Teaching the Personal Essay

By Rita S. Nezami 

I love teaching the personal essay. Writing the personal essay deeply engages my students in the process once they get started and understand that they’re not trying to complete an assignment so much as they are exploring themselves, their topics, and how both relate to the larger world.

The personal essay is a journey into the self. It invites students to inquire about and discover unexpected aspects of themselves. Writing about their experiences, students become storytellers. Some of the moments in the essay can be imagined, created in a spirit of joy and freedom. As Phillip Lopate wrote, “The personal or familiar essay is a wonderfully tolerant form, able to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy.”
The sixteenth-century’s Michel de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, created the form we know today as the essay. “It is myself I portray,” Montaigne wrote. The work is intimate and personal and concentrated on self-exploration and self-discovery. It includes meditations, speculations and meanderings that characterize a singular mind and writer.
Essayist Marianna Torgovnic wrote, “Often, our search for personal meaning is precisely what generates our passion and curiosity for the subjects we research and write about.”
Everyone’s point of departure will be different; there’s no single right way to do this work. Connections that previously went unnoticed may become clear: A student may write about discovering that her sibling relationships are related to the way her mother related to her brothers and sisters. Another may reflect on an epiphany he had about his values while alone on a cold night atop a Catskills mountain under a pristine sky.
These discoveries happen when student writers use facts and experiences to establish relationships, make observations, search for patterns, create cogencies, and perhaps find coherence in everyday life.
So, in writing the personal essay, I help students feel comfortable using the first person, not just to recount an experience, but also to reflect on it and seek relationships to other parts of their lives or to the larger culture, their community or family. They may decide to think through the implications of personal conflicts, interrogate their opinions, or consider their group affiliations – ethnic, political, social; the possibilities are virtually limitless.
My goal is for the personal essay to offer students a chance to develop this kind of curiosity and passion for meaningful self-exploration and self-discovery. By writing the personal essay, students free themselves from the fear they often experience in writing research papers or textual analyses.
Their thoughts and memories take flight as they delve into the art of storytelling with greater flexibility and freedom. Yet they remain within the boundaries of gentle discipline, remain aware of the reader, and above all, become aware of who they are and what they value. This genre of writing, perhaps like no other, allows students to explore at a deeper level the connections among our reading, writing and our humanity. This is why I love teaching the personal essay.
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5 Responses to Teaching the Personal Essay

  1. Shyam Sharma says:

    Thank you for sharing a thoughtful take on the personal essay. It helped me see the genre as a means toward achieving other, broader goals.

  2. MaryAnn Duffy says:

    This is so beautifully stated. I may just give up one of my analysis papers and try personal essay next semester. It almost seams a guilty pleasure, but you emphasize the important growth students can experience which can only bring them closer to wanting to write well.

  3. Liz Kotseas says:

    Thank you. I was teetering and tottering back and forth wondering whether my WRT 101 group would benefit more from writing a personal narrative or a more academic persuasive piece at this point in the semester. Your faith in and respect for the personal narrative really gave me the prodding I needed. Since I hadn’t witnessed much enthusiasm from my students for writing thus far, I was skeptical whether they would engage in discussion openly and honestly as is helpful in writing a truthful and reflective essay. With some trepidation, planning and fingers crossed, we began our This I Believe (www.thisibelieve.org) essay assignment this week, and I was so pleasantly surprised… these kids are a great group – they just haven’t expressed as much enthusiam about writing and exploring ideas in depth as I have, but yesterday, they shared their thoughts about a couple of This I Believe essays they had already listened to and/or read in class and for homework.

    It turned out to be wonderful. One athletic student seeked out essays related to sports while another more quiet student explored “The Stillness of the Library.” Another student chose to explore the theme of hope, and the sharing and discussion continued. As Rita has noted, “Everyone’s point of departure will be different; there’s no single right way to do this work,” and so we also organically segued into a discussion about the development and acceptance of one’s unique voice. This was the first day I heard not one, not two, but a few students say, “I am actually looking forward to writing this…” One student even asked me if I was planning to write my own essay. What a worthwhile experience for all!

  4. pelikanavi57 says:

    The personal essay is hard to teach. It’s harder to write, but it’s certainly difficult to teach despite the rewards that students may find as they approach the end of what can be a painful process. During my nanometer-long teaching career, I’ve done the personal essay several times, including 303 that’s devoted to the genre. For what little it may be worth, let me humbly offer what I’ve found to be the two most significant challenges; I’m confident that others here who have years of experience teaching the PE can vastly enrich these thoughts.

    First, students have a fundamental problem distinguishing the personal essay from the personal narrative. The former, an exploration of an idea or ideas using a personal experience or epiphany or whatever as a point of departure, is not the latter, which, at its nadir, is a glorified itinerary.

    Despite close readings of exemplars of the form, my students, despite the comparatively small sample size, just can’t make the leap from narrative to essay.

    Second — and this flows directly from the first problem and is, I will suggest, something of a diagnosis of the distress — is students’ lack of practice doing associative thinking. One idea leads naturally to another and to another and to another so that the essay builds out and, after polishing and chiseling and revising and starting over eventually becomes a coherent structure. To do this kind of association, though, kids must have paid attention to their lives; many seem to be observers of their own existences. They can tell me what happened, but they can’t move on to speculate what “what happened” may mean and how it might be related to other parts of their lives and maybe to the evolution of espresso or the decoding of the Linear B Minoan script or the reason people build flat roofs in rainy climates.

    The magic lies in making associations, seeing patterns and linkages and resonances and harmonies and dissonances that may — just may — be meaningful. Comparatively few students will feel that tingle of insight and cogency and exhilaration without having cultivated the associative and interpretive capacities that flow from reading widely and actually feeling the grit and grind of their and others’ lives in a time of radical distraction that is the sworn enemy of the essayist’s most fundamental resource: a reflective self.

  5. Pingback: Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom | RhetComp @ Stony Brook

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