Michel de Montaigne invented the personal essay in France way back in the sixteenth century. The word “essay” back then meant “attempt”, and that is just what Montaigne and his numerous successors have been trying to do: attempting to describe a certain phase of a writer’s life.
My favorite essayists are Montaigne, Thomas Browne, Henry Thoreau, and E.B. White. They have taught me all I know about the form.
I’ve been writing essays for many years, and I’ve gradually formulated some guidelines which, if followed, help to keep me out of trouble. And I’ve seen a lot of trouble; things that I’ve written have caused me a world of woe, including divorce, eviction, and lost friendships!
So, for your edification if you feel inspired to write an essay, here are my personal rules:
1: Don’t get too personal, as Too Much Information puts off readers. Nobody want to know the color and texture of your stools!
2: Be careful about writing about Real People who co-inhabit your world. I’ve lost friends by writing about them in too much potentially-embarrassing detail. Most people are more private than I am!
3: Don’t brag! Self-deprecation endears a writer to his or her readers, as we all have human flaws.
4: When you are really happy, maybe even ecstatically so, tone down the purple prose, as readers have only so much tolerance for reading about people happier than they are.
That’s it! Feel free to add any more rules you might think of in the comments.
By the way, this is a personal essay!