Writing the Personal Essay


Person writing in front of a lakeOverview:
For five centuries, the personal essay has flourished as the genre of discovery, driven by the writer’s own habit of inquiry and attention. As individual and curious as the writer’s own mind, the personal essay reflects Montaigne’s maxim that ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition’.

This interactive workshop invites you to chart your own thinking and experience in non-fiction’s most versatile form of writing. Each week you will be reading and commenting on one another’s work. This forms the core of the workshop experience. You will receive tailored written feedback from the tutor on the pieces you write throughout the course.

Target audience:
This workshop is for anyone interested in writing the personal essay, a non-fiction form.

Learning objectives:
By the end of this writing workshop, you will have:

  • explored subjects that interest you for where they lead in the personal essay
  • discussed and completed exercises integrating exposition, reflection and narration 
  • learned how to examine a personal essay for its structural elements: how the genre works and why
  • learned how to give and receive constructive and positive feedback
  • gained an understanding of the importance of editing and revising your work.

Course outline:
Over eight weeks, you will discover what draws your attention in writing. Each week explores a new writing prompt that generates whatever speculative and reflective route you happen to find.

Themes for the weekly writing prompt include:

Session 1: Portrait: The flesh made word
Session 2: Narrative: How does the story help?
Session 3: Sense of place: Inner and outer landscapes
Session 4: Nostalgia: Memory is hunger
Session 5: Journeys: Home and away
Session 6: What work is: Art, craft, practice
Session 7: Que sais-je?: What do I know?
Session 8: Persona: The mask(s) of self

This workshop gives you the freedom and opportunity to explore your own voice using the personal essay format. It is not intended as an instructional course on how to write the personal essay.

You will receive constructive feedback from the tutor and your peers that will allow you the chance to develop and build on your writing skills. Examples of published personal essays are considered, with an attention to craft. Discussion and participation are at the heart of this writing workshop.

In addition to group workshopping and outside of class time, the tutor will also provide you with tailored written feedback on the pieces you write throughout the course.

You will need to set aside time for reading and writing between classes.

Tea and coffee are available at the start of each session.  You are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Class limit:
This course is limited to 12 participants so please enrol early.

Diane Comer is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been publishing creative non-fiction for over 20 years. Her book The Braided River: Migration and the Personal Essay was published in 2019 by Otago University Press. She is a Senior Tutor at Victoria University of Wellington and has taught creative writing workshops at universities in Sweden and the United States of America, as well as community education courses in Christchurch. 

“Encouragement to write and feedback from teacher was excellent”, Writing the Personal Essay participant (2018)

“Very good, intimate class, where most works get discussed and comments provided”, Writing the Personal Essay participant (2018)

“Most impressed with the facilitator’s style of presentation and knowledge”, Writing the Personal Essay participant (2018)

Relevant links:
International Institute of Modern Letters

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140.
Phone 04 463 6556,  Email: conted@vuw.ac.nz

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.