How to Write a Personal Experience Essay with Sample Papers
Tells a story from your past.
Explains the significance of that story.
What This Article Explains
- Why you need to learn to write Personal Essays well.
- How to explain the meaning of a memory.
- How to choose a great topic.
- Easy organizing strategies for fabulous essays.
Why You Need to Learn to Write Personal Essays Well
Personal essays are assigned all the time in classes and on exam questions because anyone can write about their own experience and it doesn't require any outside resources or research. However, even though anyone can tell a story about their life, that does not mean anyone can write a good essay about that experience. As a professor and teacher for 30 years, I've read thousands of essays and can tell you there is a distinct difference from telling a story about yourself and writing an excellent personal experience essay. The difference is:
- How well you explain the meaning.
- How effectively you organize your essay.
Conflict Situation Topics
How to Explain Meaning Effectively
Writing an essay about a personal experience or relationship can be a powerful way of both discovering the meaning of your own past and sharing that past with others. When you write about something in your past, you have two perspectives: your perspective in the present and the perspective you had at the time the event occurred. The space between these perspectives is usually where you will find significance in that event or relationship.
Choosing a Topic
If the event or relationship is recent, you will be closer to the "you" that experienced the event. If the event is more distant, you will often find yourself reflecting on the experience, your reactions and the meaning of the experience differently. As you write the essay, you will need to decide if you want to talk about the experience as you see it now, or as you saw it then. Often, you may do both of those things, or use your perspective now as the conclusion.
Example of How Perspective Changes
For example, I remember being rejected by a friend in 8th grade and having a miserable summer before starting high school. If I wrote about that experience from my perspective at that time, I would probably focus on my anger and hurt. Now, forty years later, I realize that that experience made me reach out in high school to develop new friends. Those friends encouraged me to join speech, theater and the literary club. More importantly, that experience of rejection gave me a lifelong compassion for others who are hurting, and made me a much more sympathetic friend and listener.
Any event from your past can be a good Personal Experience Essay topic if it was important to you. These types of essays can be about either a one-time event, a reoccurring event, a person, or a place. Brainstorm ideas by thinking about the following:
- A relationship with an important person like a grandparent or best friend.
- A single encounter with someone that changed you.
- An event which was small but significant.
- A major, life changing event.
- Something that you did over and over that was meaningful to you.
- Your experience and memories of a place that embodies who you are, or has meaning for you.
How to Find Meaning
To make sure you have a good topic, you need to determine what the meaning of that event or person was for you. To help you get ideas about the meaning and to decide whether this topic is a good choice, jot down some notes answering the following 5 questions:
- What did I think the meaning of the experience was when it happened?
- How have my thoughts about it changed?
- What did I learn?
- How has my life direction been affected by this event?
- Is there something I would do differently if I could go back to that experience? Any regrets?
Effective Organizing is Easy
Why re-invent the wheel? Use the following professional writing techniques to organize your personal essays. These strategies aren't secret and they aren't hard. They are what you've seen over and over in books and movies. Now you need to use them yourself.
This is the most obvious way to tell the story. You just tell it in the way it happened in the order it happened. Most of the other organizing techniques use this way to tell the main part of the story. See Anne Dillard's "Handed My Own Life" for a good example of chronological organization of a personal essay.
Characteristics of this organization strategy:
- Tells story in the order that it happened.
- Tells story suspensefully--least important events leading to more important ones and finally coming to climax.
- Explains meaning after climax or lets events show the meaning. For example, Dillard states her understanding in a series of phrases, such as "I was handed my own life," and "my days were my own to plan and fill" along with a lot of specific details of how she did that. Of course, she also uses the title to explain her meaning.
Expectations Unfulfilled Organization
Want an easy way to organize your essay? Try Expectations Unfulfilled. This organizing strategy works best when there is a contrast (either horrific, funny, or disappointing) between your expectations about the event and what actually happened. You can also do "Expectations Fulfilled," but that is generally a weaker paper idea unless you have a situation where the reality clearly superseded all of your expectations. Rick Bragg's "100 Miles an Hour, Upside Down and Sideways" is a good example of this kind of essay organization.
Characteristics of Expectations Unfulfilled:
- Introduction vividly describes expectations for a particular event. Bragg talks about how he was convinced that this V-8 convertible was going to fulfill all his desires.
- Maybe foreshadow the problem. Bragg's uncle warns him to be careful because "That'un could kill you."
- Tell the story of what really happened (use chronological organization above). Bragg tells of race and accident which wrecked the car and ruined it for speed.
- Describe the contrast between reality and expectations. Bragg's memories of the crash are the radio still playing and being pulled out unscratched and of being famous not for having the best car, but for being the kid who survived a 100-mile crash.
- Reflection on experience. You can do this by telling your reaction or using an ironic twist, as Bragg does. Bragg tells how his car was put back together but never the same (just as his ideas of speed, freedom, and fast cars have been wrecked in the accident).
- Conclude with irony. An ironic end can sometimes be a good conclusion for this sort of story. Braggs writes about how after his car gets rear-ended at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket he sells it in disgust to a preacher's kid who "drove the speed limit
Frame Story in UP
Frame Organization Strategy
Using a frame story for the introduction and conclusion should be familiar to you from lots of movies.One good example of a story frame is UP. In this case, the movie opens with the frame of Carl looking at the scrapbook Ellie has made for him about their life and dreams, before flashing to the present story of Carl and Russell and their adventures. The movie returns to the frame at the end of the movie as Carl looks at the last page of the photobook Ellie has made for him. He learns that it was the journey of the relationship which was the real adventure.
Another kind of frame can be a flashback. In this technique, you start in the middle of the action (or after it is over) and then flashback to an earlier memory. The Notebook uses the story of a man spending time with his wife with Alzheimer's as the frame for his re-telling the story of their romance.
The advantage of using a frame is that it makes it easier for you to talk about the meaning of the story, especially if you use the present day to flashback to the past. Be sure the frame is not just random. There should be an event, object, conversation, or situation which causes you to flash back in memory.
Internal and External Conflicts Organization
With this technique, you organize your story around what is happening internally in your mind, versus what is happening in the event. Of course, like "Expectations Unfulfilled" this works best if there is a conflict between what is happening in your thoughts and what is happening in the situation.
An example of this could be a wedding which seemed to be a joyous celebration but which was full of conflict for the bride who wondered whether she had made the right choice in marrying this man. Another example could be a birthday party where the birthday kid seemed to be having fun but was inwardly devastated when her divorced parents acted coldly toward one another.
Power of Personal Narrative
You can combine some of these strategies together to make your essay shine. A good example of this is the student essay by Jean Brandt, "Calling Home." Along with using a frame. Brandt also uses internal and external conflicts in her organization.
- Introduction: beginning frame story. Brandt's essay has her ride to the mall.
- First conflict and resolution. Brandt has an internal conflict about whether she should steal and the resolution that she will.
- Second conflict and resolution. Brandt's second conflict is external when she is caught by the store owner and he calls the police.
- Third conflict and resolution. Brand's third conflict is both internal and external. She wonders how her parents will react. She is brought to the police station but not punished by her parents. She realizes that disappointing them and realizing she had made the wrong choice is worse than if they had punished her.
- Conclusion: ending frame and expectations unfulfilled. Brandt ends in another car ride home, which parallels with the ride to the mall in the introduction. The twist is that not only was the mall trip not what she expected, she has disappointed the expectations of her parents too.
Small Events Can make Good Essays
Brandt's essay illustrates how to take a single, small incident and turn it into an essay which explains how she learned something about herself. It is a coming of age essay. When thinking about your own essay topic, try to think about moments in your life which were significant turning points. The event can be something small and doesn't have to be dramatic. What is important is how it affected you.
Tips for Chronological Organization
Most students will use this method, so if you want to make your essay stand out, you may want to try one of the other techniques. When you do use this method remember:
- Where's the Conflict? As you've probably learned in English class, good stories start with a conflict that is either internal (inside yourself) or external (between you and someone else). Good stories show the development of the conflict, the crisis (called a climax) and then the resolution of what happens afterward (either good or bad). Make sure your story follows this pattern.
- Don't add unnecessary details. You need to "clip" the memory effectively. Imagine yourself as a film editor. What needs to be in the story? What can you leave out?
- Make details specific and interesting. Make your descriptions of the setting, characters and action concrete and specific. For example:
Don't say, "Maura was a beautiful but boring blonde bombshell."
Say, "Maura was a sleek, 5 foot 10, long-haired, blonde who never tired of talking about her exotic vacations or newest boyfriend."
- Keep Boredom at Bay. Tell enough detail like setting and character development that the reader is drawn into the story, but don't spend so much time in details that your reader gets bored.
- Action and Dialogue are Best. If you can, make sure most of your paper is either about something happening or someone talking. Both action and dialogue move the story along faster than description. Anne Dillard's
Sometimes, there is a particular object or repeated event which is the focus of the memory. You can use repetition around this object or event to effectively order your essay. "On Being a Real Westerner" by Tobias Wolff is a good example of using a metaphor to organize.
Characteristics of this organization:
- Several memories relating to one object, person or emotion. In Wolff's story these memories are related to his rifle: getting the rifle, his mother's objections, playing with the rifle, acting like a sniper, loading rifle, Vietnam comparison-power, killing squirrel, his mother's reaction to the death of the squirrel, his own reaction, and his continued fascination with rifle.
- Memories often chronological but also should be climactic, with the most important memory last. In Wolff's story, the climax is when he shoots the squirrel and has to deal with the reality of what owning and using a rifle really means, or what it really means to "be a westerner."
- Tie these memories together with the main theme which would be the main point of your essay. Wolff ties his memories together with the theme of power, the power of the rifle, how the hunger for power shaped him, and his powerlessness to change the past, "a man can't help the boy."
Ways to Organize a Remembering a Person Essay
In a personal experience essay about a person you remember, your memories of events are part of the essay, but foremost is your memory about the person. Generally, it helps to keep the essay focused on one to three important memories about that person. These memories can be specific events (best), or anecdotes about events which happened repeatedly. Characteristics of this sort of essay:
1.Vivid Portrait of Person
- Dialogue (the reader can hear how this person talks).
- Describe a place which reflects the person (the reader can know about the interests of the person and picture them where you do).
- Person (describe what the person looks like).
2. Specific Memories
- Pick memories which show the person's character or reveal your relationship.
- Tell one time incidents: every essay should have 1-3 of these. Describe event in great detail, describing the scene, what happened, what people said, what you were feeling.
- Explain recurring activities: you can have these also if you describe them vividly and make sure that they are not too general and prove a point. Don't say, "My mother always scolded me." Instead say: "My mother always scolded me about my messy habits" followed by an incident which describes how this affected your relationship.
3. Indication of the Person's Significance
Choose 1 or 2 main points to make: Trying to explain everything that person means to you is too much to do in a short essay.
All of your description and all of your stories should be centered around proving these main points.
Other Organizing Strategies for Person Essays
You can use some of the organizing strategies for event essays for people too. Here are some suggestions:
I. Revelation/Expectations Reversed
- Your usual judgment about the person.
- Analysis of personality/Physical description /some of background history.
- The revelation about them (story of a particular moment when you saw this person from a different perspective).
II. Conflict and Resolution Organizing
- The story of a conflict you have with this person.
- Analysis of personality/Physical description/background history.
- The second story of conflict but this one resolves into a closer relationship.
- Third story--conflict leads to a lesson learned.
- Fourth story--a different conflict/ lesson learned is conveyed to others
III. Comparison and Contrast
Notice that both views are found in each paragraph or section. This paper is ordered thematically. Another possibility is to talk about all the views of another person first, then talk about your views.
- Introduction: Description of person and set-up of contrast between you.
- Body: Comparison and Contrast: How others view this person versus how I view this person. Or how I used to view that person versus how I now view them.
- Conclusion: How I have come to see this person