The Art of the Personal Essay

This Guest Post is by Jim McCrory. Jim was a probationary member of Pens Around the World for a period in 2022. He left us to dedicate more time to a writing group of fellow Creative Writing Masters degree students.

There is a scene in the Russian movie, Urga, where the observer is introduced to a panoramic field of golden wheat. A dot is seen in the distance. As the dot moves closer and moves in and out of focus, eventually, a Mongolian horseman fills the screen. The image acts as an apt metaphor for the personal essay where the “essayist attempts to surround a something − a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation − by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the matter” as Phillip Lopate describes in his introduction to his book, The Art of the Personal Essay.

I was first introduced to the genre when I read Henning Mankell’s series of essays in Quicksand: What it Means to be a Human Being. My first impression was the captivating titles such as “The raft of death” and “Time turning in a different direction” that intrigued me. Also, the intimacy of his first-person, active sentence structure made me feel he granted me the honour of sitting beside him like a child as his literary prowess unfolded.

Henning Mankell in 2013, Philip Lopate, date unknown
Henning Mankell in 2013, Philip Lopate, date unknown (credits Wikimedia Commons)

He filled the 67 personal essays with fascinating facts, philosophy, personal angsts, travel, environmental issues, cavernous musings, and memoir. Mankell’s language is spare but riveting in its beauty. His words are carefully selected for their lucidity, and he crystallises deep concepts.

These factors were all important to me. As an academic essayist in English literature, I failed to produce encouraging results due to a lack of clarity in my writing. “Too much verbosity,” a tutor kindly pointed out. Mankell was influential in giving me the confidence to embark on a different kind of essay with faith in my ability to overcome past error and write clear work, but at the same time, hopefully captivating.

I don’t have an interesting life to report, but like a camel on the Silk Road, I found that the personal essay could carry the weight of my loose sallies of the mind, my fears, musings, love of literature, life’s collected wisdom, alongside personal memoir, but at the same time bringing that dot into focus as the reader and I, the writer, share a mutual journey.

I’m in the middle of a series of essays called, “On Being Human”. I write on themes such as “The Peer Gynt Thing” where I draw on a music teacher’s Edvard Grieg lesson and the lifelong influence it had on me. “Mourning the Loss of Something” takes me to the literature I read as a child and the comfort they brought. “On Nostalgia” deals with that melancholy that surfaces when one gets older. “On Meeting Strangers” focuses on the strangers I have met in the brief drop of a falling snowflake, who decades later, still live in my head.

I have moved on a bit: someone asked me recently who my favourite essayist is? Goodness! That is like asking who my favourite child is. I do not have a favourite essayist, but I have I have treasured essays: Richard Selzer’s, “The Knife.” J.B. Priestley’s, “The Toy Farm.” E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” “The Solace of Open Spaces” by Gretel Ehrlich and an unpublished essay that a student wrote called “Alone.” But I give a nod to Mankell, who started me on this road.

Art filtered still from the film Urga (Close to Eden)
Art filtered still from the film Urga (Close to Eden)

For another blog post about non-fiction writing, and the interface between fiction and fact, see Nigel Wild’s Learning through Journalism.


  1. Great piece. As a potential essayist/non-fiction writer who has also led an international life, this has inspired and motivated me to draw on those experiences for my own writing.

  2. Jim McCrory

    Thank you, Jeremy, I’m delighted that you found some inspiration for your nonfiction writing.
    Thank you, Debbie. That was a nice comment. All the best to both of you and your writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *