‘Everyone has a novel in them,’ is a line that we’ve all heard in one form or another.
The original quip – ‘everyone has a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay’ – is credited as one of Christopher Hitchens’ witticisms.
Hitchens was a hugely influential journalist and public intellectual, known for his quick mind and sardonic put-downs.
By saying this, he’s challenging that age-old belief that everyone has a story to tell by saying that not all stories are actually worth telling and that not everyone can tell their story well.
As a writer and storyteller, I agree that not everyone can tell their story well but anyone can learn how to do it.
If you’ve always felt like you’d love to write a book, but don’t know where to start or feel simply overwhelmed by the thought of tackling a whole book, a personal essay is a great place to start.
The personal essay, also called a narrative essay, is short and doesn’t have to have a plot.
It’s an excellent opportunity for reflection and introspection, allowing you to view and examine your own unconscious beliefs in a context.
It’s more involved than simply writing in your journal, as you still need to consider your form, and will help you to get into writing for a reader, rather than just to clear your own mind.
How do you go about writing an essay about yourself?
Writing a personal essay may sound simple since you’re dealing with a topic that’s very personal to you, but getting started can feel a bit daunting.
A personal essay talks about your thoughts, feelings, experiences and life.
It helps the reader get a clear picture of the most intimate life lessons and experiences that define you.
You may find a need to write a personal essay when you’re applying to school or when seeking a scholarship.
But here I want to look at the personal essay as a more in-depth way of self-expression.
Like any other story, you’ll want to make sure your personal essay has the three main parts: a beginning, a middle and an ending.
By this, I don’t mean you have to start with “Once upon a time…” and end with “The End”.
What I mean is that in order to invite the reader into the world of the topic you want to begin with introducing them to your world.
Then, you’ll add to their understanding by telling of your thoughts, feelings, musings and events in more detail, before ending it all with a conclusion of some kind – since it’s a personal essay it doesn’t have to have a conventional “they lived happily ever after”-ending but you do want to wrap it up and bring your writing to a natural end.
In the beginning (the introducion).
Write like the reader doesn’t know you, and start by giving them a brief on what the rest of the essay is about.
Invite the reader into your world.
A strong first line will pique your reader’s interest and make them want to find out what happens next.
Some of my favourite book opening lines include:
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
From The Year Of Magical Thinking* by Joan Didion
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
From I Capture The Castle* by Dodie Smith
“In case you hadn’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it?”
From The Untethered Soul* by Michael A. Singer
“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
From Mrs Dalloway* by Virginia Woolf
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."
From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* by Douglas Adams
"Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if he could only stop bumping for a moment and think of it."
From Winnie-the-Pooh* by A. A. Milne
"Chapter One: In Which We Learn of the Village of Wall, and of the Curious Thing That Occurs There Every Nine Years"
Chapter description from Stardust* by Neil Gaiman
Moving deeper into the story (the middle).
Time to provide your reader with some context.
Since you’ve just plunged the reader head-first into your world, help them orientate themselves in it.
Like Alice in Wonderland, you need to get them to eat and drink their way to the right size to fit through the door you’ve provided them with.
Here’s where you lay the groundwork for their understanding that will blossom later.
Give them a sense of what to anticipate and establish the rules of the world they find themselves in.
As you’re writing your personal essay, you need to keep in mind what it is that you want to convey to the reader. Your beliefs, lessons and experiences are your guiding light as you explore the narrative together with your reader.
A personal essay is characterised by a conversational manner and a feeling of intimacy.
Think about it as if you’re sitting down in a café on a rainy day with nowhere to go, telling your story to someone you just met and you’re waxing philosophical.
There’s nothing you can’t do with the personal essay.
It’s creative nonfiction and can be anything you want it to be. There’s no subject matter that’s off-limits, no prescribed structure it has to follow – you get to make it up as you go.
Keep your focus on relating your thoughts, opinions and experieces to universal truths.
You’re not just retelling events like you would to a friend – that’s more memoir or autobiograpy – but assigning meaning to things and explaining the significance of events in order for the reader to better understand your story.
Don’t be shy to say exactly what you want to say, the way you want to say it.
The personal essay is not for those who want to toe the line; this is your opportunity to say it like it is.
Narrow your focus.
Be aware of not letting the focus of your writing go too far and wide.
Keep the personal in personal essay by telling the story from your perspective, your feelings and thoughts.
Use experiences that are deeply personal to you to tell the reader about what it means for you, how things changed for you.
Use descriptive language and highlight important details.
Instead of simply stating something, describe it like you’re telling it to someone who can’t see.
Close your eyes and remember how things felt and looked from your eyes, try to draw the reader into becoming you in that moment.
Stephen King calls it as making the reader “prickle with recognition.”
Bringing it home (the ending).
Just like a strong beginning pulls the reader into your world, a good conclusion will release them from the ride of your essay.
Much like when you’re getting off a really good rollercoaster ride, your reader should feel both glad that it’s over, satisfied that they did it and leave them with a thrill of passion, pleasure, learning or agreement (and happy to repeat the experience).
A sense of completion.
Especially when you don’t have that happily-ever-after-ending, it’s more important than ever to leave the reader with a sense of conclusion.
Circling back to your main conclusion or lesson is one way to offer up that sense of having come full curcle.
Try to restate the premise of your essay in a way that reflects the journey the essay has taken.
The reader is hungry to understand what you’ve learned, how you’ve changed and in which ways you’ve grown.
Present them with an insight or truth that challenges your reader to draw their own conclusions.
In the end, your lesson or insight should tie your inner personal experience to the state of the rest of the world.
By going into some reflection and analysis of your journey, you’ll be able to provide your reader with just that.
Consider the following:
- What did you learn?
- How did you change (as compared to at the beginning of the story)?
- How did your experiences change your understanding of your own life?
- Which part of your story shaped you the most? What’s the thing you’ll still remember in ten years’ time?
By crafting a thought-provoking conclusion, you’ll ensure that the impact of your story lingers with the reader even after they’ve finished reading your essay.
Choosing a topic for your personal essay.
Though your story is uniquely yours, there should always be some universal truth to it that will speak to the reader from below the surface.
The very best essay topics are deeply relatable.
Facing your fears, overcoming challenges, discovering new things, making difficult choices, falling in love, doubting yourself and dealing with unexpected change are all universal human experiences.
It’s up to you to interpret it thorugh your particular lens and draw us into the telling of your story.
We’re hardwired to learn through stories and that makes us hungry for real stories and musings from people who are willing to share their lessons, failures and discovered truths.
An outline will help you stay on track.
If you struggle to tell your personal story in a cohesive manner that provides the reader with a beginning, middle and end, creating an outline can be of great help.
Because the last thing you want is a long and rambling story that goes nowhere.
Use an outline to organise your thoughts and sequence of narrative, so that you don’t get to that point where you go, “But oh, wait, I have to tell you this other thing first before you can understand this!”
Those kind of switchbacks are annoying and shred the reader’s patience.
Think about what you want to convey with your story, what’s the promise you’re making in the opening line?
From the very beginning you want to build momentum to keep the reader going, until your essay reaches the climax or turning point.
From there you want to guide them to a conlcusion that evokes an emotional response in them.
Write without fear. Edit without mercy.
Don’t expect to sit down and write the personal essay in one sitting.
Not even professional writers work like that.
You begin by writing your first draft.
Then you edit.
And edit and edit and edit and edit.
One of the most important components of the creative process is time, so give yourself time in between going back and editing your work as well.
Your brain does some of its heaviest lifting while you sleep and good quality sleep is also essential for producing good work.
Sometimes you’ll need a week, sometimes several months or years before something is finished.
So, don’t worry about how long it takes.
Just make sure it’s right.
And when you’re ready, get someone else to look at it.
Feedback can feel deeply personal and you can get quite upset at the things people say about your writing.
Let those feelings come and apply some more time.
Usually, when you get quite upset about something, it’s because you know it needed work and you’re just miffed that other people picked up on it too – which they always will.
When you get to that point where people don’t have much to say about it, but you still see the things that you could have done better, you’re on the right track.
As you go back over it again and again, you’ll see the words that you can cut out and not lose meaning.
As Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said; “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
What he meant by that is that writing is a disciplined craft.
And you have to revise and edit your writing objectively and without sentiment in order to get the best text possible.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
And the sooner you realise that good writing is born from lots and lots and lots of revision the better.
To write is human, to edit is divine.– Stephen King
PS – Just to keep things above board: links marked with an asterisk* are affiliate links, which means if you buy through that link they pitch a few cents into my coffee jar for referring you. It’s at no extra cost to you and I only recommend that which I love myself! Thank you for reading 💛