If writing a personal essay came with a step-by-step guide – and unfortunately it doesn’t – the first step would be to read some great essays.
Analyze what works and what doesn’t and determine why the author may have caught the attention of a publisher.
Here are some thought-provoking questions to consider when reading a personal essay:
- Why does the play speak to you?
- Why did you read to the end?
- How did you get away from trying a little different than what you were doing before you entered it?
Then dissect every paragraph, every sentence, every word, and apply what you’ve learned to your own work.
6 excellent personal storytelling examples
While there are fantastic examples of stellar trials lurking in almost every corner of the internet – and I think beyond the usual suspects like The New York Times, Oprah and The Washington Post – When I teach my personal essay writing course, I frequently turn to the following examples for the reasons given below.
Here are six must-read personal storytelling examples.
1. The fateful discovery made by a woman after the sudden death of her toddler by Rebecca Gummere
Few trials have emptied me to the same degree as Gummere’s trial in O, Oprah magazine. This is an example of a powerful story – one that is truly unique – and that’s what prompted me to read.
Certainly, when I read the first two paragraphs of the story, I froze on it. But Rebecca Gummere used the metaphor wonderfully, with passages like “Multiplying cells begin a straight looping arc, developing into a spiral shape, like a rose, seashell, or galaxy.” She also uses dialogue that provides the right rhythm, mixed with these brilliant metaphors:
“Are you ready?” asks the pathologist.
I nod, making a chalice with my hands, and it goes down into the plastic bucket and lifts my son’s heart and lungs out of the water. I feel a slight weight, like I’m holding a kitten or a bird.
I blink and the world turns beneath me.
In the following paragraphs, she describes her experience, literally blow-by-blow (and I generally avoid clichés; you should always do that in your writing). The rhythm takes the reader to the point where it is impossible to look away. It’s good writing. It’s putting the reader in a scene with you. This is how you sell a trial.
There are many other passages that I aspire to share, but alas, I don’t want to say too much. This is an essay you should experiment with with the author at the time, just as I did the first time I read it.
2. In marriage, beware of big boxes by Cindy Chupack
For me, this is a favorite of the “Modern Love” column. And yes, there are plenty when it comes to Modern Love submissions. In fact, two of the essays I provide as samples appeared in the New York Times “Modern Love” column. The opening declares a truism that many are afraid to say aloud:
In any marriage, even the best marriage, there will come a day when you will wonder why you married this person … this handsome man in a tuxedo publicly ties his life to yours, and you think, ‘He should snow in my house before I would never feel anything but love for this man.
Well it snowed inside my house.
Chupack’s writing is witty, concise, and at times fun. It’s also honest. Equally important, almost any woman who has been married to a romantic can find herself in this story.
Granted, while reading this essay, I was thinking more about my parents’ wedding than mine (my husband’s style of gifting is decidedly underrated), but the point is, there are universal themes scattered throughout. throughout this essay. It boils down to this: Snow, even inside your home, can be very beautiful.
3. Mother Rage: theory and practice by Anne Lamott
I had trouble reading this essay. I wanted to look away, deny Lamott’s experience, pretend I couldn’t understand. But then I had to hit pause and bow. Lamott’s bravery in this play, well, it’s almost unprecedented.
After all, it takes courage to admit this:
One of the reasons I think we’re so angry with our kids is because we can.
Who else can you talk to like that? Can you imagine whistling at your partner,
“You pick up the phone NOW!” No, NOT in five minutes… ”? Or tell a
friend, “You get here this second!” And the more you make me
wait, it’s gonna be worse for you. Or, while talking to a salesperson at
Sear is picking up the ringing phone, grabbing his arm too tight and
shouting, “DON’T DARE answer the phone when I’m talking to you.”
But under fear, I continue to find resilience, forgiveness, even grace.
This essay is more of a rant or even a diary entry than a personal essay, but it works because it’s real. It works because his readers see themselves in his words. It works because she doesn’t fear shame or pain – and she invites her readers to do the same.
4. Your brain’s response to your ex according to neuroscience by Me (Amy Paturel)
I frequently share this essay as an example of a reported essay, not because I wrote it, but because my editor said it was a top 10 monthly traffic for discovermagazine.com.
The reason: People can relate to it – and there are scientific reasons behind our shared experiences.
Seeing him instantly reactivated the networks that my mind had encoded 15 years before. Throw a bear hug into the mix – and the accompanying torrent of oxytocin – and that old brain circuitry lit up like fireworks. Justin Garcia, associate director of research and education at the Kinsey Institute, says it’s no surprise. Much like an alcoholic who regains an urge to drink after decades of sobriety, we can still be drawn to an old lover.
“That doesn’t mean you always want to be with that person,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. This means that there is a complex physiology associated with romantic attachments that probably stay with us for most of our lives – and that’s nothing to worry about, especially if you’ve had a great run.
In a way, this piece gave readers permission to experience all the sensations with an ex-lover, even though there are good reasons the flame stopped burning.
5. Connecting my children to their heritage in Mandarin by Connie Chang
In this piece, Connie Chang transports us to her experience as both a child and a parent, in part by sharing specific details.
As the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants, Chang brilliantly explains what it was like to straddle two worlds – the one her parents emigrated from and the one she landed as a young girl.
The message was clear in the media and popular culture of the 1980s: better to speak English, exclusively and without an accent; replace thermos of meatballs with burgers. My father’s classmate, also a Chinese immigrant, proudly boasted that his children did not know Mandarin, a claim confirmed when his son slaughtered the pronunciation of his own name as my parents watched in undisguised horror.
The room is full of conflict. Chang not only shares her experiences as a young Asian girl trying to assimilate into American life, but also as a parent who wants to preserve her Chinese heritage for her children. The Kicker: She realizes how little she remembers her once-native Mandarin.
Throughout the article, Chang also educates his reader about the growth of Mandarin immersion schools, the seemingly growing interest in learning Mandarin, and perhaps most importantly, how to teach Mandarin to his children. resulted in a deeper bond between her children and their grandparents.
Buried in the vowels and rounded tones of Mandarin, in the whimsical idioms that dot our speech, in the Tang era poems that every child knows, are irrevocable pieces of me, of my family.
And there is redemption!
6. Now i need a place to hide by Ann Hood
Hood’s essay is not only a great example of transformation (ie I used to…. But now I…), but it also beautifully illustrates how a devotee writer can contain a very big story – in this case, the death of a child. Instead of trying to tackle everything from point A to point B chronologically, Hood contains the story with a small piece of the larger puzzle using the Beatles as a vehicle.
For Grace’s fourth Christmas, Santa Claus brought her all the Beatles movies on video, a career photo book and the “The Beatles 1” tape. In no time, playing “Eight Days a Week” as loud as possible became our anthem.
Like the parents, I had shared my passions with my children. And when it came to The Beatles, Grace had grabbed my passion and made it her own. But with his death that passion was turned upside down, and rather than bringing joy, The Beatles haunted me.
In this way, The Beatles become almost like a character in Hood’s story, a way to illustrate Hood’s formidable bond with his daughter. It also ensures that every time we hear The Beatles we are reminded of Hood’s tragic story.
Do you have any favorite personal essay examples? Share them in the comments section below.
This is an updated version of a story that was posted previously. We update our articles as often as possible to make sure they are useful to our readers.
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