In a way, all essays are personal essays. They represent what you think, what you feel, about a given topic. They represent your effort (the word essay comes from the French essayer, which means to try) to communicate those thoughts and feelings to others. In the purely personal essay, however, there is no effort to objectify those thoughts, there is no concealment that this is your opinion; no standing behind any mask of objectivity is permitted, no embarrassment is allowed.

Be sure to review, also, the section on The Narrative Essay. Narrative and personal essays have much in common. We have included several sample essays in the Narrative Essay section.

The personal essay is often a free-wheeling device of self-expression. If you ever want to experiment with prose and with loosened structure, this is where you can do it. (If you're writing for a grade, though, make sure you understand what your instructor is looking for before you get too crazy!)

You will probably want to use quoted language in your personal essay. There is nothing like the "heard voice" to create the impression that this is real. Your readers are going along, reading your prose on the paper, and then they see someone saying "This is great stuff!" and they not only read and see, they hear. Spoken speech engages another whole sense and enriches the medium immensely. Unfortunately, using quoted language demands a whole set of typographical conventions — the quotation marks themselves and the various commas and end-marks that are required. The Guide to Grammar and Writing contains a brief section on Quotation Marks to help you. Review that section and take the quizzes on quotation marks before using quoted language in your own prose.

When using quoted speech, don't let a voice talk for very long in your essay; it will take over and start to sound weird. Only the greatest writers can handle speech effectively over a long period of time. Keep the speech elements brief — which is how speech is in real life, after all. We're not allowed to say much before we're interrupted by others or by something else going on. Also, don't try to duplicate the speech of real life, the way people really talk. Tape record a dinner conversation some evening, when people don't know you're doing it, and you'll probably hear something quite unpleasant, something that should never be written down. Use conventional spelling, and don't leave out letters or try to recreate in spelling what you hear people say (He dozn't do nuthin'!); your readers will become more aware of your clever spelling than they are of what's going on in your essay.

Above all, don't forget that you never want your readers to ask So what? at the end of your essay and hear a hollow response. What is the point of your essay? Don't belabor the point too much; let the point grow out of the experience of the essay. It might be true, in fact, that you didn't even have a point to make when you started writing your essay. Go ahead and write it and see if a point develops. If you're not satisifed and feel that your essay remains pointless, ask your friends to read it and see if they discern a point where you don't. (It's possible!) Then, once you've decided what your point might be, you might want to rewrite parts of your essay to smooth out the edges: you don't want to clobber your readers over their heads with your point, but you don't want to be so subtle that no one gets it, either.

Here we have a silly personal essay for you to consider. It was written by a college student named Silica Gelcap and is used here with his gracious permission. As you read it, try to figure out what the point of it might be and where that point is being made. Is it fun to read? What is the source of that fun? Enjoy!

I Know It's an Objet, But Is It D'Art?

My neighbor, Doug, called me over the other day to show me something. He enticed me into his basement with a beer. (I hate to go there because I end up whacking my head against his low-beamed ceiling, but the beer helps.)

"Look at this," Doug said. "Kitty litter sculptures." Arranged on a shelf were several busts of American presidents. They were nicely executed, I thought, though I have to confess I'm no art expert. "Kitty litter?" I asked.

"Used clumpable kitty litter. It's the greatest." He'd taken the contributions of Samantha — his 18-year-old tabby — clods about the size and shape of George Foreman's ears, and shaped them into likenesses of the U.S. presidents. He'd already gotten up to Millard Fillmore. "Tidy Scoop is best," he said, although he'd clearly tried others, including Fresh Step and Boomer's Best, as I could tell from empty plastic containers all over the basement. "Tidy Scoop is consistent and odor free and malleable. I just do the sculpture work, dry them out over there by the furnace, and give them a quick varnish."

"It's also a boon to recycling," he said. Doug's enthusiasm for the ecology knows no bounds. Before our town started its own recycling program, he took his newspapers and plastic milk jugs into his Hartford job for proper disposal.

He wanted to know if I thought these little sculptures would sell well at a fair or flea market, but I hate to pass judgment on something like that. What if I said yes, and they turned out to be a drag on the market? "What happens when Samantha passes on?" I wanted to know. The cat lay in a corner of the basement, looking more peaked and drained than usual, it seemed to me. Sam is getting on and the thought of this pet becoming a mere vehicle in the creation of yet another art medium, her bladder a martyr for art, disturbed me.

"I've thought of that," Doug said, "and I'm thinking of branching out, asking old Mrs. Peters down the road if I could enlist her cats, if I provided the Tidy Scoop."

Old Mrs. Peters, the local "cat lady," hosts at least twenty felines, maybe more. Nobody'd gotten close enough to her house in recent years to count, because of the bouquet, to put a nice turn on it. That would count as a civic service, I added.

"Then I could really go commercial. I'm thinking of advertising in Parade, along with those people who make the dinner plates commemorating Elvis and Jesus and with the Danbury Mint's collection of model cars and civil war soldiers."

My wife hollered, and I had to run off to rake the yard, but I tell you all this only because it's another testament to humankind's resourcefulness in making something out of nothing — in this case, out of something considerably less than nothing. As I said, I'm no judge of art, but it seems to me that if this weren't an election year, the National Endowment for the Arts would probably want in on the action. Being a friend and neighbor, I'm hoping for a first edition Teddy Roosevelt.

  • Does this essay have a point? What is it and where did you become aware of it?
  • Does the essay's silliness detract from whatever point it might be trying to make?
  • Some of the paragraphs in this essay are very short. Is that appropriate?
  • Does the essay use quoted speech effectively?
  • Does the essay end appropriately, or do you think the writer just got tired of writing? Was the essay too long or too short?