It's All About You!
You have seen that when writing nonfiction, you need to establish yourself as an authority. You can attain expertise by formal education and letters after your name evincing degrees; by research and fact gathering; or by personal experiences, often augmented by the other means in which you establish your authority. But in writing the personal essay, you come to the topic with expertise in hand, because the subject matter is drawn from your own life.
Selecting the Subject
Determining the focal point of your personal essay is solely up to you. Generally, your topic will fall into one of two categories: either an event or reminiscence.
If you choose an event, try to keep it to that one occurrence or at least maintain that as the focus of your piece. For example, perhaps you want to write about your experience attending the last game in a World Series. If so, you concentrate on that one game and you do not write about other baseball games you attended, unless they specifically relate to the subject of your essay.
Writing about memories can be more fluid. For example, you may want to write about a grandparent. In doing so, you might rely on a number of recollections you have of that person, in which case you need not limit yourself to one event. Just bear in mind that you are not writing the story of your life. Save that for an autobiography or book-length memoir.
Just because the personal essay is about an experience or reminiscence in your life, do not think research, fact gathering, and interviews are no longer important. To give body and background to your piece as well as to confirm events that might have occurred decades earlier, you may need to do some investigation to support your essay.
The first question you must ask yourself once you settle on a subject is: “Who cares?” If your answer is “I do! My family does and so do my friends,” then you should feel free to write your essay and share it with those you mentioned.
However, if you want to write for publication, you need to be a little more demanding of yourself and the subject and you must ask the following types of questions:
Why would anyone care?
Is there a specific target audience for my essay?
Are there other people who can relate to what happened to me?
Is there a universal message to my essay?
Will my account stir feelings in the reader similar to mine?
If your answers indicate there should be an audience who might have interest in your experience, then you're ready to proceed. But before beginning to write, there is one more thing you need to decide.