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«As UCLA's principal provider of continuing education, the majority of UCLA Extension courses are designed for the post-baccalaureate ...»

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Writing the Personal Essay (Online)

Instructor: Liza Monroy – www.lizamonroy.com

Note to students: While this syllabus is posted to give you an overview of the course, it is subject

to change. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Writers’ Program at (310)

825-9415 or via email at writers@uclaextension.edu.

As UCLA's principal provider of continuing education, the majority of UCLA Extension courses

are designed for the post-baccalaureate professional-level student. Enrollment is therefore normally reserved for adult students 18 years of age and older. The Writers’ Program may consent to enroll younger students based on special academic competence and approval of the instructor. Students who enroll in a Writers’ Program course without first receiving permission of the instructor are subject to withdrawal. To request instructor approval, please contact the Writers’ Program at 310/825-9415.

If you have administrative questions about this or other courses please contact Alicia Wheeler at awheeler@uclaextension.edu or 310-794-1846.

If you would like to request a refund, please contact refunds@uclaextension.edu


"Personal Essay" is a broad term that encompasses humorous essays, opinion pieces, and essayand book-length memoir, but which always details the writer's journey through a specific experience. This workshop teaches aspiring personal essayists how to be a compelling firstperson narrator and employ craft elements such as theme, character development, voice, pacing, scene-setting, and exposition to tell their stories. The goal is to complete at least one publishable personal essay (800-2,500 words) and develop material for future essays.

The Class:

In our lives, we are both always experts and novices. Personal essay is a form that allows for exploration and use of compelling, transformative moments and material from your life to communicate meaning to a reader. Personal essays take the messiness of experience and turn it into narrative art. The form requires craft: how do you avoid self-pity and maximize selfimplication? What makes a story exciting and engaging for a reader rather than coming across as “navel-gazing” on the part of the author? What material makes for an interesting personal essay?

How do you craft a persona on the page? We will discuss the requirements of the form: complete self-disclosure and deep examination, creating tension, character arc, using scenes and dialogue, distilling the “one big thing” your essay is about, and the blurry boundaries of fact and imagination in the form known as “creative nonfiction”—a writing form defined by what it is not. Students will learn to develop the habits of mind for writing personal essays that work, and will have detailed feedback for revision provided by the instructor. Toward the end of the class, we will discuss the process of submission, getting your essays out intothe world to be experienced by readers.

Students will also learn the art of thoughtful, considered critique. Sometimes the best way to improve your own writing is by reacting critically to another’s work: considering the choices the writer made, how the essay is working, and where it might stand to be revised.

Lectures will be posted regularly on writing technique and style, how to approach the subject of the essay, the necessity for integrity and honesty, as well as handling writing about others.


By the end of the course, you will possess an understanding of personal essay writing: honesty, self-reflection, tension, when to use scenes and exposition, distilling your theme, the “one big thing” your essay is about, keeping the narrator central, and self-disclosure on the page.


I will provide all required reading via links made available to you in our weekly folders on the Discussion Board.

Some books I recommend for any personal essayist’s shelf:

The Situation and the Story: the Art of Personal Narrative – Vivian Gornick Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction – Lee Gutkind The Writing Life – Annie Dillard On Writing – Stephen King

Grading Criteria:

For those who choose to be graded, ten points for each of nine essays, and ten points for participation, for a possible total of 100. Students will be judged on the basis of improvement in their own work, not in comparison with others. All pieces must be typed and double-spaced with the student’s name. Workshop comments should be typed and double-spaced for each writer, as well.

The Online Classroom:

Participation is vital to an online course. Students are expected to check for announcements and updates, and comment to discussion boards 3 times throughout each week, sometimes more, while attending to their writing projects. This is a college-level course, where we will aim for true discovery and discussion as opposed to “drive-by” postings. We have a uniquely diverse community here; the goal is to use it! The more you participate, the better the experience will be for everyone.

Weekly Topics and Assignments:

*Note –word count for all assignments and exercises is up to 800. Most essays in mainstream publications (The New York Times, Self magazine, Newsweek, etc) run at approximately 800Essays targeted at literary journals (Creative Nonfiction, Tin House, McSweeneys) can run much longer (around 5000), but for our class I ask you limit your length for our purposes.

Excerpts of longer works are acceptable provided enough context to understand the piece as a stand-alone.

Some Guidelines for Workshopping Your Classmates:

Workshopping is a weekly process that develops good writing habits of mind. One of the best ways to improve your own writing is to think actively about the writing of others. With that in mind, I would like you to write a concise, two paragraph response to your classmates’ weekly essays. One paragraph should touch upon and discuss what you feel the writer did successfully in the essay, backed up with at least one concrete example. (ie, “I thought you characterized your mother very well. The scene where you’re watching her use the curling iron reveals the narcissistic tendencies that are central to the conflict with her you introduce on page 2.”) The “what’s working” paragraph can point to places that captivated, riveted, engaged—and, importantly—why these moments are successful.

Then, please write a second paragraph responding to points you think need revision, also explaining your rationale. (ie, “The dialogue with your mother on page 3 repeats some of the information you’ve set up at the beginning of the essay. The reader already knows this, so you might consider reworking the scene to show rather than tell.”) Give suggestions for how the writer might address specific problems.

Two paragraphs keeps things specific, to the point, and manageable. The main thing is not to say “It was great! I loved it,” or “I didn’t get it,” and leave it at. We want to help each other learn and develop as much as possible, and one of the main ways to do that, in editing and responding to each other’s work, is to describe why you reacted as you did. Also, keep in mind reacting to the work and not the writer. This is an important distinction in workshopping personal essays.

“I’m so sorry about what happened with your mother,” is not a workshop comment, but “The sadness of the situation comes through in your essay, and I felt the impact this had especially in the scene on page 2” is. Remember to hone in on “one big thing” both for the positive paragraph and the critique. It’s not our job as readers to “fix” everything, but rather to provide our thoughts on the most important elements of an essay that are both working well and in need of improvement. When your piece is being critiqued, remember that you ultimately retain ownership over your writing, so if a nugget of feedback doesn’t sit right with you, or your instinct is something different entirely, you needn’t incorporate that particular feedback. Other feedback will ring a bell. This will begin to feel familiar as the weeks of our course progress.

Critiques are due within one week after the essay is due to be posted. You are not required to comment on feedback, though you may if you wish to, and also ask any questions for clarification.

A note about line editing: writers are responsible for proofreading and line-editing their own work. We will be focusing on form, content, and style. Also, as the essays are drafts, it is possible to assume that sentences and paragraphs—or even the entire work—will be rewritten, so line editing is not a good use of our time in a workshop.

You may post discussion questions and reactions to the personal essays from the textbook in the designated forum on the discussion board at any time. There is a thread for each of those essays in the General Discussion forum where I have started the conversation. Each essay somehow relates to that week’s topic, so to get the most out of the course, participate in these discussions as well. (You will not be penalized, though, if lack of time prevents you from completing and discussing the textbook readings. The primary goal is writing your own personal essays and commenting on your classmates’ essays.)

Where to Find Everything on the Blackboard Site:

Discussion Board: This is where the weekly lessons and readings live, in folders categorized by week. You must download these at the beginning of each new week of the course. (Start days for our weeks are Wednesdays – more on that on the schedule below.) This is also where you will find a folder in which to post your essays and provide feedback on classmates’ essays.

Syllabus and Content: This is where you can download the syllabus.

Contact me with any questions via email and I will respond within 24 hours.


To help the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program better serve our students, at the end of the course you will be asked to complete an evaluation. These evaluations are 100% anonymous and help shape the program curriculum. Please take the time to fill out this quick form, and don’t be afraid to be candid in your responses.

Week One – Wednesday 10/3—Thursday 10/11 Lesson: The Self (the “I”) in the Personal Essay - Narrator-Protagonist - Essay as Search, Essay as Journey Reading and discussion: Cheryl Strayed, “The Love of My Life,” The Sun (link provided) optional reading: Interview with Cheryl Strayed on The Rumpus Exercise 1: write a personal essay of up to 800 words in which you create a sympathetic narrator/protagonist (perhaps despite odds against the narrator being likeable)—in an attempt to understand something. Consider techniques Strayed used in “The Love of My Life.” Essay due: Thursday, October 11th Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, October 19th Week Two – Wednesday 10/10—Thursday 10/18 Lesson: Communicating Large Themes Through Moments Reading and discussion: Mary Gaitskill, “Lost Cat” (note – this is a wonderful essay but it is also atypically long. Please allow enough time to read it) Exercise 2: When did something small teach you something big? Or get you thinking about larger questions? Write a personal essay of up to 800 words on this theme. Focus on telling the story and let the larger idea arise organically.

Essay due: Thursday, October 18th Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, October 26th

Week Three – Wednesday, October 17th—Thursday, October 25th:

Lesson: Narrator/Character Separation: Who You Were Then, Who You Are Now Reading and discussion: Phillip Lopate’s article on double perspective; optional reading: George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys” (an essay Lopate heralds as one of the best examples of double perspective in use) Exercise 3: an essay of up to 800 words utilizing the double perspective technique. (10 points) Essay due: Thursday, October 25th Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, November 2nd Week Four – Wednesday, October 24th—Thursday, November 1st Lesson: Conflict and Tension in the Essay Reading and discussion: Nick Flynn, “Proteus” Exercise 4: an essay centered on a conflict, whether internal or with another person. (10 points) Essay due: Thursday, November 1st Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, November 9th Week Five – Wednesday, October 31st—Thursday, November 8th Lesson: Writing About Others, Writing about Yourself Reading and discussion: Dominic Zarillo, “A Father, a Son, and a Fighting Chance” from The New York Times Modern Love column Exercise 5: an essay about a relationship/conflict/incident involving someone else that implicates the self. (10 points) Essay due: Thursday, November, 8th Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, November 16th

Week Six – Wednesday, November 7th—Thursday, November 15th:

Lesson: Crafting Compelling Scenes Reading and discussion: Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants” Exercise 6: an essay told in scene (10 points) Essay due: Thursday, November 15th Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, November 23 Week Seven – Wednesday, November 14th—Thursday, November 22nd Lesson: Imagination & Memory “Reading” and discussion: NPR Morning Edition Podcast – ‘Lifespan’: What Are the Limits of Literary License?

Exercise 7: an essay involving an event you don’t exactly remember clearly, or an event someone else involved would have a completely different take on. (10 points) Essay due: Thursday, November 22nd Feedback on others’ essays due: on or before Friday, November 30

Week Eight – Wednesday, November 21st—Thursday, November 29th:

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