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.

Grooming Chaos

Being an artist—a creationist—finding and expressing beauty and meaning in new and established forms and mediums—requires developing an attitude or state of mind that’s probably measurable on an electroencephalograph. As a creative writer, I “groom chaos.” Chaos is the ground of our creative being, but in our orderly, scheduled lives, we forget that every new order is built on what was once chaos and that, if we want to create the new and beautiful, then we need to get back in touch with chaos.

Edge of Vastness (Cannon Beach)

Edge of Vastness (Cannon Beach)

In this clock-driven, technological, rational world of calendars, business meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, square rooms and city sectors, desks, books, computers, buttons and keys, digital readouts, folders inside folders inside folders, ad finitum, ad nauseum, an artist or writer may find her mind so blocked and squared and programmed and ultimately tethered to the human system (rather than to the human problem) that she can hardly find space, juice, stimulation, or support to create a piece that’s wild, new, exciting, and interesting—that pushes the personal and cultural boundaries and stands at least a short test of time under critical scrutiny.

Grooming chaos involves a few very important ingredients:

Time and Space: One must make time and space for being creative, for writing, painting, taking artistic photos, etc.—a time and place to get wild, to explore, to excuse oneself from the world’s expectations as we perceive them. Without time and space (studio, forest, Photoshop) there’s little room for creativity. An artist inevitably creates nothing but frustration and may be forced to sell her soul to the “program” in the face of beckoning truth and beauty.

Chaos Field

Mental Space: One must be able to clear the mind of daily, practical, mental activity, of deadlines, worries, and old habits—in other words, make room not only in time and space but also between the ears. Ironically, some “postmodern” artists have made art using the stuff of daily life in order to make the point that even artists in this day and age can’t escape their own busy thoughts but instead find in them the compost for new statements about what it is to be human. For example, there are several artists today who use trash to create meaning, which harks back to Andy Warhol’s use of advertising in his pop art or Picasso’s use of a broken bicycle’s handlebars and seat to sculpture a bull. But even here, one needs a moment’s mental space to see the new in the old or daily. There needs to be enough mental space for this germination to occur.

Warhol's Campbell's Soups

Warhol’s Campbell’s Soups

Picasso's Bicycle Bull

Picasso’s Bicycle Bull

Belief in Self: We must believe we are capable of creating new images, visions, ideas, connections, and juxtapositions. Many of us find ourselves stuck in an attitude about ourselves that art is bourgeois or that art is too far outside the mainstream to be worthwhile—that it doesn’t make us much money and is therefore worthless. Or that it’s self-indulgent. Or that we as individuals are lacking talent, or a parent, teacher, or friend said, “You have a tin ear,” “You lack imagination,” You can’t write because you’re a terrible speller,” “You’re color blind.” We have to move past these stereotypes, labels, and shallow, mean, vindictive judgments in order to find that in fact we do have interests, talents, and skills that we haven’t explored or developed because of them.

Chopra quote

Getting in Touch with the Mind: We need to get in touch with how the mind works (once we’ve created the time and space, cleared the mind, and broken through the negative thoughts)—how the mind responds to what it sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels, both within the cranium and without (is there really a difference?). This is why I like to refer to Richard Hugo’s “triggering town” in order to promote the idea that we always start from something. There’s always a triggering subject or image in art making. This could be a person, a dialogue, a place, an event, an action, an image, a dream, a feeling, or someone else’s work. Richard Hugo drove to a small town, took a room in an old hotel, went out to the local bar, met strangers, had interesting experiences and conversations, then went back to his room and wrote his poems, many of which are based on the places and people he experienced on his forays. The mind associates and, if the mind associates freely, associates by way of what I call “sideways” leaps or connections (see Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry). In other words, the mind tends to get in the habit of associating in a linear, forward, productive, time-driven, cause-and-effect way and needs to learn to leap sideways to associate freely in creative ways. Picasso’s bicycle bull provides a succinct example.

Triggering Town Leaping Poetry

In literature there are many precedents: James Joyce and others in his milieu, such as Djuna Barnes, developed and practiced “stream of consciousness,” Rimbaud explored “derangement of the senses,” and Jack Kerouac developed and promoted “automatic writing.” In other words, these artists sought chaotic states of mind in order to discover and express new literary materials and forms.

James JoyceDjuna BarnesArturRimbaudJack Kerouac

When I groom chaos, I usually give myself permission to drink a little beer or wine, doodle on my fiddle, stare out the window at the birds playing, the leaves fluttering and clouds streaming by, or the moon rising out of the forest, and let my thoughts reel out as they may. Sometimes my thoughts strike me as interesting or as having value or use, so I make notes on my voice recorder or on a piece of paper. Then, when an idea, line, thought, or image intrigues me, I work up a piece in my notebook, or on my computer, starting with that “triggering town” to build a poem, essay, or blog post. I have an enormous backlog of lines, titles, images, paragraphs, and poem or essay drafts—way more that I can keep up with, which, let’s face it, is much better than not having enough and scrounging around for ideas as if we aren’t already full of such riches. I call this backlog “compost.” I generate so much compost that the plants of my mind grow wild—twining, billowing, and blooming out of control. I begin to see patterns that reflect who I am and what I really feel deep within.

Pussy Willows

Pussy Willows

And it isn’t until I’ve come back to a piece several times that I allow the stern judge to enter the courtroom of my mind. Yet, interestingly, even the great, harsh, dismissive judge seems to have a creative knack, simply because the judge can’t altogether throw out an initial creative impulse that came so naturally, freely, powerfully, and insistently.