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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

Writing Your Personal Essay

The personal essay: a long meandering jog down memory lane that often leaves one in fits of frustration and tears of nostalgic longing. Well maybe it’s not always so emotionally charged, but it generally seems that the good ones, the pull at your heart strings personal essays, are just that.

Some of us write personal essays by choice, as a way to recapture for ourselves and convey to an audience a specific moment or period in our life. Others are required to write a personal essay for a course, whether it be in high school or at university. The motivation behind writing the essay may seem to vary, but if you believe that all experiences exist to guide and teach us, then you also must realize that being prompted to write a personal essay has something to do with what you need. Perhaps some memory has been gnawing at you, longing to be released.

That being said, writing a personal essay can be a challenge. The basics are simple enough: introduction paragraph, followed by three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion paragraph. I recommend choosing this easy structure so that you can release the burden of structure and focus instead on content.

So where do you begin with content? I think a little meditation time, some silence devoted to your topic is a good place to start. Ask yourself the question or questions that will ignite the subject that is most relevant for that moment. For instance: “What experience do I need to share with others?” or “What memory needs to be expressed and released?”

Ask yourself the deeper questions and then abandon them. Don’t sit and ponder it with your logical mind. Instead, allow the answer to rise from you organically. Perhaps a memory will pop up immediately or maybe an idea will appear that night in a dream. Don’t second guess the story that longs to be told.

According to Stanton Michaels in his article How to Write a Personal Essay, personal essays “should be honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts.”

Any reader can understand why this is a necessity; however, as a writer you might find this awkward, or even embarrassing. Displaying vulnerability is not always easy in personal essays, especially if a teacher or professor will be reading it and ultimately scoring you on what might be a very personal topic. It may be uncomfortable, but that’s where growth occurs – in that moment of stretching. When you move beyond your personal association with the event and you weave it into a story.

Not to derail from the topic here, but this is also great personal therapy and doesn’t necessarily have to end up in a reader’s hands. Writing the narrative of events in your life gives you the opportunity to view them from a new perspective and perhaps to see patterns or archetypes that appeared during the event or moment.

Ultimately, personal essays should be personal. Give yourself the gift of absolute honesty and you may discover that the seemingly trivial details of your past are the most amazing guides for your future.

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