Personal Essay #3: Experimental Structure and Larger Themes

“In the particular is contained the universal.” – James Joyce

For this essay, we will explore ways to combine the earlier techniques of reflection and narrative scenes in unexpected ways that draw out deeper, big-picture meanings. You may also find it useful to draw on a bit of the styles of analysis and/or persuasion, too, because part of this assignment will be to look for ways that your story might be part of a larger social trend that you want to comment on. Some suggestions:

  • Was there a moment you became aware of the consequences of your gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, nationality, religion, or some other aspect of your identity?
  • Have you ever had an experience that conflicted with your community’s views? Did it make you question those views?
  • Did you ever change your views on a social issue as a result of a compelling piece of art (literature, film, music), news article or essay, or public speech or event?
  • Did your arrival in a new community expose you to people, views, or pressures unlike those you had experienced before?
  • Did an encounter with a stranger/acquaintance/group ever alter your behavior/view of others?

Keep in mind that you may not discover the significance of the experience until you begin to write. Often the best essays are about seemingly unimportant moments that had meaning for the writer much later, after discovering that other people may have shared these experiences in some form. Remember too that what you initially think was significant about the event may not be what you find ultimately important. Let writing and revision help you discover the meaning of your experience.

Look at how Staples deftly positions his experiences in “Black Men in Public Spaces” as part of a larger trend, while not dwelling too long on things that are not his own personal story. Rodriguez’s “Private Language, Public Language,” would also be a good example of this method – his experiences are shared by many immigrants and descendants of immigrants. How can you make your specific experiences universal? Structurally, there are many ways to approach an essay like this – it certainly doesn’t have to go in chronological order. We’ll talk about some possibilities in class. Feel free to mix styles, jump around in time, even tell it from someone else’s point of view.

This will be at least 2 pages. Conferences will be available for anyone who wants feedback. This will be one of the pieces you can use as the basis for your final portfolio, which will go through the revision process at the end of the semester. The final portfolio must include at least 6 pages of personal writing, but it can be any combination of the personal essay assignments, revised and expanded.

B Contract Guidelines:

  • Connect (or imply a connection between) your experiences and a larger social or cultural topic
  • 2+ pages
  • 1-2 paragraph afterthought (see below)

Afterthought: Why did you pick this topic to write about? What was difficult or challenging in writing this? Was anything enjoyable about writing this? What went well for you? What do you want to keep working on in the future?

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