Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing, Part 3

SheilaBenderIn two Part 1, and Part 2 of this series, noted essay expert Sheila Bender, author of the highly acclaimed  Writing and Publishing Personal Essays,  introduced the concept of essay writing as an adventure of personal discovery and described three freewrite exercises to start this process. In this final post, she explains how to harvest the riches of these exercises to open further possibilities for your writing.

Mining the Three Freewrites:

Whether you have done these freewrites in the course of one writing session or over several days, to find out what the freewrites have to tell you about an essay you might write, comb through them and jot down images and phrases that interest you.

When I look over what I have written, I am grabbed by:  “overwhelmed,” “dangerously close to the white line,” “shoulder to shoulder,” “heavenly bamboo,” “thorned bougainvillea,” “the plants survive” and “like me.”  I don’t know why exactly, but these words and phrases jump out. 

Next, I’ll challenge myself to write a paragraph that involves them all:

I live in Los Angeles shoulder-to-shoulder with millions, never far from others in our cars and apartments, on the busy beaches and walking and biking paths along them.  I was overwhelmed the first year I lived here with the sheer numbers of people, power poles strung with cable that buzzed audibly night and day, billboards and clogged freeway lanes.  Slowly I came to see what was planted, first the heavenly bamboo shrubs and of course the palm trees, draping bougainvillea along the banks up from the roads and the ficus trees lining the sidewalks.  I began to see the Morton Bay Figs, trumpet vines, stag horn ferns and exotic fruit trees, the kumquats and pomegranate trees.

It is perhaps not a surprise that distinguishing the plants coincided with making good friends and finding good work, that lonely, I saw only roads and cars and masses of people, and now more connected, I see flowers and trees, the way the people of LA cultivate what grows in this watered desert.  I struggle with my own container garden.  Against pests and fog, my diverse plants survive.  As I water them and watch people of diverse ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds drive and walk by my balcony, I realize I have come once again to value the American melting pot spirit that is alive and thriving in this city of angels and progress.  I have let the American Dream touch me once again.

From here, I could shape an essay that evokes the newly awakened American dream inside me.  I see that I might be talking about a process of growing numb to the dream for awhile before it reawakens in me.  I could talk about becoming jaded while coming of age in the 60’s when the country was engaged in an unpopular war and then again when raising children in the seventies and eighties and trying to teach environmentalism during a time of abundance and spoils. Now, watching and listening to people from all over the world raising families and seeking education, I am revived.  I believe that I could write this view of Los Angeles and of myself at this point in my life.

* * * * *

The way of writing that I am suggesting is aimed at opening writers to a state of not knowing exactly what will happen on their pages.  When we are i n this not-knowing state of being, words come through, and we start to figure out the terms of our explorations.  Teasing topics to the page in this way reminds us that every essay is written in response to the question, “What do I really know?” Finding out how we can put experience together into new knowing, we are on a treasure hunt; we search our way out of the not knowing.  This is the spirit that makes our writing come alive.

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

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