English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Personal Essay


by Elizabeth Ahner


“The inside of the shell looks to me like a sore throat mouth,” is the sentence I wrote on paper eighteen years ago. It was my first day of an expository writing class and I was a freshman in college. Assorted objects were placed in the center of a table, around which twenty students and I sat around. Professor Hill asked us to describe the objects. What I saw was a seashell, a piece of driftwood and a black and white framed photo of an old man and a silver pocket watch. I wanted to sketch the still life in opposition to writing. I looked around me and observed all the students writing. At the end of our allotted ten minutes, I finally scribbled down my single sentence. Professor Hill asked us to read aloud what we had written, and as I listened to each student’s long prose, I was amazed. They drew the objects using words. When it was my turn I read,“The inside of the shell looks to me like a sore throat mouth.”

The class laughed as I blushed.

“Brilliant”, exclaimed Professor Hill with his Welsh accent.

I looked down at my single sentence with relief. That was the beginning of my understanding that everyone’s perception of something, may it be an inanimate object or experience is unique. The end of class he assigned us to write an essay about a personal experience, to be due the following week. He also asked us to bring copies to distribute to all the class.

The days prior to the due date, I recalled many experiences, but when I attempted to write them down on paper, I was not able to portray them successfully. The sharpest memories I could recall were incidents I was ashamed to write about, much less to share with the class. I feebly tried to write about a family trip to Arizona. When I read over what I had written, I was disappointed. The essay reminded me of a photo on a postcard showing the receiver a famous place. I retold the event but revealed nothing. The writing was frankly boring, like the sentence scribbled on back of a postcard of the Grand Canyon which states “I saw this view”.

Twenty hours before the class began I was forced to produce and to create an interesting essay; I had to reveal. I described a vivid memory of and an incident at a party which occurred after a family wedding. As the hours went by and I wrote more and more sentences, I remember feeling like I was inside my high school dark room. I felt the same feeling of relief as I felt when going inside the dimly lit dark room away from the florescent lights. As I wrote I sensed the same excitement I felt when dipping the photo paper in liquid and watching a photo appear. I did not want to be interrupted as I wrote about the experience, which became more vivid as the hours went by. When the photo appeared underneath the liquid, I always feared someone would open the dark room door, making the photo disappear.

As I wrote about the party, I was once again sixteen and began to see the people at the party in their fancy suits and dresses. Their eyes were blood shot. I watched them rip the mirror off the hotel wall. I remember people rushing to the coffee table where the mirror was placed.

When it was my turn, I kneeled next to the coffee table and with the rolled fifty-dollar bill. I saw my mirrored reflection as I stuffed the rolled bill into my nostril. My dress had fallen off one shoulder but I used my free hand to tuck the hair behind my ears. I bent my head and closed my own blood shut eyes. I blew out. White dust flew…

“Jesus Christ” yelled a suited man.

“Suck it in”, whispered a man who was next in line looking at my bare shoulder. I heard the suited man’s gold American express card click rhythmically as he pushed the cocaine into neat soldier-like lines.

That was the beginning of the first essay I wrote for my Freshman English class. When I finished writing it was as if I had closed the dark room door and in my hand were several photographs. I was holding pieces of paper and on them were words which described my image of several hours of time which occurred in my past. I did not retell what happened, but attempted to show a poignant experience. Professor Hill’s persistently encouraged us throughout the semester “to show rather than tell.”

I brought my copies to class. Each student read aloud his or her essays. I listened and was fascinated my many of the students’ stories. Prior to hearing these students, I tended to idolize “real” writers. Reading a published work which might have made me laugh, cry, or alter my perspective on life, I would assume the writer was gifted with the innate ability to write brilliant prose. These published writers were unlike my classmates and myself since they were able to create scenes, characters, and beauty and evoke emotion through their prose. As I listened, especially to one woman’s story about the death of her father, my view changed. We were in a prior English class together and I remember disliking her for always seeming to know the answer. But now, as she read with a shaky voice a description of her father’s funeral service, I was moved. Through her description, choice of words, and the evolution of her story I was able to peek into her experience of grief. I was touched. This is the first time I understood the power of everyone’s voice and potential to bring others closer to their experience by writing.

Each of us read our essays. There was no allotted time for comments, but Professor Hill asked us to write comments on each other’s copies. When I received back my copies, most of the comments I found were helpful, even if they were hurtful. One student wrote, “too sappy”, which I have a tendency to be. Professor Hill checked sentences which he felt worked and put question marks over words and parenthesis around sentences which he felt did not work. At the end, he commented that overall my essay was a good beginning.

We were required to write many personal essays throughout the semester. In retrospect, I think Professor Hill was trying to show us the power of our personal experiences and how they effect not only on life but our perspective on writing. My final essay was a story about my sister who is profoundly retarded and autistic. As I wrote, I once again immersed myself into a past time and place. The first sentence was

“Time to eat, time to eat” said my sister and waved her hands frantically and shook her head like a crazed Beatle fan.

As I continued to write, I once again became an eight-year-old child who sat with her older sister in the back of our Dad’s station wagon.

When I was finished and read the essay several weeks later, I understood how profoundly the experience of having a sister with disabilities has affected my life. That experience affects how I write and interpret others’ writing. If I had not written this particular essay, I am not sure how clear my understanding of this reality would be, even today. Today, as I pull out this essay, I see on the bottom Jonathan Hill’s comment. He wrote,

“Once again Liza, with remarkable verbal precision and economy you evoke rich layers of meaning, feeling, and suggestion. There is not a word wasted in this piece-all comes over with the stated immediacy of a flash-photo.”

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