ENGL/CRWR The Personal Essay

“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
-David Foster Wallace

In the personal essay we use moments and material from our lives to communicate meaning to a reader. The trick of it, suggests Philip Lopate, is to “make the small loom large” by using the humble details of daily life to address some aspect of the human condition.  With this challenge in mind, we will consider a wide range of personal essays and will try our hands at writing in this form.

“Good prose is like a windowpane,” wrote George Orwell. Following his lead, and that of such accomplished essayists as Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and Claudia Rankine, we will study and practice the art of writing clear, compelling prose that draws the reader’s gaze and opens a window into a larger world. In doing so, we will ask such questions as: Is the writer telling a story or presenting a series of reflections?  Do we find the writer credible, and why do we care about his/her musings?  How are memory and forgetting constructed on the page? What is the difference between invention and lying? How does research contribute to essay writing?

Class time will be divided between the analysis of published essays and the development of original work.

Students will learn the techniques for writing personal essays, and will also practice the art of thoughtful, considered critique.