Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing, Part 1

SheilaBenderToday’s post is the first of a three-part series by noted author Sheila Bender. Sheila has become one of the leading national experts on writing personal essays. Her book, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, is in its second edition. With her books, her online classes, coaching, and myriad of other services, she has helped thousands benefit from the humble art of personal essay.

Although it might not be obvious, those of us who write personal essays can benefit greatly from not knowing what we have to write about.  That is surprising to people who think of the essay as researched knowledge with a professorial, didactic tone.  But to write an essay is really to “assay” or test out a hypothesis about something.  If writers walk around with a head full of ideas and think they have to commit to writing them, they miss the hypothesis part of the process, the part about finding something of interest to test.  In other words, the essay is an exploration, not an initial knowing.  Because of this, I like to utilize exercises for finding topics that model not knowing as a way of beginning essays.

After the following directions for a series of three freewrites, I will show you how to mine the collection of material you create to discover your hidden essay topic.

First Freewrite

Go to a place you have not previously come to write.  It can be the corner of a room or a chair facing a different window than you usually face; you might sit at a café or park bench new to you, or even your car will work if you do park somewhere other than your habitual spot.  In fact, just getting out of the driver’s seat and sitting in a passenger seat could make any parking spot new for the purposes of this freewrite.

Begin your freewriting by describing where you are and what you see where you are.  You can add in what you think you will be able to see in the near future.  Then involve your other senses to stay “in scene” and really deliver the experience of the place you are describing. A sound or sight, smell or texture, or even the taste of something you are eating or have waiting for you for lunch will offer new experience and associations.  So stay specific. Don’t be cursory.  Don’t write, “Here I am again writing before I go into work and there are cars as usual and I am tired as usual.” Instead stay in the moment and record details from where you are:

Here I am again writing in my journal before I go into work and I am parked dangerously close to the white line that separates my space from the next car’s slot.  That spot is empty now but within minutes someone will drive in and our cars shall remain close, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the eight hours of the workday.  I hear the fibers of my wool scarf like Velcro releasing as I pull the scarf from off my coat collar and I smell the boiled egg I’ve packed in my lunch today and think of the animals that have scent glands and release smells as warning or to mark territory like this sandwich might if I let it out on my desk. When I open the car door, pulling the hard plastic handle will be like a handshake I don’t quite want to make with a person I must depart from though I don’t feel our business is done.  I will leave my scarf in the car so I don’t later forget to replace it around my neck.  What secrets does it keep wrapped up here on the seat till I return?  I will enter the cement-chilled air of the basement garage heading toward the chrome-lined elevator.  I will go up and up, hoping the crowd of my thoughts will stay warm and hatching until I return.

Next post: Instructions and prompts for two more freewrites.

Sheila Bender is the author of over a dozen books, including her newest Behind Us the Way Grows Wider: New and Collected Poems, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Creative Writing Demystified and Writing and Publishing Personal Essays. To learn more about her books and her online classes and instruction, visit

1 comment :

Sharon Lippincott said...

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The door is open now, so please comment away.