Writing Personal Essays

The easiest way to write a personal essay is to use the standard form taught in Composition 101: an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph. But instead of just blathering about yourself, describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you, such as when your 2-year-old son, Jordan, solemnly declares from the bathtub “I can't swim—my penis is hard” and you tell him it's OK, it's normal, knowing it'll subside and he'll be able to swim soon, but you don't tell him that teeny little weenie he's holding will be the source of the most intense worries, sorrows, and pleasures he'll ever experience, and you wonder if you'll ever be able to tell him the truth. You could follow this thought with the trials and tribulations of your own penis, unless you're a woman—but of course females are involved with love, sex, and life built around their own body parts, which can provide many interesting topics. The key to maintaining reader interest is to be open and honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts about how you think sex education is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you'll explain things any better than your own father did. Follow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.

Use five sentences in each paragraph. Some authors, like Faulkner, write immensely long sentences that drift into nooks and crannies of life, enlightening the reader about how, at age 16, you were tricked by a girl into trying on ring sets from her mom's jewelry-making equipment to find your ring size and later presented with a black onyx and silver ring you were too scared to wear because it implied going steady, which leads to sex, and Dad had just given you and your brother a box of Trojans the week before when Mom and Brooke had gone shopping at Sears for dresses and you were as uncomfortable as Dad when he grunted out his heart-to-heart “Use these to be safe,” especially since you'd recently calculated and realized he'd knocked Mom up with you when she was 16 and he was out of the army after a four-year hitch and you figured it must have happened by accident since their meeting was accidental, him picking her and her sisters up at a railroad crossing in the rain on Halloween and giving them a ride home, coming later to visit, finally getting down in April without a condom or maybe with one that broke and there you are in December but at least they'd gotten married over the summer and you realize it's April now and you stare at the ring and finally throw it away and tell her later you don't wear jewelry. Tough guys like Hemingway write short, straightforward sentences, such as: “The author stopped typing. His thick fingers lay bare on the keyboard. Although he's been married for eight years, his ring finger is naked. His wife knows he doesn't wear jewelry. Ever.” Yet other writers like to mix up the lengths of their sentences, using long, compound run-ons that begin with one thought then drive on to others but eventually circle back for completion, then follow with a short, crisp, prissy sentence that would satisfy an eighth-grade grammar teacher. Not me.

Write about things you've done or people you know, introducing your first true love or your first sexual encounter at age 17 crammed in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle with Danielle who will do it for free 'cause she has a crush on you and you need the experience to be ready for your true first time with Julie whom you love and can't get off your mind while you're wedged against the cold side window, remembering Julie's taste, the force of her tongue in your mouth, the way she holds your hard-on like she knows what she wants and you need to be sure how to do it exactly right so here you are pumping away feeling cheap and drunk and ashamed and excited and sore and thinking sex should be a lot more fun or magical than this floundering on the back seat. You can write in sober first person (“I found later with Julie I didn't need the practice session with Danielle”), but some feel this is self-serving and others, such as myself, need the safe distance from slivers of memory provided by humor, misdirection, and second or even third person (“At least he wore a condom both times”). Don't take examples from television or books or newspapers unless they have an effect on you. Don't write about Kurt Cobain's suicide after achieving fatherhood or Jimi and Janis overdosing when you were a teen unless you're a musician—even a part-time folk-rock banjo-picker—wondering how you ever made it out of adolescence since you were so horny yet scared of sex you could only function by smoking a joint first thing in the morning to slow down your thoughts yet still dragged home at midnight after playing a party and jerked off into a dark toilet bowl before passing out in bed worried if you'd wake the next morning and mostly hoping you wouldn't, having all these memories from those horrid nights years ago cascade through your mind when you returned home from a jam session last Wednesday night a little drunk and then—after checking on Jordan and his sister sleeping peacefully—crying for Kurt who'll never know his own child and crying for Jim Morrison and Carla Hill and Randy Batson who died in a car accident in high school and all the others you remember, knowing it was just luck you made it and they didn't, finally wiping away the tears as you piss tequila residue into a murky toilet before going to sleep knowing you're gonna drag tomorrow at work but sure you'll wake up in time as you always do. Write about universal themes you've experienced personally and others can relate to, like love, fear, and death—or sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Use specific examples that stick to one theme. Don't write generically about how condoms might break when you can write specifically about the first time with Melanie who'd just gotten over an abortion and her new IUD wasn't ready yet so you ran back to your cabin at the summer camp where you were both counselors to get the jet-black, ribbed Love Machine you'd bought in a gas station in North Carolina and carried for two years for just such an occasion but after shredded pieces of black latex dripping with semen fell onto the rumpled sheets and Melanie stared like it was a loaded shotgun pointed right at her belly and all you could do was shrug “Sorry” and the only worry on your mind was when your next day off was so you could get to town and buy some that worked because this first time with her was what you'd always hoped sex would finally turn out to be—a fun, relaxed sharing of talk, laughter, and touch. Stick to one theme. Don't write about Carla Hill in ninth grade when you were 14 if you're writing about your sex life because she was murdered before anything happened, her throat cut in her own bed during an attempted rape the night before you'd finally mustered up enough courage to ask her to go steady and your buddies had helped you out by sitting in all the seats in the front, right-hand side of the bus where she always sat, leaving the only open space right next to you so she'd just have to sit there and you had your name bracelet all ready but she never got on and everyone else was sobbing, telling you about it. I feel that stories like that, despite being of possible interest, lack relevance to the major themes of “your sex life” in this essay and should be saved for some other piece of writing—unless, of course, you can tie the story in using a new focus, perhaps discovered while writing the essay, such as maybe realizing your refusal to wear jewelry has nothing to do with your dad, condoms, and pregnancy but is instead related somehow to your first attempt at commitment that went totally sour and you simply compensated in the best way your 14-year-old mind could think of.

Personal essays come in all kinds. Some are forms of reportage, such as those by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder, telling the truths about people they've interviewed yet injecting the honesty of the reporter's perception rather than trying to pretend a writer has no slant that skews a story. Other essays deal with decisions made, such as when you finally decide to make a baby and Cheryl leaves her diaphragm out for the first time in 14 years and you laugh as you remember getting sick of her mom asking about grandkids and telling her you both wanted to get really good at sex before doing it for real and now here you are for real and scared if you'll be good enough, and you're not talking just about sex now. Essays can also be speculative: questions about found objects, thoughts about missed opportunities and things that never were, or memories that haunt you such as Lindsey in Washington, D.C., who lived in an all-women's house that banned men and made you stand outside in the snow when you came over to get some banjo books abandoned by a former tenant but something happened and Lindsey moved into your room the weekend you hitched down to North Carolina as bodyguard and companion to her friend Rose and stayed when you got back to hump you two or three times a night until you got so raw you could hardly walk and with no talk or even real emotion of love or commitment to prevent you leaving a month later, but now you remember how there also wasn't any talk of contraception because you'd assumed she took care of it since she was so much older, yet now you jerk awake in the middle of the night years later with the stark realization that a lesbian has no need of IUDs or diaphragms or the pill but she does need something to make a baby of her own and maybe there's a little Stan Junior walking around someplace who is 6 years older now than you were then and you wonder if he's as naive as you suddenly discover you were (probably still are) and the only minuscule iota of relief you can find is that at least you'll never have to give him that man-to-man about the birds and bees. By baring your life, using concrete situations and honest thoughts, and following the basic rules of grammar and composition, you too can write a personal essay in 25 sentences.

From Georgia Review (Fall 1998). From the University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-9009.

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There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.

These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”

The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.

What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.

Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.

But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.

For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame. Bennett pegged her Slate piece to an essay that Carmichael and I edited at Jezebel, written by a woman who had met her father for the first time as a teen-ager and engaged, under emotional coercion, in a brief sexual relationship with him. Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”

By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way. Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue. Aggregation and op-eds—the infamous, abundant takes—continue to thrive, although the takes have perhaps cooled a bit. Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble. Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet. “First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me. “And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”

There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing. There’s Hazlitt, launched by Random House Canada, and Lenny Letter, which now has a publishing imprint, and Catapult, which describes itself as a book publisher with a daily online magazine. (The managing editor of Catapult is Nicole Chung, who previously worked for the Toast.) But the genre’s biggest migration has been to TinyLetter, an e-mail newsletter platform. Gould, who writes a newsletter called Can’t Complain, suggested that TinyLetters are doing what personal blogs did fifteen years ago: allowing writers to work on their own terms and reach “small readerships in an intimate, private-feeling, still public enough way.” Carrie Frye, formerly the managing editor of the Awl, also has a TinyLetter. She told me that it seemed like “writers—particularly female writers—had said, ‘O.K., I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’ ”

It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.”

There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. (Even Tizon’s piece, which was published posthumously and uses his damning closeness to his subject as a way to elucidate the otherwise invisible captivities of the Filipino katulong servant class, prompted an immediate backlash—which then prompted a backlash to the backlash, mainly among those who think Western readers have misunderstood Tizon’s understanding of his own position.) Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”

No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.

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