the personal essay

For this first paper, you’ll write a personal essay of ~1000 words that uses both “showing” (scenes, dialogue, description) and “telling” (relevant backstory, historical/sociopolitical context, reflections on how you’ve changed as a result of your experience). In both instances, you’ll want your writing to be as specific as possible: in your “showing” sections, describe physical details—how things looked, felt, etc; in your “telling” (expository) sections, go beyond trite summation and try to really “question your questions.”

You can model your essay on any of those we’ve read thus far. For example, you can write about a specific period in your life, as in “Where I Slept”; you can write about a particular incident, as in “Ghost Children”; you can write about the different types of language you use, or a relationship with a family member, as in “Mother Tongue”; or you can write about a meaningful place, as in “Living Like Weasels” (which wasn’t assigned this time around, but is worth reading).

See Calendar for for due dates.


– Don’t feel that you have to write about something explicitly personal in order to succeed on this assignment. These essays will be peer reviewed, so if you’re uncomfortable sharing a story with your classmates, that’s totally understandable–there are plenty of ways to write what I call the “non-personal personal essay.” Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” (above) is a good example of this, as it depicts vivid scenes and asks probing questions without revealing much about the author’s life. By focusing on the natural setting, and then exploring her questions about nature and what it tells us all about how to live, Dillard provides readers with a rich text that leaves us asking questions about ourselves, not about the author.

Here are two more examples of essays that you can use as models: Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” and Gary Soto’s “The Jacket.” While both of these essays are more personal than Dillard’s piece, they are less personal than many of those we read last week–yet both manage to use “showing” and “telling” writing to convey ideas and feelings to the reader. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to write about, just let me know.

– You’re not required to do research or to cite sources for this essay. If you use a quote or want to include something that’s not your own writing, you should attribute it to the original source, but your essay shouldn’t include parenthetical citations of the type found in research essays. This may seem obvious, but sometimes students think that including sources always makes an essay better. This is not that type of essay. It does not require a thesis statement, either. It’s a narrative essay and you should model it on one of the essays we read last week.

– You should follow MLA format (Links to an external site.) for your essay: include your name, the class and the date in the upper left hand corner of your first page, and you should give your essay an original title, centered, before your essay begins (by original I mean don’t title your essay “Personal Essay”–call it something interesting, like “Mother Tongue” or “Ghost Children,” etc.).

– If you’d like your peer reviewers to consider something specific about your essay, you can write a brief “author’s memo” at the top of your draft submission. This isn’t required, and you won’t include it in your final version.

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