“How do you learn to write?” It’s a question I ask myself often, particularly when teaching writing classes. Hanif Kureishi, author of Buddha in Suburbia and a creative writing instructor, says you can’t. Does he think the same when it comes to writing personal essays?
I disagree with Kureishi. Obviously.
How could I spend the last 20 years of my life teaching writing — personal writing, fiction, non-fiction, composition — if I believed such a thing?
But the classroom alone will not teach you to write. You need to practice and you NEED TO READ!
Every month in The Writer’s Process — my online writing academy to build writing skills, find a community and make money with your works — I bring in a guest speaker to teach one aspect of the business of writing. Anjali Enjeti, a writer, editor and also a creative writing instructor, joined us to teach The Art of Writing Compelling Personal Essays.
Over the course of an incredible hour, Anjali gave us tips on how to focus your essay. She offered advice on what to do when your emotions are still raw, and she shared her favorite personal essays!
Reading is the very best way to improve your writing!
You nod your head in vigorous agreement. You catch your breath. At times, you clench your fists because you know something awful is coming, but you can’t help but continue reading.
Your favorite books and essays are your writer’s toolbox. When you read them, you see new ways to structure your story, uncover creative ideas for dialogue and uncover ways to strengthen your message and reach your reader more powerfully.
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal,” said TS Eliot.
Or perhaps it was Pablo Picasso who said that. Or maybe it was Aaron Sorkin. I dunno. But the sentiment remains. We writers take what we see, hear, taste, touch, and experience and transpose them to the pages on which we write.
The essays below span a wide breadth of topics and represent different styles of writing. At the heart of each, though, lies a truth, a concise mirror held up to reflect a common lived experience. We may be left breathless, moved, laughing, devastated or anything else on the emotional spectrum. Most of all, they leave us inspired to write.
Reading one essay is a lesson learned, the ten pieces of writing below offer you a comprehensive course in personal writing. You’ll learn dialogue, structure and character development. They’ll teach you how to build tension and what questions you should ask yourself as you write.
For each, I’ve included a brief excerpt from the piece as well as a link so you can read it yourself. And finally at the end, an added gift. I’ve included a recent piece from Anjali, so you can not only revel in her favorite essays but see how her own reading creates the narrative and beauty of her writing.
10 essays that will teach you how to write
1. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
2. Karrie Higgins’ Strange Flowers
I love you like xo.
Ever since my brother died, I have dialed his disconnected telephone numbers, tracking where they terminate over time, hoping to cross his ghost voice in the wires. He is finally returning my call. We have a downlink.
3. Jo Ann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter
I have an ex-beauty queen coming over to get rid of the squirrels for me. She has long red hair and a smile that can stop trucks. I’ve seen her wrestle goats, scare off a giant snake, and express a dog’s anal glands, all in one afternoon. I told her on the phone that a family of squirrels is living in the upstairs of my house.
“They’re making a monkey out of me,” I said.
4. Lydia Yuknavitch’s Woven
It was a night I wanted never to end.
Or, I wish with all my heart that the story ended there.
But that’s not where the story ended.
5. Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast
Bubbies has been attending to his own education—proceeding from one word, to several, to two-word sentences, to three and more. Some say that children learn to speak in order to tell the stories already in them. An early word of his was “back.” He wanted reassurance that when any of us left the house, or even a room, we were coming back.
6. Eula Biss’ Time and Distance Overcome
Content warning on this one. It is a difficult read. Lynchings and racism.
The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.
7. Mariama Lockington’s What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew
I know that my hair is curly and thick, that my mother wants me to love it natural. I know that when she drops me off at Jasmine’s to get my hair braided I feel safe. That even though it hurts when she untangles my kinks I don’t mind because she smells so good. I learn that I love the smell of black women. Of grease, flat irons, and cocoa butter. I know I am black and that my parents love me, but I know I am different.
8. Tim Bascom’s Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide
Contrary to the high school teacher’s oft-repeated maxim—“Show, don’t tell!”—the essayist is free both to show and tell. In fact, I once heard the nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild scold a group of MFA students for being so subtle in their writing that they left out critical signposts that readers needed. “Don’t be so afraid to say what you mean,” he counseled.
9. Laurie Herzel’sBut Will They Love Me When I’m Done
Late in her mother’s life, Hampl asked her why she eventually allowed the poem to be published, hoping her mother would say that it was because the poem was so good. Instead, her mother said, “Because I loved you. I’ve always hated it.”
10. Anjali Enjeti’s Drinking Chai to Savannah
I survey the tourists poring over guidebooks, tapping their phones. I worry one of them will mutter something derogatory about this group of seven brown women whose mere presence seems to have doubled the minority population of this historic district.
What’s your favorite personal essay? Leave a link in the comments!
Read “How Keeping a Diary Can Surprise You” to learn more — and check out what other teenagers told us back in 2011 when we asked, Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
But don’t stop at just journaling. Go back, read over what you wrote, look for patterns and think about what these “personal stories” reveal about you. A recent article on the Well blog suggests that writing and editing stories about yourself can help you see your life differently, and actually lead to behavioral changes:
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
Read about how personal story editing helped 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically, then think about how you can use the techniques yourself.
2. Use current events and issues as a jumping-off point.
That’s what we’ve done every school day since 2009 with our Student Opinion question: we find an interesting article in The Times, pose a question about it, and invite any teenager anywhere in the world to answer it.
In fact, we’ve just published a list of 650 of those questions that ask for personal and narrative writing, on topics like sports, travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Visit the collection to get ideas and to access related Times articles to help you think more about each.
Then, ask you yourself, what issues and current events do you care most about? How do they impact your life? What personal stories can you tell that relate to them in some way?
For instance, maybe the impact of technology on our lives concerns you. In our collection of prompts, you can find nearly 50 different ways we’ve taken that topic on, each linked to a Times article or essay on the topic.
For just one example, though, you might read Gary Shteyngart’s essay “Only Disconnect”:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film.
Does it surprise you to realize this essay was written in 2010? Do you think his observations are even more true today? What stories do you have to tell about life online?
Another excellent place to glean ideas is the Op-Ed page, where writers respond to the news of the day with occasional personal essays. In this one, a classic from 1999, a teenager reacts to the Columbine school shootings — then blamed in part on school cliques that made some feel like outsiders — with an essay headlined, “Yes, I’m in a Clique.”
Or read this week’s “How to Vote as an Immigrant and a Citizen,” an Op-Ed by the novelist Imbolo Mbue about what it means to her to vote on November 8 and, for the first time, have “a say in America’s future.”
Other great places to look for ideas other than our daily Student Opinion question and the Op-Ed page? Check the Trending lists, or visit our monthly Teenagers in The Times series.
3. Take some tips from experts.
Our lesson plan, Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well, compiles nine guidelines from many different Times sources on everything from “listening to the voice in your head” to writing with “non-zombie nouns and verbs.”
But for one-stop shopping on the personal essay in particular, you might just read “How to Write a Lives Essay,” in which the author asks the magazine’s editors for a “single, succinct piece of advice” for getting an essay published in the long-running column devoted to personal stories.
Here are a few of the answers, but read the whole post to see them all:
• More action, more details, less rumination. Don’t be afraid of implicitness. And the old Thom Yorke line: “Don’t get sentimental. It always ends up drivel.”
• Meaning (or humor, or interestingness) is in specific details, not in broad statements.
• Write a piece in which something actually happens, even if it’s something small.
• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”
• Don’t try to tell the whole story.
• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”
• Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.
• Better to start from something very simple that you think is interesting (an incident, a person) and expand upon it, rather than starting from a large idea that you then have to fit into an short essay. For example, start with “the day the Santa Claus in the mall asked me on a date” rather than “the state of affairs that is dating in an older age bracket.”
• Go to the outer limit of your comfort zone in revealing something about yourself.
• Embrace your own strangeness.
How can you apply any, or all, of these pieces of advice to an essay you’re writing?
4. Borrow an opening line for inspiration.
Back in 2011, we ran a contest that invited students to Use Opening Lines From the Magazine’s ‘Lives’ Column as Writing Prompts. Contestants were allowed to write stories, essays, plays, memoirs or poetry, and could use lines like these:
It’s impossible to look cool when you’re part of a tour group. (From “In Too Deep”)
Mornings are not our best family moments. (From “Mother’s Little Helper”)
Cosmic forces have a way of turning up the heat to make us change. (From “The Tractor Driver or the Pothead?” )
After you look at the full list of first lines, jump over to read the work of our winners, and see how they took first sentences like “I am parked in a rental car in front of the house where I grew up,” and made them their own.
Around Valentine’s Day that same year, we invited students to use first lines from the weekly Modern Love column as “passion prompts,” and that time we showed them how to take the basic idea from the essay and adapt it for themselves:
• Times sentence, from “The Day the House Blew Up”:
We went out to the house last month to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then the house exploded.
Sentence starter:We went to [place and time] to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then…
• Times sentence, from “In a Wedding Album From the City’s 5 Borough Halls, Tales as Varied as the Rooms”:
It was just another Saturday night on Queens Boulevard two years ago when Eddie Ellis and Gladys Corcino pulled up beside each other at a red light near 65th Street.
Sentence starter: It was just another [day/time of the week] on/in [location] when [name] and [name]…
Scroll through all our choices from these two posts, or find your own opening line from a more recent Times essay to inspire you. How can you adapt it and make it your own?
5. Use images to spur memories and ideas.
We’re all about images as inspiration on this site, and this year we even have a new daily writing feature called Picture Prompts, and a lesson plan about teaching with images to go with it.
Scroll through the feature, and either follow the prompts we suggest, or use any of the images that catch your interest to write whatever you like. What memories does it inspire? What personal connection to the content can you make? What stories from your own life does it remind you of?
Other great places to find images in The Times?
• Lens, a Times site for photography, video and photojournalism
• The Lively Morgue, a Tumblr of images from the Times archives
• Looking at Our Hometowns, a 2013 Lens project that asked, “What would happen if you asked high school students to help create a 21st-century portrait of the country by turning their cameras on their neighborhoods, families, friends and schools?”
6. Craft a great college essay.
Our lesson plan, Getting Personal: Writing College Essays for the Common Application, helps students explore the open-ended prompts on the Common Application, then analyze Times pieces that might serve as models for their own application essays.
For example, take this prompt: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Here are some first-person Times essays that could serve as models for writing about the theme of failure:
• “A Rat’s Tale”: A writer discusses her failure to be the sister her brother wanted and what she learned.
• “Pancake Chronicles”: An entertaining account of a disastrous first job.
• “A Heartbroken Temp at Brides.com”: After a groom changes his mind, his would-be bride, with “no money, no apartment, no job” takes a position at a wedding website.
The lesson also links to a number of Times articles that offer advice on everything from “Going for the ‘Dangerous’ Essay” to “Treating a College Admissions Essay Like a First Date.”
Another source of inspiration is Ron Lieber’s annual contest for the best college essays that address issues of money, work and social class.
These essays, as he wrote in 2015, are “filled with raw, decidedly mixed feelings about parents and their sacrifices; trenchant accounts of the awkwardness of straddling communities with vastly different socio-economic circumstances; and plain-spoken — yet completely affecting — descriptions of what it means to make a living and a life in America today.”
You can find them all, by year, here:
2016: Memories and Hopes: The Top Essays
2015: Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye
2014: Four Stand-Out College Essays About Money
2013: Standing Out From the Crowd
7. Learn from more Times models on popular themes.
What we’ve compiled below is just a very, very small taste of the thousands of essays you can find in The Times on these topics.
Please preview any that you assign to students to make sure they are appropriate.
Love, Romance and Relationships
Most of the selections below are from the long-running Modern Love column, and begin with some winners of their college essay contest. You might also want to read some observations from the editor on “How We Write About Love” and his selection of “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.”
”Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define”
“Let’s Not Get to Know Each Other Better”
“No Labels, No Drama, Right?”
“The Perils of Not Dying for Love”
“Swearing Off the Modern Man”
“Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put”
“GPS on a Path to the Heart”
“Alone When the Bedbugs Bite”
“Drowning in Dishes, but Finding a Home”
“The Ballad of Tribute Steve”
“The Summer I Discovered Suburbia”
“Safe on the Southbank”
“Advice; Teen Angst? Nah!”
“My High-School Hoax”
“My New Look”
“How Ramen Got Me Through Adolescence”
“Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend”
“Memories of Meals Past”
“We Found Our Son in the Subway”
“Skinny-Dipping With Grandma”
“Praying for Common Ground at the Christmas-Dinner Table”
“A Nanny’s Love”
“The Subject of the Sibling”
“Montana Soccer-Mom Moment”
Race, Religion, Gender and Sexuality
“Milwaukee’s Divide Runs Right Through Me”
“An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China”
“I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?”
“Anti-Semitism at My University, Hidden in Plain Sight”
“Intolerance and Love in Jamaica”
“What I Learned in the Locker Room”
“The Boy of Summer”
“Learning to Embrace Sexuality’s Gray Areas”
“The Undress Code”
“My Gymnastics Feminism”
And a Few Extras that Don’t Fit Neatly Into Any of the Previous Categories...
”The Monkey Suit”
“Who’s the Jerk Now, Jerk?”
“Finding That Song”
“Scanning the Pandas”
“Eternal Bragging Rights”
Places to Find Personal Essays in The New York Times
Lives: A place for true personal essays, this column has been running weekly in the Magazine for decades.
Modern Love: A series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.
On Campus: Dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life.
Ties: Essays on parenting and family from Well.
Essay series from The Opinionator (some no longer taking submissions):
• The Couch: A series about psychotherapy
• Private Lives: Personal essays from writers around the globe, on the news of the world and the news of individual lives.
• The Stone: A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
• Draft: Essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.
• Townies: A series about life in New York — and occasionally other cities — written by the novelists, journalists and essayists who live there.
• Disability: Essays, art and opinion exploring the lives of people living with disabilities.
• Anxiety: This series explores how we navigate the worried mind, through essay, art and memoir.
• Menagerie: Explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.
Metropolitan Diary: Short anecdotes about life in New York City
Complaint Box: Discontinued in 2013, this column was part of the City Room blog and simply asked New Yorkers, “What Annoys You?”
More of Our Lesson Plans on Writing Personal Pieces
I Remember: Teaching About the Role of Memory Across the Curriculum
Creative State of Mind: Focusing on the Writing Process
Reading and Responding: Holding Writing Workshops
Reader Idea | Personal Writing Based on The Times’s Sunday Routine Series
Can’t Complain? Writing About Pet Peeves
Thank You, Thesaurus: Experimenting With the Right Word vs. the Almost-Right Word
Skills Practice | Writing Effective Openings