Personal essays come in all kinds. Some are forms of reportage, such as those by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder, telling the truths about people they've interviewed yet injecting the honesty of the reporter's perception rather than trying to pretend a writer has no slant that skews a story. Other essays deal with decisions made, such as when you finally decide to make a baby and Cheryl leaves her diaphragm out for the first time in 14 years and you laugh as you remember getting sick of her mom asking about grandkids and telling her you both wanted to get really good at sex before doing it for real and now here you are for real and scared if you'll be good enough, and you're not talking just about sex now. Essays can also be speculative: questions about found objects, thoughts about missed opportunities and things that never were, or memories that haunt you such as Lindsey in Washington, ., who lived in an all-women's house that banned men and made you stand outside in the snow when you came over to get some banjo books abandoned by a former tenant but something happened and Lindsey moved into your room the weekend you hitched down to North Carolina as bodyguard and companion to her friend Rose and stayed when you got back to hump you two or three times a night until you got so raw you could hardly walk and with no talk or even real emotion of love or commitment to prevent you leaving a month later, but now you remember how there also wasn't any talk of contraception because you'd assumed she took care of it since she was so much older, yet now you jerk awake in the middle of the night years later with the stark realization that a lesbian has no need of IUDs or diaphragms or the pill but she does need something to make a baby of her own and maybe there's a little Stan Junior walking around someplace who is 6 years older now than you were then and you wonder if he's as naive as you suddenly discover you were (probably still are) and the only minuscule iota of relief you can find is that at least you'll never have to give him that man-to-man about the birds and bees. By baring your life, using concrete situations and honest thoughts, and following the basic rules of grammar and composition, you too can write a personal essay in 25 sentences.
This essay is adapted from a chapter in The Liberal Arts in Higher Education, edited by Diana Glyer and David Weeks (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998). Updated September 2004.
1. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: The Road to Victory , 1941-1945, Vol. VII (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), p. 245. Return to text.
2. Ibid., 847. Return to text.
3. Plato, The Republic of Plato , trans. Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1991), 332d-333e. Return to text.
4. Ibid., 505a2, 505d7-8. Return to text.
5. Aristotle, Metaphysics , first line. Return to text.
6. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , 1094a1-26; 1177a12-1178a8. Return to text.
7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica , Question 94, Second Article , Objection 3 ( http:///advent/summa/ ). Return to text.
8. Socrates describes the historic turn in his own relentless search for the truth in Phaedo , 96a-100. Return to text.
9. The Academy founded by Plato—a leading center, to say the least, of liberal education—endured for some nine hundred years. It had some difficulty preserving and perpetuating in their full breadth and depth the teachings of its founder, as have American universities and colleges with far less to live up to. What brought the Academy to an end after nine hundred years was an edict of the emperor Justinian in 529 . as part of an effort to impose religious conformity throughout the Roman Empire. Return to text.
10. David L. Wagner, ed., The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1983), 1, 256; see especially 1-57, 248-272 for general treatments of the development of the liberal arts tradition. Return to text.
11. Wagner, ibid., 251. Return to text.
12. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , trans. Martin Ostwald (Prentice Hall, 1962), 1098a26-28. Return to text.
13. Aristotle, Politics , 1337b27-1337b42; 1333b37-1334a34. It is worth reflecting on what Aristotle means when he says that leisure is “the first principle” (the arche , the beginning and end) of all activity. Return to text.
14. Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” Writings (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 346. Return to text.
15. http:///documents/ Return to text.
16. Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic (1640, I, ch. 17, sec. 1), http:///~econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobbes/elelaw . Return to text.
17. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960), 63-64. Return to text.
18. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum , I. 3; I. 129, in Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum (New York: Willey Book Co. 1900), 315, 366. We need not deprive ourselves of the many useful discoveries of modern science merely because we remind ourselves of the ancient insight that what is “useful” can only be understood in light of what is “good.” Return to text.
19. “’Could it be possible? This old saint in the forest has not heard anything of this, that God is dead ?’” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra , in The Portable Nietzsche , trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 124. Return to text.