Assignment 1: Personal Essay

1,300 - 1,800 words.
First draft due in class on Tuesday, September 11. (Bring five copies.) Peer Reviews due by Saturday, September 15 at 6:00 p.m.

OK, for the first workshopped piece of writing, I'd like you to write a personal essay: something in the neighborhood of five to seven pages ought to do, although how long it is should depend on its internal coherence, and not on some arbitrary page-length.

You have now read a number of personal essays, old and new, and seen a number of different approaches to them. There are no particular rules about how to write one, but you may want to keep a couple of broad guidelines in mind as you start:

1. Usually, a personal essay is driven less by a point or a moral than by our interest in some centrally important human event. Jana Richman says that "Why I Ride" began as "an earnest attempt to answer the question. . . why I ride a motorcycle." At the center of a good personal essay is a simple question with a complex answer, and it's usually centers around some important activity, a moment. That is a long way of saying that you don't have to have a "thesis" in this piece -- in fact, a thesis may limit the possibilities of the writing. But you do have to have a center, some experience or core value the essay sets out to explore.

2. It is often useful to start by thinking about something that changed you -- some event, some relationship, some set of circumstances that shifted you in some important way. You, like everybody else, have gone through watershed experiences: before you had them, you were one kind of person; after, you were somebody else. Try focusing on just one such experience, and set about showing it to us. (And, by the way, it doesn't matter if it was a big or small thing, a Major Trauma or a Minor Incident: if it was important to you, it was important. What we are interested in is you.)

3. Don't try to write about everything that ever happened to you. It's better to go deep than broad, and six pages isn't that long. Focus on things we can see, hear, taste and feel.

4. Remember, what's interesting is the details, the what and the how and when and the with whom. Don't feel, at least at first, that you have to tell us What it All Means. Focus instead on getting us to feel the experience, to understand it, to explore it.

Now, consider these takes on the personal essay, from two people you have just read.

Here's Jana Richman:

"In addition to creative nonfiction, I write some fiction and playwriting, but my background is journalism. A creative writing instructor once told me that the journalism training had probably 'ruined' me for any kind of 'real' writing and I should just stick to journalism. Fortunately, I chose not to believe him. Journalism taught me to care about the details, taught me to ask the right questions, and taught me to recognize and question my own biases."

And here's Meredith Hall:

"The final truths are never evident before I start writing. As I took these old stories -- my life, others' lives -- and began to write "Shunned," my material was simply a series of images embedded in my memory. In the writing, I discovered the girl I once was, scared and alone. I met her then, although she has been me all this time. My children carry her, as I carry my mother and her mother. That terrified and isolated girl becomes part of the ongoing story. Children sit in church still; cars drive by houses in which girls hide. Stories arise from the overgrown grass."

OK. So write now.
Last modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 8:04 AM