HUMS 618
The Craft of Writing the Personal Essay

Elizabeth Bobrick

Overview: The Personal Essay

Writer and critic Phillip Lopate has called the essay "the self-interrogative form,” because it is the ideal form for finding out what you think about something, and why. The personal essay allows us to look at matters both big and small through the tight focus of our own ideas, questions, and experiences. We can go for weighty matters: what have our lives taught us about love, say, or fear, injustice, or redemption? The small, mundane, and ephemeral provide plenty of material, too, for they can be placed within a wider social, historical, or emotional context. (As for me, I keep wanting to figure out why are there so many dead mothers and/or distant and angry fathers in Disney movies -- and why I care.)

Although the personal essay is by definition based on the writer’s opinions and experiences, it is not a diary entry or a blog posting. At its best, it is as carefully crafted as fiction or literary journalism. A good deal of our attention in this class, therefore, will be directed to technique, i.e., how the authors of our readings shape their essays through structure, point of view, and the use of dialogue and descriptive detail. We’ll then try our hand at applying those techniques to inform our own writing.            

We’ll also practice revision. Revision goes far beyond checking grammar and spelling, or changing the order of your paragraphs. Revision is seeing whether you said what you meant -- or if you still mean it, now that you’ve written it. Some say that essay writing is learning to have an idea. I would add that essay writing is finding out what happens when you take that idea for a walk.

Attendance and Class Participation
Attendance in this class is imperative, as is participating in class discussion in an informed manner (i.e., you need to have read the assigned essay(s) carefully). You will sometimes be asked to share your written work with other students, either formally, with the entire class as your audience, or more casually, in pairs. In both cases, we will learn how to be useful critics for each other in a comfortable atmosphere.
Individual Meetings

Although I can’t hold regular office hours, given the variety of our schedules, I’m happy to talk with you about your work after class, over the phone, or by email, at any time convenient for both of us. Just call or email me beforehand so we can set up a time. My home phone number is (860) 344 0516 (please, no calls after 9:30 pm, and, if you want me to receive the message, don’t leave it with my children. My cell phone is (860) 214 1906. You can email me anytime, and it’s the best way to reach me:


Instead of giving a letter grade to weekly assignments, I write editorial comments. I do this because I find that letter grades for writing don’t give enough information, or even the right kind of information. As noted above, you may meet with me by request to talk about your work. You may also ask that an individual paper or two be given a grade so that we can discuss my expectations for your work. I will also give you written mid-term assessments, and you should feel free to discuss these with me if you like.

Of course, I am required to give you a final grade. I will make sure that you know in good time the standards according to which I hand out grades.

For purposes of evaluation, it is essential that each student keep a (non-electronic) portfolio of his/her work with my comments. I review this portfolio at the end of the semester to gauge progress and refresh my memory of your work. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of holding onto your papers with my comments. I won’t be able to assess your work properly without them.                

The final grade will be calculated as follows:
            Participation in class discussion and exercises:               40%
            Writing assignments:                                                      45%
            Final writing project:                                                     15%

 The final writing project (topic to be decided before classes and in consultation with me) should be 8 - 10 pages in length, and should be either new work or radical revisions. Late submission may affect the final grade, according to GLSP guidelines.

Except for the final project, any and every assignment may be revised as often as you like, or at my request.

Assigned Reading and Writing

As a rule, you will be assigned one essay or one revision a week, depending on the extent your previous essay requires. The topics will sometimes be assigned, and sometimes left up to you. Essays should be as long as you need, but generally two to three pages. They must be printed double-spaced, numbered, with your name on each page.

You will also be assigned and one or two readings for each class meeting. Essays are short, no longer than twenty pages, and most much shorter than that. You will also be asked to read one or two essays written by your classmates and provide brief written comments.

We will devote at least two classes entirely to reading work aloud, and at the end of the semester will stage a festive reading open to whomever you wish to invite.

Always (really, always) do the reading before starting the writing. The readings are meant to serve as inspirations and models for the writing assignments. Please bring assigned reading with you to class, and always bring a printed copy of any writing assignment due that day, along with your entire portfolio.

Required Reading

The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard 

Course packet (availability TBA, required); also , occasional supplements handed out in class  or sent to you via email, or posted on the class webpage.

Weekly reading and writing assignments and in-class work:

We will be reading one or two essays before each class meeting (except the first). We will sometimes read three essays if they are very short. You should write down a question or questions you have about each essay in legible form and bring them to class. I will occasionally ask you to hand these in, only so that I can see if our discussion is addressing your questions adequately.

You will write one essay a week, no longer than five pages, unless you need more space in order to say what you want. Most often I will assign the topic, although I will from time to time give you an opportunity to choose your own. I may ask you individually to revise an essay a second time, at my discretion, to be handed in on a mutually agreed upon date.

Depending on how much material we are able to cover in class, I will occasionally assign brief response papers in addition to the essays (1-2 pages in length), in answer to a specific question. But, writing essays is hard enough, so I don't assign written analysis very often, and I don't grade them. I give such assignments in order to see how closely you are reading the essays and how well you are able to put to use the critical vocabulary we are acquiring in class.

From time to time, you will read and provide criticism of each others' work in small groups in class, rather than in a class-wide workshop. In addition, you will do brief on-the-spot writing in response to a prompt at the beginning of class. These exercises will not be handed in. They are meant to strengthen your ability to begin writing without too much agonizing.

Although you will be given a week-by-week assignment of readings at our first meeting, I will need to respond to the needs of the class as they are made clear to me. You can expect me to make some occasional changes to the syllabus that I hand out on our first class. If I change an assignment, it will not be to add significant extra work. I will make changes only because I see that a different order of assignments will be helpful, or because we did not have time to discuss an important point in class.

I hope that we will be able to hold a celebratory reading of what you consider your best work at the end of the semester. If we can find a public venue, you may invite guests. Participation is not required, of course, but people tend to enjoy the experience.

Required texts:

One collection of photocopied readings (local vendor TBA), and one collection of essays, The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard.

Final Project and Grading:

The final project will be an essay 8-10 pages in length. It will be either
a new essay on a topic of the students' choice, made in consultation with me, or an essay that combines previously written work into a whole, again after discussion with me. The final project is not expected to be a publishable piece of work. It is meant to show me how much progress you have made since you began the course.

You will receive written comments from me on each weekly essay as well as on the final project. I do not assign grades to any essay but the final project, because grades for first and even second drafts of creative writing are not useful, in my view, for reasons I will be discussing in class. If at any point you are concerned about how you are doing, you may always talk with me about it. If I think that you are not doing adequate work for the class, I will let you know in my written comments and/or in private conversation. I assign your final grade according to the following:

-your progress as a writer (i.e., if your writing has shown positive change -through a greater grasp of technique and structure);
-your contribution to class discussion;
-and your ability to incorporate criticism.

All students MUST maintain and hand in at the end of the semester a portfolio of every version of every assigned essay (those with my written comments, not copies of your original). I can't adequately evaluate your work for a final grade without your portfolio.

In addition, attendance is vitally important to your grade. Evidence of being able to discuss an essay in terms of the author's technique rather than personal taste or emotional response is also important.

The final project will count as roughly 20% of your grade. 40% will be based on your writing, and 40% on your participation in class work (both discussion and regular attendance).


Writing about personal experience can sometimes be emotional, but this class is not meant to function as therapy. In order to be successful, however, we have to work towards creating a friendly and comfortable atmosphere in which we are free to share our experiences as they pertain to our writing. For that reason, it is important for all of us to respect the privacy of every member of class, as I will.

I understand that obligations at work and home may sometimes require you to hand work in late, but you should not make it a common practice. When possible, I would appreciate being given advance notice. If you know before the class begins that you will only have an hour or two a week to write, you may wish to consider if this is the right course for you.

I can always be reached by email,, which I check many times a day and respond to quickly.