Evelyn O'Connor: Personal Essay vs Short stories
Lots of students mess up this exam because they don't understand one fundamental fact: a personal essay is NOT a short story. So what are the main differences between them?
1. A personal essay is always written by and about you – a teenager who lives in Ireland, goes to school and hates having to do the Leaving Cert. A short story can have anyone as the narrator – a rally driver, a model, an inanimate object, a frog.
2. A personal essay can roam across your entire lifetime, including thoughts, opinions, hobbies, anecdotes, quotes and ideas. A short story, on the other hand, has a specific setting, a limited number of characters and usually happens over a very short space of time.
3. A personal essay reflects on life, the universe and everything. A short story has a tight plot, character development and generally ends with a twist.
If you are asked to write a personal essay and you write a short story instead, you will be excommunicated from the Church of Leaving Cert English and can never again worship at that temple. Or at the very least, you'll do really badly in the exam.
Tips for writing personal essays:
1. If you don't find yourself interesting then how can anyone else? You need to think about what it is that defines you as a person, what marks you out as different, unique, special. The reader needs to want to get to know you.
2. What events from your distant and more recent past stick out in your mind? Sometimes seemingly insignificant events teach you something unexpected or funny or profound about life. These are the moments that are worth recounting to reveal your true personality to your readers.
3. What are your passions, hobbies and interests in life? The quirkier, the better. Every examiner is fit to vomit when they see yet another essay on your desire to be a premiership footballer or the next X Factor winner (yawn!). Remember, personal essays reveal your uniqueness so anything that makes you sound like every other teenager on the planet is not worth including.
4. Are you opinionated? What issues do you feel most strongly about? Religion, politics, education, history, science, space travel, global warming, human rights, celebrity culture, technology? Do you have any areas of specialist knowledge? Is there any way you can work these into your essay?
5. Who are the people you find most fascinating in life? They don't need to be famous but they do need to be worthy of our time if you're going to write about them.
Plan in advance. Organise your ideas. Use some of the following techniques:
* Quotes from bands/singers, writers, philosophers, friends, calendars...
* Anecdotes from your past. Of course, you can always describe an event that happened to someone else and pretend it happened to you.
* Descriptive style – so that the reader is drawn into the experiences you evoke.
* Reflection on your experiences/beliefs/attitudes – show an awareness of how you have become the person you are.
* Imagination – you are free to wander off on a tangent, letting your thoughts flow naturally . . . as long as you eventually return to the point.
* Humour – be as funny, sarcastic and brutally honest as you are in real life. Students tend to be pokerfaced and overly serious in the exam, then you meet them in real life and they're a total scream but somehow they didn't manage to get this across in their writing. So sad ;-(
* Hyperbole – take the truth and exaggerate it. Make your writing dramatic.
* Observations about life, love, and lemonade. Here is your chance to muse about everything.
* Identify problems and offer solutions. Don't be a Moaning Myrtle!
Sample question: "Imagine 20 years from now you win a prestigious award and everyone wants a piece of you. Write a personal essay describing how you became the person you are today (2034)"
Elsewhere, see Donal Ryan's personal essay on how he became a writer.
I think it's incredibly challenging/completely unfair to ask anyone to write a really engaging, original short story in one hour and 20 minutes. As well as writing descriptively, the three elements which must be present are plot, setting and characters.
Please avoid melodrama. I've read stories where characters get shot, escape in a speed boat, rescue a kitten from a burning building and then get diagnosed with cancer, all in the space of three pages!
Stories should provide a slice of life, not the plot of a three-hour movie. The titles also tend to be very specific ('write a story about a reunion', 'write a short story in which a young person is eager to leave home'), so writing a pre-prepared short story in the exam has become less and less of an option in recent years.
The new kid on the block is the descriptive essay, which appeared on the exam papers in 2011 and 2013. I see it as a great option because it requires a descriptive style but doesn't insist on the plot and character development that a short story demands.
You can write about one single event or about a series of different events that are tied together by a common thread. The 2013 essay title asked students to "write a descriptive essay based on a variety of glimpsed moments".
A sample descriptive essay is provided to the right. Just one word of warning: it is probably a little on the short side.
For the exam, your composition (whether it's an article, a speech, a personal essay, a short story or a descriptive essay) should be around 1,000-1,200 words. Obviously, quality is always more important than quantity but anything fewer than 900 words will leave the examiner feeling that you just haven't written enough for them to really judge the quality of your writing.
Fragments from a Lost Weekend
Even as I leave, I know there is the funeral. Even as I climb into our cheap convertible, and the rain comes down and the roof goes up, I know. You have been a good friend, even though our lives are so busy now we are sometimes like strangers. You have been a good friend, and now your dad is dead.
The road is long and windy and wet. The Wicklow hills call from the far coast, and in between the car is stuffy and hot to keep the windshield fog off, and I shuffle to get comfortable and try not (for my dear driver's sake) to nod off. But I have never been good with staying awake, and, besides, although I talk for Ireland, a passenger seat is the one place I get lost in my thoughts, climb into my self and am silent, then asleep ...
I jolt awake with a smack to the head, and the sound of a smile in my ears. We cannot have my head collapsing on him as he drives our cheap convertible with no airbags. We cannot have it. So I fight the battle with my eyelids who go on strike so often I think of hiring a crane to prop them up. The light is green tea and amber now, the trees form a canopy. A light mist has replaced the rain and sleep rises from me as contentment settles down.
We pass a house with horse-head pillar stones, and a lady with squeaky wipers, and a three-legged dog ambling along, and he drives me deeper into the heart of nothing. We have other friends who need us this weekend, it's all arranged. Unlike the funeral, and I've been told that up the North they do things strange, it can take longer for the carcass to be primed and changed into 'the corpse'. So we leave you to your death and carry on with life somehow, though really it's not all that difficult, which seems both logical and wrong.
Hours later, my legs are danced to jelly, my throat is raw. The rain ricochets off the roof of our stuffy tent, insistent staccato beat, but I still fall asleep. Sleep and dream of water. Sleep and dream of swimming in a lake of milk, then fire, as a heat between my legs wiggles forth.
Whilst I was sleeping, my organs conversed, my ears heard the rain and my bladder's fit to burst, but I will not get up, I will not get up, I will not get up. I lever open one eyelid, and my claustrophobic-self bursts roaring from her cave. Canvas too close to face, no air, no air, trapped, suffocating. I rip open the tent flap, devour space and air hungrily. Resolve: tomorrow we will be there for you.
Morning dawns bright and beautiful. We have a long drive ahead. We put down the roof, become part of the landscape, which begins with billowing smoke. A woman with a cross arm planted on her hip. A dead badger. The Bent Elbow Hotel. Then a lake. Two men in a mint green rowboat. Those weird white wind-spinners on the hill. A man on a scooter with a red helmet. A buttercup yellow sun smothered in Vaseline, smeared across the sky. Life's minutiae thrill and happiness comes in starburst moments.
Even as we arrive, we know there is the funeral. Even as we climb out of our cheap convertible, and the sun beams down and the roof goes back up, we know. Remind ourselves: Your Dad is Dead. We wait for the service to end. We wait for the queue to dwindle. We wait to take you in our clumsy arms. Your eyes are so lost. Your pain is so real. Your sorrow wraps its hands around my throat. All I can see is a black cat stalking through an empty house, but no clever image can transform this dead man into a dancing corpse. It's over.
A deep sadness settles on your soul, never to be removed.
Evelyn O’Connor, Mount St Michael Secondary School, Claremorris, Mayo
Irish Independent Supplement