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How to Write a Personal Life History Essay

by Christopher Cascio, studioD

To write a personal history essay is to write a personal narrative, and to make your essay engaging and effective you'll need to treat it as more of a story than an academic paper. You still need to plan your thesis -- or theme -- and brainstorm ideas, and you'll need to revise and edit this essay just like any other. However, you will use narrative examples to communicate every one of your ideas.

Start with Significance

You need to grab the readers with your opening, and at the same time introduce them to the theme of your story. Instead of opening with information about when and where you were born, or telling readers about the general nature of your childhood, open with a scene that shows it. For example, if your theme is that your life has always been rough, you could open with the scene of how your mother couldn't even get to the hospital to give birth to you, that she had you right there on the bathroom floor. Furthermore, opening with a scene immerses readers in the world of your story, as opposed to just reading information.

Let Scenes Do the Work

Just like with your opening, you want to write scenes whenever possible throughout the essay. You can introduce topics as a way to transition from idea to idea, but scenes keep readers engaged with the story and help them forget that they're reading an essay. Furthermore, scenes allow your readers to witness the events of your life, and thereby make judgments about what they read, as opposed to you telling them how they're supposed to feel. This technique is called showing instead of telling, and is a crucial technique for effective storytelling. This is your life story; be a storyteller.

Engage the Senses

You need to provide details when writing scenes -- or writing any type of narrative example -- and details that appeal to the senses are always effective. Provide descriptions of how characters and objects look and smell. Describe the textures of surfaces and the sounds they make when things scrape across them. Essential details, those that express the nature of something, are details you should show instead. For example, if you want readers to understand that your brother is a thief, don't just state it; show him stealing something and describe the act with vivid, sensory details.

Conclude the Same Way You Open

You opened with a scene that was relevant to your theme, and you should close the essay in the same way. Using a scene to communicate your theme in this way relieves you of the burden of having to restate your thesis, which will draw your readers out of the story and into the mindset that they're being told how they should feel after reading your essay. Trust the scene to do the work once again, but you also have another job to accomplish with your closing: you need to show that you've changed, that you learned something significant and can apply that knowledge looking forward. So, if your theme has been that your life has been rough, your final scene could show how you now understand that a rough life was necessary for you to grow and become who you are, and who you will become.

About the Author

Christopher Cascio is a memoirist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Southampton Arts at Stony Brook Southampton, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in the rhetoric of fiction from Pennsylvania State University. His literary work has appeared in "The Southampton Review," "Feathertale," "Kalliope" and "The Rose and Thorn Journal."

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