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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Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

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

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

The Future of Poetry

The day is coming when great words
will matter more than money.
Ears will pivot like a cat’s
at syllables that pierce
the soul’s hard enamel.
Words of magic will be as
commonplace as leaves on trees,
as riveting as a fist,
as tuneful as Schubert
playing on the violin.
We’ll fly through the thick air
of longing for simple truth
on carnival rides of raucous lines
written on the tongue
at the sight of a silly cloud.
We’ll slash primal ululations
on thousand dollar bills
and tack them on our alley walls.
There’ll be the trumpet
of poetry, the mural of poetry,
and lovers making love
on printed sheets of poetry .
We’ll break up over poetry,
and we’ll make up with poetry.
We’ll drive to work reciting poetry,
we’ll write frivolous poetry
even when the boss is watching.
We’ll sell poetry only when we’re broke,
we’ll pawn it only after we dicker
long and hard with the broker.
And we’ll buy it back later
for millions along with the
Picassos and the Stradivariuses,
then sell it again for millions more.
Poetry will drive inflation
mad with love. Secrets
will be kept, revealed,
and stolen in cryptic poetry.
Great books of poetry
will serve as constitutions,
will turn the tides of history
and be sent deep into space
in capsules made of titanium
for other civilizations to read
and be moved by, to be
enlightened and changed forever.
The whole fabric of reality
will be found to consist of poetry
and we will certainly rejoice.

Note: Previously published in Washington Community College Humanities Association Arts Journal and The Wheel.

Tiny American Bird Wins Japanese Haiku Contest

Wrenzai is proud to announce that he’s won Grand Prize in the Non-Japanese (International) Division of the 6th Annual Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Haiku Contest in Japan. He is stunned and elated by the news. When a package arrived from Japan, he and Ms. Wrenzai were delighted to find in it not only several copies of the book published with the winning poems and an over-sized framed award certificate but also a “small prize.”

Wrenzai with the goods

Wrenzai with the goods

Here is the winning haiku:

the one-legged sparrow—
still embraced by the clan
on the power line

The prize brought tears to the recipient’s eyes. It’s a miniature folding standing screen of the original much larger 18th century screen of Buson’s (second of the great male haiku poets in Japan) calligraphic version of Basho’s 17th century “haibun” (prose with haiku) entitled Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) including “haiga” (ink paintings accompanying haiku). The book traces Basho’s journey around northern Japan, visiting significant historical and natural sites and guiding writing circles in towns and villages along the way. Wrenzai has read five different translations of this most famous work in Japan, several more than once, and has written a haibun with haiga (photos converted to drawings in this case) entitled Rowing Smitty: Travel Sketches and Haibun, emulating and learning from this great work. The book is to be published in the near future.

First three panels of screen

First three panels of screen

The coincidence is beyond meaningful for Wrenzai. It’s as if a distinct path has opened up before Wrenzai down which he must wander for the rest of his time on the planet. Life sometimes rings with truth!

Wrenzai wrote the winning haiku while (with his ever-vigilant eyes) watching sparrows through his sister Karen’s upstairs apartment window. He selected the haiku for the contest because, when he lived in Japan between 1988 and 1991, the country only then was beginning to provide infrastructure for handicapped people in public places. One rarely saw handicapped people in public. He’s not sure that the reason the poem was selected for the award has anything to do with why he wrote or chose it for the contest, but these are the thoughts he’s had on the matter. One way or the other, the sparrow event occurred and the poem came into existence before any thoughts about it took place.

Here is the other poem Wrenzai submitted to the contest:

the two grasshoppers
parted by my leg—
will they ever meet again?

This haiku is more blatantly traditional in form in that it makes more direct reference to the season, resides more in the natural world, and appeals to a simpler sentiment. But it happened and the words occurred to me….

May your observations and creations burst with passion!

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.