The Personal Essay
Many narratives are short,
personal essays - short, to-the-point pieces of writing. But just as stories
can be told in many formats, narratives can be song lyrics, poems, scripts, even
a collage of words cut out of a newspaper. The whole idea is to creatively
inform, express and entertain, so the sky's the limit.
way, all essays are personal essays. They represent what you think, what you feel, about a
given topic. They represent your effort (the word essay comes
from the French essayer, which means to try) to communicate those
thoughts and feelings to others. In the purely personal essay, however, there
is no effort to objectify those thoughts, there is no concealment that this is your
opinion; no standing behind any mask of objectivity is permitted, no
embarrassment is allowed.
to review, also, the section on The
Narrative Essay. Narrative and personal essays have much in common. We
have included several sample essays in the Narrative Essay section.
personal essay is often a free-wheeling device of self-expression. If you ever
want to experiment with prose and with loosened structure, this is where you
can do it. (If you're writing for a grade, though, make sure you understand
what your instructor is looking for before you get too crazy!)
will probably want to use quoted language in your personal essay. There is
nothing like the "heard voice" to create the impression that this is
real. Your readers are going along, reading your prose on the paper, and then
they see someone saying "This is great stuff!" and they not only read
and see, they hear. Spoken speech engages another whole sense and
enriches the medium immensely. Unfortunately, using quoted language demands a
whole set of typographical conventions — the quotation marks themselves and the
various commas and end-marks that are required. The Guide to Grammar and
Writing contains a brief section on Quotation
Marks to help you. Review that section and take the quizzes on quotation
marks before using quoted language in your own prose.
using quoted speech, don't let a voice talk for very long in your essay; it
will take over and start to sound weird. Only the greatest writers can handle
speech effectively over a long period of time. Keep the speech elements brief —
which is how speech is in real life, after all. We're not allowed to say much
before we're interrupted by others or by something else going on. Also, don't
try to duplicate the speech of real life, the way people really talk. Tape
record a dinner conversation some evening, when people don't know you're doing
it, and you'll probably hear something quite unpleasant, something that should
never be written down. Use conventional spelling, and don't leave out letters
or try to recreate in spelling what you hear people say (He dozn't do nuthin'!);
your readers will become more aware of your clever spelling than they are of
what's going on in your essay.
all, don't forget that you never want your readers to ask So what? at the end
of your essay and hear a hollow response. What is the point of your essay?
Don't belabor the point too much; let the point grow out of the experience of
the essay. It might be true, in fact, that you didn't even have a point to make
when you started writing your essay. Go ahead and write it and see if a point
develops. If you're not satisifed and feel that your essay remains pointless,
ask your friends to read it and see if they discern a point where you don't.
(It's possible!) Then, once you've decided what your point might be, you might
want to rewrite parts of your essay to smooth out the edges: you don't want to
clobber your readers over their heads with your point, but you don't want to be
so subtle that no one gets it, either.
we have a silly personal essay for you to consider. It was written by a college
student named Silica Gelcap and is used here with his gracious permission. As
you read it, try to figure out what the point of it might be and where that
point is being made. Is it fun to read? What is the source of that fun? Enjoy!
I Know It's an Objet, But Is It D'Art?
neighbor, Doug, called me over the other day to show me something. He enticed
me into his basement with a beer. (I hate to go there because I end up whacking
my head against his low-beamed ceiling, but the beer helps.)
at this," Doug said. "Kitty litter sculptures." Arranged on a
shelf were several busts of American presidents. They were nicely executed, I
thought, though I have to confess I'm no art expert. "Kitty litter?"
clumpable kitty litter. It's the greatest." He'd taken the contributions
of Samantha — his 18-year-old tabby — clods about the size and shape of George
Foreman's ears, and shaped them into likenesses of the U.S. presidents. He'd
already gotten up to Millard Fillmore. "Tidy Scoop is best," he said,
although he'd clearly tried others, including Fresh Step and Boomer's Best, as
I could tell from empty plastic containers all over the basement. "Tidy
Scoop is consistent and odor free and malleable. I just do the sculpture work,
dry them out over there by the furnace, and give them a quick varnish."
also a boon to recycling," he said. Doug's enthusiasm for the ecology
knows no bounds. Before our town started its own recycling program, he took his
newspapers and plastic milk jugs into his Hartford job for proper disposal.
wanted to know if I thought these little sculptures would sell well at a fair
or flea market, but I hate to pass judgment on something like that. What if I
said yes, and they turned out to be a drag on the market? "What happens when
Samantha passes on?" I wanted to know. The cat lay in a corner of the
basement, looking more peaked and drained than usual, it seemed to me. Sam is
getting on and the thought of this pet becoming a mere vehicle in the creation
of yet another art medium, her bladder a martyr for art, disturbed me.
thought of that," Doug said, "and I'm thinking of branching out,
asking old Mrs. Peters down the road if I could enlist her cats, if I provided
the Tidy Scoop."
Mrs. Peters, the local "cat lady," hosts at least twenty felines,
maybe more. Nobody'd gotten close enough to her house in recent years to count,
because of the bouquet, to put a nice turn on it. That would count as a civic
service, I added.
I could really go commercial. I'm thinking of advertising in Parade, along with
those people who make the dinner plates commemorating Elvis and Jesus and with
the Danbury Mint's collection of model cars and civil war soldiers."
wife hollered, and I had to run off to rake the yard, but I tell you all this
only because it's another testament to humankind's resourcefulness in making
something out of nothing — in this case, out of something considerably less
than nothing. As I said, I'm no judge of art, but it seems to me that if this
weren't an election year, the National Endowment for the Arts would probably
want in on the action. Being a friend and neighbor, I'm hoping for a first
edition Teddy Roosevelt.
essay have a point? What is it and where did you become aware of it?
essay's silliness detract from whatever point it might be trying to make?
the paragraphs in this essay are very short. Is that appropriate?
essay use quoted speech effectively?
essay end appropriately, or do you think the writer just got tired of
writing? Was the essay too long or too short?