I’ve found that as long as I have a good reading list on my current topic of interest, I can pretty much learn independently. Of course, it helps if it’s compiled by someone who has the big picture in mind. And it works best if it’s given from the vantage point of experience, to point me in the right direction.
When I first tried writing personal essays, I didn’t have a clue how to write one. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I’d read one before (turns out I had.) Even though I had a BA in English literature, I could not remember ever hearing the term “personal essay.”
And while I didn’t know where to look for essays (good or otherwise), or where to find out how to write them, I knew I wanted to try it out desperately enough that I was seriously thinking about studying the personal essay in grad school. Without a good reading list as a guide, I approached my research of the essay with a kind of hit-and-miss tactic that was random at best, haphazard at worst.
I got lucky.
I happened upon good resources, and was later accepted into an MFA program, after which I had a built-in network of resources, guidance, and lists. But even after this, I always wished there had been some place in which I could learn about essay writing, preferably online, and preferably free, when I was going it solo.
And so, with this in mind, I thought that I would share a list of books that I’ve found useful as I’ve learned to write personal essays.
Some of the titles I encountered while doing my MFA; others came in preparation for it; and a couple came much, much earlier. But all of them have helped in some way to shape my writing and understanding of personal essays.
Janet Burroway – Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft
This is a great place to start if you’re new to the personal essay, or even to writing in general.
Burroway surveys four genres in separate chapters (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction), and at the end of each provides readings in the discussed genre. The chapter on creative nonfiction is particularly useful and covers the personal essay and memoir, gives helpful techniques, and has a section on “Fact and Truth” (a vital discussion in this genre!). Along with these subsections, there are also entire chapters on the “elements of craft,” all which are relevant to creative nonfiction. The book is peppered with (good!) writing prompts, and throughout there are readings in the various genres. I found the journal entries included by various writers to be a nice touch, and the discussions on development, revision, and workshop were all really useful. After all, revising is a lot of what writing is all about. I read the fourth edition (2014) but earlier ones would work well, too.
Philip Lopate – Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay
The Introduction to this book is single-handedly the most useful resource for essaying that I know of. My copy of Lopate’s Intro is underlined, starred, and well-thumbed from numerous revisits. It’s an excellent introduction to what the personal essay is and guide (not overtly, but through applying the principles he outlines) on how to write your own. As part of his discussion of what the personal essay is, Lopate covers characteristics of the essay including the conversational element, and considers the essay and the problem of egotism, and (my favourite) “The Personal Essay as Mode of Thinking and Being.” This 31 page introduction, however, is still in the roman numeral section of a book that’s over 700 pages long. Its subtitle, An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, accurately summarizes what follows. This book is an excellent sampling of essays from some of the genre’s most talented and influential practitioners, including some really delightful gems.
Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Sternberg (edited by) – Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of / on Creative Nonfiction
To write good personal essays, you need to be reading essays! This anthology is a great place to get a handle on contemporary essays written by well-known essayists. The title, Fourth Genre, refers to creative nonfiction, which is often relegated to the “fourth” of the literary genres (following fiction, poetry, and drama). And so while this anthology isn’t limited to the personal essay, I found that most (if not all) of the pieces were in fact essays, even the ones categorized as “memoir” or “literary journalism” (though there are many that are under “personal essay” as well). Not only are there excellent personal essays to enjoy in this anthology, there’s also a helpful section called “Talking About Creative Nonfiction” in which essayists write about essay writing. I read the entirety of the fourth edition, though there are more recent ones available. Some of my favourite essays, however, are in this one and don’t make it into subsequent editions.
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd – Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
This is a fun and informative read by an editor-writer team of two that have been working together for decades. It’s laced with personal experience from both Kidder (Pulitzer Prize Winner) and Todd, sharing helpful anecdotes as a writer and editor of nonfiction. I found myself underlining almost everything in the Essays and Memoirs chapters. There’s also a chapter on Narratives, which isn’t exactly a genre in and of itself, but there’s still a lot of relevancy to the personal essay in it. Most essays, after all, have some sort of narrative, even if it’s the pursuit of an idea. As an essayist, I found this book extremely useful. It was a delightful read, and I felt it was expertly crafted by the skilled hands of a writer and editor. Basically, the entire book (or at least, my copy of it) is one long penciled underline.
Philip Lopate (again!) – To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
This book is primarily made up of “craft essays.” That is, they are essays about writing essays. They cover very practical issues that essayists encounter, like “How Do You End an Essay?” One of the most important essays in here for me was “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” This is true if we’re writing memoir, yes, but it’s also a big part of writing personal essays. The writing is clear and concise, easy and pleasurable to read, but oh-so-very helpful. Also of note is a section on “Studies of Practitioners” – some of the foundational ones – Lamb, Hazlitt, Emerson. It’s interesting, because we don’t always “study” essayists. I use this book as my go-to guide when I’m writing essays: I select an essay to read as the need — or interest — arises.
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White – The Elements of Style
If you’re going to write essays with any degree of elegance, you should probably also have a handle on grammar. And while there are many style guides, I like this one because it’s simple, short, and straightforward. What’s more, the writing is humorous, and my edition happens to be have pictures to help illustrate the concepts, two elements which every style guide aspirer can take pointers from. I’m not going to claim that my writing is error-free. I don’t always catch my mistakes; other times I’m unaware that I’m even making them. But reviewing the rules of grammar every once in a while certainly helps. Even a perusal of the table of contents of this book improves one’s handle on the rules. It’s not just about writing without error, however, but writing with, well, style. One of the guide’s writers, E. B. White — beloved children’s writer known for Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan — was also a noted essayist himself (see “Once More to the Lake” in The Art of the Personal Essay). Some of the topics covered in the guide are especially important for essayists: Write in a way that comes naturally. Omit unnecessary words. Be clear.
Ralph Fletcher – The Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You
And if you’re going to write essays, you’re going to need to draw on life experience, preferably with some notes. At first this might seem like a strange book to add: it is geared towards children, after all. But it’s a book that’s had a profound influence on me as a writer. My grade 8 teacher bought it with me in mind and gave it to me (or at least, I thought she did, but her penciled initials on the front flyleaf make me now doubt that it was a gift). From the point of being given (loaned?) this book, I knew that writers kept writer notebooks of their thoughts, ideas, overheard dialogue, and anything else that might come in handy later on, and I have–more or less–kept one of my own since I was introduced to this book more than 20 years ago. I’ve since discovered that Fletcher has written the equivalent of this book for adults, and I’m sure it’s also useful. But this is the one I used, and I’m both pleasantly surprised, and gratified to realize now, as I look at its back cover, that Fletcher was aware of the genre I would pursue, even when I was a child and didn’t know better: “Some of these entries might be the basis of a story, poem, or personal essay,” it proclaims.
With a good reading list in hand, I’ll usually select a title or two that look interesting, and find the books. Maybe I’ll open one up at random, only read the table of contents, or pursue the bibliography, which leads me on another hunt. It doesn’t so much matter. The point is that I got started on a search from the right perspective.
Question: What books have you found helpful in writing personal essays?