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Writing the Personal Essay


"Why?"

Every student asked if they know how to write a personal essay and what elements go into it to make it complete answered that yes, they did. When I asked what elements make up a personal essay, they invariably did not know but, they insisted that they could write one. When I asked someone in the class to define a personal essay, they took stabs at it. The answer I liked best (e.g., found to be the most humorous) was, “It’s, like, you know, all about yourself. You know, like, like how old you are and what grade you’re in and stuff about your friends. Your know?” Others said it had to have a thesis, five paragraphs or topical sentences followed by topical commentary. What high school has taught you about the personal essay is, for the most part, woefully inaccurate.

Starting Over – The Personal Essay.

The first issue to be resolved is the purpose of the personal essay. Is it in response to a writing prompt? Is it to supplement an application for college admission? Is it for a scholarship? Sadly, there are innumerable web sites that offer to write personal essays for you (for a fee) and others that give you a basic structure to follow, from which you are not to stray, how many words in a sentence, how many sentences in a paragraph and how many paragraphs in the essay. These sites proclaim how helpful they are and assure that you will do well. Some tell you what to write about. Caveat: do not use the five paragraph method drilled into you in high school.

Annie Dillard provides what is by many the best description of what a personal essay should be: “There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on.”

You’re a first-year student at a university or college. You got As on your essays in high school and you believe you know how to write. Or you don’t like to write and feel that you’re “not a very good writer.” Or you’re a procrastinator and wait until the last possible minute to make any effort to write or you come up with an excuse why you couldn’t get to it. Or you did okay in high school writing classes, never had a great writing teacher in English, but think you know the basics and believe your writing is “pretty good.” Or you not only know how to write, you’re a superb writer, and no one can teach you anything new. After accepting, but not reading, the class syllabus, and listening to your professor drone on and on about how important writing is in the university, you are handed a writing prompt. It says:

Using college lined paper (8.5 X 11), double space, legibly handwrite a personal essay, effectively formatted, that credibly persuades your professor that you know how to write a personal essay that informs the reader about an teaching event or learning moment in your life.

No questions are asked that you can simply answer. You’re not given a topic to discuss. You cannot use your laptop computer. You know you have spelling problems because in high school you were always able to rely on Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check system to catch your errors. The entire writing prompt is a single sentence. 

The better personal essays are about something you already know, something you remind yourself about every day, but it is something worth reminding yourself daily about. Personal essays are never meant to be about something private, they’re for something for your readers. The best essay will provoke emotions, sadness, elation, trepidation, fear, happiness, displeasure, or laughter. The best essays show that the writer can think, not merely react to a questions about a subject. Good writing resonates with the writer and the reader – it gives the reader a thought, a memory, an emotion, or affirms how things should be or tells a story about why they are not as they should be. The material reaches deeper into the self than anything you have written before. The pondering of it presents a quandary, dilemma or puzzle. The answer may not exist or may be in the consequences.

If you are not in the habit of studying or reading with an analytical eye, now is the time to begin. Analysis should be a habit accomplished automatically, giving you the fruits of the tree over which others have labored. When you are reading another person’s writing and it seems somehow revealing or gives you pause to think , “Oh, wow! That really hits the point!”, stop and read it again and figure out how the writer did it. How was the sentence written to create that impact? How did the writer relate a thought to an emotion or another thought or event, that so impressed you? Or suppose the writer expressed a point so poorly that the point the writer is driving for is missed entirely, although you know what she should have written. Stop, analyze it, figure out where the writer went off in the wrong direction, chose the wrong words, or failed to make the intended point so that you understand why the failure occurred. Learn from the writers you read.

Good writing is an art form. Two years after taking my first-year writing class, a student e-mailed me from another university and told me this story:

Dr. Dutton: I just wanted to tell you about this because it was a great experience. In my … class the professor had us write an essay … I handed it in and when I got it back a week later, he had written across the top, “SEE ME IMMEDI-ATELY”. So I went up to him in class and he scheduled an appointment and told me to bring the essay. When I got there he ACCUSED me of buying it and asked me where I bought it from! I was angry and told him that I wrote it and I could prove it because I had the outline and notes in my car. He said to get them and I brought them back. I showed him how you taught us to organize an essay and how to use the parts of the text to discuss each one. He asked where I learned to do this. I told him about my GEW class with you. He said “This kind of writing is a lost art. I am very impressed. I apologize. You have an “A+” on your essay. Your professor taught you well.” I gave him your name and e-mail address. I hope that was okay. Anyway, I began really struggling in your class and you met with me and worked with me and I guess I really did learn. It was awesome having him apologize and give me the “A+” grade. I wanted to say THANK YOU for teaching me how to write! Justin [Last Name Omitted – Capitalization in original].

This is the most telling and reassuring e-mail I have received from a former student over the years. I have received many but this one told a story that had all the elements of a personal essay in it, despite not being intended to be an essay and being an e-mail. I offer this not to boast about my teaching but to demonstrate how, in a brief e-mail, this student wrote what, in a different format, would have been an excellent personal essay.

It is worthwhile for novice writers to notice that there is no specific structure and no required elements for the personal essay. For a young and novice writer, i.e., someone who has just graduated from high school, this can be daunting.

If we examine the e-mail, we notice that it is in the usual e-mail format – one paragraph. In an e-mail, most students treat the writing as conversational and without rules of writing or grammar. I have seen e-mails that contained no punctuation whatsoever, or all upper case letters, or texting abbreviations that, to those of us who do not text voluminously, may be illegible. In this specific e-mail, what is identifiable?

The first sentence contains a hook, words to capture the readers interest and encourage him to continue reading. The hook is “… it was a great experience.” Great experiences of students are events teachers will virtually always be interested in knowing. We eternally hope that such experiences represent a positive learning experience. The student begins telling the story but includes dramatization, emotion related terms that capture the reader’s attention and create an emotional reaction – a desire to discover what was so interesting about the essay that the unusual need for immediacy was called for by the professor when the professor write “SEE ME IMMEDIATELY.” When the student brought his essay to the professor, additional dramatization is poised in the form of the professor verbally accusing the student of blatant plagiarism (“… [he] asked me where I bought it from!”), a student ethics violation as a result of which a student is usually disciplined by the extremes of a failing grade being assigned to the essay or the course and, perhaps, being expelled from the class and perhaps the school! This sort of professorial accusation would grab any other teacher’s attention and cause interest and a need to discover upon what the professor based the formidable accusation and threat of disciplinary action.

The conflict between professor and student is urgent and calls for immediate action by the student if there is to be a favorable resolution. The student informed the reader of his emotional reaction, anger, and his verbal response – that he could prove his innocence. The student shows his action in his resolution effort by showing the professor his pre-writing (outlining and organization) materials and telling the professor how he learned to accomplish the pre-writing activity that allowed him to generate an essay of such high quality the professor thought it has been purchased from a professional writer. The student informed his professor about his previous class and studies and, after consideration, the conflict represented by the ethics accusation was resolved, as shown by the professor’s quoted comment, “This kind of writing is a lost art. I am very impressed. I apologize. You have an A+ on your essay. Your professor taught you well.” My former student then shared his self-earned praise with me by writing, “… THANK YOU for teaching me how to write!” This sentence concluded the paragraph and experience description with a shared emotion, that of satisfaction in knowing the importance of high quality writing.

As his writing professor, I was of course elated and shared the e-mail with friends and colleagues. Such student praise is far uncommon and I was delighted to see that a student who struggled through my GEW course had come so far that he wrote a professional quality essay. The e-mail story has a beginning, a middle and an ending. It shows a complete story, not merely the conclusion or the beginning. It is not abbreviated but redolent with emotions. This seems to be the first time this student’s writing has given him immense satisfaction and proof that he can write well. The e-mail, with greater detail, could easily become a personal essay.

Identify and make note of the writing of others that is successful. Make note of what they said, how it was said, and the organization of what was written. A personal essay describes the confrontation or conflict the author faced, shows the reader how that specific occurrence was important in the writer’s life, shows the reader the personal or cultural differences between the writer and friend or family, and explains to the reader why and how the occurrence is important to the reader to learn from the experience.

Consider the event or experience your essay focuses on and how it does so. Straying from that focus may distract the reader from your central idea. When writing your essay, consider how a person reacts. Does the person say something? Does she make gestures? How can you convey truth and sincerity without losing the reader? Keep in mind that emotional reactions, facial expressions, words, gestures, may not be interesting to a reader. For interest to be gained, these emotional expressions must relate to a central event that grips the reader deeply.

Different forms of the personal essay exist:

  • ·         Reflective or Contemplative
  • ·         Poetic or Lyrical
  • ·         Confrontation or Conflict
  • ·         Spiritual or Religious
  • ·         Environmental or Nature
  • ·         Personal Growth or Maturity
  • ·         Gourmet or Home Cooking
  • ·         Humor or Comedy
  • ·         Travel
  • ·         Modernity (E-Mail, Blogs, Facebook, et al)

Reflection and Contemplation

In my first-year writing class, one of the essays required is a “Reflective Essay,” which addresses how the student grew as a writer. These vary greatly and many students do not stay focused upon the call of the writing prompt: how she grew as a writer. The writing prompt asks the student specifically not to discuss the class or the instructor but to focus on the student personally. The student’s desire, of course, is to discuss what she wishes to discuss and no restriction will abide since the essay is ungraded. Two of these reflective essays are offered as examples. The idea of a reflective or contemplative personal essay is to reflect, contemplate, deliberate, ponder or speculate, or any combination of these slightly varied ideas, upon an idea, event, or part of dialogue (something someone said to you that caused you to pause and think). These essays were written by students whose assigned reflection was their growth as a thinking person and writer after completing a rhetorical analysis course. Unlike the more formal analytic essays, the personal essay is to be written in first person, to delve into the changes in the writer as she learned to improve her writing, learned to think critically, and learned to analyze and closely study a text for its interpretive and profound meaning. The hope is that the writer learned to think more profoundly an learned to find various ways to interpret the meaning of words, phrases and concepts expressed in a text.

One 

     The first semester has been filled with growth. GEW 101 has taught me tremendous lessons I will take with me. Not only in writing, but also life lessons. This class has not only improved my writing, but it has also given me confidence to succeed. Through this class, I have learned many things about myself as a writer as well as a person.

     I liked Mr. Dutton’s way of teaching. Rather than being strict and unbending, which would have just ended up bruising my ego, it has been a boost of my self confidence. Many teachers feel the need to establish themselves by being strict. This does not help them gain respect. Being understanding of students and willing to help them learn is the way to gain respect from students. Teachers need to realize that college students should be treated differently than H.S. students. By providing guidance and giving me opportunities, this class has given me the tools needed to be successful.

     I have progressed so much with my writing and as a person. Writing essays and being taught a new method for writing has given me a new perspective towards writing. This class makes me want to write and I feel as if I can tackle different writing projects.

     The Martin Luther King Jr. essay was the essay that I believe was a turning point for me. I spent the most time on it and after that essay I received an A on my next essay. My writing improved because I put so much time into it and thoroughly understood what I was doing. I went in for the professor’s tutoring several times. I spent a day studying the essay and conducting research. My outline was ten pages. From taking the time to organize well and write effectively, I gained the confidence needed to write papers well.

     This class has been a major factor in my success this semester. It helped me grow as a person. Without it, I would never have gained the confidence this class provided. It taught me that when I focus, I can accomplish anything. I had never believed in myself enough to put the time into a paper, I feared failure, especially when I put my all into something and failed. Taking this class, taught me that when I apply myself I can succeed in whatever I desire. I am so happy that I chose to take this class because it provided me with numerous life lessons.

Two

      When I started the class, I was confident that I would pass easily. I did not believe it would be a challenge. With the first assignment, I put it off until the last minute and did not much time into it. When I got it back, I realized that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. I knew I had my work cut out for me because my essay was pretty much one hundred percent wrong and all summary of what I had read. I knew that I would have to change the way I wrote completely if I wanted a passing grade. I was very nervous because of all the work ahead of me.

     High school did absolutely nothing to prepare me how to write analytically. Every essay I write in high school was summary with no analysis. It was very easy to get an A without even putting in much of an effort, which made it very hard for me to adjust to the way of writing that my professor wanted. I just figured it would be the same at the university level and it was definitely anything but that. I believe that this is why I struggled at the beginning of my GEW class.

     I knew that if I didn’t put in a lot of time into each essay, I wouldn’t get the grade I wanted. My professor was very helpful in the fact that he was willing to meet students outside of class to help with anything I needed. Throughout the semester, I met with my professor over twenty times for help on my essays, and if I had not done that, I know that I would not have been able to be successful.

     The most challenging essay for me this semester was the Martin Luther King essay on his letter from the Birmingham jail. This was a ten page analysis of his letter, and required five scholarly sources to back the analysis. I knew that if I procrastinated, I would have no chance of getting a good grade on this essay. So, when it was assigned a month and a half before the due date, I took it upon myself to get started as soon as possible. Because I was able to get my rough draft done early, I also had time to meet with my professor many times. By the time th essay was due, I has already had it looked over and revised three times. By not procrastinating, I was able to get a solid A on the paper and the feeling of accomplishment was priceless.

     Although the Martin Luther King Jr. essay was the hardest for me this semester, at the same time it was also the easiest, because I chose no to procrastinate, and dedicated my time to meeting with the professor for help. This essay raised my confidence and allowed me to believe in myself as a writer. I have become much more confident thanks to this essay, and I have also learned a lot about how to write analytically.

     GEW 101 was definitely a very challenging class, but it has helped me so much to grow as a writer. I no longer write simply a summary of what I have written, but now am able to analyze the writing in depth. At the university level, the professors expect a lot more of you, and I have realized that I can no longer gey by with slacking off and procrastinating on my work until the last possible minute. I believe that this class has prepared me with the knowledge I need to be successful later on in my time at Cal State San Marcos. I hope that in my future my professor will be able to help me as much as Professor Dutton did this semester.

These reflective or contemplative essays were written by students that received a course grade of “A” and, while the first concluded her education with a B.A., the second went on to earn a multi-level teaching credential and is now employed as a K-12 teacher.

It is without doubt, that the worst resource enabling poor writing are thousands of web sites that reinforce poor writing methods and bad habits. Settling for the minimum is a way to pass a course but not the way to achieve a 4.0 Grade Point Average. For example, one web site suggests, “[f]ollow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.” The format recommended was this: “[t]he key to maintaining reader interest is to be open and honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts about how you think a subject is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you’ll explain things any better that your own father did.” What direction does this provide? None that I can glean.  Some students learn little. Despite comments and suggestions written on essays for constructive criticism, a few students choose to ignore what they are being taught and hang, as if life depends upon it, to the method taught in high school. The constructs so taught, are specifically designed to ease the stress upon students and to give them a specific structure to use repeatedly. However, as the authors (e.g., Schaffer) of the structures write in their teaching, the students are expected to move on from the method and grow.

One particularly stubborn or perhaps immature student in my class, however, took the high school taught structures further, much further, than intended by the author of the method. He refused to learn rhetorical analysis, persisted in writing his essays in the method described above (supra, Schaffer) and pointed to low B and C grades on essays in other classes as proof that he was right in his choice. He never wrote an essay that earned a grade higher than B- in my class. He refused to learn proper citation method (MLA) even though it had been taught and used in his high school. He preferred his own citation method that fit no accepted professional model taught. Counseling was for naught. In his personal essay (assigned as a reflective essay), he instead wrote a page and a half ranting about his wasted time in the course and repeatedly referred to his barely adequate grades as proof that the topical sentence, summarization and commentary method was the correct way to write an essay, regardless of the plethora of texts to the contrary and despite the objectives of the course, which is designed to improve their writing to a level at which it will receive higher grades in university courses. Tenacious o the last, I did not quit on him and tried to persuade him otherwise until the day he handed in his portfolio of writing and received a moderately passing grade in the course. Sadly, he is a bright student and possesses a higher than average vocabulary.

            Poetic or Lyrical

One of the brighter students in one of my writing classes enjoyed the fiction work so much that, instead of an essay comprised of ten pages with five scholarly sources, he wrote a seventeen page essay with eleven scholarly and other reliable sources. I have a minimum page requirement but allow for no maximum so that students maybe as creative as they wish. His reflective personal essay was accomplished in a poetic style, which was the first such essay composed by a student in my experience of more than eight academic years of teaching writing. His poetry is recited below, as an example of a personal essay method that is impressive for the insight and thoughtfulness it shows.

Reflective Poetry

 I went into college expecting the first year to be tolling, grueling, and only stepping stones to my ultimate future. Out of the three options I gave myself, listed above, one of them was true, the first years of college are stepping stones. My reflective essay is written in the form of a poem, a means to reassure and remind myself of the importance of
full investment in life:

Life passes by so quickly,
I do always wonder … how fast will she run?
Maybe she should job, or possibly even walk,
No, she shall not walk … without the running she loses her excitement.
With too much running she is indeed out of breath,
So shall she jog?
A mixture of all three: jog, walk, and run.
This is accurate but just a metaphor,
For in this world I find myself always wanting more,
So I shall be the strongest, and I shall be fit, and good looking, and rich,
and famous, and happy,
Though how often will I realize what truly makes me happy?
With all miracles around me, bless me to fly?
Or empty from disregard of them, force me to die?
Will I be indulged by the material objects that surround me?
Then will I fly?
Or will too much indulgence in material objects force me to die?
What will it ultimately be that grants me a smile?
The Ipod 4G or holding my first child.
Life grants you choices and notions to conceive,
She grants you happiness in all realms of spirit, for as Sherman Alexie
teaches: to succeed, in myself I must believe,
Is happiness brought forth through another’s pain,
Peter Singer teaches, it’s not fair for test animals to die in vain!
The connections to spirit and nature are mankind’s only hope, only
happiness,
The residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation drowned from lack of
this.
Thus, as an infant, a man cannot jump to his feet and expect to walk,
He must learn fulfillment from the depths to the top.
Life, she runs, walks, and jogs.
For the boring part of walking we learn to jog, and from the grueling part
of jogging we become strong enough to run.
Yet at the end of running we do not fly, we simply walk again.
So I wish to control myself. To accomplish and succeed in all my
endeavors. For when I run … I shall not walk … I shall fly!

 This poem combines the underlying meanings I contracted from the personal essays analyzed in class. I hope that the message of my poem may reverberate in the reader the same way the lessons I learned in GEW will reverberate throughout my life. Sincerely, /s/

 The poem is unique in its structure but well intended in its depth of insight and profoundness of thought. Tall and D’Agata (1997) provided a description of what they called the lyrical essay:

The lyrical essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form … The lyrical essay … elucidates through the dance of its own delving.

Of course, to understand what is involved you have to analyze the poem and speculate about the author's motives. So it's nice when you know the author and can ask for an explanation that can accompany the poem, which explanation follows:

Through the poetry, reading assignments, and novels, I read in GEW with Professor Walter Dutton, I learned of what I claim to be true happiness. This true happiness is the basis of my poem.  

I speak about life walking, jogging, and running, thus sending the reader a clear message, embrace life for what it is and not what it should be. The easy parts of life are there to ready oneself for the moderately difficult parts, and furthermore the moderately difficult parts are to ready oneself for the most difficult parts. (Walking, jogging, and running being easy, moderate, and hard.)

Walkers: With walking, a person is moving in a certain direction, slowly, but with an ultimate destination. Some people stay walking their entire life, and this brings happiness to them. Walking is not a bad thing, since if there was no walking a person would run through his life missing or forgetting much of it. Walking is our way of “catching our breath,” and internalizing messages and lessons we’ve learned. However obsession with walking is a bad thing. People obsessed with walking are stuck, they fear moving forward in life because it takes too much extra exertion of oneself, they want life to be “easy,” and this is their downfall.

Joggers: Joggers exert more of themselves but at a steady pace. Joggers are the people you’ll find behind desk, at steady jobs, trying to bring in a steady income for their families. Jogging is an important concept in the fitness world because high endurance jogging brings about a “runners high.” This is described as one of the best feelings a person can experience. In life jogging leads to feelings of accomplishment, it brings about “runners high.” Almost everybody in life is a jogger, and this is ok. The only downfall of joggers is their low levels of ambition to become anything more than ordinary. It’s not the fear of exertion, as in walkers, it’s the fear overexertion and having to walk again.

Runners: Runners are able to get from one place to another at a quick pace, this is the definition of speed. Runners are ambitious and fun loving, they are able to embrace life for its exciting moments. The best quality of a runner is the ability to push themselves out of their comfort zone. Running takes a lot of strength and in life runners are the ones that stand out. To clarify, think of yourself on a street walking and someone sprints by, you immediately notice them. People who love running also fail a lot because they reach exhaustion quickly. However after failing they have three choices to walk, jog, or run. Those who keep running are the ones we see as mavericks and icons.

In my poem I emphasize the point that all three are important concepts in life. This I learned from Professor Dutton’s grading techniques. On my first paper I received a C+.  To me this was completely unacceptable and possibly one of the worst grades I have ever received. At first I came down on myself harshly, but then during an office hour meeting Professor Dutton explained to me the importance of slowing down to learn new methods for my writing. He explained the important aspects of walking to me. So I walked. I learned the methods he taught, I applied the methods he taught and I was once again doing well in the class. At that point I was jogging, because I still hadn’t put in an incredible amount of effort, but was doing well. I decided one night while writing that I would put all my effort into a single paper and experiment with the outcome. This paper was animal liberations. (Hence the reason I mention it in my poem as “not dying in vein.) I received an A on the paper and at that moment I knew I had sprinted. By combining walking, jogging, and running in every aspect of my life I was experiencing a certain feeling many call success. And this concept of “interval training” in life, was by far the most important I learned directly from Walter Dutton’s class. I realized that it takes all three to gain wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, it’s a theory I still use until this day.

 My second point in my poem was something I learned from the author Sherman Alexie. He expressed in his novel, “Reservation Blues,” a fear of his tribe losing its connection with their natural, spiritual roots. I internalized this as a person’s daily struggle in the world between material happiness and natural/ spiritual happiness.

The quality of life has changed drastically in the past 20 years, since the year 1990. The world has been bombarded with a plethora new “technological luxuries,” gismos and gadgets which stalk holders and CEOs claim to be the revolution of modern day happiness. But that is the key term, “happiness.” My logical reasoning is based on the fact that the internal aspects of life” itself” have changed very little, these aspects being biological, like breathing for oxygen, exercising for physical health, etc. However the external elements of life such as computer processors, video reality, and personal entertainment have changed dramatically and many people are obsessed with it. In my freshman year I watched people literally get engulfed in the pleasures that the material world had to offer. Unfortunately they became so engulfed in material pleasures that they lost themselves. For this reason I write in my poem,

“Will I be indulged by the material objects that surround me?

Then will I fly?

Or will too much indulgence in material objects force me to die?

What will it ultimately be that grants me a smile?

The Ipod 4G or holding my first child.”

             To bring a direct argumentation towards those who believe that without the modern day gismos and gadgets there is no happiness. It is an important concept to recognize that the natural world has more long term happiness than anything in the modern day physical world. The happiness that the feelings of accomplishment create are independent of the action. Meaning a person can still feel happiness from accomplishing a goal even without continuously accomplishing that goal. That happiness is long term, and thus is term we know as success. However physical happiness is completely dependent on the physical object that brings pleasure, for example you can’t get pleasure from a video game without playing the game. ( In fact it has been noted that many people’s addictions fester on constant recognition of  pleasure from a certain external source.) The immediate happiness and pleasure from the physical world always needs to be reapplied.  The difference is, accomplishing a goal takes lots of time and energy, lots of running, though it is the essence of human happiness. In essence it is biologically the source of happiness, success. This type of pleasure lasts with an individual for a lifetime. The pleasure from an external, physical source is quick and takes little effort. Though without it, there is no pleasure and biologically pleasure is constantly missed, this is the heart of addiction.

            My point being that physical pleasure is easy. Plagiarism, copying, all of these methods of passing a class are easy, but have you learned, will you be able to reproduce your work? No, because without the external crutch there is no you. This is no pleasure and accomplishment. Put in the effort and gain wisdom that will follow you for years to come.

My final point in this poem is the concept of flying. Flying has always been identified as a mystical means of transportation. If a person can fly they must be magical, or it’s an obvious miracle. Well the Wright Brothers challenged this claim, and in 1903 flew their first successful flight. The Wright Brothers weren’t able to fly without effort; this is definitely not the case. It took from 1896 until 1902 to develop a proper means to aircraft transportation. Then finally after almost seven years of grueling labor they were able to fly, so what is there to learn from this? Flying is not impossible!!! I see flying in life as the ultimate exertion of oneself past the exhaustion of sprinting to failure. This means that even after countless failures on still tries harder to accomplish a goal, then finally accomplishes it. The accomplishment of that goal is flight.

            Flight in comparison to walking, jogging, and running, takes place above the ground and therefore the consequences of falling, or failing, can be fatal, though the rewards are beyond anything in this world. Flight is mentioned three times in my poem. The first time in connection with supernatural occurrence, the second time in conjunction with physical indulgence, and the third is at the end when I state,

“Yet at the end of running we do not fly, we simply walk again.

 So I wish to control myself. To accomplish and succeed in all my endeavors.

For when I run ... I shall not walk .... I shall fly!”

 Walking is too easy, and jogging to steady, even with running gravity stands a limitation, we can’t leave the ground. Or can we? I learned that we can, you only must never give in to failure, and always strive for success. 

Poetic or lyrical writing is demanding of the writer. Every word choice, word placement, the number of syllables in each word, the sound of each word[1], and the rhythm created by the combination of these elements, create melodies in our minds. If poetical rather than lyrical, a rhythm may yet be detected based upon the same elements.  So when writers describe these essays, musical and poetry terms are applicable. Assonance, the repetition of or a pattern of similar sounds, especially those of vowels, creates a noticeable change in the routine sound of sentences written without poetic tension. A common term many are familiar with is alliteration, the repetition of the same or similar sounds at the beginning of the words in a sentence. Alliteration is one of the less difficult applications but, like others, requires specific intentionality on the part of the author.

            Exploration

Albert Einstein told us that, “[t]he pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives.” How can we be children at any age when we choose to chase after truth and beauty? Complete truth and utter beauty are usually viewed as unattainable because, as a truth seeker, most of us soon find ourselves settling for less; less than the complete and knowable truth we might strive for on a specific topic involving our self. It seems we cannot know the entire truth about an external object or person because we cannot know that object or person from within; we can only see what it or she lets us see from the outside. Beauty is singular and its perception changes with each subtle change of mood or vision or expectation. No mental or emotional exertion can sufficiently overcome our innate inability to see perfectly every moment, from moment to moment. Scott Russell Sanders, a prolific author and nominee for the Pulitzer Prize compared the writing of personal essays to “the pursuit of mental rabbits,” well described by Dinty W. Moore in Crafting the Personal Essay as “… the idea that a successful essay is a hunt, the chase, a ramble through thickets of thought, in pursuit of some brief glimmer of a fuzzy truth” (Moore 76).  Moore suggests a writing exercise that holds promise for writing an essay of personal exploration: pick a childhood memory and capture it with words that represent your very best effort at portraying the memory. Once captured, go on a memory hunt, a tenacious chase (with the effort of a seven year old Annie Dillard running from the victim of a snowball attack), continually asking yourself why you enjoy that specific memory.

To write an explorative personal essay, choose a particular observation or memory and, as you proceed down your meandering path of striving to find the truth of the observation or memory, write about your adventure. We know that each time we access a memory, our recollection of it, or the truth of our remembrance, changes with each access. Since this is a neuroscientific truth, we can accept it and explore our innermost feelings in an effort to discover why we have held the memory or an observation we now recall because the first sighting is past. What emotions and other memories are along the neural pathways through which we journey as we try to understand the truth of it? Why have we attached importance to the memory and chosen it from so many others? What, and it how many ways, does it represent? In a thesis I wrote for my M.A. in Literature & Writing at CSUSM, titled “Using Story and Narrative in the Rehabilitation of Persons with Acquired Brain Injury” I wrote extensively about the search for self. As a brain injury survivor, one often recognizes at some point after the acute phase of injury treatment has passed, that major fundamental changes to the mind have occurred. At times, the survivor has difficulty conceiving of the idea of “I am,” much less anything more complicated. Some know their names, have memory access to varying degrees, from various forms of amnesia to partial memory to nearly intact recall. But in all cases, the self has changed; the personality, relationships, the idea of self becomes very important.

Most of the readers of this page have not suffered a brain injury and have intact memory access, although by the nature of being human, all have various issues with recall clarity, accuracy and time. As a brain injury survivor, I have lived through brain injury several times and have been blessed to have retained substantial, though problematic and imperfect, memory access but significant verbal skills. Upon these skills, I now rely to thrive as best I can. Whatever experience or memory you select to write about, choose wisely and well, because your writing experience and the reading experience of your readers will revolve around your insight into self. The self of which we all exist and grow is taken for granted by most. Few people consider the possibility of losing their own story, their memories, their self.

Rejoice in your wholeness. Preserve your wellness. Treasure every moment, every experience and, even if you don’t like math or writing, take advantage of the opportunities in your life to learn. When you write about a memory, it’s easy to simply draw a word picture of a memory. Like a still photograph, anyone can summarize. Delving more deeply into the emotions related to the memory, into the memories related to it, into the experiences surrounding it and the words spoken by others, your words; the words you spoke to which others reacted and replied, smiled, cried, were annoyed, grew irritable or angry, screamed, fainted, or ignored. The possibilities are limited only by what you can recall and narrate. Conversations, as best recalled, can be written as dialogue. If you have specific emotive recall, it might be written as monologue.

In most stories we write from memory, we write them in a linear fashion. Stories, we are taught, have a beginning, a middle and an end. Fiction is structured similarly and creative nonfiction – personal essays, memoirs and biographies, are often similar. Have you read a book that started with the end in the first chapter? It is likely to be a prolific author who is capable of starting with the end or climax of the story and then still being so competent as to make the following beginning and middle suspenseful enough to keep your interest. In most of the books I have read that seemed to begin with the end, the author took me into the past then built the suspense until the end appeared and passed from sight to reveal the true climactic moment of the story.

In explorative personal essays, anything is possible because no structure is common to all, no sequence usual and no moment in time is the end. For the reader, surprise is never turned down. A memory of a tragedy that seemed to be the most awful moment in a writer’s life can be imposed upon by a reversal, a survival, a beginning. Composers of the lyrics of a song or poetry are not limited by structure or the meaning of words. Words can be redefined, just as memories and experiences redefine our lives. Only the writer, who knows in what sequence she wants to reveal the memories and story, can know what structure to form. The value of each part of a story comprised of memories is decided by the author and the rhythm of disclosure is important to keeping the interest of the reader. How is rhythm chosen? The possibilities in music and poetry are endless and so it is with a personal essay. A crescendo, created from the suspense of an event, may flow with appasianato or pisante. When the reader’s feelings are engaged by the rhythm of words and images, the reader can feel the emotions felt by the writer in the moment and within the memory’s movement.

The length of sentences, the vocabulary, the words of expression of feelings should show the reader a memory, not tell the reader about it. Natural feelings enjoyed by the reader spells success for the story revealed in a personal essay of exploration. It is not only emotions that should be explored but the memory, its fine details, its colors, its abruptness, its allegro or maestoso. It takes practice to achieve emotional rhythm in the exploration of a memory. Read many and varied authors. Make notes about their individual styles, style changes and why a different style seems to be appropriate for one subject or another.

Another way to approach the exploration of an remembered experience is to begin with something that can be described as an unimportant part of an important whole. In Annie Dillard’s, “The Death of a Moth,” she begins her essay with the observation of a small spider and its web, built behind and below the toilet in bathroom in a cabin where she is staying. She expands the observation of the web to the nature of the location – a safe place in a seemingly remote part of the cabin. She moves to the web and discovers the husks of moth bodies beneath the web and the spent bodies of other insects. Once the spider’s world has been explored, Dillard recalls having friends over and using candles for lighting. In a candle alights a moth which becomes trapped by the fire and wax of the flame and becomes a second wick. The nature of the moth serving as a wick is explored, using similes, to explore her insight into how a life is lived, how it can be wasted if one does not put everything into it. Near the end of the essay, she reveals that she has used these stories of memories and experiences to teach a writing class that being a writer requires reading and writing all the time; that one must be willing to devote their lives to the profession because it is a continual learning process. She asks the class how many wish to become professional writers and all raise their hands; she muses and skeptically wonders if they understand the extent of devoted work involved, if they truly mean it and can live their lives so completely.

The exploration is one of the life well spent, devoted to its cause, whether a spider building a web and killing insects to survive and in preparation for young or the life of a moth ended early, incompletely, unless you consider its acting as a second wick to provide more light. Does every student in the class possess the will to devote a life to reading and writing to become one of the best? The slowly revealed exploration of the life and death of the moth, compared to the complete life of the spider or the dedication and commitment needed to become a professional writer, takes on greater significance when contemplated as lessons to a writing class. 

            Essay of Conflict

When we recall a conflict, there are many ways to see it, explore it, portray it, relive it, or perhaps Dealing with conflict or mastering conflict may be one of the most difficult tasks a writer may undertake. Conflicts are not only between persons. Organizations (governments, political parties, religious bodies, schools), companies (Microsoft, Apple, IBM), military services (USAF, Army, Navy), sports (football teams, baseball, soccer, tennis), shoes (Nikes, Reebok), stores, colors (red – the color of conflict, blue – peace), and just about anything you look at in your home or office or place of work has some entity (person or business) in conflict with it.  Here are a few conflicts which have been the subjects of personal essays:

  • ·         Betrayal by a loved one
  • ·         Sudden death of one for whom you care
  • ·         The colors and patterns chosen for dress
  • ·         War, combat
  • ·         Self

The possibilities are endless. Conflicts are not static; they grow and lessen in intensity. Teenagers are often in conflict with, well, everyone and everything. Marital conflict has been written about from many perspectives. Life and death are in continual conflict. When a loved one passes away, survivors are conflicted. We want the person back in our lives or we may be angry with a relative who seems relieved the person has died.

Relationships are in and out of conflict. Nearly seventy percent (70 %) of married brain injury survivors’ marital relationships end in divorce. The reasons are many – changed personalities, the survivor is no longer functional in the relationship, mood swings, major depression, loss of income and income potential, and others. The conflicts between siblings are the subject of stories, books and movies. Marital conflict exists due to mental or mood disorders, impulsivity, adultery, pedophilia, work-aholism, alcoholism, drug abuse (illicit or prescription), deceit, and endless other reasons.

When did the conflict originate? Often, no one seems to know. What causes it to become volatile? What reduces conflict? How does a person modify her behavior to lessen conflict? Where is the beginning, middle and end of a story of conflict? Which scenes best represent the true nature of the conflict? I remember our daughters when they were teenagers saying, “You don’t understand!” If you have parented a child to adulthood, you have probably heard the statement or accusation. Why is a person confused, surprised, angry, startled, happy, ecstatic, or depressed about the conduct of the person who is the other half of a relationship? I know a psychotherapist who uses a writing technique to help breach walls between couples. This therapist had each patient in couple therapy write a personal essay about a very narrowly defined part of their conflicts. They were provided with a writing prompt and the prompt asked them to identify the problem, define it, discuss when and why it began, when and why it has risen to a degree that it has become a conflicted issued in the relationship, write about what the other person could do to improve things and what the writer could do to improve things. They were asked to consider the values involved, forgiveness, love, the importance of maintaining the relationship, and so on. At their therapy session, they read their essays to each other and the listener took notes, not interrupting, then responded without anger or name calling. For couples who were inclined to write and think, this method can work well. For others, it would not be considered.

Conflicts begin within individuals. The conflict may stay within a person. If the person is motivated to introduce it into a relationship, the conflict is shared and complicated by the other person’s ideals, values, thoughts and motives. It may stay just between the two persons or grow and grow. Wars have resulted from interpersonal rivalry.

When you choose a conflict to write about for a personal essay, consider choosing one of your own making. Contemplating this may help you see a conflict differently. Perhaps you decide you have never been the person who initiated a conflict. As unlikely as this seems, choose one someone else initiated. Spend time considering how, when, and why the person would initiate the specific conflict. Consider your reaction to the instance you sensed the conflict. What were your feelings? How did you react? Did you consider other possible ways to react? Did you think about motives – for each of you? What happened next? When writing your first draft, muse on the page. Let your feelings take you different directions and into different possibilities.

Resolution is available for virtually every conflict. I recently role played at the request of the speaker, Jack Hamlin, in a seminar for the Restorative Justice Mediation Program. My part was as a senior citizen who was a curmudgeon and who’s home and car was pelted with eggs by a fifteen year old neighbor girl out of spite because he yelled at them for throwing trash in his yard, harassing his dogs, spitting and so forth. Jack Hamlin acted as mediator and one of his cohorts, a very pleasant young woman, played the part of the juvenile offender. In restorative justice mediation, each person involved tells the story from that singular perspective, in parts, and the other person repeated back what was said, monitored by the mediator, to ensure understanding and comprehension is achieved. This produces a sense of relationship and, hopefully, compassion and understanding, at the end. And produces suggestions from each concerning how the conflict might be resolved and no further incidents occur. In this case, I deferred the $1,200 damages restitution and the girl volunteered to clean up my yard five days a week for four months (after the school kids had passed). Restorative justice is a fascinating concept and I am looking forward to taking part as a mediator.

The story was told, for our purpose here, from inception to conclusion. The stories of each person varied, as stories do, and each reached an understanding of the motives and feelings of the other. This is what restores the persons involved to a new beginning from which they can build a different and hopefully better relationship; thus justice is restored. If the session had been recorded, the transcript would be much like a personal essay, told in parts, with thoughtfulness and musing, and having resolution. Perhaps imperfect, but the best that could be achieved, much like the conflicts of which we often write.

Examples exist in many anthologies. Read and enjoy. Then try writing your own. Use and express your emotions fully. Show the reader your zeal, excitement, anger, hatred, happiness, melancholia, conflict (internal and exterior), need for action, or need for peace. Be unafraid to reveal the truth and let the truth guide you to memories. Let the memories guide your writing about conversations, feelings, and the pathways upon which you wandered as you sought or seek resolution.

            Spirituality and the Spiritual Personal Essay

Spiritual essays tend to show insight, deep feelings, convictions, and reveal conflicts concerning existence and belief. Spirituality and writing is a topic of a seminar I teach through CSUSM from time to time. Many believe that to find the one true God, you must look within. Many religious leaders and spiritual writers meditate, finding that peaceful place within which allows the self to know God. It was once written that “[b]y three things is the world sustained: by truth, by judgment, and by peace” (Mishnah, Pirqei Avot 2:12). I have spoken with many combat veterans since 1972 and, without fail, every one responded to my question the same way. My question was, “Do you think that combat, meaning deploying men to kill each other at war, is the best way to achieve peace?” I have probably rephrased the question from time to time over the last four decades but, the essence of it has consistently been true. The veterans who were involved in actual combat replied, with variations of phrase and words, “No.” I received the same answer when I asked if the following oft quoted saying was true: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Some who answered elaborated with a comment to the effect that the opposite was often true, that some lost their faith facing death. It seemed to me, though, that when I could engage the person in more personal and involved conversation on the sensitive topic, many opined that the choice was individual and that every man was different when in combat.

With this latter, I wholeheartedly agree. Why, but for the grace of God, am I alive today? Opportunities to die have not been few. An inch, a few feet, an hour, a few seconds, a carefully made choice, an unconscious decision; all these have separated me from discovering what exists, if anything, beyond the world in which we live. I am not unique – quite common, in fact. I once spent nearly an hour in conversation with another combat veteran discussing what it sounded a felt like to have a rifle round pass close enough that you felt the hair on your head lift and you heard the buzzing sound only a bullet can make. Within the conversation ran a stream of spirituality, with faith floating on its surface, and survival dependent upon what some call chance and some call belief.

To write an essay with a theme of spirituality, must you have survived facing death? Certainly that cannot be true because so many wonderful poems, essays and stories have been written about the experience of spirituality. Do you have to write about the question of whether or not we really exist? Or whether or there is a God? Or whether or not you believe in God? Or whether one religion is more true or right that the others – Islam, Christian, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, or another? You don’t have to even discuss a religion, but focus on the spiritual world that seems to coexist with our own vibrant and very real world. On what part of spirituality can you write? Anything. It is more likely than not that, some time in your life (whether you are ten or ninety) you have had a spiritual experience or thought about spirituality. When someone we are close to is ill, especially with a terminal illness, most of us pray. One need not belong to an organized religious body to speak with your God. I do not write neutrally about this topic because I have a strong faith.

Doubting Thomas” gives writers the right to point to the Bible and say that, look, even when Jesus was walking, praying and speaking in Israel, there were those close to Him who was uncertain about their faith. Whether or not spirituality is a clear and certain idea is for each thinker and writer to mull over. A writer who is writing a personal essay and writes in absolute terms about the correctness of the beliefs taken by that writer does the disfavor and enjoyment of reasoning. I have seen this in several essays written by students who claim a faith and belief that is absolute, without uncertainties, and never to be discussed in any other terms. Who wrote, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die[2]? I ask this question of my first-year writing students in the university. Not one in eight years has ever known. When was the pledge, “With this ring I thee wed.” first used[3]? Who is known to have for the first time, written:

  • ·         Appearances often are deceiving”
  • ·         “Familiarity breeds contempt”
  • ·         “Self-conceit may lead to self-destruction”
  • ·         “Do not count your chickens before they are hatched”
  • ·         “The gods help them that help themselves”[4]

If these ideas were originally written of in ancient times, how much more does one have to work with after completing a modern education? These are idea to build upon. Aesop’s Fables, written some sixteen hundred years ago, are used yet today in elementary schools.

Spirituality begins in and comes from, to coin a euphemism, the heart. Without the willingness to believe that there exists some life beyond what we can touch, feel smell and see is to ignore levels of existence. With different lens, we see substances that exist beyond our immediate senses of perception. We perceive the dark matter that blocks our view of parts of the galaxy and other parts of our universe exists because it blocks our sight, not because we can see it, but because we cannot see it. We have no satellites that have traveled beyond our immediate solar system except for Voyager I, and it continues to transmit faint signals. We have nothing that can physically detect dark matter, so is it on faith that we accept its existence?  If a region of dark matter is entered by our solar system, would it entirely deprive us of all solar light, without which we know we cannot exist? Since dark matter is so plentiful in our universe and in the spiral arms of our galaxy are comprised of vast regions of it, is it not inevitable that we will enter it and if so, has our God thus created the means of our demise? 

For a writer who believes in absoluteness regarding the writer’s religion, do not bother writing an essay about spirituality All that would be said by that writer is comprised of claims without conflict, certainties without any possibility of uncertainty, utter clarity without the likelihood of murkiness, categorical exactness with no ability to question. Such an essay would constitute an opinion that allows no second thought and thus is of little value to anyone who thinks about God. Proof is much like the metal (unobtainium) of which was built the hull of the ship used to drill into the earth in the movie, “The Core” (2003), directed by Jon Amiel. Like Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the scientists preparing for the journey had to take all of their ideas and could only hope they were close to being right. Of course, no one knows because we have never explored further than less than half of one percent into our planet’s crust.

If one wants to write an essay about spirituality, it seems that the disproving of the nature of a major religion would not be a worthwhile exploration. Do not ask the impossible of yourself. Instead, begin with a narrowly defined concept that can be explored without requiring an answer. Perhaps an event that challenged your faith, a friend who said something that stirred your heart to question the truthfulness or loyalty of the friend. Or perhaps something awful happened to a friend, one who was always doing good things for others and asking naught for himself. He has a wife and two small children plus a bun in the oven, but he’s said he has terminal brain cancer and weeks to live; at age 27. Would that make you hesitate in your utter devotion? Why? That is the question we ask of God. Why? And He does not answer.

Anyone can give the reader a writing prompt that directs you to a fact, event or belief to write about. That is not what I want to do. I have no desire to guide you to a spiritual subject. If you are not spiritual enough or thoughtful enough to come up with your own topic, one that raises an interesting question that only you can investigate or explore answer, then you should probably think of another subject for your essay. How much self insight or study of your inner self is needed to prepare for writing the essay or to write the essay is individual. Your knowledge of your innate skills will often serve as a guide for your determination of whether or not to write on a spiritual topic.

            The Personal Essay of Self Examination

This is what this writer calls a cross-over topic for personal essay writing. “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead,” said Gene Fowler (1890-1960). What motivates you to act, to speak, or to write? A lesson about character has been passed from generation to generation of men in my family, but it seems that that selectivity was used in some generations; some received the message, others did not. The lesson, in-so-far as I know, began with my Great Great Grandfather, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was capture by the Confederates. He was imprisoned for nearly two years in a hell-hole called Andersonville in Georgia. His lesson and probably the reason that motivated him to survive, as mentioned in a letter to my father from his brother during World War II, was, “Never quit on yourself. Never quit on your brothers in arms. Never quit on your family.” I took that lesson to heart when I served during the Vietnam War.  

It is not a unique lesson. Winston Churchill, in his address at Harrow School on October 29, 1941, said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” In military training, at least in certain forms of training, you are taught to never quit. For example, running cross country you become exhausted and may fall, get up and keep going, do it again and again. In one instance, I fell, exhausted beyond anything I could believe, but I kept hearing, “Don’t quit! Don’t quit. If you quit on yourself, you’ll quit on your brothers.” I got up and kept going. I know I did. Then I came to my senses and realized I was being carried. I had not quit running, but the running was all in my mind. I tried to get away from those carrying me, saying something foolish like, “No, I can do it. I can finish.” I promptly did a face plant.

What drives you? If you have certain convictions, have you thought them through? Do you feel that you are strong in your personal philosophies, your convictions, your ability to decide between right and wrong? U.S. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), ascended to the presidency[5] on April 12th, 1945, and is one of the few who gave no inaugural speech. Truman was from the mid-west and his ideas about responsibility showed the attributes of a man taught to take responsibility for himself. Some of the quotes attributed to him that are worth mentioning include: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen;” “Once a decision was made, I did not worry about it afterward;” “The buck stops here;” President Truman is the only President who was compelled to save tens of thousands of American lives by forcing the Japanese government to surrender by authorizing the deployment of an atomic and a hydrogen bomb over two Japanese industrial cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What strength of character makes up a man who has the courage to make these decisions?

Age, which is merely the passage of time, does not make a minor an adult. Rather, maturity, learning to be responsible for one’s choices and the consequences of those choices, is what creates the adult from a minor, at any age. When you begin to write an essay premised upon who you are, how do you know who you are? What great facility or mental power is it that allows a person to look inside, take with two grasping hands the slippery visceral innermost of his being, and force all of it into notions comprehensible by readers? Are you strong enough to expose yourself to the scrutiny of critics?  What have you learned during the time you have lived that is worthy of being read by others?

What event, conflict, or adventure have you accomplished that helps define who you are? Write a paragraph that defines you. If you think you have led a normal life and done nothing special, write about it. While you are writing about it and routinely focus in on a time or event, like we do with a magnifying glass or a microscope, you will find those interesting and unique experiences that we like reading about. While watching a television program, American Picker, last evening, I saw a commercial for a digital camera with a telephoto lens. The fellow holding the camera was standing on the bungee jumping platform over a deep canyon, the bottom through which ran a river. The digital camera had an audio recording feature. He filmed himself tied onto the bungee, the manager standing there with him, and verbalizes his adventure: “Are we ready? Oh, wow. Here goes!” And the film shows him hurtling toward the river, closer and closer to the rocks and churning water below, then bouncing upward then down again and so on, during which he is screaming in excitement. The second (advertisement) camera films and he has never left the platform. He simply leaned out over the edge and used the telescopic feature of the camera to portray the appearance of the bungee jump. He turned to the manager and said, “Now, this is between us, right? No one knows!” How would he write about his bungee jumping experience in a narrative to be read with the film?

He could devise a great fictional tale of the adventure and dangers of bungee jumping over river chasms, filled with emotionally charged fear, suspense, the anxiety and excitement produced during the jump, and the relief at being pulled back up to a steady platform. The dialogue and monologue could be charged with emotions. Or he could write a creative nonfictional description of the event and experience and lie in it, telling much the same story. Or he could write a creative nonfiction experience and tell the truth, using his fear of jumping and heights and his sense of humor as his primary emotional focus. Which of the three would be the most fun or interesting to read? It depends upon how well he shows the reader what happened and what he felt, explores his decision making, and reveals his inner conflicts. All of these could be included in a nonfiction work with an appropriate disclaimer.

            How We Explore Our Experiences.

As part of rehabilitation, I spent several months attending classes at San Diego County’s Mesa College Acquired Brain Injury Program. The classes combined both teaching the brain injury survivors with group therapy focusing on thought processing, various cognitive deficits, communication skills and this including writing. My verbal and writing skills are my most reliable and exceptional cognitive competency. During the communication class, which included writing weekly, I had the experience of reading many personal essays written by survivors of brain injury (both traumatic and acquired). If the therapist-teacher did not assign a topic, the students-patients selected a topic. These people produced some truly wonderful essays of personal exploration and stories about previous events, including their brain injuries.

I observed that, much like with non-brain injured writers, it was the individual uniqueness and willing transparency of the self and the occurrence that occasioned the writing that made the reading interesting. The way in which writers choose to explore and investigate the self, with an uncommon or original way of revealing the insight experienced makes the reading a personal experience in and of itself.

Many of these personal essay writers discovered, as I did in both study and experience, that temporary personal isolation is important to enabling the investigation and exploration revealed in a story. What are your writing habits? Where and when do you write? Do you seclude yourself in a place that gives you comfort and allows you to free your mind and emotions from the burdens of your world? If you don’t, try it. It’s amazing. Einstein, Thoreau, Walden, Asimov, Edison, Hawkings, and many, many writers will tell you how seclusion helped them free their minds to invent, create and write. I am fortunate to have a home in which I can find peace. My wife has been incredibly understanding and supportive as I struggled through major changes because of brain injury. I did not suffer, change, and survive along – but for my wife, I sometimes wonder if the results of all that I went through would have produced me.

Brain injury forces upon the survivor the necessity of rediscovery of self. The changes are deep, fundamental and permanent. Writers can find things in their lives that make or made a difference in the choices they make, the way in which decisions are reached, and the self examination that results. Are you re-inventing yourself because of the event or have the changes occurred and you are discovering them? How would you know the difference? Do you make a choice to change or have you changed and discover your choice? It is not only brain injury that compels facing changes in self.

When you make a choice that you want to spend the rest of your life living with a specific person and that person assents, the rest of your life will be different than if you remained single, waited and married someone else, or if the person says, “yes.” When you bring a pet into your home, have you carefully thought about the consequences and responsibility of living with a pet? If you create a home business, from where will you work and will you be able to function as a business person while being at home? If you are diagnosed with a serious illness, many of us are, what changes will this cause? It is how each of us deal with these things that make each story unique. Every path is walked by an individual and every path leads a different direction. Every choice will result in different choices made by friends and relatives.

Writing an essay involving self exploration and revelation is always risky. Pick your underlying topic wisely and write around it in a way that shows the reader that you thought about the topic before, during and after. Read a number of personal essays written by prolific authors like Russell Scott Sanders, Annie Dillard, Sherman Alexie, Joan Didion, Frederick Douglass, Nancy Mairs or George Orwell. Personally, I love the writing of Dillard, Sanders and Alexie. Dillard and Alexie are also poets and all have a unique voice and rhythm of writing that is very compelling.


[1] Although the words may not be read aloud, when we read, we usually hear the words read.

[2] The Bible, Isaiah 22:13.

[3] The Book of Common Prayers, p. 302.

[4] Aesop, circa 550 B.C.E., various fables.

[5] President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died of a cerebral stroke.