Writing Personal Essays Phillip Lopate Essay

Some Notes on Character

“How do you turn yourself into a character?” This is the question Phillip Lopate asks at the start of his essay, “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.”  “First of all,” he contends, “you need to have–or acquire–some distance from yourself.”  Normally, we’re so tightly wound within ourselves; writing personal essays require us to move beyond ourself: to see ourselves from the outside as others might view us.

One place to begin, Lopate suggests, is with our quirks.  “These are the ideosyncracies, stubborn tics, antisocial mannerisms… that set you apart from your fellowmen,” he writes.  “To establish credibility, you would do well to resist coming across at first as absolutely average.  The mistake many beginning essayists make is to try so hard to be likable and nice, to fit in, that the reader, craving stronger stuff, gets bored.”  To avoid such a fate, Lopate urges us to “dramatize ourselves.”  We need to place ourselves on the stage.

And we need to tell a story. What distinguishes any good story–a sense of tension and conflict, growth and development–must find a place in your professional narrative as well.  Without that tension, Lopate warns, “your essay will drift into static mode, repeating your initial observations in a self-satisfied way.”  Professional narratives can often lurch into that static complacency, a mere verbalization of our skills and accomplishments. Don’t let that happen!

Beyond the quirks of character, Lopate stresses more tangible forms of identity: “We are distinguished from one another as much by our pasts, the set of circumstances we are born into, as by the challenges we have encountered along the way, and how we choose to resolve them, given our initial stations in life,” Lopate writes.  “Ethnicity, gender, religion, class, geography, politics: These are all strong determinants in the development of character.”  It’s important to think of these identity categories not as additive, but as intersectional: we constantly negotiate various aspects of our identity, strategically mobilizing unique combinations in any give situation. Of course, we do this largely unconsciously; but in a professional narrative, we need to think more explicitly and reflectively about these choices.

It’s hard sometimes to be this reflective.  We spend a lot of time with ourselves, a lot of time in our own heads.  Sometimes, we might be a bit bored with ourselves.  So do we put on a happy face and hope the false smile wins out?  Lopate helpfully warns against such a disposition, telling us that the “proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself–a smugness equally distasteful to the reader–but being curious about oneself.”  I love this point, and it returns us to that idea of self-distancing.  What makes us tick?  We should want to know; our readers certainly will.  Sometimes, however, we can present overly polished versions of ourselves.  So remember: we want to appear moldable, not statuesque. A few rough edges add character.

But mere curiosity can still leave us in a realm of thought, of cerebral abstraction.  Thus, Lopate advises to “give your ‘I’ something to d0.”  In the kind of personal essay we’re writing, this is a particularly important move in the first paragraph.  First paragraphs can go the way of vague abstractions or the way of bold particulars: always err on the side of the latter. If you’re applying for a graduate program or study abroad trip involving archeology, for example, don’t begin by talking abstractly about why you decided to major in such a field.  The reader, preferably from the first sentence, should see you on your knees, dusting off and showing us some rare object, some shard of the past, as the sun beats down.  See what I mean?

And finally, always err on the side of specificity.  Ground your character with details–don’t let it float away. How do you do this?  Consider adding to the sensual texture of your essay. Don’t overload a scene, but pay attention to the senses your prose will trigger: smell, taste, touch, hearing, seeing.

For more detailed analysis of a personal essay, check out this Personal Essay Sample.

Thoughts on Teaching the Personal Essay:

The big question: How to teach the professional narrative in a new and fresh way when any first-year honors student will be pretty much personal-essayed out when they arrive in our classrooms? How to combat this mixture of exhaustion and cynicism? That is, how do we frame this both as a challenge, and as an interesting and necessary next step–and not merely a repetition of the old moves?

As far as preparatory activities, Lopate’s essay leads nicely to a character sketch prompt–a good way to begin practicing these strategies for turning oneself into a character.  Such an assignment might be preceded by peer introductions–turning someone else into a character before practicing the same moves in a more defamiliarizing way on yourself.

Rob Davidson’s brief essay “On Emotional Investment and the Objective Correlative: Some Thoughts on Craft for Young Writers” would be very useful as a warm-up reading / activity.  The piece introduces T.S. Eliot’s famous concept and helps students begin thinking more critically about how vivid details can convey meaningful emotional content.

Author and Columbia University professor Phillip Lopate sat down with University Writing lecturer Tana Wojczuk in front of an audience of University Writing students for a lively and thought-provoking discussion on the art and craft of essay writing.

I was thrilled when author and professor Phillip Lopate agreed to speak with me about the essay, specifically how writers can develop their own unique voice within the essay. Lopate had recently published two books that illustrate his committment to both the pedagogical and creative aspects of essay writing. To Show and To Tell is a guide for nonfiction writers both within and outside of academia. It emerges from Lopate’s many decades of teaching writers of all ages, most recently in Columbia’s own MFA program. It organizes each chapter around a specific writing challenge, such as “On The Challenge of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” Lopate’s second book, out the same month, is A Portrait Inside My Head, a collection of his own personal essays that reveal, in their diversity of his approach and subjects, the very writing moves he advocates for in To Show and To Tell.

Our conversation, attended by students from several sections of University Writing: Readings in American Studies, also focused on the interconnection between theory and practice in writing. Lopate began with a whirlwind tour of essayists past and present, focusing on American essayists he particularly recommends. Then we focused in on specific topics, like character, voice and what happens when a writer tries to write about something that makes him have to confess himself less than perfect. Thoughout our discussion, Lopate made a move similar to those he makes in his books, alternating between big ideas that writers can take home and write on the wall above their desk, and tangible examples culled from his own essays and life experience. Keep an eye out for Lopate’s reading of one of the essays in To Show and To Tell. Above and beyond specific advice from one of America’s leading essaysists, which you’ll find throughout this video, writers of all kinds will find in it the kind of enthusiasm, rigor and passion for essay writing that Lopate displays in his classes and his own writing. —Tana Wojczuk

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