A type of creative nonfiction, the personal essay is "all over the map," according to Annie Dillard. "There's nothing you can't do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time" ("To Fashion a Text," 1998).
- How to Write a Personal Essay
- "The Decay of Essay Writing" (1905) and "The Modern Essay" (1922), by Virginia Woolf
- Essayists on the Essay
- Exploratory Essay
- Familiar Essay
- Humorous Essay
- Literary Nonfiction
- Personal Letter
- What Is an Essay?
Examples of Personal Essays:
- An Apology for Idlers, by Robert Louis Stevenson
- On Laziness, by Christopher Morley
- Coney Island at Night, by James Huneker
- New Year's Eve, by Charles Lamb
- How It Feels to Be Colored Me, by Zora Neale Hurston
- My Wood, by E.M. Forster
- Two Ways of Seeing a River, by Mark Twain
- What I Think and Feel at 25, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The personal essay is one of the most common types of writing assignment--and not only in freshman composition courses. Many employers as well as graduate and professional schools will ask you to submit a personal essay (sometimes called a personal statement) before even considering you for an interview. Being able to compose a coherent version of yourself in words is clearly an important skill.
What qualities does a personal essay reveal about you? Here are just a few:
- Communication SkillsBy reviewing the guidelines, composing strategies, and topic suggestions at our Narrative Essay assignment, you should feel more comfortable about composing yourself when the next opportunity arises.
How effective are your communication skills? Do you write clearly, concisely, and correctly? Note that many employers put communication skills at the top of the list of essential qualifications.
- Critical Thinking Skills
How fresh and imaginative are you in your thinking? Is your writing cluttered with cliches, or is it obvious that you have original ideas to contribute?
What specific lessons have you learned from experience, and are you ready to apply those lessons to the job or the academic program you're considering? Keep in mind that it's not enough to be able to recount a personal experience; you should be prepared to interpret it as well.
Self and Subject in Personal Essays
"[W]here the familiar essay is characterized by its everyday subject matter, the personal essay is defined more by the personality of its writer, which takes precedence over subject. On the other hand, the personal essayist does not place himself firmly in center stage, as does the autobiographical essayist; the autobiographical element of the personal essay is far less calculated. . . .
"The subject matter of personal essays traditionally concerns common things, tending, as [Phillip] Lopate puts it, toward 'a taste for littleness.' Human relations with family and friends is a frequent topic, as are childhood reminiscences, and the consideration of pastimes such as travel, walking, and sheer idleness. While the personal essayist often has a serious point to make, it is rare that the essay's subject will be overtly political . . ..
"The tone of the personal essay is usually light, often nostalgic without being sentimental, gently humorous, rarely didactic."
(Theresa Werner, "Personal Essay." Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)
The Essayist's Persona
- "Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If 'we must remove the mask,' it is only to substitute another mask. . . .
"[T]he personal essayist tries to make his many partial selves dance to the same beat--to unite, through force of voice and style, these discordant, fragmentary personae so that the reader can accept them as issuing from one coherent self."
(Phillip Lopate, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor Books, 1994)
- "The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter--philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast."
(E.B. White, Foreword to Essays of E.B. White. Harper and Row, 1977)
The "Antigenre": An Alternative to Academic Prose
"[T]he more personal essay offers an escape from the confines of academic prose. By using this antigenre form that in contemporary essays embodies multiple kinds of writing, many essayists in search of democracy find a freedom for expressing in their writings spontaneity, self-reflexivity, accessibility, and a rhetoric of sincerity.."
(Cristina Kirklighter, Traversing the Democratic Borders of the Essay. SUNY Press, 2002)
Teaching the Personal Essay
"Given the opportunity to speak their own authority as writers, given a turn in the conversation, students can claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence. . . .
"I want my students to know what writers know--to know something no researchers could ever find out no matter how many times they pin my students to the table, no matter how many protocols they tape. I want my students to know how to bring their life and their writing together."
(Nancy Sommers, "Between the Drafts." College Composition and Communication, Feb. 1992)
"Despite the anthologists' custom of presenting essays as 'models of organization,' it is the loose structure or apparent shapelessness of the essay that is often stressed in standard definitions. . . . Samuel Johnson famously defined the essay as 'an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance.' And certainly a number of essayists (Hazlitt and Emerson, for instance, after the fashion of Montaigne) are readily identifiable by the wayward or fragmentary nature of their explorations. Yet each of these writers observes certain distinctive organizing (or disorganizing) principles of his own, thus charting the ramble and shaping the form. As Jeanette Harris observes in Expressive Discourse, 'Even in the case of a personal essay, which may appear informal and loosely structured, the writer has crafted with care this very appearance of informality' (122).
"Perhaps distracted by the artificial 'modes of exposition' promoted by textbook authors, critics have generally paid insufficient attention to the principles of design actually employed by successful essayists. For the most part, such principles are not formal patterns of organization but rather patterns of thought: the dramatic progressions of a mind engaged in the search for form."
(Richard F. Nordquist, "Voices of the Modern Essay." Diss. Univ. of Georgia, 1991)
"I Am a Personal Essay"
"I am a Personal Essay and I was born with a port wine stain and beaten by my mother. A brief affair with a second cousin produced my first and only developmentally disabled child. Years of painful infertility would lead me straight into menopause and the hysterectomy I almost didn’t survive. . . .
"If you haven’t looked death straight in the eye or been sued by a sister wife, you won’t see yourself in my story. But you will find solace in knowing your own problems are petty and banal. I have ascended victorious from the ashes of immeasurable self-doubt and pain. And I have not simply survived, I have flourished."
(Christy Vannoy, "A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay." Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, March 10, 2010)