Personal essays have gotten a bad rap in some circles, decried as hyper-confessional, self-indulgent diary entries. And the truth is, a lot of them are. But there’s so much more to personal-essay writing than that unfortunate trope. Successful personal essays don’t just recap something wild that happened to you -- they bring the reader through the story with vivid details and active scenes, and show how the experience changed you. In this class, we’ll look closely at personal essays that accomplish that resonance, break down the specific elements that make a personal essay great, and complete writing exercises around each of those elements. Students will come away with one completed essay that’s ready to submit to the best personal-essay markets out there, and the tools to write many more with confidence.
This course is open to all levels, whether you’re a new writer, accomplished in another genre but unfamiliar with writing about yourself, or an experienced writer of personal essays looking to take your work to the next level.
-A greater understanding of techniques to make your personal story stand out; draw the reader in with a compelling, active scene; and leave the reader with a powerful takeaway, without overstating your thesis
-Greater familiarity with some of the best personal essays being written today
-Personalized feedback from an experienced writer and assigning editor
Week 1: Meaningful first-person writing vs. “it happened to me.” Identifying unique angles. Video lecture. Assignment #1: list of possible essay topics/angles.
Week 2: Narrative arc and active scenes. Read a selection of successful personal essays. Assignment #2: outline and a scene.
Week 3: What’s your point? (The “big picture” takeaway.) Assignment #3: submit a full draft of your essay.
Week 4: 10-minute one-on-one feedback phone calls about each student’s essay.
Lilly Dancyger is the Deputy Editor of Narratively, where she oversees the memoir section. Her personal essays have appeared in Psychology Today, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and more. Her students and private editing clients have published work in prestigious publications, including Rolling Stone and Longreads. You can read Lilly’s work here, and follow her on Twitter here.
“It demystified the writing process a little bit, and made it feel like writing is more tangible, and less abstract – something I could achieve. Ms. Dancyger gave great feedback. She was approachable, engaged, and encouraging.”
“Lilly Dancyger is an enthusiastic and passionate instructor. She was well organized and provided a rigorous program for us to follow. Her criticism was honest and constructive.”
“Lilly is a thoughtful, considerate editor who combines her developmental skills with skilled line editing for a holistic editorial approach that makes the story sharper and cleaner, the narrative more compelling, and the piece's purpose clear. Lilly knows what makes a story effective, and how to employ the writing techniques that will sharpen even the best and most vulnerable personal narratives. She's attentive to the writer's needs, and knows how to ask questions that will direct the writer toward the best story possible while retaining their own artistic voice. Lilly's editing helps take the personal essay from personal to universal. It's not often I feel like an editor isn't afraid to give it their all in editing a vulnerable topic, but also isn't hunting for just the most shock value and ‘universally appealing’ parts of a story, all while wanting the narrative to actually be strong, tight, compelling, and effective.”
“Ms. Dancyger understands the craft of the personal essay, how to weave narrative with theme, how to make the personal resonate. She draws the reader into the scene, evoking our senses and emotions.”
“Lilly Dancyger is a lovely, incisive writer attuned to the emotional core of a story and the evocative details that bring it out. She’s able to be expressive while smartly avoiding sentimentality, and she's well attuned to structure.”
“Lilly has an innate understanding of what makes a memoir piece pop, which is evident both in her own writing and in her work as an editor. She is uniquely skilled at helping writers pull out the most interesting angles of their own personal experiences and present them in a way that reels in the readers.”