One of the best books I've encountered as a student of writing is Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. This was a textbook for my creative nonfiction course in university, but I've since returned to it to review Philip's advice as I write. In this neat collection, personal essayist Phillip Lopate explores the history of the genre and presents work by great writers from Seneca to the modern day.
The Personal EssaysThe essays appear in the anthology in chronological order, from the “forerunners” such as Seneca and Plutarch to modern writers such as Annie Dillard and Richard Selzer. There is a second table of contents that organizes the essays by theme (e.g., city life, country living, food, death) and by form (e.g., humour, lecture, memoir).
Lopate provides a brief introduction for each author whose work is included in the anthology. These introductions provide some biographical information about the author as well as a brief analysis of their writing style. For example, Lopate mentions that the two essays included by Virginia Woolf “show her characteristic movement toward reverie as well as her penchant for shifting angles of vision.”
What is the Personal Essay?
“Personal essay” is a relatively new term in the writing world. Many of the earliest writers in this anthology certainly wouldn’t have referred to their works as “personal essays.” Lopate provides an explanation for why certain essays met the criteria of his anthology while others (often by the same writers) didn’t. For example, Seneca’s essays were originally written as letters, but Lopate includes them because they were intended for a wider audience and have a very personal tone.
Writing Personal EssaysThe writer interested in how to write a personal essay could use this anthology as a textbook for the genre. Lopate’s introduction is a thorough lesson in the form. The selected essays offer an excellent picture of the genre and an idea of what other personal essayists have done.
A writer should study both the introduction and the essays. Consider how each of the selected essays apply the principles Lopate discusses in the introduction. Examine each essayists’ style—what makes Natalia Ginzburg’s writing vastly different from Edward Hoagland’s? Try to imitate an essayist’s style. Consider the subject matter tackled by each essayist. Look at the form and structure of the essays.
About Phillip LopatePhillip Lopate has written three personal essay collections himself, as well as novels, poetry, and a memoir. He has edited several anthologies and his essays have appeared in numerous magazines. He is also the recipient of many writing awards. For twelve years, he taught writing to children in schools. He is now a creative writing instructor at the university level.
If you are a writer of personal essays or creative nonfiction, I highly recommend The Art of the Personal Essay. Philip's advice will help writers of any experience to hone their words and share their message with their audience. As a bonus, most of the essays are extremely enjoyable to read, so have fun while you are learning!
~ © Bonnie Way