How To Write A Personal Journey Essay

by Mridu Khullar

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When I declared that I didn't want to get married, challengedage-old customs and decided to move out of my parents' house tobe on my own, it came as a huge shock my somewhat orthodox Indianfamily. The day after the announcement, when my mother faintedand fell terribly ill, I did what any desperate woman in mysituation would have done.

I got online.

"Now what?" said my group e-mail to friends. The only writer onthe list responded: "Write about it, you geek."

Now as I sit in the soon-to-be-mine apartment allocating space tomy magazines, files and CDs, and go on regular rounds of groceryshopping, that essay is making rounds of its own. As it passesthrough the desks of editorial offices in the hope of finding anequally precious home, it serves as proof that every memory,belief, desire, complaint, apprehension or hunch can be capturedby the writer in what is commonly known as the personal essay.

But not many writers start out with dreams of becoming essayists.We want to be journalists, short story writers, novelists or eventravel writers, but rare is the scribe who sets out to be anessayist. Personal essays happen by accident, when in the processof setting out to find stories, we end up finding ourselves.Every frustration, adulation, inclination, anguish or misery thenbecomes fodder for the personal essayist's pen.

Find your "I"

Personal essays are not about the discovery as much as they areabout the process of making that discovery. They're about theexploration. The path chosen, the road traveled. You can't comeaway from writing an essay without knowing a little somethingmore about yourself. An essay cannot be formed without diggingdeep inside you and finding something, anything, that may come asa surprise, even to you. You then pass on this gift of knowledgeto your readers in the form of a humorous anecdote, a story ofself-actualization or just a narrative tale. But at the heart ofeach essay lies the writer's "I." And it is this I, the journeyand the depth of your understanding, that shape the way yourreaders react to you.

But personal essays don't necessarily have to be aboutlife-changing moments. They can be anything -- a personal triumph, alesson learnt in an unlikely place or a memory that stood out forsome reason. It's your interpretation of the world around you,and how your perception of things changes with events, that playsthe important role. Focusing on a theme or a message whenpainting this canvas with colorful words for your readers can bea great way to lead the story up to its climax.

Take the journey together

Through your words, you form a relationship with your reader. Thekeyword here is intimacy. Only by confiding the most personalparts of you to your reader can you hope to inspire, teach ortouch a nerve. Necessary, then, is not only the ability to be askillful narrator, but having a thorough grounding in reality,and the ability to portray an accurate picture of events.

You're not just telling the reader what happened, you're showingher your experience of it. You're making her see what it is to befrightened, concerned, angry or upset about the situation you'rein. So instead of telling her what you went through, give yourreader a map and a place on the backseat, and allow her toexperience the journey from her view of the window.

To do this though, you'll need to tap into your dailyexperiences. Many writers do this by keeping a journal. Nojourney in life is as simple as going from one point to theother. By journaling daily, you can make sense out of thedisconnected dots and join them together. You're essentiallytraining yourself to be more observant of the little thingsaround you, and to find inspiration from the things that often gounnoticed. It's these insignificant things when brought intoperspective that make the reader sit up and go, "hey, me too!"

Focus on the story, not the words

As a new essayist, I often cared more about the words than I didabout the story, constantly trying to sound clever andsophisticated. So when Chicken Soup for the Soul rejected all mybeautifully-worded slices of life, but selected the mostbasically structured portrayal of a broken heart, I realized itwas all about depth. And that depth comes with understanding --of yourself, and of the story.

Each time you look at your piece with fresh eyes, you'll find anew dimension to it. So go ahead, play with metaphors, sprinkledialogue, and lead your readers down a path of sensory detail.But don't forget the most important thing -- the story. In theend, no matter how you choose to write it, it's about openingyourself up to your readers. It's about making them laugh, cryand learn through your experiences, right along with you.

Give the reader take-away value

In the book The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopatewrites, "The personal essayist looks back at the choices thatwere made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial andhistoric circumstances, and what might be called the catastropheof personality."

And that's what it is, really. In life, and in our own personalexperiences, things are never as they seem. Nothing is simple andstraightforward. It's your job, as the personal essayist, to takethe reader by the hand and guide her to those places inside theself where things become clear -- where there is but oneuniversal truth, which comes out of the wisdom gained throughyour experiences.

Don't forget the market

Like with any other genre, if you're writing to sell, you need tobecome familiar with the ins and outs of the market and writewithin the boundaries of a particular publication. Word length,topics, the level of details -- all these things then becomeimportant considerations for an editor when judging your work forpublication. Nothing beats studying the style of the publication,and focusing your material to meet the needs of the market.Target markets aren't just limited to local newspapers; nationalmagazines often have last-page essays and sections dedicated tofirst-person stories.

So if you find yourself constantly relaying stories of youradventures, love to inspire and educate, and don't mind cuttingopen a personal vein or two, venture into the world offirst-person writing. Getting personal might just be your thing.

Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal - Heather Haapoja

An Exercise in Essay-Writing - Sheila Bender

Personally Speaking - Kathryn Lay

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away! - Uma Girish

Copyright © Mridu Khullar 2006
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Freelance journalist Mridu Khullar loves to travel to new and interesting places, meet fascinating people and hear their stories, and in the process, find some of her own. Her work appears in several national and international publications including ELLE,, Chicken Soup for the soul, Writer's Digest, World & I, and the Times of India. She lives and works out of New Delhi and has the mandatory writer's coffee addiction and temperamental muse. Visit her online home at


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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.

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