The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay

The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay

A personal essay is a non-fiction creative writing essay in which the author utilizes the perspective of personal experience to articulate larger themes (in traditional literary criticism, such themes were once termed “universal”). A personal essay focuses on the perceptions and feelings of the author and uses these to reflect upon subjects such as nature, politics, history, culture, and literature. The personal essay derives its impact from the integration of individual and universal considerations. This integration allows the reader to explore the unity of human experience.

A few exceptional personal essays have been sufficiently powerful as to change the literary and cultural landscape. For example, Jacob Bronowski’s series of personal essays based on his visit to the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 (essays such as The Face of Violence and The Abacus and the Rose) helped initiate the now long-standing debate about the place and limits of science. Similarly, Wendell Berry’s An Entrance to the Woods was instrumental in articulating the philosophy of the current environmental movement. And, within the last couple of years, William Langewiesche’s personal essays about his experiences in Iraq have significantly shaped views of the Iraq war.

As creative non-fiction, personal essays blend together the composition techniques of various genres including narrative fiction, journalism, natural history, and historiography. Multiple points of view may be used, as well as ruminative passages, personal vignettes and philosophical reflections. This flexibility gives personal essays a tremendous range, and is one reason they have been a favorite mode of expression for many writers.

As in every genre, some examples are foundational. Below are a few personal essays that have earned wide circulation. You may recognize some of these authors from their longer works.

E..B. White, Once More to the Lake

Wendell Berry, An Entrance to the Woods

Stanton Michaels, How to Write a Personal Essay

William Langewiesche, Hotel Baghdad: Fear and Lodging in Iraq

Let’s take these essays one at a time, starting with Once More to the Lake. E.B. White lived and wrote during a time in which people still thought of literature as a classical art with specific forms. His writing sounds more formal than much of what we read today. And yet, “No one can write a sentence like White,” as James Thurber once said. Indeed, E.B. White is the “White” of the much-beloved style guide called The Elements of Style. More than any other single compositional text, The Elements of Style is responsible for the tone and style of much twentieth century writing.

The Elements of Style lists eight elementary rules and ten elementary principles of good writing. I’ve reproduced this list below.

Elementary rules of usage

  • Form the possessive singular of nouns with ’s.

  • In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

  • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

  • Place a comma before ‘and’ or ‘but’ introducing an independent clause.

  • Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

  • Do not break sentences in two.

  • A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the
  • grammatical subject.

  • Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and
  • pronunciation.

Elementary principles of composition

  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

  • As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning.

  • Use the active voice.

  • Put statements in positive form.

  • Omit needless words.

  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

  • Keep related words together.

  • In summaries, keep to one tense.

  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

The guide also offers various tips and suggestions regarding style. (Here are most of them, sourced, along with the lists above, from Wikipedia:

  1. Place yourself in the background.
  2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
  3. Work from a suitable design.
  4. Write with nouns and verbs.
  5. Revise and rewrite.
  6. Do not overwrite.
  7. Do not overstate.
  8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
  10. Use orthodox spelling.
  11. Do not explain too much.
  12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  14. Avoid fancy words.
  15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  16. Be clear.
  17. Do not inject opinion.
  18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
  19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  20. Avoid foreign languages.
  21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Beginning writers typically struggle most with the “omit needless words” guideline as well as the suggestions not to “explain too much” and to “be clear.” But as you read Once More to the Lake, notice that White is a consummate walker of his talk. You may easily find examples of his adherence to all of the above principles and practices. But can you also find where he has strayed from those guidelines?

What do you think is going on with White’s attitude toward technology in the essay? Read carefully when you get to the passage about the outboard motor. Does White seem to be anti-technological here, or is he simply trying to work out the place of technology? Remember, he’s writing during the 1950’s, a time when many people thought that global nuclear war was inevitable.

Is this an essay about aging? About nostalgia? About childhood? About family? Or is it all of those things strung together? And if they are strung together, how—precisely—does White accomplish this?

Spend some time on the passage near the end, when the son puts on the wet swim trunks. Literary folks have been talking about this passage for years. There’s something compelling about it. What do you think is going on? What are we supposed to take from this passage, and from the essay in general?

In another essay called Here is New York, published a few years before Once More to the Lake, White spoke about the vulnerability of New York in the nuclear age:

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York in the sound of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

This passage was widely quoted after September 11. Its enduring quality makes the case that well-written prose can persist, beyond the lifetime of its author, beyond the norms and currents of a given historical period. We will see this same type of enduring quality in the work of Wendell Berry.

But before jumping into Wendell Berry, let me ask you a question: do you know who Wallace Stegner was? If you have heard of him, I will be impressed with your literary knowledge. But most Canadians would draw a blank on the name. Which is unfortunate, because Stegner has been a strong influence on current Canadian writers such as Sharon Butala. He grew up in Saskatchewan (where today there is Stegner House, a creative writing centre). But Stegner lived much of his live in the United States (where he founded the Creative Writing program at Stanford University), and this is likely the main reason he is not more familiar to Canadians. Much of Stegner’s writing might broadly be called ecological, or environmental, and the strain of environmental writing that we now see coming out of central Canada owes much to him.

Wendell Berry was a student of Wallace Stegner’s, at Stanford—as were Ken Kesey, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Larry McMurtry. (McMurtry wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.) And like the other luminaries of that program, Berry has had a long and well-respected career. He is, in many ways, the defining archetype of the phrase “a sense of place.” In An Entrance to the Woods, we can see the strong environmental ethic in his work, the sense of earthiness and embodiment. It’s as though Berry takes the struggle of E.B. White—how to balance nature with human ambition?—and shows another path, an integrative path where we can once again find our connection to the natural world.

While you read An Entrance to the Woods, try to focus on the rhythm of the piece: the slowing down of Berry’s thoughts and impressions, the way in which he asks us to slow down with him, the careful way in which he structures the beginning of the essay so that we follow him into the woods—which are a metaphor for what? Or are they a metaphor at all? What do “the woods” mean?

And later, as we’re reaching the centre of the piece, what’s going on with those inscriptions that Berry finds? What’s he trying to tell us?

Again, as with E.B. White’s essay, we need to ask ourselves what exactly Berry is doing to create the mood and the momentum of his narrative. Is he using some (or all) of the principles in The Elements of Style, or is he developing his own methods? And how similar are Berry’s methods to those of other contemporary writers?

As a review, and as a diversion to refresh your attention, take a moment now to scoot over to A List Apart’s Writing Guide and compare their guidelines to what you are seeing in An Entrance to the Woods. Notice that Dennis Mahoney’s guide advocates a specific relationship to the so-called rules of writing:

The best rules can’t be stated, but you can learn them by reading excellent writing. Develop an ear. If you know what works, you’ll start to emulate it. Conversely, it’s good to study truly horrendous language, stuff that makes you embarrassed for those responsible. You’ll find yourself mortally afraid of—and automatically avoiding—the same mistakes in your own writing. Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built–in shock–proof shit-detector.” (They’re cheap if you haven’t already got one.) This is especially important for web writers, most of whom are publishing without the benefit of editors.

Pay attention to that last sentence about publishing without an editor. That’s you, right? And sometimes me, and often anyone who wants to place words on a page (or a screen). Read well. Develop an ear. Find what works, and why. Stop using adverbs (my favorite tip). And, just for good measure, pay attention to the various brief writing guides that come out now and then on the web. Here’s a good one.

Back to Berry. An Entrance to the Woods is an essay about stewardship (among other things), which is the essence of Berry’s writing. And this stewardship has a long reach: into politics, culture, economics, and government policy. Recently, at a commencement speech at Lindsey Wilson College, Berry said:

The line that connects the bombing of civilian populations to the mountain removed by strip mining … to the tortured prisoner seems to run pretty straight. We’re living, it seems, in the culmination of a long warfare—warfare against human beings, other creatures and the Earth itself.

So: how is it that Berry is able to make statements such as those above—which are direct and highly charged politically—and to write about nature with such gentleness? And, if you read An Entrance to the Woods carefully, how is it that Berry is able to imply statements such as the one above but without coming right out with them? How has he hidden the directness of his message so skilfully?

Think about it. It’s an important question.

Next we move on to Stanton Michaels’ How to Write a Personal Essay (Intro. Three main points. Summary. Sex). This essay is the only work by Stanton Michaels of which I am aware. He is not a well-known writer, has not won any awards, is not schmoozing with literati at Pulitzer galas. He has written one great piece. It was originally published in The Georgia Review, in which Wendell Berry has published numerous pieces.

Let’s start with the beginning:

The easiest way to write a personal essay is to use the standard form taught in Composition 101: an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph. But instead of just blathering about yourself, describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you, such as when your 2-year-old son, Jordan, solemnly declares from the bathtub “I can’t swim—my penis is hard” and you tell him it’s OK, it’s normal, knowing it’ll subside and he’ll be able to swim soon, but you don’t tell him that teeny little weenie he’s holding will be the source of the most intense worries, sorrows, and pleasures he’ll ever experience, and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to tell him the truth. You could follow this thought with the trials and tribulations of your own penis, unless you’re a woman—but of course females are involved with love, sex, and life built around their own body parts, which can provide many interesting topics. The 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 sex education is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you’ll explain things any better than your own father did. Follow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.

How many compositional rules did Michaels just break? I count at least six. And what’s with the interminable sentences? And the loose language? And the meandering narrative? But wait—take a few minutes now and read it all the way through…

And you discover, despite your reservations, that this is one fine piece of writing: personal, evocative, expressive. And it’s five paragraphs, as promised, comprising precisely 2500 words (go ahead and count ‘em; I did).

What makes this work? After all, it does break most of the rules. But ask yourself: how could Michaels have articulated any better the joy and pain of the phases of his life that he describes? It works, I suggest, because the entire essay is in Michael’s own distincitve voice, which is quirky and eccentric and disarmingly honest. It’s as though he’s not simply writing but inviting us to witness the inner workings of his mind and heart. How to Write a Personal Essay starts out with humour and thereby disarms us, so that later, when the more difficult and intense material comes, we are not quite ready for it, we are still open and undefended. The material goes right in.

It’s often said that an artist first must learn to use the rules and then learn to break them. It seems an accurate statement with regard to Stanton Michaels. What I’d like for you to take from this piece, to remember after reading it, is that the rules are always subservient to the writer’s own authentic voice. And that voice, as Joseph Conrad said, “cannot be silenced.”

Speaking of Joseph Conrad, who is a great source of inspiring literary ditties: he once stated his artistic aim as follows:

By the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

Finally, let’s consider William Langewiesche’s Hotel Baghdad: Fear and Lodging in Iraq. Langewiesche is considered to to be a pioneer of the so-called new new journalism, which is another way of saying creative non-fiction. Langewiesche is the son of a pilot and writer who composed a fine book of personal essays, entitled Rudder and Stick, that would be very much at home on our list of outstanding works. In Hotel Baghdad, Langewiesche describes his experience of trying to survive the Iraq war. Notice his stark prose style, the way in which he utilizes both personal and impersonal perspectives, the manner of his interdisciplinary discussion of various related topics. In many ways, Langewiesche is a writer of tremendous rigour, in the spirit of E.B. White. His writing is spare and formal, though utterly engaging.

What do you think he is trying to say when he talks about sweeping bullet casings from the balcony? And, in his discussion of the Green Zone, how does he articulate (or hide) his own political views?

Choose a paragraph—any paragraph—and notice how Langewiesche adheres strongly to the principle omit needless words. And yet, Langewiesche’s essays on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center (later published in book form as American Ground) were the longest articles ever published by The Atlantic Monthly, perhaps the finest literary magazine in the United States. Tight prose facilitates, rather than precludes, thorough expression.

Finally, consider the three essays as a whole. Which is your favorite? Why? What is the one scene or vignette that resonates with you the most? What technique does the author use to create that resonant mood? And how can you create that mood yourself?