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Nonfiction Personal Essays Examples

“For more than four hundred years, the personal essay has been one of the richest and most vibrant of all literary forms.” (The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate.) The personal essay is also one of the most popular forms of creative nonfiction. A personal essay can be based on a personal experience that results in a lesson that you learn. A personal essay can also be a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is important to you. This article defines the personal essay.

Personal Essay versus a Formal Essay

The personal essay is different than a formal essay. In the personal essay, the writer writes about experience without having to prove the point. The author needs only to introduce the subject and theme. It is based on feeling, emotion, personal opinion, and personal experience. It is autobiographical. On the other hand, in the formal essay, the writer states the thesis, and then attempts to prove or support his point with facts—to provide proof. To do this, the author must do research.

Definition of the Personal Essay

A personal essay is either a personal narrative in which the author writes about a personal incident or experience that provided significant personal meaning or a lesson learned, or it is a personal opinion about some topic or issue that is important to the writer.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Narrative

A personal narrative has the following elements:

  • It is based on a personal experience in which you have gained significant meaning, insight, or learned a lesson. It can also be based on a milestone or life-altering event.
  • It is personal narrative. The writer tells the story by including dialogue, imagery, characterization, conflict, plot, and setting.
  • It is written in the first person. (“I” point-of-view)
  • It is an autobiographical story in which the writer describes an incident that resulted in some personal growth or development.
  • A personal essay is a glimpse of the writer’s life. The writer describes the personal experience using the scene-building technique, weaves a theme throughout the narrative, and makes an important point. There must be a lesson or meaning. The writer cannot just write an interesting story.
  • It does not have to be objective. However, the writer must express his/her feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
  • The writer uses self-disclosure and is honest with his/her readers.
  • The writer writes about a real life experience. The incident or experience must have occurred. The writer must use fact and truth.
  • The writer must dramatize the story by using the scene building technique. A scene includes setting/location, intimate details, concrete and specific descriptions, action, and often dialogue.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Opinion

A personal essay can also be an opinion piece, an opinion that is based on a particular political or social concern or topic of interest. In this type of personal essay, the writer can states the problem, provide solutions, and then write a conclusion—which must state an important point. Whatever the writer discusses, the topic is of interest to the writer. The writer frequently seeks to explain the truth or reality has he/she views it. Sometimes the writer ponders a question. Other times the writer explores a topic from his own perspective. The writer must not lecture, sermonize, or moralize. In other words, the writer must present his/her opinion in such a way that allows the readers decide for themselves.

In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach provides an excellent definition of the personal essay, one that is based on a personal opinion. He states that the personal essay that is based on a personal opinion has these attributes:

  • A personal essay is a conversation with your readers.
  • The personal essay is an informed mixture of storytelling, facts, wisdom, and personality.
  • The personal essay examines a subject outside of yourself, but through the lens of self.
  • The subject of the personal essay may be the self, but the self is treated as evidence for the argument.
  • Passages of narrative often appear but generally get used as evidence in the inductive argument.
  • The personal essay strives to say what is evident, and to come to a conclusion that the reader may agree or disagree.
  • A personal essay can wonder through its subject, circle around it, get the long view and the short, always providing experience, knowledge, book learning, and personal history.

It should also be noted that a personal essay doesn’t need to be objective. It can be purely subjective. You don’t have to prove a point or show both sides of the argument. But you must express your own personal feelings, thoughts, and opinions on a topic or issue in a logical manner.

Subjects for the Personal Essay

Your subject can be about anything that you are passionate about. You can write about a “turning point” in your life, or a milestone, or adversity, such as death, illness, divorce. The subject you choose must have provided you with significant personal meaning or a lesson that you have learned. But, keep in mind, you are not just reflecting or remembering, you are going to make a point, some universal truth that your readers can appreciate. Otherwise, your story is just a story. So, write about the following:

  • Personal experience
  • Incident
  • Anecdote
  • Topic
  • Issue
  • A memory

Your subject can also be a personal opinion on an issue or concern that is important to you, such as the garbage strike, crime, or unemployment.

How to Choose a Topic

Choose a topic in are interested in and passionate about, and that resulted in a lesson that you learned or personal meaning. Here is how:

  • Your writing needs to be a process of inquiry. So answer the 5-Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Brainstorm your topic. Create a list of topics. Then create subtopics.
  • Mind map your topic. For more information on mindmapping, search the Internet. This is a popular form of creative thinking.
  • Narrow your topic. Instead of writing about global warming, you can narrow your topic by writing about “going green” or “how you should recycle in your home”.
  • Think of a milestone, or something memorable, or a turning point in your life. What were your impressions? What did you learn? What meaning came from the personal experience?
  • Be sure that your topic has a universal theme—such as hard work, love, death, bravery, wisdom.
  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.

Make the Most of Life Experiences

  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.
  • Include your opinions, point of view, feelings and thoughts.
  • Be truthful and honest. In other words, state the facts and evidence.

Resources for Writing Personal Essays

There are some fantastic books available to help you learn to write a personal essay. Here are the books I recommend:

  •  Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote

The personal essay has loose structure and conversational tone. It is usually written in the first person. The writer uses self-disclosure, honesty, and truth. The writer can write about any subject, topic, or personal experience. But the personal essay must have a universal theme and conclude with a major point. Otherwise, the reader says, “So what?” It was a nice story, but so what is the point?

In the next post, I will explain how to structure/organize your personal essay and what to include.

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Tags:Creative Nonfiction, Creative Writing, Personal Essay, personal narrative, personal opinion, Resources, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, The Art of the Personal Essay

By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Personal Essay on .

Most Read in 2016

We don’t publish a lot of lists here on creativenonfiction.org. But at the end of every year we do like to take a look back at the stories that resonated with our readers.

In that spirit, we’ve compiled the most-read pieces published on our website in 2016, as well as the most-read work from our archives. 

And for good measure, we’ve pulled together a few pieces worth an honorable mention; CNF content that was published elsewhere on the Internet; and the best advice, inspiration, and think pieces from some of our favorite publications.

If you enjoy what follows, please know that there's more where that came from. Less than 10 percent of CNF's content is available online.

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Top Stories from 2016

  1. I Survived the Blizzard of ’79
    As the snow falls ever heavier and the temperature drops ever lower in the author's hometown, she ventures out into a world of white // BETH ANN FENNELLY
  2. In the Grip of the Sky
    If you're wracked with joint pain, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows // SONYA HUBER
  3. The Math of Marriage
    One simple equation compels the author to take a fifth trip down the aisle // ELANE JOHNSON
  4. Finding Truth in Technology
    Five memoirists share their favorite tools for re-creating scenes and setting //SEJAL H. PATEL
  5. The Marrying Kind
    Married for twenty years, happily divorced for six, the author vowed never to wed again—except in the role of officiant // JANE BERNSTEIN
  6. Before We’re Writers, We’re Readers
    Fifteen contemporary writers of creative nonfiction discuss the nonfiction books they remember best from childhood and which influenced them as writers // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
  7. Afterlife
    New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox has the last word // JANE MAHER
  8. How the Mind Works
    The better we understand the brain's processes, the more artful our writing can be // DAVE MADDEN
  9. Writing Motherhood
    Parenting blogs and magazines have become ubiquitous, but is the literature of motherhood still undervalued? // MARCELLE SOVIERO
  10. A Story We Tell Ourselves & Others
    Finding inspiration in marriage memoirs // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE

Top Stories from the Archive

  1. Picturing the Personal Essay
    A visual guide // TIM BASCOM
  2. The Line Between Fact & Fiction
    On borrowing the tools of novelists // ROY PETER CLARK
  3. How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&
    A conversation with Cheryl Strayed // ELISSA BASSIST
  4. The Same Story
    Two young women, pregnant at the same time by the same man // SUZANNE ROBERTS
  5. Poetry & Science
    A view from the divide // ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING
  6. The “Five R’s” of Creative Nonfiction
    Breaking down the essentials of the form // LEE GUTKIND

Honorable Mention

  1. True Empathy or Understanding Is Rare
    A conversation with JUDITH BARRINGTON
  2. Believe It
    Narrative credibility is in the eye of the beholder // SARAH SMARSH
  3. Man on the Tracks
    When you watch a man on the tracks before an oncoming train, that’s exactly what you do: watch // ERIKA ANDERSON
  4. A Genre by Any Other Name?
    The story behind the term creativenonfiction // DINTY W. MOORE
  5. Nature Mothers
    From Rachel Carson to Cheryl Strayed, what women writers have found in the wild // VIVIAN WAGNER

Work originally from CNF but appearing elsewhere in 2016

  1. Hidden Stories and Historical Half Truths
    Lies your ancestors told you // On history, heritage, and whitewashing // LITHUB
  2. The Suicide Memoir
    True crime, mystery, and grief // A brief look at a dark genre // LITHUB
  3. I Invited Twelve People to Write about Their Mental Illnesses for the First Time
    Here’s what happened next // WASHINGTON POST
  4. Pulling Your Hair Out Is Actually a Mental Illness
    Here’s how I learned to stop doing it // WASHINGTON POST
  5. The Life of a Supermodel Sounds Glamorous
    But I lived it—and it made me severely depressed // WASHINGTON POST
  6. On the Ethics of Writing About Your Children
    Four nonfiction writers discuss how to navigate writing parenthood // LITHUB
  7. Dangerous [Language]
    A young teacher tires of hearing “boys will be boys” // BRAIN, CHILD
  8. How I Helped Tell a Soldier’s Story
    Jane Bernstein on finding the human detail in a memoir of war // LITHUB
  9. The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms
    By a man who cleans them // NARRATIVELY
  10. Larimer and Orphan
    How the last Italian store on a forgotten street in Pittsburgh found a state of grace // PLACES JOURNAL

Our favorite stories from around the Internet

ADVICE & INSPIRATION

  1. How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity
    On finding what you’re not seeking // NY TIMES
  2. Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?
    On the challenges of writing about trauma // BREVITY
  3. What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think
    Want to be a better writer? Read better // QUARTZ
  4. If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?
    It’s complicated // JANE FRIEDMAN
  5. Can the Academic Write?
    A conversation about style // THE AWL
  6. How to Be a Writer
    Joy, suffering, reading, and lots and lots of writing // LITHUB
  7. Essay Is the New Black
    What I learned from veteran writers at a panel on essays // THE WRITER
  8. Seven Ideas to Inspire and Improve Personal Essays
    Advice from the NY Times // NY TIMES
  9. The Need to Read
    Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person, and understand life’s questions, big and small // WALL STREET JOURNAL
  10. Consider the Lobster Mushroom
    A brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction // BREVITY
  11. Choose Your Own Memoir
    Comic // GRANT SNIDER

THE STATE OF NONFICTION

  1. Print is the New “New Media”
    On the resurgence of print publications // COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
  2. How Stories Deceive
    A look at the uses (and abuses) of narrative // NEW YORKER
  3. How to Win an Election
    How candidates use the art of storytelling to help swing elections // NY TIMES
  4. Fiction v Nonfiction
    English literature’s made-up divide // THE GUARDIAN
  5. Confessions of a Reluctant Memoirist
    Why has an entire genre come to be defined by its worst iterations? // LITHUB
  6. Can the “Literary” Survive Technology?
    Sven Birkerts on our changing brains and what comes next // LITHUB
  7. Do You Suffer from Memory Blindness?
    The influence of others on what we remember // SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
  8. Where Are All the Women Writing Longform?
    Roy Peter Clark checks the history of the Pulitzer Prizes // POYNTER
  9. The Dark Side of Longform Journalism
    On waiting for the bad to happen // LITHUB
  10. When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do
    Dani Shapiro on the loneliness of the long-distance memoirist // NY TIMES
  11. Dealing in Uncertainty
    The essay may be the perfect form for our time // LA TIMES