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Personal Essays

A few features of the personal essay distinguish it from other kinds of essays:  First, the writer is concerned with telling the truth as it appears to him or her a particular moment, and not with accuracy and objectivity.  Second, the personal essay is usually designed to be read with pleasure and to stimulate thought rather than to convince, persuade, or inform.  Finally, a personal essay offers insight into some human experience; as Wendell Harris says,

It moves from the personally experienced, perhaps trivial occurrence to the larger insight, in the proces creating the sense of widening horizons that belong to the inductive movement of the mind. The specific occasion, issue or problem becomes inessential.

A personal essay may be concerned with "I," but it can be interesting to a reader because of the movement in the essay from personal experience to human truth.

To write a personal essay is not as difficult as it may seem:  It involves telling a story, non-fiction though it may be. Most people have lots of practice at this in their daily lives. And it involves finding what is meaningful to you in that story, at least for this moment in time. And showing your reader how your experience says something the reader can relate to.

Objectives:

  • In this module, students will  learn to write a personal essay that . . .
  • has a clear purpose
  • is developed with good narrative and descriptive technique
  • has a clear voice appropriate to the content of the essay
  • has a strong conclusion

 

Voice in a Personal Essay

Perhaps voice matters more in a personal essay than in any other kind of essay since the goal is to share a personal experience and a personal truth. Part of telling the truth is telling how you feel about that truth: do you find an experience amusing? painful? heartwarming? serious? And who do you want to tell the truth to? Your friends? Your instructor?  The way you tell your story will be different depending on your audience.  Tone of voice comes across in writing through word choice, punctuation and sentence structure.  Here is a list of some common words used to describe various tones of voice:

Tone of voice:

  • formal
  • serious
  • reasonable
  • grave
  • impassioned
  • fervent
  • controlled
  • sinister
  • sedate
  • sober
  • satirical
  • sarcastic
  • humorous
  • goofy
  • cocky
  • giddy
  • coy
  • mild
  • pleasant
  • reserved
  • meditative
  • brooding
  • pensive
  • ruminative
  • imploring
  • pleading
  • enfuriated
  • outraged
  • aggravated
  • aggressive

 

Take a look at the following passages and see if you can identify the tone of voice the writer uses.  Then, compare your answer with our and view our commentary about the techniques the writers are using to achieve a particular tone:

from "What's Cooking," by Bill Bryson

In fancy restaurants [ordering] is even worse because the server has to take you through the evening's specials, which are described with a sumptuousness and panache that are seldom less than breathtaking and always incomprehensible. My wife and I went to a fancy restaurant in Vermont for our anniversary the other week and I swear I didn't understand a single thing the waiter described to us.

"Tonight," he began with enthusiasm, "we have a crepe galette of sea chortle and kelp in a rich mal de mer sauce, seasoned with disheveled herbs grown in our own herbarium. This is baked in an inverted Prussian helmet for seventeen minutes and four seconds precisely, then layered with steamed wattle and woozle leaves. Very delicious; very audacious. We are also offering this evening a double rack of Rio Racho cutlets, tenderized at your table by our own flamenco dancers, then baked in a clay dong for twentyseven minutes under a lattice of guava peel and sun-ripened stucco. For vegetarians this evening we have a medley of forest floor sweetmeats gathered from our very own woodland dell .... "

Describe the tone of the passage in the text box below:

See our commentary

 

from "Learning by Story," by Neil Postman

For those who have not read Cultural Literacy, I should say that much of the book's popularity is attributable to its appendix, which consists of a list of 5,000 names, dates, aphorisms, and concepts that Hirsch and some of his colleagues believe a literatre person ought to know. Americans love lists, especially lists compiled by experts; Americans also love tests, and Hirsch's list is easily transformed into a kind of cultural-literacy test that can be administered anywhere, including the living room and the classroom. Aside from the fact that Hirsch is a lucid and sometimes elegant writer, very little else in the book can account for its success either with teachers or with the common reader. To paraphrase an old saw, what is true in Hirsch's book is not startling, and what is startling is not true."

Describe the tone of the passage in the text box below:

See our commentary

 

from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, January 7, 1857.

... in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day.

Describe the tone of the passage in the text box below:

See our commentary

You may also want to explore the module on creating emphasis in your writing to read how writers make use of punctuation to create tone.

 

Finding Something to Write About

This type of essay begins with an experience; it may be some remembrance of childhood or something that happened yesterday, and then gradually, almost insensibly, draws out of this experience some general idea that is then expanded, touched gently, as it were, with the philosophic finger and then laid down.    —J. B. Priestley

The personal essay can be about anything at all—whatever catches your fancy. You may be inspired by the behavior of contestants on the TV show American Idol to write about singing contests—who enters them, what the performers are like, why people like to watch them.  Or you may see two people in a coffee house having an argument and be inspired to write about the difficulty of relationships.  You may choose to write about a remembered person or experience, and try and figure out what is important about the person or experience that a reader could connect with.  Finding the topic is part of the fun of writing a personal essay, since one is writing about one's own experiences, thoughts, and insights.

 

Finding a Purpose

Finding your purpose can be a bit more difficult than finding a topic.  You may feel fully confident in talking about what happened and how something happened, but nervous about figuring out how to order that experience in a meaningful, purposeful way.  With a personal essay, as opposed to an analytical essay, actually writing a draft, without having a sense of what your experience means, may be useful.  For example, look at this draft of a student's reflection on driving alone at high speed late at night.  By the end, the experience seems to point to a particular meaning:

Thundering down a Northern Michigan highway at night I am separated from the rest of the world. The windows of the car are all rolled down and the wind makes a deep rumbling as the car rises and falls with the dips in the pavement. The white center lines come out of the darkness ahead into the beams of the headlights only to disappear again under the front edge of the hood. The lights also pick up trees, fenceposts, and an occasional deer or raccoon standing by the roadside, but like the white lines they come into view only for a few seconds and then are lost in the blackness behind me. The only signs I have that any world exists outside the range of the headlights are the continuous chirping and buzzing of the crickets and the smells from farms and sulphur pits I pass. But the rushing wind soon clears out these odors, leaving me by myself again to listen to the quickly passing crickets I will never see. The faint green lights and the red bar on the dashboard tell me I'm plunging ahead at 90 mph; I put more pressure on the pedal under my foot; the bar moves up to 100 . . . 110. The lines flash by faster and the roar of the wind drowns out the noise of the crickets and the night. I am flying through. I can feel the vibrations of the road through the steering wheel. I turn the wheel slightly for the gradual curve ahead and then back again for the long straightaway. I press the pedal to the floor and at the same time reach down to touch the buttons on my left that will roll up the windows for more speed; the bar reads 115 . . . 120, buried.  With the windows rolled up, the only sound is the high-pitched moan frm the engine as it labors to keep the rest of the machine hurtling blindly ahead like a runaway express train. Only I have the power to control it. I flick on the brights to advance my scope of vision and the white lines spring out of the black further up ahead, yet because of the speed, they're out of sight even faster than before. I am detached from the rest of the world as it blurs past. I am alone.  —Henry Hall James

This experience is certainly something a reader can connect with; in part because of the rich detail, but also because James captures some essential quality of what this moment feels like: the driver is flying through space, detached from the world, and alone.  The feeling is one of exhilaration.  And we have all had moments like this, though maybe not in driving a car at high speed. The desire to express this feeling is behind the phrase "What a rush!" 

Now look at the conclusions of several personal essays or reminiscences to see how various writers capture the "sermon" in an experience:

We carry places with us.  I carry the block I lived on when I was five, and the beach I woke up on after senior prom, and the hospital floor I stayed on when my son was born, and so many other places.  Our lives are geographies. And when we die, a world dies, too.  (Anonymous)

. . . . . . . . . .

Of course. It was all becoming clear now. There was real food to be had here if you just knew the lingo. "Well, I'll have that," I said. "And I'll have it with, shall we say, a depravite of potatoes, hand cut and fried till golden in a medley of vegetable oils from the Imperial Valley, accompanied by a quantite de biere, flash-chilled in your own coolers and conveyed to my table in a cylinder of glass."

The man nodded, impressed that I had cracked the code. "Very good, sir," he said. He clicked his heels and withdrew.

"And no feuillete," I called after him. I may not know much about food, but I am certain of this: If there is one thing you don't want with steak it's feuillete.   (from "What's Cooking?" by Bill Bryson)

. . . . . . . . . .

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.  (Joan Dideon)

. . . . . . . . . .

I don't think the government ended the '60s; it was ourselves! Because of fear, that subtle thing happens where you find yourself swept out of yourself, or you lose your ego, or your dreams are lost. (Ken Kesey)

 

Bryson, Bill. "What's Cooking?" etc. Concord: Summer, 2001.

Developing the Essay

Tell the truth! 

This is the key to the personal essay. . . not the objective, verifiable truth, but the truth as you understand it about something that happened to you, or a person you care about, or the culture around you as you see it.  And this truth need not be a permanent truth that once stated becomes eternal, but rather the truth of the moment, some brave, even brazen statement about the way things are. 

To stay close to the truth when you write, let yourself be guided by the following principles:

1.  If you don't yet know what you believe about something, admit it.  Don't just keep writing nonsense.  One of the following passages is typical of a student who does not yet know his own mind.  The other is written by a student who is in touch with a heartfelt idea. Decide which one you think is more honest (and thus, more compelling):

I'd like to be a car. You get to go all over and get to go through mud puddles without getting yelled at . . . That's what I'd like to be.

The automobile is a mechanism fascinating to everyone in all its divserse manifestations and in every conceivable kind of situation or circumstance.   (both examples from Telling Writing by Ken Macrorie)

Henry Hall James' description of "thundering down a Northern Michigan highway" late at night is also a good example of truthtelling.  James captures what it feels like to be in the moment. This truth shines through the writing.

 

Find a "Once":

A personal essay that is developed with a series of general observations about life is usually a boring essay. The detail is where the real interest lies.  In the personal essay, show the reader what something was like; don't tell.  Consider the following paragraphs; one that finds a once, and one that does not:

Everyone wants to feel useful to someone, anyone. They want to feel they are doing something to help, even in a minor way. If you don't feel useful you become depressed. You feel without. No friends, nothing to look forward to. There seems a loss of ambition and concentration. The world seems agains you, and you find unimportant matters to brood over.

. . . . . . . . . .

Everyone around here is having an awful time getting along with me. I'm being positively intolerable. Mom is trying really hard not to say anything in the wrong tone of voice, so that I feel kind of—what's what old-fashioned word? Ashamed of myself—One day I'm in a great mood, and you could yell at me all you wanted without making me mad or hurt. The next day  (or the next hour for that matter) you could say "Good morning," then yawn, and I'd burst into tears. I suppose that is not awfully abnormal (at least that's what Mom says—in her psychological tone—"It's just a phase. You'll grow out of it.") By the way, that makes me mad, too. I don't like to have my life summed up ina series of phrases. It seems like she's saying "You can't help acting like an idiot. It comes natural at this age. Bu tdon't worry, you'll outgrow it. It'll pass."

The second paragraph is much more effective because it shows the reader what the writer means by "I'm being positively intolerable." The author provides a series of moments that illustrate this idea.  In the first paragraph, the author makes several pronouncements about what "everyone feels" but does not back them up.  It is as if the reader is only seeing the tip of an iceburg in every sentence: what led the author to the conclusion in the sentence remains in the author's head—all of the powerful moments are missing from the text.

 

Organization:

In a personal essay based on narration and description, it can be difficult to create unified and coherent paragraphs.  Below are answers to some of the most vexing problems developing writers face in writing the personal essay:

How do I create controlling ideas for paragraphs in a narrative essay?

Writing narrative presents a structural danger—the "and then, and then, and then" trap, with no controlling idea to show the signficance of what happens in a larger context.  Consider the following example of a poorly unified narrative paragraph to better understand this problem:

I got home from work at 6 o'clock. My wife had prepared dinner which we ate immediately. After I had cleaned up the kitchen, we watched TV for about an hour. Then we got ready to go out with some friends. Our friends arrived at about 9 o'clock and we chatted for a while. Then, we decided to visit a jazz club and listen to some music. We really enjoyed ourselves and stayed late. We finally left at one o'clock in the morning.

The above paragraph is simply a series of events with no controlling sentence to tell the reader what to do with the information.

Now consider the same paragraph with a controlling idea added in telling the reader what to make of the information:

The evening started out as my evenings usually do, but ended with some real fun. I got home from work at 6 o'clock. My wife had prepared dinner which we ate immediately. After I had cleaned up the kitchen, we watched TV for about an hour. Then we got ready to go out with some friends. Our friends arrived at about 9 o'clock and we chatted for a while. Then, we decided to visit a jazz club and listen to some music. We really enjoyed ourselves and stayed late. We finally left at one o'clock in the morning

The key to good narration is in having paragraphs as "scenes" rather than a stream of events.  Indeed, it helps to think like a filmaker when constructing your narrative:  Think how a filmmaker might instruct the camera person to shoot the story.  Would the story include close-ups, wide-angle shots?  How might the director splice scenes together?

 

How much detail should go into a description of a place?

Only include detail that contributes something to your overall purpose.  Easy to say . . . but you must be on guard here because your hippocampus (the part of your brain that causes information to go to long term memory) will call up all kinds of useless details about a place. To illustrate how to handle this situation, let's assume that your goal in a narrative essay is to illuminate the idea below:

We carry places with us.  I carry with me the block I lived on when I was five, the beach I woke up on after senior prom, and the hospital floor I stayed on when my son was born, and many other places.  Our lives are geographies. And when we die, a world dies, too. 

A body paragraph about the block one lived on at five years old would be important to include in this essay.  But what about the experience of living on that block should be sifted out of the sand? To answer that question, look to your purpose.  Here, the goal is to show that certain places stay with us.  But why?  Because important things happened there.  Each example explored in the essay should be a story of an important experience that happened in a particular place, an experience shaped by that place, perhaps.  The paragraph about the neighborhood block could be about a child's first experience of exhiliaration riding a Big-Wheel down the street, or of the mystery of night-time discovered while playing hide-and-seek after dark.  Details about the neighbor's garden gnomes, or an apple tree in bloom, interesting though they may be, might need to be dropped from the paragraph if they do not support the overall point of that paragraph.

 

Macrorie, Ken. Telling writing. Pourtsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers. 1985.

 

 

Video Lesson

Part 1: What is the personal essay?

Part 2: Tips for writing a personal essay

personal essay video lesson

Objectives

1. Voice in a personal essay

2. Finding something to write about

3. Finding a purpose

4. Developing the essay

 

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