Resources for Writers
Personal Essays: What, How, Who, and Why by Michael Naghten Shanks
What is the personal essay?
The personal essay is the freest form of literature: this also makes it the hardest to define. Broadly speaking, it can be broken into two sections: narrative and opinion. It is an account of your experience. It is your thoughts on a subject. The best essayists are able to weave these sections together.
I see the personal essay as an attempt to write about my thoughts and then to question myself as to why I am thinking those thoughts. Each person will define it differently.
It differs from biography/memoir because it places no real importance on chronology.
A personal essay wants the essayist’s considered reflections, whether they relate or not. This fragmentary nature makes it ideal for writing about and during times of transition and confusion.
How do I write a personal essay?
You simply start writing. You write your way into it, letting one thing lead to another, never knowing where you are going or how you will end. Only by writing the words will you start to discover what it is you are writing about.
A personal essay can be written on any subject. Common themes include: relationships (family, friends, lovers), childhood, travel, nature, isolation, hobbies, idleness, illness, writing, and mortality. The subject is not the important thing; it is your treatment of it. Personal essays are concerned with the process of judging, not the judgment reached. You need to be aware of your prejudices and reveal them to the reader: doing so will help give the essay a conscience.
The reader wants to see your point of view – what you think and why you think it. Your point of view is shaped by your experiences, your personality, and your writing style. You are constantly revealing yourself to the reader. The things that irritate or make you happy, the times in your life of pain or humour: these are the buildings materials of your personal essay. I is the most important word in the personal essayists’ vocabulary. Take responsibility for it.
Allow time for reflection before you attempt to analyze. The ability to linger on and draw out a point is a highly valuable commodity for the personal essayist.
Write in your own voice, in your own writing style. The personal essay is a dialogue between the thinker who thinks, the writer who writes, and the reader who reads. The use of wit, humour, and irony will help give the essay a conversational tone. By displaying your individuality, you widen the readers’ view of who you are.
The essayist must be a good storyteller. Storytelling devices constantly pop up in good essays: descriptions of people, places, incidents, conversations, and conflicts all add up to help shape and communicate the essayist’s seemingly random thoughts into a consumable narrative.
Intimacy is one of the hallmarks of the personal essay. By sharing your experiences you offer the reader the chance to empathize, whether they have had similar experiences or not. Every personal essay must have a generalizing quality. This is a way to interest the reader. Another way to interest the reader is to tell them something that they know but have never voiced. Tell them things they could never imagine.
You have to be sincere. The reader needs to believe in the reality in which your topic is grounded. They need to know that you have given the topic considerable thought. You must give the reader your utmost intelligence and understanding. The best way to convince the reader of your sincerity is to reveal your potential for insincerity. Vulnerability is essential to the personal essay. Being honest on the page is hard, but if you can do it the reader will recognize and respect it.
Start humble and go from there. Keep questioning yourself until you find the limits of your understanding. By revealing your limits to the reader you can move beyond them. Most times you will end up discussing something you would never have attempted from the start. Any element of confession should be brief and blunt. Objecting to something that the majority of people support is a good way to demonstrate idiosyncrasy. As a personal essayist, if you can find a new angle from which to look at a stale topic you will be making it fresh. This is good both for the essayist and the readers because it keep everyone interested and questioning. Be wary of being self-righteous. Passion is great but not when it blinds you from being able to see the faults as well as the merits. The ego is a tightrope. If you present an essay that is too self-aggrandizing or self-hating then you risk losing the reader. Don’t forget that the essay is a craft, it takes careful thought and editing to make it worthy for the reader. The essayist’s aim should not be to win the reader’s love: at best it should be to earn their respect. The unspoken aim of the personal essay should be to examine the self in such a way that the reader feels less isolated. The only thing required of the essayist is that they give their own personal and honest portrait of the complexities of being human.
Who writes personal essays?
James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, E. M. Cioran, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Joseph Epstein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Hazlitt, Edward Hoagland, Michel de Montaigne, V. S. Naipaul, George Orwell, Richard Rodriguez, David Sedaris, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, David Foster Wallace.
The list of essayists above contains some of my favourite essay writers. It also contains some names that people may associate more with fiction. Some are well known, some are obscure. They are all worthy of being read, for one reason or another. For the most part they are also older writers. Generally, the advice is you should wait until you know who you are before you start writing about who you were. Personally, I don’t believe in this. You are always in a state of becoming who you are. The earlier you start writing personal essays the more likely it is that you will experiment with the form. Experimentation and discovery is what the personal essay is all about. I hope you enjoy the search as much as I do.
Why should I write a personal essay?
If you don’t do it, nobody else will. Your personal essay is your one chance to write something that is unapologetically subjective. It can reward in a way that writing other literature simply cannot offer. Personal essays are also a superb way to get you and your writing noticed.
(c) Michael Naghten Shanks
Michael Naghten Shanks (b. 1987) is a writer and editor of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
His poetry has featured in various online and print publications, including 3:AM Magazine, Banshee, gorse, the Quietus, Poems in Which, Hennessy New Irish Writing, Hotel, Southword, Prelude, Poetry Ireland Review, The Manchester Review, The Tangerine, and The Well Review.
His fiction has featured as the Hennessy New Irish Writing winning story in The Irish Times, and in The South Circular, as well as the anthologies 30 under 30 (Doire Press, 2012) and New Planet Cabaret (New Island, 2013). His essays have appeared in gorse, Response to a Request, and Architecture Ireland.