Writing the Personal Essay — Forget the Good, Go for the Bad and the Ugly

A star magnolia blossom and a bud, Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall

A sure sign that story has potential is that it looks like the buds on our star magnolia tree — rough, prickly and off-putting — until given a chance to blossom. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When I sit down to write a personal essay or a blog post, I start with a story. I look around in my life for a moment that I can’t let go of. A story that won’t let go of me. Usually it’s something painful or surprising, a prickly story that makes me uncomfortable, sad, worried or inexplicably happy. Something I don’t quite understand – yet.

I notice that if f I start out with an idea or a lesson that I want to pass on to the world, my essay inevitably winds up preachy and bossy.

I also notice that nice stories in which I behave well and come off looking good don’t work too well either. So I look for the bad story, the ugly story, the story that explores one of my  missteps or shortcomings.

A hairy, barely open star magnolia bud. Photo by BF Newhall

Photo by BF Newhall

These stories of mine — the painful, uncomfortable ones — are like the buds on the star magnolia tree blooming in our front yard right now. The buds themselves are prickly, hairy and homely. The blossoms that emerge from those caterpillar-like sheaths are exquisite. All pink and white and succulent.

When a particular story won’t let go of me, even if it’s as hairy and homely as a magnolia bud, I try to get inside that event. What  feelings underlie it?

I keep a special eye out for uncomfortable feelings, biases, assumptions — attitudes that I need to own up to. This is the gold; this is where the reader will identify with the writer. The reader has had similar feelings and experiences and will be grateful that someone is taking them on for her.

If you’d like to try your hand at writing a personal essay, I suggest that before you even sit down to write you let your mind wander. Pick a story that grabs you and let it remind you of other stories with a similar theme or challenge. What do those two or three or four anecdotes have in common?

Often the anecdotes will seem totally disparate on the face of it. They can be personal events from your life. They can also be current events, a TV character, a news item, something you

two pinkish white star magnolia blossoms. photo by BF Newhall

Photo by BF Newhall

witnessed at the mall. All the more interesting then that these seemingly unrelated anecdotes share a theme – which you will very cleverly develop.

String your two or three or four anecdotes together to advance your theme, to make your point. Some anecdotes will be as short as a sentence; others might go on for a few paragraphs.

Be open to new material, new attitudes, new stories popping into your mind as you write. Let yourself evolve as you work.

To be successful, a personal essay needs an aha moment, an epiphany. The author needs to get a new insight and grow. The reader grows along with her. The epiphany comes toward the end of the essay after author has struggled mightily with the subject.

This is why writing can be so rewarding for the writer and the reader. The process of writing causes the writer to go someplace, and he takes his reader along on the journey.

Hm. Reading this essay over, I see that I’ve just done what I’ve told you not to do — teach the reader a lesson. Oops.

For more stories from The Writing Room, go to “Heather Donahue, Or, How I Got Hooked on a Pothead,” “Purple Bearded Irises — Close up and (Very) Personal” or “Writer’s Block and the Toxic Reader.”

Personal Essay, Memoir, Autobiography – What’s the Difference?

These are my working definitions of personal essay, memoir and autobiography. Many pieces will defy category or fall into more than one.

Autobiographies are generally written by public figures. They are mostly about historical events and persons. They may reflect the opinion of the writer, but they are expected to be factual – though often they are not. They tend to be about external events, from the author’s birth to death. (Harry S Truman, Jimmy Carter.)

Memoirs, a variation on the autobiography, are personal stories of the writer’s interior growth and journey. The author may or may not be a public figure. A memoir is similar in structure to a novel, short

Pinkish-white star magnolia blossoms bud out in Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall

Photo by BF Newhall

story or film; it is a narrative – a story. It’s typically chronological. Themes, ideas and reflections are often sprinkled throughout. Memoir is generally book length. (Anne Lamott. Frank McCourt, Barack Obama.)

Personal essays are also about the author’s personal interior journey, but they are organized by theme, as a reflection, rather than as a chronological story. Anecdotes are used to support the author’s thesis.

The anecdotes can be closely related to one another – stories from the author’s relationship with a spouse, for example. Or they can be totally unrelated – a story from a newspaper combined with a story from the author’s own life.

Personal essays are generally short, typically 500 to 2000 words (very roughly). They are often collected in books. (Dave Barry, Nora Ephron. Erma Bombeck.)

A star magnolia blossom seen from the back side with stem and bud casing. Photo by BF Newhall



  1. Thanks for a terrific bit of instruction, Barbara. Not a bit “preachy.” (I’m interested in personal essays.. Also flash fiction. Short attention span!) Many thanks.

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