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Barbara Abercrombie : PERSONAL ESSAYS: Short Takes

Personal Essays: Short Takes

By Barbara Abercrombie

You read personal essays to understand your life, to find humor, to discover a new way of looking at the world. You write them for the same reasons. This kind of essay is about your journey through an experience, commonplace or traumatic — any situation you've felt strong emotion about — and what you learned or didn't learn from the experience.

You move to a new town, you go horseback riding for the first time, your dog dies, you try to order something online, you get a divorce, your youngest child goes to college, you have a car accident, you throw away your cell phone — anything you do, or think about, is material for a short essay. Rather than proving a premise, as in the formal essay my English teachers loved so much, you're writing about how you reached some kind of understanding and insight. Or maybe you simply came to awareness, or a humorous slant on something that previously had driven you crazy.

The trivia of life, the moments of crazed frustration, the small flashes of amazement and understanding are as much the subjects for personal essays as the milestones. Humor comes out of frustration, the things that don't go right in life.

Going nuts over weather and weight were the subjects of two published essays written by students.

Deb begins her essay about June gloom — weeks of constant fog and no sun along the coast in Southern California — with dialogue:

My friend went to Las Vegas for the weekend. He was telling me about seeing the latest hotel extravaganza there. But I was only interested in one thing:

"Did you see the sun?"

"Oh, yeah. It was so hot — 100 degrees, and I was sweating." He became giddy, remembering it.

"Does it still look the same?" I asked.

"Yeah, bright. And yellow."

Her voice in the essay is cranky and funny as she writes of other specific incidents during June gloom:

Water cooler conversations are stranger, too: The marine layer is the cause of monkey pox; the marine layer makes us all look like cadavers; Hot Pockets are an excellent source of nutrition...

The weather guy tries to explain it: The marine layer is basically a convection fog that occurs when warm land air moves out over cool ocean water. The result is moist, cool marine layers. It sounded credible, until the day he called it "Coastal Eddy." Which, of course, sounds like a bad lounge singer's name: "Catch Coastal Eddy..."

Phyllis begins her essay titled "The Trials of Living Life by the Numbers" with the numbers:

May 26, 1949: 6 pounds, 2 ounces.
January 1960: 93 pounds.
June 1970: 140 pounds.
August 1987: 165 pounds.
September 1999: classified.

As far as I'm concerned, I've just told you everything you ever need to know about me, because who I am and what I do is governed by numbers. In this case, it's the number registered on my Detecto scale. Appropriately, the name "Detecto" conjures up my deepest, darkest secret — my weight.

Cloudless blue skies and the perfect weight would not have turned into essays.

To do: Carry a small notebook or some index cards in your pocket or purse to write down your ideas for an essay. (As with those spiral notebooks for journals, I believe in the simplest and least-expensive small notebooks for taking notes. On the other hand, I have a writer friend who drools over all the expensive notebooks in the Levenger catalog. She swears she wouldn't spend forty-eight dollars on a little turquoise leather cardholder and get personalized note cards to put in it, but she does believe she might take better notes if she did. Whatever works for you, whatever you can afford, buy it and carry it around with you.)

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