First, what a personal essay is not: it’s not journalism. It can be about anything … but it is not written on assignment. It comes instead from the writer’s own fund of interests and obsessions, questions to be raised or answered, observations, fantasies, regrets, uncertainties, delight. It evolves from a desire to know or to understand, to make connections. It is often triggered by some sort of experience in the world. It will sometimes lead to research, always to reflection. Above all, it is engaged.
And it’s not a confessional piece. … [A] personal essay needn’t be autobiographical at all except as a kind of autobiography of mind. Memoir is okay, but the expectation is that the memoir is not just a record of dates and events; it’s more like a meditation on a time and place and what their particular conjunction reveals, in retrospect, about the world, human nature, the writer’s own emotional disposition. … So, the self, but the self isn’t all. … [T]he movement of the essay is not so much inward as outward towards the world. The personal is the conduit to something larger or more foreign.