Writing Personal Essays!

Greetings, SE’ers! Beem Weeks here with you again. Today, I’m discussing personal essays as a form of storytelling.

Standing android robot.

Writers tell stories. It’s the nature of the craft. The fun part is creating characters and worlds that would otherwise not exist. But what about telling stories involving characters that are (or were) very much alive?

Every person passing through this realm has a story. Even the most mundane of lives are worthy of remembrance. It’s why diaries and journals are kept. Thoughts, experiences, and the daily grind of life are jotted down, tucked away, and kept from prying eyes. But often, the information contained in a diary or journal acts as a witness to some long-ago (or recent) happening.

A personal essay can act as a non-fiction short story. It can also be viewed as a sort of memoir of an event or moment in the author’s life that carries meaning—significant or otherwise.

Personal essays are easy to create. I view them as structured scenes of non-fiction. They are often autobiographical in nature—though they may be about another person. More than a re-telling of an event, the author shares a learned lesson or some way in which they were changed because of the event.

Topics can range from first loves to family vacations to a remembrance of a favorite uncle or grandmother. One can share the joy of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, or the time when failure benefited more than success. Everybody has an experience that shaped them in some way.

Man writting in copybook while sitting on the carpet

As with writing fiction, the key to a successful personal essay involves pulling the reader in right away. Grab them as soon as possible. Let them know there will be a payoff by the end.

A good personal essay will present a topic that may be dear to the writer’s heart. Paint a picture through a defining moment in your life that will illustrate its importance without having to say it with so many words.

I knew a young man who once told a story of taking a missionary trip to a South American village. He went there with preconceived notions of being a savior of sorts to poor indigenous villagers in the jungle. Then, while learning to dive from cliffs high above the river, he became infected with an amoeba. The organism entered his ear and went straight into his brain. As he tells it, he nearly died. He spent over a month fighting for his life. A local doctor became his savior. My friend walked away with a new-found understanding that we as humans need one another. Even rescuers need to be rescued from time to time.

An essay should have purpose and meaning. I’ve published two short story collections over the years. Each contains a personal essay. Both essays are about my father—or rather, about events instigated by my father. My dad was a complicated man—as are most human beings. He drank too much. His later years were mired in alcoholism. However, when I was a child, my dad could do no wrong. He always looked for ways to entertain his four children. One afternoon, back in the early Spring of 1972, while preparing the lawnmower for another Summer of keeping the yard presentable, my father built a robot out of an old vacuum cleaner and coffee cans discarded over the winter. It was a silly contraption that did little more than hum and vibrate and rattle. The essay isn’t so much about the robot as it is about my thoughts on my dad. He certainly impressed all the neighborhood kids. In my mind, my father could build anything. His job at Oldsmobile (General Motors) called for his sort of ingenuity. By the time he retired after 27 years on the job, he’d moved up to System’s Analyst (a fancy way of saying Quality Control).

As a teenager, I often butted heads with my father. I was a snot-nosed know-it-all. He couldn’t tell me anything. As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser) I have come to realize just how much I learned from that man. It’s moments like a Spring afternoon in 1972 that allow me to reminisce of a time before I thought I had all the answers.

Personal essays, when well-written, contain the power to transport the writer and the reader to other times and places—just like a finely crafted piece of fiction. Don’t shy away from the idea. Even if you’re accustomed to writing novels or short stories, branch out and hone your writing skills with a personal essay or two. You may just learn something new about yourself.

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63 thoughts on “Writing Personal Essays!

  1. Question, considering a blog that is primarily personal but with a largely culinary slant. My question is about tone. Mine is often humorous and snarky, but I’m concerned about how it might affect me professionally. Any thoughts?


  2. Nice post Beem. As a personal Blogger I believe personal essays need to be kept in a safe place and share not because you want people to have pity on you but for inspiration because a story whether fictional or real can change another person’s life⭐🙌


  3. HI Beem, I often use personal essay style writing in my stories but they are not my own. I write them from my characters perspective. Your reminiscence about your father is lovely to read. I have wonderful memories of my dad too. He is often unwell these days which is hard for him and us. Thank you for this interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are correct, Jacquie. It’s how we connect. “Energy is derived from both the plus and negative.” It’s a line from a Metallica song, but it’s so true. We are flawed, each of us. Best wishes on writing your experiences.


  4. Hello, Beem. The story of your father is very interesting. 🙂 I guess we all thought we were much smarter than our parents. 😦 I found it particularly interesting that your father worked for Oldsmobile. I worked for GM’s Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac Division back in the day, at their engine testing laboratory in Lansing.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My journal entries are not nearly as artfully crafted as my fiction, but more resemble raw stream-of-consciousness passages. When I create an entry that I feel would work well in one of my stories, I know the wording can always be enhanced, but it is the emotional outburst from that initial entry that I want to retain for the published version. That said, I am up for approaching the personal essay the way you described it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never written a personal essay, Beem. I guess there are just so many fictional characters and ideas clamoring around in my head, there was never room for anything else. I did, however, really enjoy this post. Your father definitely sounds like a complex man. It’s amazing the memories we carry and how they affect us as we grow older. I love looking back on childhood days.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you on the fictional characters and ideas, Mae. I have dozens of notes with ideas for stories and characters lying about the place. That’s why I haven’t put together a collection of essays yet. But I do intend to–one of these days. Thanks for adding to the talk.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never considered writing a personal essay, but I do keep a journal (something I began a couple of years ago). My Mom was a storyteller, and many of those true events have inspired story ideas. Great post, Beem.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a fantastic post, Beem. Your personal shares took me back to my youth. Stories upon stories–we all have them and sharing them effectively can open the doors for others. Beautifully written, Beem.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love this so much, Beem. And you are right in that every person has a story, even if they think they’ve lived a mundane life. For Christmas, my daughters bought a year-long subscription to an app called Storyworth. They pose questions, and I answer them, and at the end of the year, all the stories and photos are compiled into a hardbound book. It has been a wonderful way to record events and even family history, along with photos that otherwise might be lost along the way. It’s funny what sticks in your mind as a kid and as an adult. I love the example of your dad building the robot. A fantastic post! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Loved this! I particularly like the comment that it’s often failure from which you learn the most. Your father does sound like a remarkable and complex man. The robot story is wonderful, but living with someone with alcoholism is a nightmare for all parties – I’m glad you have the good memories, too. Your list of topics to consider made me thinkof Debby Kaye’s book “Fifteen First Times”. It covers many of these and the reader is drawn in by any echoes of their own lives. You’ve given me plenty of food for thought. Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You may have just inspired me to give this a go. I’ve come close on the Vocal Media platform for a few challenges where they’ve asked us for true life writing rather than fiction. Although I worry about the folks still alive who would not enjoy what I have to say!

    ‘… a diary or journal acts as a witness …’ I love this line.

    Thanks for sharing, Beem. Have a wonderful weekend 💕🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  12. My elders were all storytellers. They never wrote anything down, but there were a lot of personal stories shared. They never seemed to be sad or hurtful. Maybe that says something, too. We remember funny and minor heroism and share that instead.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Those are good stories to remember and share, Craig. I have a head full of stories my grandparents and others shared over the course of my younger years. Some second hand, others I witnessed. I intend to put them in a book one day. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Writing Personal Essays! | Legends of Windemere

  14. My mother was a storyteller – of reality. She knew every story and every family and would tell them to us at the drop of a hat. We lost her to dementia – and her stories, too – long before she left us.

    When you grow up as the eldest child/daughter, it kind of sticks to you. My comments are often little stories from my life that a post triggered – and I don’t know if I’ll ever collect them.

    But it’s a good way to be, to explain the world to your kids.

    Liked by 3 people

      • I may, some day. Thanks for the encouragement. Maybe I can goose my sisters into writing their memories, too.

        But right now my writing time is dedicated to finishing my mainstream trilogy; two books are published, and I have been sidelined by paperwork, but am about to get back to finishing LIMBO – should take me the next five years or so. I’m very slow, due to chronic illness, but fiction is how I love to spend my time. And it isn’t going to write itself! There is a major satisfaction in holding in your hands something that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t channeled the whole thing.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I encourage you to write those memories. My Mom was a storyteller. How I wished I’d written them down (or better yet recorded her telling them) while she was still alive. I’ve tried to write many of the stories from memory, but it’s not like having her tell them.

      Liked by 2 people

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