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How to write a personal essay 102

Updated on April 12, 2014

Introductory thoughts...

My mother had practiced rather progressive parenting, so, when she called me firmly home from an out-of-state university one day, I knew without asking that her situation was serious.

She succumbed to cancer just three months after that phone request. I was 19 years old at the time.

A year after her death, myself newly wed, I wrote the personal essay included here in order to fulfill requirements of a university writing class. It was my tribute to her. The professor, Mr. Don Norton, liked it well enough and so asked permission to publish it in a textbook he was writing at the time on how to write an essay. Mine would be one of the samples of a quality essay written at the Beginner level.

I don't know why, but I told him no.

Even so, it is for his offer that I feel comfortable offering my essay as a model for the Beginning essayist.

I might also add that I've changed since having declined that offer for publication, because now, I would very much like to share it with you. The essay reveals no great secret. Neither does it have intense drama or an exposure of things perhaps best kept private; no, not at all. In fact, it is rather simple. But it was written from the heart -- a young heart, at the time -- and I've matured enough by now to be willing to open and share that heart with others.

So, please, come in. - Can I get you some coffee?

It's Guatemalan, naturally sweet, not so acidic as the Asian kind. You can enjoy it without adding sugar. I think you'll like it.

You know Mr. Ed Norton, don't you?

I've asked him to join us; I hope you don't mind. I just love him.

He's no relation to my old professor, Don, mentioned above, I'm sure. ... (Well, actually, ... ?)


Wonderful. Now that we're settled in, let me explain a little bit of history regarding the essay below:

I had written it in its entirety and remember distinctly that it read flat, clunky and hard, like I'd driven over a rocky, dirt road in an old VW.

I had sat cross-legged on my bed very, very displeased with the result, slowing shaking my head from side to side, knowing and feeling that it was crap.

I closed my eyes, relaxed and inhaled deeply. "I want so much more for my mother." Then, all at once -- sitting there, calm, still, and emptied -- an image of a gracious and loving princess lit my mind, opened my eyes, and caused me to smile. I had it! I knew exactly what to do!

I took my essay and crumpled it to hell. Taking up a new piece of paper, I clustered on the keywords associated with the image that impressed itself on my mind; then, right there, still cross-legged on the bed, I wrote what flowed as if it were dictation. It was finished in minutes.

So here are the key points to writing your personal essay

1) Choose a topic you need to write about, a topic that seems to need you, too.

2) Based on that topic, choose a few keywords on which you can cluster and then do a timed freewrite. If you're a beginning writer, I'd set the timer to no more than 15 minutes at a shot.

(There is another Squidoo lens, "The Best Jobs For Introverts" by AddaptAbilities, that has a poll that seems to indicate that the majority of its traffic -- you and me -- are, in fact, introverts. LeslieMirror then commented, "Yeah, I guess, only introverts would spend so much time in Internet." Indeed. Who but a collection of introverts would be so busily reading, writing, studying, and connecting via internet?)

So, that said, it's probably safe to assume that you already know what I mean by, "choose a few keywords on which you can cluster and then do a timed freewrite." But, just to be sure, please fill out the following poll before we continue to key point number 3.

Polling you on the statement: - "choose a few keywords on which you can cluster and then do a timed freewrite."

Do you understand what I mean by the word "keyword" in this context?

See results

Do you understand what I mean by the word "cluster" in this context?

See results

Do you understand what I mean by the word "timed freewrite" in this context?

See results

If you answered NO or WITH DOUBTS to any of the above questions, then ... - I highly suggest these excellent and relevant books.

The very first book on the list, "Writing the Natural Way," by Gabriele Rico, is a key book to engage, regardless of your current writing level. It is where I first learned the techniques of keyword-clustering and timed freewrites. Her process will help any beginner sound clear and experienced. I promise!

Again, here are the key points on how to write your personal essay

To review, we said:

1) Choose a topic you need to write about, a topic that seems to need you, too.

2) Based on that topic, choose a few keywords on which you can cluster and then do a timed freewrite.

3) Write the dang thing through to completion, even though it's crap and you know it's crap.

You know what they say: "Shit happens!" So, just let the shit happen, right onto the page.

(The mechanics of sentence and paragraph structure are treated in so many other places that I'll not cover them here; however, I've included two link lists so you can find that material faster. One list is below and the other is to the right:)

4) Now that you have this initial work down. Rest. Rest your eyes, your mind, your heart. Breathe in deeply. Relax. Let go. Mentally -- or Spiritually, as the case may be -- reconnect with the core of your topic and just Be with it. You have already prepared the groundwork for inspiration to flow. When it hits, and you see your work with new eyes, you might very well do step 5.

5) Crumple it up and throw it away. Let yourself begin again, fresh, and write through to completion as quickly as you can.

Remember the story behind Robert Lewis Stevenson's enduring work, "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", how his angry wife seized the finished, hand-written pile of a papers and tossed it onto the fire! (no digitized saved versions in their day.) "Stevenson, an invalid almost deranged by tuberculosis and the effects of medicinal cocaine, had to spend the next three days feverishly rewriting and redrafting the 30,000-word story by hand."

Imagine having to re-write 30,000 words because someone tosses your work into the fire. Or you spill that cup of coffee onto the keyboard of an unsaved document. Yet, Stevenson reported later that having to do the rewrite was the key to the manuscript's ultimate success. Why? Because having written it to completion the first time, having processed it through in whatever clunky and unimaginative way it originally presented itself, it was his sitting down to write it a second time that brought out all the refinement in what is now recognized as "the world's most admired and profound horror story."


cancer ribbon tattoo , colon cancer tattoos
cancer ribbon tattoo , colon cancer tattoos

Learning about mom's cancer : A personal experience essay

A tribute to my mother

(yes, this is original content. all rights are reserved. please don't plagiarize.)

"Go to Utah," she urged, her tone tender, low and sweet. "Make whatever arrangements are necessary, then come back. I'll be all right."

Full of doubt, I insisted. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"I'll be fine," she crooned. "You know Eva takes excellent care of me." She paused and shook her head gently, the inward thoughts coming through her gestures. "I wouldn't ask you to go if I didn't really want you to; you know that. I'll be fine."

This is no fragile woman, I thought, recalling three weeks earlier when I had set eyes on her for the first time since leaving for college a year before. How tiny she had looked, her body swallowed in blankets and pillows on an overwhelming bed. I squinted. Her hair - it was gray! That billowing jet black hair that she'd dyed a hundred times red or gold, was now a wild and wiry gray. Her rounded face had shrunken to taut cheekbones, crevices in the hollows underneath. My thoughts had whirled in confusion, as if I'd walked in on the wrong person - but indeed this was her room. She looked so old I couldn't recognize her as anyone but her own grandmother.

"Why didn't you call me sooner?" I'd protested, pleaded. "I would've come."

But then came her soft reply and tender eyes. "I know you would have, but I didn't want to worry you. I wanted you to stay and finish your studies."

I shook my head in desperation and cupped her small face in my hands.

"No, Mama. You should've called me sooner."

By the time my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room and to the form enveloped on the bed I had regained control of myself, but still she amazed me. How could she look so tranquil after I'd tactlessly shown such alarm at her appearance?

Over the next two weeks my mother and I chatted and argued. Days and nights didn't exist, only hours asleep or awake. I gave her manicures and pedicures, tweezed her brows, brushed her course hair and brought crushed ice for her parched mouth.

She looked on while I sketched designs for Aaron's and my wedding rings. And while I made written lists of all his and my anticipated expenses, combined debt, monthly payments and job possibilities, she made verbal lists of all the items she would give us to beautify and brighten our small, cave-like, basement apartment.

"Two people who love each other as much as you do," she explained, "should not be apart. Together you will soar like eagles. You needn't be so afraid, darling." But I was afraid. There were all those little matters like money, jobs, debt - how can any couple survive them?

"Where is your faith in yourself?" she chided - "as well as in God?!" But all I could do was nod my head and bite my lip, my brows furrowed in an endless strain of concentration.

During that third and final week, Aaron drove down to meet my mother and talk to her about our intentions to marry. And there she was, as gracious and accepting as any princess. I found myself getting lost in the image of her. As I stood near them both, I couldn't help but smile, watching that beautiful woman, propped on her pillows, bestowing her blessings upon my finance and urging us to return to Utah.

No, this is no fragile woman, I thought, but she had me fooled, because I followed her advice and returned with my fiancé to his hometown and was gone but three days when news reached me by telephone that she'd died during the previous night, slipping away from me forever, leaving only memories and images of a beautiful and gracious princess.

(yes, this is original content. all rights are reserved. please don't plagiarize.)

For those new to story-structuring

Writer's Dream Kit 4.0
Writer's Dream Kit 4.0

I've used Dramatica Pro and, unless you're quite familiar with interweaving story points, it is well too complicated for a Beginning writer. For this reason, I recommend the DreamKit. It is built on the same "Story Engine" as Dramatica Pro, but tracks fewer story points thus creating less complexity. This means that you, as writer, are far less likely to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing options when structuring your story.


I can't get you the room of your own... - But I can point you towards these, ... so that at least it won't be empty.

Or, if you work in bed or on the sofa like I do...

I've just figured out that ...

... eBay's module changes all by itself. Mine is triggered to the keyword, "writers". So you can imagine that it's very amusing to see what they conjure up and decide a Writer might want.

This morning I looked in on the inventory below and was offered, yes, WHISKEY GLASSES!!!! Woohooo! Just what every writer needs, eh?! Or are they suggested more for the people who must endure the writer's company? ;-D

Mother's brood... I'm the littlest one, protected there in the middle.

Mother's brood... I'm the littlest one, protected there in the middle.
Mother's brood... I'm the littlest one, protected there in the middle.

Please sign my guestbook (especially if you have something nice to say :-)

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    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I enjoy writing but I like to correct things as I go along. Incidentally Robert Louis Stephenson wrote Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde when he was living in my home town of Bournemouth.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 

      6 years ago from Topeka, KS

      What a beautiful piece! It flows so eloquently and captures so much feeling and emotion. Very well done. Thank you for sharing this amazing time with your mother with us all. :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What a lovely tribute to your mom, whom it is clear that you will love a cherish for the rest of your life. Thanks for sharing such a heartfelt tribute.....don't be too hard on yourself for not sharing earlier and in your own time

    • Sher Ritchie profile image

      Sher Ritchie 

      6 years ago

      Congratulations on being part of the "RocketSquid Craft Lens" Board for April 2012. - I'm truly sorry you never let your professor publish this in this text book, though I understand why. It's such a personal piece, but a giving-piece as well. Thankyou for sharing this with us here, it's beautifully written and very moving, and I love your tips on writing!

    • CreativeXpressi profile image


      6 years ago

      A beautiful tribute to your mother; thank you for sharing it with us! You also did a great job with the writing tips for those new to the craft.

    • gatornic15 profile image


      6 years ago

      Your tribute to your mother was heartfelt and well written. You have given some great writing tips here. It is definitely much easier to write when it is something you know about or that means something to you. Thanks for sharing!

    • FantasticVoyages profile image

      Fantastic Voyages 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Such a sweet story! I am very touched by the tribute to your mom. I understand why you didn't want the story published in the textbook, but am glad you shared it here.

    • SophiaStar LM profile image

      SophiaStar LM 

      6 years ago

      Writing can be healing and inspirational as your lens has so wonderfully pointed out thank you!

    • delia-delia profile image


      6 years ago

      I love your tribute to your mom! You write very well, wish I had that gift. I lost both my parents from cancer, and I was lucky enough to be at mom's bedside when she said her last words to me " I Love You" then took her last breath.( I also did a lens on her)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What a lovely tribute to your Mom, Emme. I especially appreciated your first tip about finding a topic that you need to write about, and, one "that needs you." It's a fine message that one's writing should be considered both as an artform and as a service. Congratulations on your essay.


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