Getting Started on the Personal Essay

Students tell me one of the reasons they sign up for essay writing workshops (aside from the cheap Zinfandel, garlicky hummus and writerly love they get each week) is that they have ideas for essays, but they don’t know how to get started.

If you’re challenged—like we all are—with an abundance of ideas but a dearth of words, try this:

1.  Make a list of vivid personal experiences you’ve been wishing to write about.

2.   Next to that list, in another column, write down a word or two (or three) that describes the conflict inherent in each experience. Try writing it this way: This is a story about Me versus X. The best stories have conflict and tension at their core -- if an experience doesn't have any tension, it probably won't make for a good story.

3.   In yet another column, write what larger truth the story is about. At this point, this larger truth—the meaning behind the experience--will be your best guess. More often than not, the larger truth will change as you write the story. Another way to look at the larger truth is to consider what kind of transformation the narrator experienced as a result of the experience. All stories record a pattern of change -- it's your job as essayist to determine how an experience changed you. (Hint: Usually the transformation in a personal essay is a change in the narrator’s perspective.)

4.   In one final column, make a list describing who you were and how you acted during each experience (i.e., fearful, conceited, proud, anxious, horny). The idea is to become more objective about your actions prior to writing about them.

Finally, after you’ve made your list, choose the experience that has the most inherent conflict, and write a page or two wherein you begin to explore the experience, develop yourself as a character, and hint at the larger truth of the story. Don’t worry if the story is not complete. The idea is to get started generating some new material.

Most of all, have fun and follow the energy. Don’t waste time trying to write the essay you think you should be writing. Write what engages you.

Subscribe to The Lookout