In the last post, I discussed how to structure a personal essay. In this post, I identify the important techniques for writing a personal essay.
The techniques that you will use to write a personal essay are the same as other types of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, travel article, or literary journalistic essay. Two of the most important techniques are storytelling and scene-building. Before you write your personal essay, you will need to choose a topic. There are several techniques that can help you.
If you are writing a personal essay based on a personal experience, you will need to write the story. Your story requires an inciting incident, complications, conflict or obstacles, a climax, and resolution. For more information, see my section on “Fiction” in this blog.
You must also use the techniques of fiction (literary devices), in particular the scene-building technique. Scene building involves showing, not telling. It is not a narrative summary, which collapses events and time. It is not an exposition, which is based on explanation and analysis. A scene includes the following elements:
- Specific time and place
- Sensory images
- Specific details
You will want to make your readers aware of the time and place. This is your setting.
If you are writing a personal essay based on a personal experience or milestone, you will want to include important dialogue between you and other people.
You will also want to describe the important action that takes place in the scene or scenes that you include. Remember, you are writing a short personal essay, which is between 500 and 1500 words long, so you are only going to include scenes that are essential to your personal essay.
You also want to use sensory images to make your story come alive. Thus, you will include language that appeals to the reader’s sense of smell, taste, sight, touch.
A good scene also includes vivid descriptions, which helps the reader visualize the story. Vivid descriptions also help to make your essay believable and truthful.
In the conclusion, you can write about the insight, understanding, or lesson that you learned from the experience or milestone. Often your personal experience results in a universal truth about human nature or the human condition.
Techniques for Finding a Topic
Your personal essay can be based on a personal experience or milestone, or a topic or subject that you are passionate about. If you are writing about a true story, your memory will play an important role in uncovering the facts and the truth. Here are a few ways to “mine your memory.”
- Keep a personal journal, and look through it. Use it to remember events and experiences that happened in the past.
- Take photos of events and experiences that are important to you. Use the photos to mine your memory. Or look through old photo albums to find your story.
- Visit the place where the event took place.
- Interview friends or family who also experienced the event or experience.
- Use a time line. Take one year of your life and then list all the events or experiences that took place in that year.
- Use the technique of mindmapping. For more information, check out www.mindtools.com .
- Write about a milestone, anniversary, loss, death, or new experience. Ask yourself: What did you learn? What insight have you gained? Is there a universal truth?
Another way to write a personal essay is to write about topics, social issues, or events making news. Margaret Wente, a writer for the Globe and Mail, often uses this approach. Here are a few ways to find topics to write about:
- Keep a journal. Write in it whenever something of interest or important happens to you. Refer to your journal when you want to write a personal essay.
- Stay informed. Read magazines, newspapers, books, and watch and listen to the news. Browse the Web. When you unearth something interesting, write a personal essay.
- Write about social issues, such as crime, capital punishment, -marriage, racism, gay rights, rape, child abuse, alcoholism, sexual equality, immigration, divorce, and so forth.
- Write about something in the news or public consciousness.
- Write about holidays, tradition, vacations, Christmas, Halloween, anniversaries, and so forth.
Finally, write truthfully and honestly. If something never happened, you cannot write about it as though it were true. This is lying. As well, disclose your views and personal opinions on the event or topic or personal experience. A personal essay is all about your perspective, your thoughts, your views. It doesn’t need to be objective. You don’t have to prove a thesis.
Resources for Writing a Personal Essay
The following books will provide you with the techniques for writing a personal essay:
- Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
- Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
- The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
- The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote
In the next few posts, I will write about travel writing, a popular form of creative nonfiction.