"Of _________________":  The Personal Essay

  • 1,500 words maximum.  1,000 words minimum
  • Drop it in the google docs folder by noon on Thursday, September 26

As you have seen, an essay can take a pretty broad range of forms, and you should feel free in this instance to let the form you choose match the function of the piece. But please remember:

  • An essay is not a story -- or, rather, it's not a straightforward narrative. So a purely narrative organizational strategy (i.e., "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. . .") will probably not work.

  • An essay comes from a point of view, and that point of view is personal. You will have to say "I," probably -- and even if you don't, you'll still have to write from a first-person point of view. Tim O'Brien can tell a story in which "Tim O'Brien" is a character -- but you can't really write an essay that way. An essay is, almost by definition, a writer speaking. So don't fancy up the narration with third-person or other kinds of projection: this is you talking. Let it be.

  • An essay always has a theme and a point,  although its theme may not be immediately obvious, and its point may become complex. But an essay is always about something, and the strongest essays are about something that is important to the writer and to the reader: for Baldwin and Rodriguez, for instance, that "something" was the difficulty of understanding one's place in the complex racial matrix of modern America. That was a theme that was deeply personal to the writers, but not unique to them -- both they and their readers had a stake in the questions they raised and the answers they came to.

    And they had a point, although the point was complex in both instances. Just remember: your goal as an essayist is not to be "objective," but to be honestly subjective. The essay is always about what you think -- but, of course, you may discover that what you think is more complicated than you think it is. Your job is not to reduce what you think to its simplest bumper-sticker form: it is present, as simply and elegantly as you can, the real complexity of your experience.

  • You might collapse all the points above into a single idea.  The original essays -- Montaigne's -- very often had titles that announced the idea that Montaigne was setting out to explore.  They were "Of [Something"]:  "Of Liars"; "Of Constancy"; "Of Cannibals"; "Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes"; "Of Cato the Younger"; "Of Vain Subtleties"; "Of Smells."

  • Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.  Remember that.  The best essays are not moving because they are outlandish.  They are moving because they are human.

So write. Make a point. Tell us what you think. And let's see what you've got next Friday.

Last modified: Sunday, September 22, 2013, 7:58 AM