July 26, 2013

InScribers Review: The Art of the Personal Essay - Bonnie Way

My first published works were personal essays or creative nonfiction, although I didn't know either of those terms at the time.  I simply wrote short stories about my sheep, but many other writers have used personal experiences as a jumping off point for sharing their message with the world.

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 Essays

The 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?

Lopate’s lengthy introduction to the anthology is a thorough examination of the form of the personal essay.  He says that the personal essay is “one of the most approachable and diverting types of literature we possess.”  He then lists several qualities of the personal essay, using examples from the essays chosen.

“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 Essays

The 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 Lopate

Phillip 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!


  1. Bonnie, I am so enjoying this series (at least I'm hoping it's heading that way) that you've been sharing here.

    I've been sorting out for myself what personal essay and memoir are (not to mention some of the other non-fiction forms of writing).

    I'm going to look for Phillip's book -- it's going to add to my own conversation (in my head) about what makes a certain form of writing one genre or another.

  2. I'd like to learn more about essay writing, so may check out this book and see what it's all about. Thanks for the info.

  3. Hi Bonnie,
    I'm thinking of ordering the book you suggested. I've already put two of the author's books on hold at our local library. Thanks for the information you shared with us.

  4. This sounds like an excellent book for me to track down. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us, Dissertation writing is more difficult compare to essay writing, i hope you will share something on this topic.


Thank you for taking the time to join in the conversation. Our writers appreciate receiving your feedback on posts you have found helpful or meaningful in some way.