Writing Your Life into a Story

Personal Essays: Short Takes

An excerpt from Courage and Craft by Barbara Abercrombie | Updated 9/8/20

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.)

I love to teach courses on writing the short personal essay because it's such an accessible genre. It's short, and everyone has material. If you're alive and breathing and can write a sentence, you can write a short essay.

You need a beginning, a middle, and an ending — a narrative. You're telling a story. The beginning needs to pull your reader in, to let your reader know in the first few sentences what the essay is about, as Deb and Phyllis do in their essays. Then something needs to happen. An anecdote illustrates your theme, what the essay is about. The reader wants to go through the experience with you, not to be told about it from a distance. Stick to the truth — you don't need to make anything up. Just by choosing the details carefully, figuring out what to leave in and what to leave out, you're shaping the essay.

The ending, the understanding and insight you gain, can be life changing or simply a slight shift in awareness. This is not a piece of writing just for reflecting or remembering; there's a point to it. Through your flash of insight or humorous take on something ordinary, the reader can connect and identify with either the experience you wrote about or the feelings you had. The essay has a theme, it's about something, and it comes to a conclusion like a satisfying story.

The first part of writing an essay is to find your subject and then brainstorm it on paper. Fling down everything that pops into your mind about the experience. This beginning step could be a list and then a very sloppy first draft, or a series of five-minute exercises, or any trick you can pull out of your hat to free yourself up for ideas. You don't need a glimmer of insight about what you got from the experience or the slightest slant on humor at this point. You're just writing your way into the essay. The most important thing is that you feel emotion about the experience — anger, frustration, grief, embarrassment, fear, love. If the emotion is pure happiness and contentment, you've got to dig down deep and write honestly about the cost, how you got there, because frankly, we don't want to read about perfection. Blue skies and perfect weight — there's no story there.

The word essay comes from the French word essai, which means "a trial or attempt." We read essays to find a new window to the world, to laugh, to learn something from other people's trials and attempts in life.

To do:

Brainstorm a list of all the issues in your life right now, both huge and trivial. Maybe you're going through a milestone — a new baby or grandchild, a divorce, a marriage, buying a house, falling in love — and your list will reflect all the different experiences you're having with that event. Or maybe your list will be full of frustrations: catching up on email, dieting, encountering cat hair everywhere, dealing with a teenager, trying to keep a desk in order, owning a crazy dog. Lists are a great tool for writers because you don't have to feel inspired or creative to write one. A list doesn't carry the weight of commitment; it lets you off the hook. And unless you're in a coma, you can come up with a list of at least ten things.

When you have your list, choose one subject and write for five minutes. If you dry up on that subject, choose another one. If you get on a roll, just keep going.

Here's a list Rob wrote in class:

  • Tree trimmers (you get what you pay for)
  • Haircuts (you get what you pay for)
  • My 93-year-old painter friend who acts younger than me sometimes.
  • Alcoholic friends
  • I say hi to anyone
  • No job: no self-worth?
  • The difference between change and loss
  • After an injury, girlie weights at the gym
  • OPB: other people's babies (scary but fun)
  • How to be the perfect houseguest

Rob's list had a lot of potential for personal essays. (In the end he chose to write about being the perfect houseguest and got it published in Westways.) Some ideas on his list could possibly be connected, such as tree trimmers and haircuts. And the difference between change and loss, and girlie weights at the gym.

To do:

On your own list, see what ideas connect. You may be surprised.

In class John balked at writing the list of possible topics for an essay. He hated doing five-minute exercises. He told me he couldn't and wouldn't do them, but he finally wrote a list of ideas. Then he went home and at his own pace wrote a beautiful essay he eventually got published in the Christian Science Monitor. In the essay he connected his struggle with writing to his four-month-old daughter's ease with learning to communicate:

So when I am at a loss for words, my skills inadequate for the job at hand, I try to remember the example she sets. My daughter knows there is a higher form of expression than what she is capable of now, just as I do when I'm stuck.

However, while this knowledge can send me into a tailspin of doubt and self-criticism, she is largely unaffected by it. She just keeps on making her squeaks and squeals until they sound more and more like the sounds her mother and father make.

At the end of the essay he writes of a specific incident with his baby as she lay on her changing table and he tried to get her to repeat a few simple words:

Her mouth moved a little in response, a sigh, really, more than anything else. But I had her attention. "I love you," I said, and smiled. She smiled briefly too, demurely, then got serious again.

"I love you," I said. She paused, then opened her mouth. "Ah-loo," she said.

Sometimes essays come out of questions. When my first grandchild was born, I was stunned by how much I immediately loved her, and found that I was continually asking myself, Where did so much love come from? Until Emma was born, I had always been bored senseless by people who popped out pictures of their grandchildren with a long commentary on how brilliant and adorable they were. I'd think, Oh, please, get a life, and be overwhelmed by how terribly icky it all was.

By connecting my current question to this prejudice of mine, I had an idea for an essay. Opening with other people's photos of grandkids and my impatience with the general ickiness of grandparents, then dealing with my question of the sudden love for Emma, and closing with telling her she was the most brilliant and adorable baby on the planet and sending photographs of her through the Internet to all my friends and thinking it wasn't icky at all, I had an essay.

Pay attention to your own questions about your feelings and behavior. Pay attention to your prejudices and the web of your own hypocrisy.

To do:

Write a very sloppy first draft of an essay. This draft can be too short and too lean, or too long and overwrought. No one will ever see it. That seems so obvious — of course no one will see this sloppy draft you're writing unless you show it to them. But you can forget this obvious fact when you're writing and the critic in your head gets too loud. Tell your critic to settle down (his or her turn is coming up next) and just write your essay from start to finish. If you get hung up on something, write XXXs and keep going. Get it all down on paper no matter what.

Next: Digging Truthfully Into Your Own Life

Excerpted with permission from Courage and Craft: Writing Your Life into Story ©2007 Barbara Abercrombie from New World Library, Novato, CA.