather than the person
who rambles indiscriminately over every last detail. To narrate is to lend
structure to lived or imagined experience; a narrator, therefore, imposes order
and meaning according to subjective point of view, motive, and context, etc. Be
selective about the details to include and contemplate the best point at which
to begin your essay to engage audience interest. Consider presenting background
information through flashback. Whenever possible show rather than
what is significant.
Topics to Consider (with my personal ideas in
- An event that caused you to
rethink a major belief or attitude (My adolescent concern for whether my
non-Christian friends will go to hell).
- Any "first," such
as when you first realized that you had a special skill, ambition, or
problem; when you first felt needed or rejected (Older friend patiently
taught me to water ski).
- Any memorably difficult
situation: when you had to make a tough choice, when someone you admired
let you down (or you let someone else down), when you struggled to learn
or understand something, when things did not turn out as expected (for
good or bad). (Talk with professor at University of Chicago after not
- Any humorous event, one you
still laugh about, perhaps one that seemed awkward or embarrassing at the
time ("Buying" a T.V. on our honeymoon).
- Your experience with a social
convention which everyone accepts but never discusses or questions (Going
to the prom).
- Your personal relationship to
a natural, historical, or technological event (Sixth-grade mock election
between Nixon and McGovern).
you begin writing, READ. Read through the essays in The Norton Sampler,
Exposition 18, and other personal essays handed out in class. The personal
essay genre has inspired many marvelous essayists (Scott Russell Sanders, Annie
Dillard, etc.). Then, REFLECT. Consider for yourself what it means for you to
write. Explore your significant experiences or questions through conversations
and journaling. Brainstorm. Free write. Try out several ideas before choosing
one. If you need further help, work through any of the activities below that
- Assess your Topic:
- Can you recall
specific details about the action, scene, and people?
- Will you be able to
tell what happened from beginning to end?
- As a fragment of your
life story, does this event reveal anything important about you?
- Will you feel
comfortable writing about it?
- Will the topic arouse
readers' curiosity and interest?
- Begin to recall sensory
details: the specific sights, sounds, and smells of the story you
want to tell. Imagine the event as a videotape and use the invention
techniques of listing and free-writing to recall as many details as
- Next, list the people
that were involved, their appearance, actions and words. Spend about five
minutes writing about each person involved.
- Try to recreate conversations.
These obviously will not be word-for-word recollections, but try to make
the dialogue as authentic as possible, reflecting the personality of the
- Try to remember your feelings
during the event and immediately thereafter. Spend about ten minutes
jotting down notes about your response, using these questions to
stimulate your memory: What was my first response to the event? What did
I think, feel, do? How did I show my feelings? What did I want those
present to think of me, and why? What did I think of myself at the time?
- To help define the
event's significance, think about your present perspective on the
event. Write for ten minutes on your current feelings and thoughts.
- Outline events in
chronological order. Indicate which events are most important.
- Consider your readers,
the beginning, climax, and ending of your essay
before you begin writing. The opening should immediately capture your
readers' interest. The story can be told chronologically or in flashback
form and should build up tension to the climax of the event. The ending
can continue the story, be reflective, refer to the beginning, or jolt
From Goshen College http://www.goshen.edu/english/Academics/Expos204/assignments/persass.html
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