I discovered the personal essay quite by accident.
I was hurt by something someone had said to me. The person didn’t mean to cause offense, but I felt wounded and misunderstood, and I was just full of emotions that needed to go somewhere.
So I sat down, and I wrote them all out.
When I finished, I had a couple of pages where I described what had happened and reflected on why it had bothered me so much. “It’s like an essay,” I remember telling my mom, “but it’s about my life.”
Fast-forward four years. I’m an English major, which means I get to take lots of classes on lots of subjects having to do with reading, writing, and all variations thereupon. Earlier this year, I took a class in creative nonfiction.
Before taking this class, I didn’t know “creative nonfiction” was even a thing. But there in my textbook was a whole chapter on the “Personal Essay.” These essays have two parts:
- first, you describe a scene, a moment, or an experience;
- and then, you reflect on it.
Which I apparently discovered on my own. Cool.
Personal essays let a writer dig into the extraordinary significance of otherwise ordinary experiences and things. I love writing personal essays, but I also like reading them—for the exact same reasons, as a matter of fact. Here are 3 reasons I like personal essays:
1. They’re often short.
Don’t get me wrong: some personal essays are really, really long. But most of them are shorter than a book, and a lot of them are way shorter than that.
For me, that’s good news. As a writer, I usually don’t want to commit to writing an entire book, especially if I’m experimenting with something outside my comfort zone. And as a reader…ditto.
Personal essays are great any time you want your reading in small doses. Maybe you’re really busy right now and can’t focus on a whole novel. Maybe you want to get into more nonfiction, but you don’t want to commit to a whole book in case you don’t like it. Maybe you just want to try a bunch of different writers and styles to experience more variety in your reading life.
Whatever your motivations, if you want something short, personal essays might be a good fit for you.
2. They can be whatever I want them to be.
There’s a lot of room for creativity and experimentation in personal essays:
- They can be serious—or they can be amusing.
- They can be about the writer’s personal experiences—or something they heard about.
- They can be about something that matters to all people—or just something that mattered to the writer.
- They can read like a story with reflection thrown in—or they can sound almost like poetry with the language they use. (This is called a lyric essay.)
As a writer, personal essays let me write however I want to. Even better, they let me explore a variety of different writing styles in fairly small chunks. I can write an essay with one style today and write another in a completely different style tomorrow.
As a reader, there’s pretty much a personal essay for whatever I’m in the mood for. They cover every topic imaginable and almost every style of writing, so it’s almost guaranteed I’ll find something I enjoy. And if I don’t know yet what kind of writing I like to read, I can try a variety of things without a huge time commitment.
3. They let me explore the significance of ordinary moments.
In a personal essay, I take a moment—an event, a scene, or whatever you want to call it—and I reflect on why it matters.
Maybe not everyone is this way, but I love seeing the significance of the most ordinary moments in life. A little thing—like a smile from a friend, a flower falling from a child’s hand, or a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds—can make me think of the greater concepts that moment illustrates. A personal essay takes a seemingly insignificant moment and says, “This happened, and this is why it matters to me.”
As a writer, personal essays let me unpack why these ordinary moments seem so compelling to me. And as a reader, personal essays let me see the world through someone else’s mind for a few pages and, maybe, view things a little differently as a result.
Have you ever read—or written—a personal essay? Do you think you would like to?