Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: The Art of the Personal Essay

Instructor: Kimi Faxon Hemingway

Course Overview:

The personal essay is a form that allows for exploration and the use of compelling, transformative moments and material from your life to communicate meaning to a reader. Personal essays take the messiness of experience and turn it into narrative art. In this course we will both read and discuss a number of works of some of the finest essayists, and try our hands at writing in this form. We will split our time between workshops of student writing and the discussion of published texts. As we read with a writer's attention to style and technique, we will endeavor to ask questions that are essential to crafting real-life material: how does the narrator interact with, shape, and transform the material presented? Is the narrator the subject, the witness, or a detached observer? How does the author's personal experience open a window into a larger world? How much do we trust the narrator and why do we care? How do we decide what to put in and what to leave out? How is memory constructed on the page and how does forgetting fit it? What is the difference between invention and lying? What responsibility do we have to history and place? How does solid research and interviewing contribute to essay writing?

Students will learn to develop the habits of mind for writing personal essays that work, and will receive detailed feedback for revision. Toward the end of the class, we will discuss the process of submission, getting your essays out into the world to be experienced by readers. Students will also learn the art of thoughtful, considered critique. Sometimes the best way to improve your own writing is by reacting critically to another's work: considering the choices the writer made, how the essay is working, and where it might stand to be revised.

By the end of the course, you will posess an understanding of personal essay writing: honesty, self-reflection, tension, when to use scenes and exposition, distilling your theme, the "one big thing" your essay is about, keeping the narrator central, and self-disclosure on the page.

Course Materials:

In order to save you the purchase of a dozen or more books, magazines, and newspaper subscriptions, all reading material will be available via .pdf or word.doc on Bb, in the form of a handout or sent to you via email link. The trade-off, though, is that you must print these materials, read and annotate them, and bring them to class. While there is no textbook assigned for this class, you will be expected to read and annotate essays downloaded from Bb and other sources on a regular basis. Please calculate your printing costs into your budget. Failing to bring printed materials to class will result in an absence for the day.

Additional Reading:

Pick a source of what you consider to be first-rate essay writing, and read it on a regular basis. Bring outstanding examples to class to share.


1. A series of short reaction pieces. One-two pages, double-spaced. The intention with these responses is to get you thinking about the reading so we can have lively and engaged discussions. They will come in a variety of forms:

a. Responses: Think of these as mini-essays in which you take up a small, focused project, which is well thought-out, has a coherent point and is developed with some insight and complexity. They should be caught up in specific ideas and their implications, and sometimes sensitive to some of the less obvious parts of the reading. The voice is always engaged with the material, even if the approach is critical.
b. Questions about the reading to be completed in class--not quizzes, per se, but they may feel like quizzes.
c. Quizzes
d. Creative responses, such as imitations.
e. Critiques for all workshopped material. Please make two copies of these responses on workshop days-- one for the writer and one for me.

2. Lead class discussion, and participate in the rest.

3. Four essays (5-15 pages each) to be workshopped by the class and substantially revised.

4. A cover letter detailing the writing process should accompany the final revision.


  • Class participation: 20%
  • Responses, workshop critiques, and writing exercises: 20%
  • Essays: 15% each

Last Update: March 23, 2015