The ABCs of Writing a Personal Essay

Where intimate experiences are interwoven with universal truths

People who write personal essays are typically those who yearn to share their observations, opinions, and questions with others. They also have strong opinions or are intensely passionate about certain issues. The word essay comes from the French word essai, which means “trial” or “attempt.” In a personal essay, one examines opinions and personal experiences in the context of a universal subject, concern, or truth. The appeal of such an essay is that intimate experiences are interwoven with universal truths.

When you’re writing a personal essay, you may be inspired to explore a particular subject in depth. You might begin by closely examining a certain topic that is on your mind. For example, if you have strong feelings about gun control, you might pen an essay where you examine both sides of the debate by interweaving personal experiences, statistics, and the stories of others into your writing. By the end of the essay, your readers will definitely know where you stand, which might inspire them to give more thought to the subject themselves.

For some people, the personal essay is the ideal art form, as there is virtually no limit to the topics that can be addressed—they might encompass political, social, and personal issues; or those relating to the natural world, travel, or even food. However, reflection is what sets the personal essay apart from other short forms, for without reflection, an essay would just be a report, or a recording of events. In a personal essay, writers try to find meaning in their lived experiences while relating them to more all-encompassing, universal themes.

Before you attempt to write a personal essay, you might first read the works of accomplished essayists such as Phillip Lopate, Virginia Woolf, Edward Hoagland, Annie Dillard, David Sedaris, Lia Purpura, Nancy Mairs, and E. B. White, to name a few. One of the best works on this topic is Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay (1995); the introduction is almost like a book in and of itself. Lopate says that the hallmark of the personal essay is its “intimacy.” What he means is that writers must come to terms with their own memories and stories. This art form is a difficult genre in which to write because of the potential complexity involved, given that this type of essay needs to express what is occurring in the context of a human life.

Writing Prompt

In a stream-of-consciousness manner, write down possible subjects for a personal essay. Consider topics that resonate with you, perhaps those that ignite emotions such as anger, frustration, grief, fear, love, joy, or wonder. Your opening paragraph should set the scene for the essay and immediately reveal the focus of the piece. Remember that an essay’s format is similar to a book, in that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

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