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BYU Writing Center

Handouts

Personal Essays

Downloadable version (Microsoft Word document)

While there are many readily available sources that will instruct on what a personal essay isn't, this handout is designed to provide a general model for how the personal essay can be constructed. The suggested model is intended to help you avoid some pitfalls in writing the personal essay. The personal essay is a very liberal genre that explores experiences in ways that can be profound, ironic, humorous, poetic, etc.


The Structure of the Personal Essay

As you have read in Writers at Work, a personal essay combines the What of an experience with the So What?. This So What? is the heart of the personal essay and allows you to explore the given narrative any way you desire. The goal of the personal essay is to entwine the two, using an experience as a vehicle to explore certain themes or questions.


Horizontal Movement

The first step in writing an effective personal essay is to pick a specific experience in your life that you can examine and draw meaning from. The chosen experience will be the horizontal element, the What of the essay, and for the most part it will begin and end the essay.

For example: You feel that the Star Wars movies have had significant meaning in your life, so you want to write about them. However, instead of writing a chronological paper exploring every time you have seen one of the Star Wars movies, choose a single experience such as going to see Episode III. Choosing the former idea of writing about how Star Wars has influenced you throughout your life is much too broad of a subject involving far too many stories and themes. Even the single experience of seeing Episode III is in itself a very broad topic, but it is narrow enough for you to choose a single theme or aspect of the chosen experience that you can explore. This theme will be the focus of the vertical movement in your essay.

Choosing a single experience allows you to ground the essay in an experience that has a beginning and an end. When this horizontal foundation is laid, then you can explore it using tangential vertical movement which can (but doesn't have to) include other past experiences of seeing Star Wars that explore the meaning and significance to seeing Episode III.


Vertical Movement

The second step is to ask of the experience So What? This will provide the main question or theme that your essay will explore. Exploring this question or theme is the vertical movement in the essay. This So What? question can be achieved by asking a number of other questions about the experience:

Why is this experience significant to me as opposed to another person? What past experiences have I had that contribute to the significance and meaning of the one being explored? How does this story answer philosophical questions that you may want to explore? To what can I compare this experience in order to give it significance? How can I reflect on my own personality and feelings about the experience?

For example, If my chosen experience is seeing Episode III, then I will want to use the experience to explore such questions as: why am I so excited? Why is Star Wars so popular? How do the themes in Star Wars answer more philosophical questions about life? What other meaningful experiences in my life have been tied to watching Star Wars movies?

Note: As you ask these questions, focus on one, so that the paper is unified both in experience and theme.

Combining Horizontal and Vertical Movement

A bridge is held up by the suspension of its columns, allowing one to cross from one side to the other. Likewise, with the personal essay, the horizontal story moves from A to B while supported by the vertical movement. On a bridge, these supporting columns are well spaced and rise gradually away from the road. This is the same rhythm and harmony that should exist between horizontal and vertical movement. To achieve this, find places in the horizontal narrative that will serve as an attaching point for the vertical pillars. Because the vertical gives meaning and answers the So What? of an experience, as you write the narrative aspect literally ask yourself, So What? after every significant detail. Then, use that detail to slip into one of the many vertical tools used to describe the significance of the situation.

Horizontal Tools (What) Vertical Tools (So What)
*Used also in the vertical tools *Answer the explored question
Show not tell Thoughts / Feelings
Detail Inner dialogue
Active verbs Interpretations
Voice Flashbacks
Etc. Parallel stories
  Etc.


Beginning and Ending the Essay

Beginning

One of the benefits of choosing a single experience to write about is that you will be able to ground the essay in concrete language instead of beginning with more cliché, generic, and less-effective language.

Less Effective: Why do I love the Star Wars movies? I think one of the reasons is that it has always brought me closer to my brother. We can sit for hours just talking about the films and anything that relates to them…
More Effective: Flopping into the folding seats of the movie theatre, my brother, Rusty and I were relieved to finally be inside after waiting in line for several hours to get good seats. We have sat fifth row center at every premiere of the Star Wars movies. Tonight was no exception.

Ending

The same benefits of being able to use more concrete language are also apparent when you are able to end the essay by describing the end of your chosen experience. A concrete ending will also solve the problems that arise when trying to end a personal essay. As you have read in Writers at Work, avoiding ambiguous, preachy, or cliché endings is absolutely necessary. Ending the story with concrete language will allow you to show how the story itself is meaningful.

Less Effective: As the movie credits were rolling, I thought of how this would be the last time my brother and I would be reviewing the film together over a hamburger and coke. What lay in the future for us? There couldn't possibly be any more Star Wars films. Whatever lay in the future, we were ready.
More Effective: Jumping out of our seats as the final credits were rolling, Rusty and I made our way out of the dark theatre and into the evening air. Because it felt like we had parked the car a day ago, we didn't quite know in which direction to walk in. "I think we are over here." I said.
"Oh yeah." He walked next to me, his head only coming up to my shoulder. "I think I would have gone to the dark side too." We both climbed into the car, and I started the engine.
"You wouldn't be strong enough to be considered for the dark side."
"Shut up."
I started laughing at my brother's defensive stance, turned on the blinker, pulled out of the parking lot, and left behind us the theatre and the families and friends standing in long lines, dressed as Yodas, Han Solos, Darth Vaders, and Chewbaccas.

Jenny Sneddon & Ryan Stodtmeister, July 2005