Writing and Teaching the Personal Essay

I have a soft spot for the personal essay because it was my bridge between writing academic, English-major essays and attempting to write fiction.

My second year out of college, I took a nonfiction writing class in which my fellow students and I read a “Lives” column from the New York Times Magazine and then wrote our own Lives-inspired essays.  I chose to tell the story of hiding another girl’s dress under a pile of dirty sweats in the locker room when I was in third grade, and I had a great time reliving that experience from such a different vantage point.

Back in third grade, it had seemed so infuriating that this one classmate was always the first one to get to the field house for P.E. and the first one back to the classroom afterwards.  I was so giddy and proud when I came up with the plan to sabotage her by hiding the dress…but then I was so ashamed when I realized how wrong that had been, and so terrified about getting into trouble when a teacher found out.  But fourteen years later, the whole situation just seemed so silly.  As I wrote my personal essay, I was able to capture both the intensity of my elementary-school emotions and the ridiculousness of the whole event.

There was only one problem.

My personal essay didn’t really have a point.  It was funny, it was cute, and it had some nice descriptions, but it didn’t really mean anything.

“A personal essay needs to have universal resonance,” the instructor explained.

But it was only a silly story about a dress!  So okay, I figured.  Maybe I’d chosen the wrong experience to write about.  I should have chosen something more serious.  More importantWhen I attempted to write other personal essays after that point, I chose more transformative experiences and had an easier time conveying what they’d “meant.”

But then I became an English teacher and had my students write personal essays, and they had the same problem I’d had with my story about the dress.  They struggled with teasing out the universal resonance within their experiences.  They had a hard time coming up with a central point that didn’t seem like it had just been tacked on at the end because the grading rubric said they had to have one.

I haven’t taught a personal essay unit for the past couple of years, partly because it didn’t fit that easily into the curriculum and partly because I’d lost some of my enthusiasm for teaching it, especially when I was inheriting students who had written personal narratives in lower grades and seemed impatient about writing another one.

But this year, I started the eighth grade off with a personal essay.  I taught all of my eighth grade students last year when they were seventh graders, and I was pretty sure they’d get into the assignment.  And what’s more, in history class, they’ve been focusing on what it means to be human and what sets human beings apart from other creatures.  And I think a huge part of our humanity is our tendency to reflect and make meaning from experiences, as people do when they write personal essays.

I’m only now starting to grade the students’ final drafts, but I feel confident saying that the unit was very successful.  I think part of the reason why the unit worked so well was that we talked about the human tendency to reflect and the need for universal resonance in a personal essay right from the start: as we read example essays, as we brainstormed topics, and as we drafted.

As model texts, I used some essays from the compilation Dear Bully (including “Stench” by John Scieszka, “When I Was a Bully Too” by Melissa Walker, and “The Day I Followed” by Eric Lupar) along with Kate Messner’s blog post “About Fathers,” and a New York Times Lives Column called “Friend Request” by Daniela Lamas.

I also wrote my own model essay alongside my students…about the experience of hiding that dress back in third grade.  I wanted to choose an experience that felt significant to me but didn’t have much obvious meaning so that I could model the process of muddling through a draft and teasing out the universal resonance.

In the end, I decided that that dress-hiding event was about fairness.  I wrote in my new version of the essay that I got so frustrated back then because I always followed all the rules (not running in the halls, putting things away neatly before lining up, etc.), and I felt like I was being punished for following rules because I could never be the first one to gym class or back…but I felt even worse when I broke the rule of respecting other people’s property to exact revenge.

Funny thing about central points, though.  When you choose to focus on one, you end up minimizing other parts of your story.  I was happy with the central point I came up with for my example essay, but it doesn’t capture the fact that kids can get competitive over the silliest things.  Or the fact that I was such a perfectionist in third grade that I cried when I got one word wrong on a spelling pretest and had to take the actual test with everyone else instead of being excused from it because I could spell all the words already.  So part of my frustration, probably, was just that I couldn’t change or run to the field house as quickly as someone else could.

But I suppose that’s a helpful writing lesson: that to write a cohesive personal essay (or literary essay, or short story, or novel, for that matter), you can’t include every aspect of every event.  You have to choose what you want to emphasize.

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