‘Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’
So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.
I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.
What exactly do they mean? It’s extremely unclear. Nevertheless, it does seem that there are some deeply Narrative types among us, where to be Narrative with a capital ‘N’ is (here I offer a definition) to be naturally disposed to experience or conceive of one’s life, one’s existence in time, oneself, in a narrative way, as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and – in some manner – to live in and through this conception. The popularity of the narrativist view is prima facie evidence that there are such people.
Perhaps. But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.
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The tendency to attribute control to self is, as the American social psychologist Dan Wegner says, a personality trait, possessed by some and not others. There’s an experimentally well-attested distinction between human beings who have what he calls the ‘emotion of authorship’ with respect to their thoughts, and those who, like myself, have no such emotion, and feel that their thoughts are things that just happen. This could track the distinction between those who experience themselves as self-constituting and those who don’t but, whether it does or not, the experience of self-constituting self-authorship seems real enough. When it comes to the actual existence of self-authorship, however – the reality of some process of self-determination in or through life as life-writing – I’m skeptical.
In the past 20 years, the American philosopher Marya Schechtman has given increasingly sophisticated accounts of what it is to be Narrative and to ‘constitute one’s identity’ through self-narration. She now stresses the point that one’s self-narration can be very largely implicit and unconscious. That’s an important concession. According to her original view, one ‘must be in possession of a full and explicit narrative [of one’s life] to develop fully as a person’. The new version seems more defensible. And it puts her in a position to say that people like myself might be Narrative and just not know it or admit it.
In her most recent book, Staying Alive (2014), Schechtman maintains that ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ in some way that goes far beyond their basic awareness of themselves as single finite biological individuals with a certain curriculum vitae. She still thinks that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.
I still doubt that this is true. I doubt that it’s a universal human condition – universal among people who count as normal. I doubt this even after she writes that ‘“having an autobiographical narrative” doesn’t amount to consciously retelling one’s life story always (or ever) to oneself or to anyone else’. I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.
Like Schechtman, I am (to take John Locke’s definition of a person) a creature who can ‘consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places’. Like Schechtman, I know what it’s like when ‘anticipated trouble already tempers present joy’. In spite of my poor memory, I have a perfectly respectable degree of knowledge of many of the events of my life. I don’t live ecstatically ‘in the moment’ in any enlightened or pathological manner.
But I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.
According to McAdams, a leading narrativist among social psychologists, writing in The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006):
Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. Personal identity is the internalised and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives… I… do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity.
If this is true, we must worry not only about the non-Narratives – unless they are happy to lack personal identity – but also about the people described by the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson in Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968):
various selves… make up our composite Self. There are constant and often shocklike transitions between these selves… It takes, indeed, a healthy personality for the ‘I’ to be able to speak out of all these conditions in such a way that at any moment it can testify to a reasonably coherent Self.
And the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley, writing in Wickedness (1984):
[Doctor Jekyll] was partly right: we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.
Erikson and Midgley suggest, astonishingly, that we’re all like this, and many agree – presumably those who fit the pattern. This makes me grateful to Midgley when she adds that ‘others, of course, obviously do not feel like this at all, hear such descriptions with amazement, and are inclined to regard those who give them as dotty’. At the same time, we shouldn’t adopt a theory that puts these people’s claim to be genuine persons in question. We don’t want to shut out the painter Paul Klee, writing in his diaries in the first years of the 20th century:
My self… is a dramatic ensemble. Here a prophetic ancestor makes his appearance. Here a brutal hero shouts. Here an alcoholic bon vivant argues with a learned professor. Here a lyric muse, chronically love-struck, raises her eyes to heaven. Here papa steps forward, uttering pedantic protests. Here the indulgent uncle intercedes. Here the aunt babbles gossip. Here the maid giggles lasciviously. And I look upon it all with amazement, the sharpened pen in my hand. A pregnant mother wants to join the fun. ‘Pshtt!’ I cry, ‘You don’t belong here. You are divisible.’ And she fades out.
Or the British author W Somerset Maugham, reflecting in A Writer’s Notebook (1949):
I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?
What are these people to do, if the advocates of narrative unity are right? I think they should continue as they are. Their inner crowds can perhaps share some kind of rollicking self-narrative. But there seems to be no clear provision for them in the leading philosophies of personal unity of our time as propounded by (among others) Schechtman, Harry Frankfurt, and Christine Korsgaard. I think the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald is wrong when he says in his Notebooks (1978) that: ‘There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.’ But one can see what he has in mind.
There is, furthermore, a vast difference between people who regularly and actively remember their past, and people who almost never do. In his autobiography What Little I Remember (1979), the Austrian-born physicist Otto Frisch writes: ‘I have always lived very much in the present, remembering only what seemed to be worth retelling.’ And: ‘I have always, as I already said, lived in the here and now, and seen little of the wider views.’ I’m in the Frisch camp, on the whole, although I don’t remember things in order to retell them.
More generally, and putting aside pathological memory loss, I’m in the camp with the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, when it comes to specifically autobiographical memory: ‘I can find hardly a trace of [memory] in myself,’ he writes in his essay ‘Of Liars’ (1580). ‘I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’ Montaigne knows this can lead to misunderstanding. He is, for example, ‘better at friendship than at anything else, yet the very words used to acknowledge that I have this affliction [poor memory] are taken to signify ingratitude; they judge my affection by my memory’ – quite wrongly. ‘However, I derive comfort from my infirmity.’
Poor memory protects him from a disagreeable form of ambition, stops him babbling, and forces him to think through things for himself because he can’t remember what others have said. Another advantage, he says, ‘is that… I remember less any insults received’.
To this we can add the point that poor memory and a non-Narrative disposition aren’t hindrances when it comes to autobiography in the literal sense – actually writing things down about one’s own life. Montaigne is the proof of this, for he is perhaps the greatest autobiographer, the greatest human self-recorder, in spite of the fact that:
nothing is so foreign to my mode of writing than extended narration [narration estendue]. I have to break off so often from shortness of wind that neither the structure of my works nor their development is worth anything at all.
Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters, I’m inclined to think. He has no ‘side’, in the colloquial English sense of this term. His honesty, although extreme, is devoid of exhibitionism or sentimentality (St Augustine and Rousseau compare unfavourably). He seeks self-knowledge in radically unpremeditated life-writing, addressing his writing-paper ‘exactly as I do the first person I meet’. He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.
Once one is on the lookout for comments on memory, one finds them everywhere. There is a constant discord of opinion. I think the British writer James Meek is accurate when he describes Light Years (1975) by the American novelist James Salter:
Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.
Meek takes it that this is true of everyone, and it is perhaps the most common case. Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’
And this, again, is a common experience:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
It’s hard to work out the full consequences of this passage from the essay‘Modern Fiction’ (1921) by Virginia Woolf. What is certain is that there are rehearsers and composers among us, people who not only naturally story their recollections, but also their lives as they are happening. But when the English dramatist Sir Henry Taylor observed in 1836 that ‘an imaginative man is apt to see, in his life, the story of his life; and is thereby led to conduct himself in such a manner as to make a good story of it rather than a good life’, he’s identifying a fault, a moral danger. This is a recipe for inauthenticity. And if the narrativists are right and such self-storying impulses are in fact universal, we should worry.
Fortunately, they’re not right. There are people who are wonderfully and movingly plodding and factual in their grasp of their pasts. It’s an ancient view that people always remember their own pasts in a way that puts them in a good light, but it’s just not true. The Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar makes the point in his paper ‘Is Memory Self-Serving?’ (1994), as does Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich on his deathbed.
In his poem ‘Continuing to Live’ (1954), Philip Larkin claims that ‘in time/We half-identify the blind impress/All our behavings bear’. The narrativists think that this is an essentially narrative matter, an essentially narrative construal of the form of our lives. But many of us don’t get even as far as Larkinian half-identification, and we have at best bits and pieces, rather than a story.
We’re startled by Larkin’s further claim that ‘once you have walked the length of your mind, what/You command is clear as a lading-list’, for we find, even in advanced age, that we still have no clear idea of what we command. I for one have no clear sense of who or what I am. This is not because I want to be like Montaigne, or because I’ve read Socrates on ignorance, or Nietzsche on skins in Untimely Meditations (1876):
How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times 70 skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.’ (translation modified)
The passage continues:
Besides, it is an agonizing, dangerous undertaking to dig down into yourself in this way, to force your way by the shortest route down the shaft of your own being. How easy it is to do damage to yourself that no doctor can heal. And moreover, why should it be necessary, since everything – our friendships and hatreds, the way we look, our handshakes, the things we remember and forget, our books, our handwriting – bears witness to our being.
I can’t, however, cut off this quotation here, because it continues in a way that raises a doubt about my position:
But there is a means by which this absolutely crucial enquiry can be carried out. Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has drawn out your soul, what has commanded it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.
‘Perhaps by what they are… they will yield the fundamental law of your true self.’ This claim is easy to endorse. It’s Marcel Proust’s greatest insight. Albert Camus sees it, too. But Nietzsche is more specific: ‘perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield… the fundamental law of your true self.’ Here it seems I must either disagree with Nietzsche or concede something to the narrativists: the possible importance of grasping the sequence in progressing towards self-understanding.
I concede it. Consideration of the sequence – the ‘narrative’, if you like – might be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does this concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view – in Sacks’s words – that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’.
This essay is excerpted from On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in September 2015.
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is a British analytic philosopher and literary critic. He is a consultant editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and a professor in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
Read “How Keeping a Diary Can Surprise You” to learn more — and check out what other teenagers told us back in 2011 when we asked, Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
But don’t stop at just journaling. Go back, read over what you wrote, look for patterns and think about what these “personal stories” reveal about you. A recent article on the Well blog suggests that writing and editing stories about yourself can help you see your life differently, and actually lead to behavioral changes:
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
Read about how personal story editing helped 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically, then think about how you can use the techniques yourself.
2. Use current events and issues as a jumping-off point.
That’s what we’ve done every school day since 2009 with our Student Opinion question: we find an interesting article in The Times, pose a question about it, and invite any teenager anywhere in the world to answer it.
In fact, we’ve just published a list of 650 of those questions that ask for personal and narrative writing, on topics like sports, travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Visit the collection to get ideas and to access related Times articles to help you think more about each.
Then, ask you yourself, what issues and current events do you care most about? How do they impact your life? What personal stories can you tell that relate to them in some way?
For instance, maybe the impact of technology on our lives concerns you. In our collection of prompts, you can find nearly 50 different ways we’ve taken that topic on, each linked to a Times article or essay on the topic.
For just one example, though, you might read Gary Shteyngart’s essay “Only Disconnect”:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film.
Does it surprise you to realize this essay was written in 2010? Do you think his observations are even more true today? What stories do you have to tell about life online?
Another excellent place to glean ideas is the Op-Ed page, where writers respond to the news of the day with occasional personal essays. In this one, a classic from 1999, a teenager reacts to the Columbine school shootings — then blamed in part on school cliques that made some feel like outsiders — with an essay headlined, “Yes, I’m in a Clique.”
Or read this week’s “How to Vote as an Immigrant and a Citizen,” an Op-Ed by the novelist Imbolo Mbue about what it means to her to vote on November 8 and, for the first time, have “a say in America’s future.”
Other great places to look for ideas other than our daily Student Opinion question and the Op-Ed page? Check the Trending lists, or visit our monthly Teenagers in The Times series.
3. Take some tips from experts.
Our lesson plan, Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well, compiles nine guidelines from many different Times sources on everything from “listening to the voice in your head” to writing with “non-zombie nouns and verbs.”
But for one-stop shopping on the personal essay in particular, you might just read “How to Write a Lives Essay,” in which the author asks the magazine’s editors for a “single, succinct piece of advice” for getting an essay published in the long-running column devoted to personal stories.
Here are a few of the answers, but read the whole post to see them all:
• More action, more details, less rumination. Don’t be afraid of implicitness. And the old Thom Yorke line: “Don’t get sentimental. It always ends up drivel.”
• Meaning (or humor, or interestingness) is in specific details, not in broad statements.
• Write a piece in which something actually happens, even if it’s something small.
• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”
• Don’t try to tell the whole story.
• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”
• Tell a small story — an evocative, particular moment.
• Better to start from something very simple that you think is interesting (an incident, a person) and expand upon it, rather than starting from a large idea that you then have to fit into an short essay. For example, start with “the day the Santa Claus in the mall asked me on a date” rather than “the state of affairs that is dating in an older age bracket.”
• Go to the outer limit of your comfort zone in revealing something about yourself.
• Embrace your own strangeness.
How can you apply any, or all, of these pieces of advice to an essay you’re writing?
4. Borrow an opening line for inspiration.
Back in 2011, we ran a contest that invited students to Use Opening Lines From the Magazine’s ‘Lives’ Column as Writing Prompts. Contestants were allowed to write stories, essays, plays, memoirs or poetry, and could use lines like these:
It’s impossible to look cool when you’re part of a tour group. (From “In Too Deep”)
Mornings are not our best family moments. (From “Mother’s Little Helper”)
Cosmic forces have a way of turning up the heat to make us change. (From “The Tractor Driver or the Pothead?” )
After you look at the full list of first lines, jump over to read the work of our winners, and see how they took first sentences like “I am parked in a rental car in front of the house where I grew up,” and made them their own.
Around Valentine’s Day that same year, we invited students to use first lines from the weekly Modern Love column as “passion prompts,” and that time we showed them how to take the basic idea from the essay and adapt it for themselves:
• Times sentence, from “The Day the House Blew Up”:
We went out to the house last month to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then the house exploded.
Sentence starter:We went to [place and time] to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But then…
• Times sentence, from “In a Wedding Album From the City’s 5 Borough Halls, Tales as Varied as the Rooms”:
It was just another Saturday night on Queens Boulevard two years ago when Eddie Ellis and Gladys Corcino pulled up beside each other at a red light near 65th Street.
Sentence starter: It was just another [day/time of the week] on/in [location] when [name] and [name]…
Scroll through all our choices from these two posts, or find your own opening line from a more recent Times essay to inspire you. How can you adapt it and make it your own?
5. Use images to spur memories and ideas.
We’re all about images as inspiration on this site, and this year we even have a new daily writing feature called Picture Prompts, and a lesson plan about teaching with images to go with it.
Scroll through the feature, and either follow the prompts we suggest, or use any of the images that catch your interest to write whatever you like. What memories does it inspire? What personal connection to the content can you make? What stories from your own life does it remind you of?
Other great places to find images in The Times?
• Lens, a Times site for photography, video and photojournalism
• The Lively Morgue, a Tumblr of images from the Times archives
• Looking at Our Hometowns, a 2013 Lens project that asked, “What would happen if you asked high school students to help create a 21st-century portrait of the country by turning their cameras on their neighborhoods, families, friends and schools?”
6. Craft a great college essay.
Our lesson plan, Getting Personal: Writing College Essays for the Common Application, helps students explore the open-ended prompts on the Common Application, then analyze Times pieces that might serve as models for their own application essays.
For example, take this prompt: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Here are some first-person Times essays that could serve as models for writing about the theme of failure:
• “A Rat’s Tale”: A writer discusses her failure to be the sister her brother wanted and what she learned.
• “Pancake Chronicles”: An entertaining account of a disastrous first job.
• “A Heartbroken Temp at Brides.com”: After a groom changes his mind, his would-be bride, with “no money, no apartment, no job” takes a position at a wedding website.
The lesson also links to a number of Times articles that offer advice on everything from “Going for the ‘Dangerous’ Essay” to “Treating a College Admissions Essay Like a First Date.”
Another source of inspiration is Ron Lieber’s annual contest for the best college essays that address issues of money, work and social class.
These essays, as he wrote in 2015, are “filled with raw, decidedly mixed feelings about parents and their sacrifices; trenchant accounts of the awkwardness of straddling communities with vastly different socio-economic circumstances; and plain-spoken — yet completely affecting — descriptions of what it means to make a living and a life in America today.”
You can find them all, by year, here:
2016: Memories and Hopes: The Top Essays
2015: Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye
2014: Four Stand-Out College Essays About Money
2013: Standing Out From the Crowd
7. Learn from more Times models on popular themes.
What we’ve compiled below is just a very, very small taste of the thousands of essays you can find in The Times on these topics.
Please preview any that you assign to students to make sure they are appropriate.
Love, Romance and Relationships
Most of the selections below are from the long-running Modern Love column, and begin with some winners of their college essay contest. You might also want to read some observations from the editor on “How We Write About Love” and his selection of “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.”
”Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define”
“Let’s Not Get to Know Each Other Better”
“No Labels, No Drama, Right?”
“The Perils of Not Dying for Love”
“Swearing Off the Modern Man”
“Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put”
“GPS on a Path to the Heart”
“Alone When the Bedbugs Bite”
“Drowning in Dishes, but Finding a Home”
“The Ballad of Tribute Steve”
“The Summer I Discovered Suburbia”
“Safe on the Southbank”
“Advice; Teen Angst? Nah!”
“My High-School Hoax”
“My New Look”
“How Ramen Got Me Through Adolescence”
“Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend”
“Memories of Meals Past”
“We Found Our Son in the Subway”
“Skinny-Dipping With Grandma”
“Praying for Common Ground at the Christmas-Dinner Table”
“A Nanny’s Love”
“The Subject of the Sibling”
“Montana Soccer-Mom Moment”
Race, Religion, Gender and Sexuality
“Milwaukee’s Divide Runs Right Through Me”
“An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China”
“I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?”
“Anti-Semitism at My University, Hidden in Plain Sight”
“Intolerance and Love in Jamaica”
“What I Learned in the Locker Room”
“The Boy of Summer”
“Learning to Embrace Sexuality’s Gray Areas”
“The Undress Code”
“My Gymnastics Feminism”
And a Few Extras that Don’t Fit Neatly Into Any of the Previous Categories...
”The Monkey Suit”
“Who’s the Jerk Now, Jerk?”
“Finding That Song”
“Scanning the Pandas”
“Eternal Bragging Rights”
Places to Find Personal Essays in The New York Times
Lives: A place for true personal essays, this column has been running weekly in the Magazine for decades.
Modern Love: A series of weekly reader-submitted essays that explore the joys and tribulations of love.
On Campus: Dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life.
Ties: Essays on parenting and family from Well.
Essay series from The Opinionator (some no longer taking submissions):
• The Couch: A series about psychotherapy
• Private Lives: Personal essays from writers around the globe, on the news of the world and the news of individual lives.
• The Stone: A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
• Draft: Essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing — from the comma to the tweet to the novel — and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.
• Townies: A series about life in New York — and occasionally other cities — written by the novelists, journalists and essayists who live there.
• Disability: Essays, art and opinion exploring the lives of people living with disabilities.
• Anxiety: This series explores how we navigate the worried mind, through essay, art and memoir.
• Menagerie: Explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.
Metropolitan Diary: Short anecdotes about life in New York City
Complaint Box: Discontinued in 2013, this column was part of the City Room blog and simply asked New Yorkers, “What Annoys You?”
More of Our Lesson Plans on Writing Personal Pieces
I Remember: Teaching About the Role of Memory Across the Curriculum
Creative State of Mind: Focusing on the Writing Process
Reading and Responding: Holding Writing Workshops
Reader Idea | Personal Writing Based on The Times’s Sunday Routine Series
Can’t Complain? Writing About Pet Peeves
Thank You, Thesaurus: Experimenting With the Right Word vs. the Almost-Right Word
Skills Practice | Writing Effective Openings