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.