Personal Essays: You Can Write About Anything You Want

58251_7227I’m putting together a mini lesson on personal essays for a free Gotham Writers’ Workshop I’m giving tonight, a sort-of sampler of what you’ll get if you take my Nonfiction 101 class this term. I’ll be talking about personal essays. Here, a few of the thoughts I’ll be sharing in more detail:

1. Please forget about that “essay” format you learned in school. Remember the whole topic sentence, three to five supporting points, conclusion format? Great, now erase it from your memory.

2. Anything you feel passionate about can make a good essay. A while back, for instance, I noticed I was hanging out with more older women than I did in the past, and that it was actually making me feel younger, not to mention better about the aging process. I wrote it up into an essay for my website, SexyFeminist.com. (This also actually led to a more compact version of this idea running in O magazine, too.)

3. The best way to learn how to write a personal essay is by, as my favorite college professor once said, “reading and imitating.” Not copying, of course, but seeing how the best do it, and finding your own way of mimicking their style, structure, and approach until you get it down for yourself.

Here are some good ones:

“Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” John Jeremiah Sullivan

“Are Any of Us Really ‘Neurotypical’?”, Andrew O’Hehir

“Time on My Hands, Me in My Arms,” Joseph Epstein

“Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell

“Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard

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