Personal Life Media Review Essay
Read “How Keeping a Diary Can Surprise You” to learn more — and check out what other teenagers told us back in 2011 when we asked, Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
But don’t stop at just journaling. Go back, read over what you wrote, look for patterns and think about what these “personal stories” reveal about you. A recent article on the Well blog suggests that writing and editing stories about yourself can help you see your life differently, and actually lead to behavioral changes:
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
Read about how personal story editing helped 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically, then think about how you can use the techniques yourself.
2. Use current events and issues as a jumping-off point.
That’s what we’ve done every school day since 2009 with our Student Opinion question: we find an interesting article in The Times, pose a question about it, and invite any teenager anywhere in the world to answer it.
In fact, we’ve just published a list of 650 of those questions that ask for personal and narrative writing, on topics like sports, travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Visit the collection to get ideas and to access related Times articles to help you think more about each.
Then, ask you yourself, what issues and current events do you care most about? How do they impact your life? What personal stories can you tell that relate to them in some way?
For instance, maybe the impact of technology on our lives concerns you. In our collection of prompts, you can find nearly 50 different ways we’ve taken that topic on, each linked to a Times article or essay on the topic.
For just one example, though, you might read Gary Shteyngart’s essay “Only Disconnect”:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film.
Does it surprise you to realize this essay was written in 2010? Do you think his observations are even more true today? What stories do you have to tell about life online?
Another excellent place to glean ideas is the Op-Ed page, where writers respond to the news of the day with occasional personal essays. In this one, a classic from 1999, a teenager reacts to the Columbine school shootings — then blamed in part on school cliques that made some feel like outsiders — with an essay headlined, “Yes, I’m in a Clique.”
Or read this week’s “How to Vote as an Immigrant and a Citizen,” an Op-Ed by the novelist Imbolo Mbue about what it means to her to vote on November 8 and, for the first time, have “a say in America’s future.”
Other great places to look for ideas other than our daily Student Opinion question and the Op-Ed page? Check the Trending lists, or visit our monthly Teenagers in The Times series.
3. Take some tips from experts.
Our lesson plan, Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well, compiles nine guidelines from many different Times sources on everything from “listening to the voice in your head” to writing with “non-zombie nouns and verbs.”
But for one-stop shopping on the personal essay in particular, you might just read “How to Write a Lives Essay,” in which the author asks the magazine’s editors for a “single, succinct piece of advice” for getting an essay published in the long-running column devoted to personal stories.
Here are a few of the answers, but read the whole post to see them all:
• More action, more details, less rumination. Don’t be afraid of implicitness. And the old Thom Yorke line: “Don’t get sentimental. It always ends up drivel.”
• Meaning (or humor, or interestingness) is in specific details, not in broad statements.
• Write a piece in which something actually happens, even if it’s something small.
• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”
• Don’t try to tell the whole story.
• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”
• Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.
• Better to start from something very simple that you think is interesting (an incident, a person) and expand upon it, rather than starting from a large idea that you then have to fit into an short essay. For example, start with “the day the Santa Claus in the mall asked me on a date” rather than “the state of affairs that is dating in an older age bracket.”
• Go to the outer limit of your comfort zone in revealing something about yourself.
• Embrace your own strangeness.
How can you apply any, or all, of these pieces of advice to an essay you’re writing?
4. Borrow an opening line for inspiration.
Back in 2011, we ran a contest that invited students to Use Opening Lines From the Magazine’s ‘Lives’ Column as Writing Prompts. Contestants were allowed to write stories, essays, plays, memoirs or poetry, and could use lines like these:
It’s impossible to look cool when you’re part of a tour group. (From “In Too Deep”)
Mornings are not our best family moments. (From “Mother’s Little Helper”)
Cosmic forces have a way of turning up the heat to make us change. (From “The Tractor Driver or the Pothead?” )
After you look at the full list of first lines, jump over to read the work of our winners, and see how they took first sentences like “I am parked in a rental car in front of the house where I grew up,” and made them their own.
Around Valentine’s Day that same year, we invited students to use first lines from the weekly Modern Love column as “passion prompts,” and that time we showed them how to take the basic idea from the essay and adapt it for themselves:
• Times sentence, from “The Day the House Blew Up”:
We went out to the house last month to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then the house exploded.
Sentence starter:We went to [place and time] to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then…
• Times sentence, from “In a Wedding Album From the City’s 5 Borough Halls, Tales as Varied as the Rooms”:
It was just another Saturday night on Queens Boulevard two years ago when Eddie Ellis and Gladys Corcino pulled up beside each other at a red light near 65th Street.
Sentence starter: It was just another [day/time of the week] on/in [location] when [name] and [name]…
Scroll through all our choices from these two posts, or find your own opening line from a more recent Times essay to inspire you. How can you adapt it and make it your own?
5. Use images to spur memories and ideas.
We’re all about images as inspiration on this site, and this year we even have a new daily writing feature called Picture Prompts, and a lesson plan about teaching with images to go with it.
Scroll through the feature, and either follow the prompts we suggest, or use any of the images that catch your interest to write whatever you like. What memories does it inspire? What personal connection to the content can you make? What stories from your own life does it remind you of?
Other great places to find images in The Times?
• Lens, a Times site for photography, video and photojournalism
• The Lively Morgue, a Tumblr of images from the Times archives
• Looking at Our Hometowns, a 2013 Lens project that asked, “What would happen if you asked high school students to help create a 21st-century portrait of the country by turning their cameras on their neighborhoods, families, friends and schools?”
6. Craft a great college essay.
Our lesson plan, Getting Personal: Writing College Essays for the Common Application, helps students explore the open-ended prompts on the Common Application, then analyze Times pieces that might serve as models for their own application essays.
For example, take this prompt: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Here are some first-person Times essays that could serve as models for writing about the theme of failure:
• “A Rat’s Tale”: A writer discusses her failure to be the sister her brother wanted and what she learned.
• “Pancake Chronicles”: An entertaining account of a disastrous first job.
• “A Heartbroken Temp at Brides.com”: After a groom changes his mind, his would-be bride, with “no money, no apartment, no job” takes a position at a wedding website.
The lesson also links to a number of Times articles that offer advice on everything from “Going for the ‘Dangerous’ Essay” to “Treating a College Admissions Essay Like a First Date.”
Another source of inspiration is Ron Lieber’s annual contest for the best college essays that address issues of money, work and social class.
These essays, as he wrote in 2015, are “filled with raw, decidedly mixed feelings about parents and their sacrifices; trenchant accounts of the awkwardness of straddling communities with vastly different socio-economic circumstances; and plain-spoken — yet completely affecting — descriptions of what it means to make a living and a life in America today.”
You can find them all, by year, here:
2016: Memories and Hopes: The Top Essays
2015: Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye
2014: Four Stand-Out College Essays About Money
2013: Standing Out From the Crowd
7. Learn from more Times models on popular themes.
What we’ve compiled below is just a very, very small taste of the thousands of essays you can find in The Times on these topics.
Please preview any that you assign to students to make sure they are appropriate.
Love, Romance and Relationships
Most of the selections below are from the long-running Modern Love column, and begin with some winners of their college essay contest. You might also want to read some observations from the editor on “How We Write About Love” and his selection of “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.”
”Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define”
“Let’s Not Get to Know Each Other Better”
“No Labels, No Drama, Right?”
“The Perils of Not Dying for Love”
“Swearing Off the Modern Man”
“Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put”
“GPS on a Path to the Heart”
“Alone When the Bedbugs Bite”
“Drowning in Dishes, but Finding a Home”
“The Ballad of Tribute Steve”
“The Summer I Discovered Suburbia”
“Safe on the Southbank”
“Advice; Teen Angst? Nah!”
“My High-School Hoax”
“My New Look”
“How Ramen Got Me Through Adolescence”
“Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend”
“Memories of Meals Past”
“We Found Our Son in the Subway”
“Skinny-Dipping With Grandma”
“Praying for Common Ground at the Christmas-Dinner Table”
“A Nanny’s Love”
“The Subject of the Sibling”
“Montana Soccer-Mom Moment”
Race, Religion, Gender and Sexuality
“Milwaukee’s Divide Runs Right Through Me”
“An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China”
“I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?”
“Anti-Semitism at My University, Hidden in Plain Sight”
“Intolerance and Love in Jamaica”
“What I Learned in the Locker Room”
“The Boy of Summer”
“Learning to Embrace Sexuality’s Gray Areas”
“The Undress Code”
“My Gymnastics Feminism”
And a Few Extras that Don’t Fit Neatly Into Any of the Previous Categories...
”The Monkey Suit”
“Who’s the Jerk Now, Jerk?”
“Finding That Song”
“Scanning the Pandas”
“Eternal Bragging Rights”
Places to Find Personal Essays in The New York Times
Lives: A place for true personal essays, this column has been running weekly in the Magazine for decades.
Modern Love: A series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.
On Campus: Dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life.
Ties: Essays on parenting and family from Well.
Essay series from The Opinionator (some no longer taking submissions):
• The Couch: A series about psychotherapy
• Private Lives: Personal essays from writers around the globe, on the news of the world and the news of individual lives.
• The Stone: A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
• Draft: Essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.
• Townies: A series about life in New York — and occasionally other cities — written by the novelists, journalists and essayists who live there.
• Disability: Essays, art and opinion exploring the lives of people living with disabilities.
• Anxiety: This series explores how we navigate the worried mind, through essay, art and memoir.
• Menagerie: Explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.
Metropolitan Diary: Short anecdotes about life in New York City
Complaint Box: Discontinued in 2013, this column was part of the City Room blog and simply asked New Yorkers, “What Annoys You?”
More of Our Lesson Plans on Writing Personal Pieces
I Remember: Teaching About the Role of Memory Across the Curriculum
Creative State of Mind: Focusing on the Writing Process
Reading and Responding: Holding Writing Workshops
Reader Idea | Personal Writing Based on The Times’s Sunday Routine Series
Can’t Complain? Writing About Pet Peeves
Thank You, Thesaurus: Experimenting With the Right Word vs. the Almost-Right Word
Skills Practice | Writing Effective Openings
On Monday, Laura Bennett’s Slate piece on the boom of first-person essay writing sparked a fierce online debate between editors and writers: how can one best work between the vulnerability of a writer and the traffic goal of an editor? What’s the line between publishing someone’s personal experience and exploitation?
In response to Bennett’s piece, we asked senior editors at several publications known for publishing first-person stories about what they value in them, how they look after their writers, and why it is that so many confessional stories seem to be written by women, and not men.
Doree Shafrir, ideas editor, BuzzFeed
It’s a mischaracterization to say that first-person essays have “traditionally” been written by women. (A quick glance at Philip Lopate’s canonical anthology The Art of the Personal Essay should dispel that myth.) But the internet’s democratization of voices – allowing writers, particularly women and writers of color, access to platforms and audiences previously unavailable to them, and the ability to tell their own stories – has led to anxiety among some gatekeepers of culture.
So when I assign essays like Jennifer Chen’s Why I Didn’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret or Kristin Chirico’s My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women, both of which are incredibly thoughtful, smart explorations by women of formerly taboo subjects, I’m also thinking about how I can give people access to the huge platform that BuzzFeed offers.
I don’t keep track of the gender breakdown of our personal essay pitches – I’m more thinking about whether the writer is telling a compelling story that we haven’t heard before, and/or telling a story in a unique voice or with a perspective we haven’t heard before.
Latoya Peterson, editor at large, Fusion
We are not interested in people searching for meaning in their navels. There are plenty of otherlife experiences to explore that do not get enough attention.
This overshare, gross-out phenomenon of “first-person writing” is generally a door that leads to more fame and work for white women. It is selling pieces of yourself to get bylines. This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white women. Society sees women of color’s shameless writing as proof of deviance, not a relatable and fun story to share on social media.
This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white womenLatoya Peterson
The backlash, when we do open up in that way, is normally immediate and often includes a Twitter referendum on how we are failing the race.
I may have missed it, but I can’t think of a woman of color who became the belle of the literary ball by simply writing about her sexual transgressions. (The closest piece I can think of in recent years is Helena Andrews-Dyer’s Bitch is the New Black, but the lingering notes from that work are not sexual, but rather about friendship and hollowness and the vulnerability of black women.) We always have to bring more to the table.
Where are the men is also an interesting question. Men write these kinds of pieces all the time. They just aren’t seen in the same, marginalizing light. A man writing about his drug addiction or squandered nights in sweaty sheets is just considered normal. Interesting. Literary. Tom Chiarella wrote about being sexually abused by a teacher for Esquire – but the piece wasn’t framed as a gross-out confessional piece. It was given the consideration it deserved. For some reason, the lives of men are inherently more serious affairs than the lives of women.
I often think about Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive (I think it’s being made into a movie). I remember the shock in some corners of the internet, that a thinking woman like Pollitt would actually be subject to the same human struggles as the rest of us. I mean, here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review:
And now Pollitt’s up at bat. Her three previous essay collections gathered brilliant commentary on welfare, abortion, surrogate motherhood, Iraq, gay marriage and health care, mostly from the pages of The Nation. But with “Learning to Drive,” she gets personal, and shameless. She has decided to wave her dirty laundry (among which she found unidentified striped panties) and confesses to “Webstalking” her longtime, live-in, womanizing former boyfriend. (Take that, you rat!) It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely. Or perhaps she’s giving up her dignity in a generous motion of solidarity toward the rest of us who have already blown our cover? Whatever the reason, she’s entitled.
As if Pollitt earned the right to be a full human because she spent most of her career as a serious woman. Imagine that.
Emily McCombs, executive editor, XOJane
I can’t tell you how often I have encountered the attitude that because these stories are about women’s lives, they are somehow superficial, silly, or unimportant. Women’s lives – our stories – are not unimportant. They often reflect the feminist maxim that the personal is political.
For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to runEmily McCombs
The whole language of “oversharing”, “TMI”, and “confessional blogging” is condescending and dismissive. Nobody uses that kind of language when men write memoir.
As editors, we try to warn writers who choose controversial topics that backlash that may occur, and offer them the opportunity to publish anonymously. We never want to put anyone’s safety or livelihood at risk. For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to because the writer doesn’t seem mentally or emotionally ready, or lacks perspective or self-awareness.
Of course there are consequences to what personal information you put on the internet, but to suggest that adult women aren’t fully capable of deciding when and where to share information about themselves denies them an awful lot of agency.
I write about my own personal life because I want to lessen shame and encourage connection. If people read a piece I wrote and say: “This writer has had this experience, done this thing and felt this way so maybe I don’t have to feel ashamed of who I am,” it’s worth it.
That happens whether I’m writing about something silly like back fat all the way to serious topics like addiction and rape. And the best reaction is when someone emails me to say: “I didn’t know I had been raped (or was an alcoholic, or needed to go to therapy) until I read your piece.”
Even the stories that may seem silly or lurid are forging a connection among a group of women who are often not encouraged to speak out about our own lives and bodies.
Haley Mlotek, editor-in-chief, The Hairpin
Since I took my current job, the word I use more than any other is “more”. I am constantly talking with my writers about why they should write more, once we’ve spoken about whether they should write at all. I always tell them yes, write, write it all, write as much as you want, and then it’s my job to figure out the rest.
I don’t agree that there is something inherently easier about writing a personal essay, or that they are by nature exploitative, because it’s just like any other kind of creative labor: it depends! But I do know how many brilliant writers are sitting on their work because they believe it’s somehow cheap or reductive just because it’s about their lived experiences, while editors are scrolling through inboxes stuffed with men who have no hesitation about demanding that their voices and their stories come first.
There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to say: 'No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all'Haley Mlotek
I have my personal taste when it comes to personal essays, but here, too, I find the word “more” is the best descriptor. I think we need as many people as possible writing about as many different experiences and telling as many different stories as they want to, because that’s how we find out what we like!
That’s how we find writers who speak to our exact same experiences, or to wildly different experiences – writers who can show us something unexpected or familiar. There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to be like: “No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all,” and there never should be. More is more.
Emma Carmichael, editor-in-chief, Jezebel
I think a balance of empathy and patience goes a long way in working with freelancers on personal work. We know better than anyone how a wave of response can feel for a writer, so we want someone new to it to be as prepared as possible – both mentally and through the strength of the work – for the onslaught. We can’t prescribe a writer’s belief in her work, but we can make that work as strong as possible before we put it on the internet. At the times when I’ve felt we’ve faltered in that goal, we’ve attempted to pull off the clumsy editing acrobatics required to tie a personal essay to a news story.
Yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.Emma Carmichael
Bennett touched on this in her piece and I think it’s actually the bigger issue with the “unreported hot take”, where you’re trying to squeeze someone’s experience into a news angle. It doesn’t work that way. The best writing that, in Bennett’s words, “[doesn’t] merely assert the universality of their experience” but “[arrives] at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning” justifies itself. You can’t rush that.
That said, I am also reminded here of Deadspin editor Tim Marchman on the reflexive reader’s “clickbait” insult: “If journalism were as easy as tricking people into pushing buttons, it would have been automated by now.”
We’re not over here mindlessly pressing big red “Publish Without Consequences For The Writer!” buttons and cackling, but yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.
Bella Mackie, commissioning editor, the Guardian
Recently, a pitch came through from a writer dealing with their mother’s alcoholism. The story was interesting, but the author hadn’t thought about what publishing might do to their family. In those situations, it’s best to err heavily on the side of caution, and turn it down.
If the subject is a very personal one, it’s my responsibility to make sure the writer understands that the reaction may be negative, that online commenters may be brutal about their lives, and that social media might opine on their story in a way that they are not comfortable with.
Although there have been many pitches that I would have liked to have read more about, common curiosity is not a good enough reason to commission an article. It has to be an angle that may help others, foster a new sense of understanding, or explain a little heard perspective. You want to be able to learn about body confidence, or living with cancer as a young person. For this reason, I turn down more pitches than I say yes to.