Reading up on personal essays

As we start to learn about writing the personal essay, please take a look at these links. In this assignment, you will submit your finished essays to one of these markets, so take a look at what and how they publish, and look at their writers guidelines:

Newsweek My Turn: a weekly column of about 1,000 words, written by freelances and individuals with something to say. Notice the subheds just beneath the headlines. I want you to write the headline and subhed to your essay. Think: What am I trying to say?

This I Believe: This is a radio/web essay program, in which everyday people write about their personal beliefs. Spend some time looking at the essays on this site–there are hundreds of them, and they offer a great variety of experiences and perspectives. Read how magician Penn Jillette takes on a controversial topic.

The Sun Magazine: If you have never read this magazine, an independent, non profit based down south, you are in for a treat. This magazine features some beautiful non-fiction as well as poetry and fiction. Please look at the Readers Write section, in which writers respond to a particular topic. Here are the guidelines and topics you may write about.

One pitfall for beginning essay writers is that you want to write about a particular experience, but you don’t have the second piece: universality, and how this experience fits into your readers’ experience or sensibility. Not every personal experience lends itself to treatment in an essay. Here’s an interview with essayist Anne Fadiman, who edited the Best American Essays 2003 book, and a wonderful writer herself, the author of At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays.

If you like to write in this genre, I urge you to find other essay writers whose work you love. It’s one of the great pleasures in life.

You can check out a few of my essays at my website

Check out the left hand column: Cape Cod Love Letter appeared in Yankee magazine last year, and Cause of Death: Grossed Out, and Hello, Kitties are two fun pieces I wrote just for the heck of it.

Also, go to Read My Work and see: Thoreau Was Here. This piece was published in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, about Mount Greylock, the state’s highest mountain. You’ll see here a mix of reportage, first hand observation (I spent a few days walking on the mountain trails), and other research, which I did (happily, I might add) in the stacks on an upper floor of the WEB DuBois Library, reading what Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau had written about their travels in the Berkshires. So essays are more than just what you think.

Okay now, what are you going to write about?

My magazine pieces about Holyoke

Here’s a piece I wrote for CommonWealth Magazine in 2000 about a youth group in Holyoke. Check out the structure of this story, the sourcing and the scene setting.

Here’s another about Holyoke high school students who were having troubles passing the MCAS, and in the peculiar situation of not having dropped out of school, but not being able to graduate because of it.

Let me know what you think.