A personal essay, like argumentative essays, follow the same standard rules of essay-writing. That is to say there is an introduction, a body, and conclusion. But unlike other forms of essays, the personal essay doesn’t try to argue a point of view through an argumentative style – -using evidence or anecdotes to back up one’s thesis. Rather, the writer tells a story, usually one from her past experience, to make a point. By understanding the standard rules of telling personal essays, you’ll be able to tell stories that are interesting, compelling, and memorable.
One of the first things a writer contemplates when writing a personal essay is determining what story she wants to tell and why she wants to tell it. There are no rules which govern what type of story a writer chooses for her personal essay. Any subject is worthy of treatment. But the most important decision before writing your essay is choosing a story you want to tell. The best thing any writer can do in determining what story she wants to tell is by exploring a personal memory or event that has been an important catalyst in shaping her life. Trying to narrow that down, of course, can be difficult, especially if a writer has many experiences of that nature. One thing a writer may do is by looking through an old photo album. This is what I did when I wrote an essay about my late grandfather.
While glancing through a photo album, I found an old photograph of my grandfather playing an organ. This photo jogged some memories of mine – -namely the day my grandfather passed away and his funeral. That became the seeds of my essay. If you’re having difficulty narrowing down a specific memory, glancing through an old photo album or talking with relatives and friends is a great way to come up with ideas. Another idea is to free write. Free writing is a form of stream-of-conscious writing that frees up preconceived notions of what you want to write about and approximates the way the mind moves from one stream of thought to the next. Free writing allows the writer to simply write what comes to her mind. It’s an effective way of jogging memories and creating the seeds of thought for essay ideas.
Once a writer has settled on an idea for an essay, the next question is what does she hope to accomplish in the reader’s mind when she tells her story. As with argumentative essays, personal essays have theses, but they are often not as explicitly stated within the introduction as you might find in an argumentative essay. Rather, the thesis in a personal essay tends to be more thematic. For instance, an essayist might want to write about the valuable and rewarding experiences she had as a summer intern. In an argumentative essay, she might use facts or other forms of evidence to back up her thesis: that internships are valuable and rewarding.
But in a personal essay, she will use her own experience as proof. In this case, a personal essay gains a sense of authority in the reader’s mind because it is coming from the writer’s own experience. So, therefore, before writing a personal essay, determine exactly what it is you wish to convey to your readers in your story. What lesson do you wish to impart through your personal experiences? In my essay about my grandfather, I wrote about the nature of families, particularly dysfunctional ones, and how the death of a family member can both bring families together and yet tear them apart. While it isn’t always necessary to know what your essay will be about before writing, it does make for an easier writing experience. As I stated before, personal essays follow the same general rules as argumentative essays. They require a thesis as well. Since the strength of any essay follows a strong and declarative thesis, knowing what your personal essay will be about will allow you as the writer to make the kinds of choices that will strengthen your essay.
The kinds of choices involved in writing a personal essay involve knowing what kinds of experiences you want to include in your story. Argumentative essays use examples, facts, evidence to back up their thesis, but a personal essay will use scenes, much like a piece of creative writing will use scenes in the telling of its story. These scenes will bolster your thesis and convince your readers that your experiences shape the authority you have on the subject. For instance, in the example of the internships above, let’s say the writer wants to convey to the reader that her experience working as an intern has had a positive affect in her life. What kinds of experiences she’s had as an intern will bolster that argument? Let’s say that the writer had a wonderful working relationship with her boss.
The writer will then want to write a particular experience which will provide an example of the type of person her boss is and the positive influence s/he has had on her. It is important that the essayist writes this experience as she would a work of fiction. That is to say, it should unfold as a scene, complete with dialogue and descriptive passages with as much detail as the writer can remember of the experience. The writer will want to walk the reader through this moment, have her see, hear, and smell everything as closely as the writer experienced it. These scenes will be the basis of the writer’s thesis. Again, rather than using facts or evidence to back up her thesis, she will use her own experiences, her memories to do that for the reader. The writer will want to use the most memorable and important moments she experienced in order to back up her thesis, just as she would with an argumentative essay. So it is important to choose the right moments, ones that will hold a cohesive line of thought throughout the essay. In other words, if the essayist is writing about the positive value of internships, then it would make little sense for her to include a scene that does not bolster that argument.
As with the argumentative essay, whose strength is determined by the evidence and facts the writer uses to back it up, the personal essay is thus strengthened by the details a writer uses in order to tell her story. These details are not unlike the ones one would find in a short story or novel. In other words, a personal essay should include such techniques as narrative passages, scenes, dialogue, and detailed descriptions. To write effective scenes, it’s important to understand what each of these narrative techniques mean and their usefulness in storytelling. To start, a narrative passage is usually any passage that is not a scene. They can include passages of time and descriptions of character or setting (the location where the scene actually takes place). When writing a personal essay, narrative passages are a way to conflate passages of time between scenes to plot your stories.
A scene is always a moment of time within a story that is expanded upon and told in greater, sometimes lengthier detail. A scene involves action or interaction between characters, usually through dialogue. There is a description of setting and characters within a scene which sets up the action between the characters. Dialogue, quite simply, is the conversation between characters. Dialogue is always set apart with quotations marks (though quotations aren’t always necessary to convey dialogue) and tagged with a phrase denoting the speaker, i.e., he said, she said, I said.
Another way to strengthen the personal essay is by employing all the senses. As I stated before, the essayist will want to place her reader right in the center of the action, have them see, feel, taste, smell, and hear everything that is happening in her scenes. Her details should have immediacy, specificity, and sensuality to them. While it’s not necessary to describe every sense, it is important to describe exactly what the writer saw, felt, or tasted so that the reader will be able to imagine the actions in her own mind. For instance, rather than “a tree,” write a “great, leafy oak.” Rather than “the birds sang,” write “the mockingbird trilled.” Rather than “the food tasted good,” write “the chicken, spiced with paprika, was delicious.” In other words, be as specific as necessary in describing scenes. Do this also with character description. What clothes does he wear? How does he speak?
Does he have an accent? Does his breath smell of nicotine? Does he have any quirks? Be specific also in describing your settings. Don’t simply say that the scene takes place in a park. Describe the park, who else is in the park, and what they are doing. By using these narrative techniques, the writer provides a depth and breadth to her personal essays that would not be otherwise found in argumentative essays. And, when used well, they also allow the reader to become invested in the story the writer tells.
It’s important to point out that the essayist will want to be as truthful and honest in the experiences she is writing about as much as possible. Making up scenes or dialogue would not be in the writer’s best interest in winning over a reading audience. James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, learned that the hard way when he was exposed earlier this year by a blogger for fabricating key elements in his memoir. While a writer cannot always remember every little detail that has occurred in her life, and is certainly given a certain amount of leeway in recreating experiences, it is also important not to fabricate wholesale scenes. It is certainly all right to paraphrase conversations, but an essayist will want to make sure that these scenes hew closely to an actual account of the facts. In order to be as truthful and honest as possible in writing personal essays, a writer will also want to keep a journal. Journals are great source material for personal essays and they are records of events or moments that are fresh remembrances, as well.
As always the case with writers, the best way to write a great personal essay is to read them. Read as many personal essays as possible (particularly James Baldwin, who was one of the best American essayists) so that you have a better idea of what a good personal essay looks like. Once the writer feels comfortable writing personal essays, she will write stories that will leave a permanent mark on her readers’ minds.