Writing a Personal Narrative (essay)

Many of us are anxious to tell our own story in writing. Many of us are required to write a personal essay as part of a college application process. Some of us are simply interested in how to write a compelling story in a coherent and engaging way. Writing a personal essay is an act of deep self-expression.

There are three distinct steps to writing a great personal essay: Write the first draft from the heart. Write the second draft with the brain. Write the third draft for your readers. Each step may involve a little of the other steps, since it’s the whole of you who is writing the essay.

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

The first step involves remembering—re-imagining and reconstructing—the past. Most aspiring writers have a story they’ve always wanted to tell. Or there are memories that won’t leave them alone. Or there’s a character in their lives, or in the past, who beckons to be heard—or heard about. Listen to the busy mind and you’ll always find your story—many stories, in fact. The story that you have to write is your real story.

But where should you start the story? Most fiction readers and film viewers these days have little time for lengthy exposition or background, so it’s best to start as close to the climax as possible. You can flashback from there. Keep your reader hanging. Stretch the intense moments out (but don’t become tedious).

This goes for writing too....

This goes for writing too….

During this first draft, remember two items: One, be sure to convey the meaning or feeling you hope to get across to your readers, and, two, write descriptively in order to place your reader in the story. Sit down at your desk and free-write the story without stopping, without fixing words or sentences, till you’ve written all you can remember. Get it down with all the passion you can muster.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

Once you’ve written all you can, step away from your draft, sleep on it, or go for a walk or a drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes and heart. Then read it through once, without making any marks or changes. Now make a list of general items you’d like to improve. Then, reading again from the top, make marks or changes reflecting your goals for your story or ways you’d like to improve it. Producing a second draft involves making drastic changes. Drastic changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs or moving chunks of material around. But this is also a good time to enhance the pictures and sharpen and add words.

Another way writers improve first drafts is by adding more concrete and descriptive language. They also add transitions that move the story from place to place, time to time, and point of view to point of view; they break long sentences, join short ones, and strive to create sentence variety. Let your brain have sway over the ego here. Don’t be too precious about what you’ve already written.

The third draft is about sharpening vocabulary, deleting unnecessary words or adding missing ones, and attending to mechanics—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Since, in this step, you’re drafting for your audience, read your personal story aloud, in front of a mirror, or ideally to a friend or partner. How does it sound to the ear? Natural? Fluid? Engaging? Clear? Does it make a point? Is it vivid? Make notes during or as soon as possible after reading aloud. Always be open to the possibility of improving a personal essay. Many writers continue to revise their work all their lives.

Standard Punctuation

Standard Punctuation

Writing a personal essay is an important act of self-revelation and meaning-making. It involves a great heave of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of a song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, then for an audience, makes sure the act is true, whole, and sound.

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Stuck in the Moment!

Ever since the early seventies, folks have spoken dreamily of being in the moment, aka living in the moment, being in the here and now, going with the flow, etc. Since then, they’ve returned to nature, tried transcendental meditation, and practiced yoga, and they’ve heard and repeated the lofty aspiration to live in the moment as if it occupies their every thought, as if they’ve mastered the here and now and dwell here interminably—as if they reside forever in some eternal Nirvana. But I was always a little suspicious of their aspirations, since, speaking for myself, I’ve found it almost impossible to escape the moment.

Just us turtles here!

Just us turtles here!

When I was a child, I couldn’t help but live in the moment, as I was so completely mesmerized by the present world shimmering, dripping, whirling, singing, fluttering, crawling, and leaping through space, along the surface of Earth, the ground, or emerging from water then diving back down into its depths, or soaring to heights near invisible. This being-in-the-moment skill was innate, or compulsive, as far as I could tell.

What is this big pink creature I've landed on?

What is this big pink creature I’ve landed on?

And childhood wasn’t the end of it, either. I continued to be as attentive in my twenties. Not only was I still wholly fascinated by nature, all the vibrancy of life shimmering about me, but now I was also as attentive to women, how they looked, how they moved, how they responded to me or not, how they felt when they held me—all the physical pleasure I experienced (now only my wife gets my attention). I was so there! I was so inescapably trapped in the moment by my fascination with all that moved and glowed around me that I had no thought for the past or the future. Nor was I plagued by actual thoughts made of words that I could remember and recite or write down, for that matter, actual syllables pitter-pattering inside my skull to distract me from nature, art, and women.

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Fact is, I didn’t manage to make any headway out of the moment and into some other place called “not living in the moment” in my thirties, either. Only, by this time, I was living in the moment of my travels, hooked on the ephemera and colors of exotic culture and other-worldly fish and birds, and, yes, women with new and intriguing appearances, movements, and scents. Where else was I to go besides where I was? How could I think about those people and places where I wasn’t, about my old home, my friends and family, far away on another continent, when I was confronted with so much eye-riveting, sense-engaging life and energy around me exactly where I was?

Early morning reverie...

Early morning reverie…

Might I add that in my forties I was little better about owning up to my responsibilities to step out of the moment and into that place where my thoughts, memories, worries, and expectations might take me to someplace other than where I was. I was a complete failure in my forties at escaping the present moment, at living elsewhere than where I was. Thus I give myself a D- for effort!

Are we like an unborn bird in a shell?

Are we like an unborn bird still in its shell?

I was so addicted to the present that I took up reading Zen poetry, mostly translations by ancient Chinese and Japanese hermit monk poets who lived in caves or stone or wooden huts with thatched roofs—who were the masters of living in the moment, who made an art of being here and now. I read and reread them living in their moments, because their moments were just like my moments. For this failure, I kicked myself altogether out of the school of “not living in the moment”!

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

Even in my fifties, even after I’d gotten married, gotten a masters, built a house, taught college English for many years, I still slipped back into the moment for hours, days, and weeks on end, hardly coming up for air in that other world of elsewhere and otherwise, where I could wring my hands, or pat myself on the back, or gloat till I was bloated, or worse, lose my bearings or forget what my hands are doing—which I have to say is what’s happening to me now as I seem finally to be breaking my inexhaustible ties with the present, slipping away a foot or two or even a psychic mile on occasion, wondering what it was I came upstairs to get, etc. I’ve become so absorbed with my own thoughts that I’m missing the whole world around me.

Do our bodies leave our minds behind?

Do our bodies leave our minds behind? Or the other way around?

Mostly, ironically, I’ve been working—and working more, at this and on that, so that I might have my old moment back, so that I might slip back into that saddle and ride like a wild-man upon the horse of my body, feeling every atom brush against my skin, hearing every warble inside the thrush’s song, smelling the earthworm crossing the rainy road and the slowly rotting camellias lying crumpled and bruised on the deck, tasting the dried-hard currant in the Irish scone, sensing my muscles rippling and sliding over my bones, feeling more alive than I’m likely ever to feel again. If only I can slow down once more and forget the past and the future (they’re still there, but only in the mind and in the changes we’ve made to the world around us—hopefully for the good) without succumbing to dementia or mindless lassitude.

No thought but what she's doing!

No thought but what she’s doing!

Still, now and then I dabble my little toe in the chilly moment. I watch an ant tussle with a fly’s wing or memorize the shape of a newborn purple plum where once a blossom blew, and I’m delirious to have returned. The moment welcomes me back—I’m so here again!

Like the sign says...

Like the sign says…

Meditation and the Arts

Writing poetry and playing violin teach concentration, mindfulness, and non-attachment.

The violinist experiences a kind of samadhi “in action” when she achieves the full expression of her playing. She must be wholly mindful to the act. She concentrates her whole life energy on moving the bow hairs across the strings to make her instrument sing. Put another way, she inflects the body so as to project, with full power and nuance, the melody or musical figuration. In so doing, she eliminates all bothersome distractions beyond her focus on making beautiful music and detaches herself from all thoughts outside of playing violin, including irksome self-recrimination and unnecessary self-criticism. She transcends being too concerned with audience response, especially the feeling that she’s failing them in some way or is inadequate to the task of entertaining and moving others.

Every fiber present in this playing....

Every fiber present in this playing….

Writing descriptive poetry involves a similar approach and makes for another good example of how yogic or meditative approaches can be applied to other activities. Sitting by the lake, I watch a female bluebill duck hesitate at water’s edge, then clamber up on to the bank beyond my legs. I see that her beak has a metallic blue tint with a few subtle orange spots and that her fine white and brown markings are quite symmetrical from side to side. I see that her feet are of an unlikely, almost “man-made” orange color. She jabs with her beak at a blue-and-black-striped dragonfly perched on a blade of grass. Misses. She waddles by, disappearing behind the bench where I sit.

Female mallard

Female mallard

As I watch, however, observing the duck in detail, feeling perhaps what it might be like to be a duck, to desire to eat a plump, “wingy” dragonfly, to rip up and choke back green grass with a toothless beak, I do not produce these words in my mind; I do not distract myself with language and “being” descriptive. I save all that for later, for that moment when I shift into “writing mode.” I simply watch, absorbed, even mesmerized, by the image, by the presence of “duck,” in me as much as outside of me. I’m taken by the “natural world” in action (the premise here being that all life, the whole world, is real and valuable and worth attending to). I abandon myself to the world; I do not resist. I do not keep myself separate, distinct, or even “detached.” Rather, the world absorbs, encompasses, and “possesses” me.

Taste the wings

Taste the wings

So to the world, as both “object” and “subject,” I give myself, wandering along the path of meditation on the journey toward “wholly being.” Such reversals of view are a way of practicing non-attachment to self and to other than here and now.

Finally, if I’ve been struck deeply by an image, if I want to explore the image further with words, I pick up my pen and write. This shift of focus to language and writing can be its own form of meditation. Some poems, in fact, like some musical pieces, are actually called “meditations.”

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

Thus all actions one undertakes in life in which quality is the concern— achieving some sort of ideal experience or expression, including doing everyday chores, running errands, carrying on personal interactions, and performing tasks at work—ideally involve the same approach of mindfulness, concentration, and non-attachment. Meditation is a state of mind that we can carry throughout our day.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

the duck snaps at
the dragonfly—we get it
when she misses

Five Cat Poems (in memory of Little Bear)

Little Cat Man

Our cat sleeps like a little man,
his head on a pillow, his legs
stretched toward the end of the bed.
His feet twitch like my wife’s.

As if he only sleeps, and sleeps
on our bed only, and nowhere else.
But I know better; I’ve seen him,
his secret self, cruel, and a killer,

seen him nail a mouse by its tail
with a single claw then slowly
draw the quivering creature
into his deadly web of play,

toss it into the predawn sky,
leaping paws first to bat, to snag,
to pin again to the moonlit grass
that once unsuspecting mouse.

How insidious, how mesmerizing
this sport in its purest form. I could watch
for hours were I not caught up
in my own mean game.

He’s no slouch, our cat;
he’s the master of his art,
for which I admire him,
for which I stand in awe.

Here he lies fast asleep, but yesterday
he dined on breast, on heart, on all
but feather, beak, and bone
of an innocent bird.

Butterflies have fallen at his paws.
Even the yellowjacket has flown in terror.
The common household fly,
who climbs the walls to safety,

must forever beware, for with
one long leap from a dresser,
one long outstretched forearm—
in the cup of five sharp claws,

he’ll drag it down to the floor
into his circle of pain,
to join the others
in his playmate cemetery.

Sleep, little cat man.
Sleep off the play that’s work,
the work that’s play.
Twitch it out on our bed.

Your life is as busy and as full
as those who sleep beside you
and watch you twitch and dream,
grateful you’re no bigger than you are!

Little Bear, 1994-2012

Little Bear, 1994-2012

Our Cat Understands the Principle of a Door

Our cat understands
the principle of a door,
that it opens when I turn the knob,
that he’d better move his tail
if he doesn’t want it caught
as I push the door shut.

He understands that outside the door
lurk all his enemies
—the bright-eyed cat-blind car,
the great rumbling Sphinx of the bus,
the single-minded dog, the irascible raccoon—
that rare but ruthless cat-hater—
but mostly other cats.

He who inside the door
is safe and can sleep deeply
without disturbance,
without having to keep an eye
ajar. He commands me
in his wordless way
to open the door, he yells at me
to close it again
in the face of a storm,
he yells at me some more
for ever having allowed a storm
to howl outside his door
when all he wanted was a cozy sun.

And he knows the complaints
he expresses inside the door
are for my ears only,
his personal doorman
and cat-brained confidant.

Zen Cat

Zen Cat

Cat Tao

How does our cat know
where next to lick?
Why the nonexistent balls
just after the lifted thigh?

Why flop down
against the wall
and not on a pillow today?
Why not warm my lap?

A crow’s caw in the distance
turns his ear. His tongue
hesitates as he reads
the crow’s message,

then he goes on licking,
knowing the one true way.

Quite the character!

Quite the character!

Cat Love

Our cat can’t hide his love.
He plays hard to get, turns away.
Miffed, he stalks off peeved,
flicks his tail, biting fleas
he no longer has.

Our cat can’t hide his love.
In the end he pads up on my chest
where I lie on my back
dead with fatigue and half asleep,
and demands, with full abandonment
to looking the fool,
all the love in my sleepy state
I can muster up.

He drools on my neck,
looks me, finally, straight in the eye,
his whole shimmering feline face
beginning to smile.

Our cat can’t hide his love.
He purrs louder and louder,
the bed begins to tremble
and, beginning to grin,
I wonder what was ever
the matter with this world.

The Late-Night Cat Workout

Our fourteen-year-old cat
has no intention
of dying anytime soon.
When we go to bed,
once we’ve fallen asleep
(or I play dead, tired
of rubbing his tummy),
he romps alone
across the hardwood floors
of the great-room downstairs,
dashes from wall to wall,
slips and slides around imaginary corners
(chasing or being chased, who can tell?),
hits the throw rugs full speed,
leaving them in crumpled heaps,
beats up on his catnip mouse
(gets a snoot-full too)
bats his ball from paw to paw,
(not unlike a soccer star),
scratches his scratch post,
crunches kibble, laps up water,
then, exhausted, resigns himself
to his nest on the desk by our bed
where he snores like a spouse.

Cat Love

Cat Love

Cat Hat

dedicated to the SPCA

We played our cat
till we killed that cat,
so just for fun

we skinned that little tiger
(he was just so fat),
but what a hat we made of that cat!

We skinned him as we loved him….
Hell, anyone can wear a hat,
but only if you’re lucky

can you wear a cat hat.
We thought he’d make a lovely bowler,
be it small and comical,

or a hat like a dunce’s
which would make him conical.
Or like his distant cousin,

the ring-tailed raccoon….
Well, how about a cat-skin hat?
Or a Siamese top hat, a purring Stetson,

or worse, a yowling French beret?
We stretched him on the ironing board,
we said, We’ll miss you, Cat,

then we steamed him flat
and stitched him up
so he looked just like

a cat, our cat,
a cat hat to wear upon my head
even as I go to bed.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Old friend!

Old friend!

Three Frog Poems

Gnomic Frogs

for frogman Brent

Tree frogs are creaking
out in the dark cave of night,
in the hollow of the ocean’s roar
beyond my open window.

Where do they live during the day?
For hours I’ve studied the moss
growing on the forest’s trunks
and never spied a green tree frog.

Can I blame them for being
so completely themselves,
for embracing night so wholeheartedly
when it’s during the day we people clamor so loudly?

Were there only such a frog
as could sing a few appreciative lines
about the bubble of light in which I dwell
high up in my room above the woods!

How I exclaim myself with my pen,
how such human attentiveness
must be worthy of mention
in the annals of the frogs,

but who seem only to say,
“Prayers are best not
answered. Silence
is the soundest reply.”

Pacific Green Tree Frog, photographed by Brent Matsuda (bio below)

Pacific green tree frog (all photographs by Brent Matsuda—bio below)

Lucky Frog

Frog, I see you hop across the freeway
in a rain storm as I speed by.

Water blasting out of wheel ruts,
juggernauts of tires bearing down,
cars like hydroplanes, freighters
like mountains flying by.

Under a hundred wheels (and mine)
you hop and hop and do not stop,
you do not dodge or turn around or give a thought
to being crushed and turned to mush.

In my rear view mirror I see you make it
to the other side. You lucky, lucky frog,
the whole wide world
your slippery bog!

Note: “Lucky Frog” was previously published in Many Trails to the Summit: Poems by Forty-two Northwest Poets, edited by David D. Horowitz, 2010.

Columbia spotted frog

Columbia spotted frog

Haiku

her stream dried up
the young frog sets out
down the human trail

*

sitting on the deck—
both my cat’s and my head turn
at spring’s first frog-croak

*

hey there’s a whole clan
of green tree frogs
creaking over there

Peruvian frog

Peruvian frog

The photographer: Brent Matsuda is a naturalist and wildlife biologist with a specialization in herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), based in British Columbia. Although most of his professional work involves birds, his personal passion is frogs. Brent conducted his thesis work on the only frog in North America that uses internal fertilization and breeds in fast-flowing cold mountain streams: the coastal tailed frog. He is the lead author of the Amphibians and Reptiles of British Columbia field guide. In his spare time, Brent loves to photograph frogs wherever he travels in the world.

Sensitive species

Sensitive species

Naturally—by guest author Timothy Fichtner

Nature, that of you which is large enough to see with my eyes, I speculate, I understand. Nature, that of you which is too small to see with my eyes, I speculate, I don’t understand.

I like my mysteries, my own fallacious and mal-informed philosophical taradiddles on Nature. I know that’s what they are. I know I’m not fooling anybody but myself. Well, actually I do act like I know something about Nature, but it’s not like I don’t get checked on my speculations. I read observations by others. I watch documentaries on Nature sciences. And I have to admit, the truth about some natural phenomena is not so much fun as getting to the truth of natural phenomena.

Light reflecting off glasses of MIT smarty-pantses—who are they to tell me what’s true about Nature? They report observations and findings that enlighten me to the biochemical forces that drive Nature into a physical and tangible object or event that I can touch. I curse you, and I delight in you. They talk from my television, explaining this tangible reality on into even more mystifying and unseen phenomena, states, conditions, or substances that living nature thrives on, such as the colors of different gases in the air, in the ether, that are a byproduct or food source of a plant or mammal or insect—these new facts or findings that they report ruin it for me and at the same time fascinate me.

Now what I’m about to document is going to appear selfish and cruel to my reader, but I am left with no choice—given my nature: Damn you, Edward O. Wilson, damn you. Who on this Earth do you think you are? Not only do you apprise me of the most intricate microscopic fact, but you also continue your documents into the most highly articulate and erudite pithy maxims ever philosophized on the observance of Nature—damn you again. So what now is left me to muse on in Nature’s magical and mysterious—maybe even mystical—tour that I adore? Not so much, Wilson, not so much.

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson

Is it Sir David Attenborough, or is it Lord David Attenborough? I can’t remember. In any case, I have a few things to say about you too—naturally. I have listened to and watched you over my many years, beginning with my nascent childhood and extending into my ever-inquisitive adulthood. How much I love your voice, your cadence, your insightfully nuanced chattering narrations—I hate you too, I think. In those many years of our long career together, we have grown old—and you even more so. I have watched your body crumple, crumpled downward like so many of the old. I notice your groans interrupt your narration as you kneel down to the ground to point out the significance of the seemingly insignificant. And, Mr. Attenborough, if the natural spectacle happens to be above your crumpled head, I notice a wobble impedes your steadiness when you look up. However, Attenborough, all this, your crumpledness, has only made you more amiable, more adorable. David, you have evolved from a compelling, richly spoken narrator scientist to the wisest of old sages, a profound and whimsical instructor and wandering renouncer, a lovable British-style grandpa Walton.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Now you, Sir David or Lord Attenborough, are the subject of my documentary, chronologically following the disintegration of the corporeal human body as one of Nature’s wonders. Like one of your documentaries, it’s a wise tale full of anthropomorphically cognate observations on the trials of one of Nature’s most enduringly curious and complicated mammals: The Naturalist as Narrator. I can look back in my mind, and in my mind’s eye I can picture you, Lord Attenborough, anywhere I am. I can picture you standing there, narrating what I’m thinking—my thoughts—but in your voice. So ubiquitous, Sir David, you are a conscious and subconscious fossil imprinted in the muddy primordia upon which I impress my own perceptive animal tracks. You, Lord Attenborough, are a spectating specter that haunts my delusional speculations of Nature.

Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough

My point is, Reader, to illustrate how corrupt and intrusive the informed mind is, and how stilted and stymied it can be, given this information. I hope I’m not in any way grand-stating my speculations as brilliant, but I have seen, through my time and reading, brilliance shaded by known conclusions, conclusions that are in serious need of reigniting so that fiery brilliance can light up darkened areas of the natural sciences.

I know, I know, I’m asking for it. I’m asking all who really know about Nature to just go ahead and ruin it all for me. And when I read back what I’ve written, Reader, I see it sort of compares to the patchy, eccentric, nonsensical ramblings of a nitwit. However, in defense of my nitwittiness, I have an imagination that roams without trepidation into raw voids it fills with fantasy, which I will proclaim is perfectly Natural—naturally.

In conclusion, to my colluding cockamamie pseudo-scientists, I ask that you keep in observance our three primate friends: “See no evil, Hear no evil, and Speak no evil.” And in the words of the Nature narrator Winston Hibler, “For that is Nature’s way.”

Timothy Fichtner is a visual artist and nature lover who lives and works in Chelan, Washington, with his wife, one dog, three cats, and a rescued squirrel.

The Nearly Sunken Pram: An Orca Story (for Geoff)

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

My brother and I
set out in our pram
to catch a salmon,
a pram no more
than eight feet long
and three across.

But as we trolled along
through the deep green water,
an enormous killer whale pod
snorted up beside us,
jerking our heads around
and startling our hearts to pound.

Transfixed, we watched them
roll up out of the water,
great great granddaddies
with dorsal fins eight feet tall
glistening wet in the sun
and wobbling stiffly.

Big snorts or air.
Sucking in of water.
Gurgling and spraying.
An eye staring out at us….
We knew they knew
we were there,

so without a word
we steered our pram in
closer to shore, rowing briskly,
but smoothly and evenly
so as not to draw
attention to ourselves,

and once we got in
to four feet of water,
we reeled in our lines,
dropped an anchor,
boated our oars,
and watched in awe

this magnificent family,
these mothers and infants,
these gallant fathers and sons,
the aunts and uncles and cousins,
grandmothers and grandfathers too,
cruising around these inland waters
that their ancestors cruised around
countless generations before—

herding the little ones
around the Sound,
around these hundred islands,
eating clean fish freely
and making friends
with whale people along the way.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark