Perfecting the Personal Essay

Wednesday, April 28, 2010
I recently taught a personal essay writing class for the local community college. The introductory exercise was simple: tell a two- to three-minute story about yourself and make sure your spiel has a defined beginning, middle and end.

Easy, right?

For class members, speaking about themselves was easy. They intertwined humor and insight into the quick look at one moment in their lives. But when I asked them to write the same story on a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 ruled notebook paper, something was lost in translation. The tidbits of humor disappeared. The glaring insight suddenly lost its significance.

What changed? Somewhere between the oral tradition and the written word, these students forgot to add essential elements that formulate the basis of strong storytelling. Personal essay enthusiasts will agree that stories that engage readers contain a twist of the common elements. The stories that stand out mold an individual experience and create empathy.

Personal essays rely on strong word choices, imagery, setting, and tension that make a point. To build audience intimacy, try these strategies:
  • Build conflict. Consider movies, TV shows and books that capture your attention. What recurring element piques your interest? Conflict and tension. Even a personal essay will fail if tense undertones don't keep rumbling through the piece. Who wants to read a piece about perfect love? I want to hear about the tearful breakup from your high school sweetheart and how that moment changed your impression of Cupid's arrow.
  • Establish time. Since most personal essays must conform to a word limit, grabbing the reader's attention is mandatory. Link your theme to a current event or pop culture phenomenon. You'll be amazed at the interesting comparisons you'll be able to develop.
  • Kick up the intensity. Avoid voicing the safe opinion. It's overdone. Instead, look at other angles about your topic. Bend the rules. Your story will be stronger.
  • Obsess much? Choose a topic you find interesting. Select a subject you have experience with. If you haven't lived it, how can you write about it?
  • Slam dunk the ending. Don't settle for a rehash of events. Challenge your memory and grill your brain about the realities of the situation. Question your motives. Then, you'll hold the reader in the palm of your hand, offering them a piece of your world and the lessons you discovered.

A personal essay is just that: it's personal. It's a probe of the human psyche that examines questions and situations that we all want answered.

The personal essayist is brave enough to report her findings.

by LuAnn Schindler. Visit LuAnn's website for her weekly column of personal essays about her home state - Nebraska.


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