Lesson No. 1: Exploring Possibilities Through Personal Essays



There are many ways in which we understand ourselves as people living in this world. We can see who we are in relation to social constructions of how people should act, through a challenging personal experience, and even through the relationships we have with other people. All of these factors create our identities, create who it is we think we are. Once we are able to identify these parts of ourselves, we can then begin to write about them.

Actually, I take that back. It doesn’t have to be experience funneled into writing. Because sometimes it is the writing that opens up our perceptions of not only the people in our live, but—and perhaps most importantly—ourselves. It’s not just what we write about that helps to understand and reveal any character or narrator in any piece of writing, but it is how we do this. A story about a wonderful bath you took can be very enlightening if the reader is able to really hear the your thoughts, but at some point the you have to get out of the bathtub. This is when the narrative can really start to build.

The beginning of an essay sets up what the theme(s) and topic(s) will be in the rest of the piece. Beginnings are vital, then, as they are the first images the reader sees and experiences. These are the ideas and images that stick with the reader throughout the piece. So, if you put a gun in the opening scene, then by the end of the piece, the gun has to go off (or miss-fire or back-fire or fall or growl or do something other than just sit there or else the reader will feel like she’s been keeping her eye on a dead ant while some fantastic essay has been going on around her). Use the beginning as a sort of nudge into the essay. Or, and this option can make just as an important impression as subtlety, shove the reader into the story, make her feel like she is right there, experiencing the events along with the narrator. And then guide her through it. Regardless if the beginning is loud or subtle, it must eventually lead to an ending, and that ending has to eventually (whether directly or not) say something about the beginning. 

Shall we begin?


  1. In “Torch Song,” Charles Bowden starts with the narrator deciding to cross a border to enter into a new world, and ends with a sense of being an outcast. What occurs between those two scenes are a series of reflections, detailed explanations. Bowden does this by connecting past stories with the overall arc of the essay. What are some of the key moments in the essay that incite the overall shift in the narrator’s characterization?
  2. As part of the shift the narrator progresses through, what are some examples of the events in this piece that make that shift happen? Does the plot stand on its own, or do the emotional aspects of the piece bolster the significance of the events? Why or why not?
  3. In “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison also begins with a very vivid story that is drawn upon in various places throughout the essay. How does entering into the essay through a scene about the empathy exams function as a way to move the narrative along?
  4. Jamison juxtaposes brief “case notes” with the actual narrative of the essay. What purpose does this serve? How does the juxtaposition influence the rest of the essay? And what why do you think she decided to put these “note” in the second person point of view? 

Writing Exercises

  1. Take three events from three different time periods in your life. Write for 10 minutes and bring an element of/moment in each event into the story. How do you shift from one element to the next? Do you see that these elements relate to each other now? 
  2. Describe someone in your life who you know fairly well. Don’t focus on what the person looks like, but what type of person she is. Use these details to compare what your personality is like in relation to this other person. 
  3. Think about how you connect with other people or how you act in a social situation. Now imagine that you are in social situation and describe how you feel while at it. Don’t, however, write a reflective narrative, but write the exercise in present tense from the first person point of view
  4. Describe a situation in which you needed (or still need) to forgive yourself. Make every other sentence a question. 


Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago and MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is an award-winning and Pushcart Prize nominated essayist.