I once heard a singer say, "If you want to sing the blues, you've got to put your soul on the line." That is what it's like when you write an essay.
Lately, I've had several people question how to do it, whether they've done it correctly, and whether they perhaps shouldn't do it because it might hurt someone's feelings. First of all, the essay is told from the POV of the author, and even if you are speaking about someone else, it is mainly about you and the impact that this person has had on you. (It is not to out or hurt anyone, although, unfortunately, I have seen some writers use their platforms to do that.) An example of what I'm talking about can be found on my main page under articles. The title "Suddenly, Streetwise" was written for the NYTimes and is about when my son started walking home from school by himself.
The essay is also non-fiction. The minute you start to create characters, embellish with details that didn't happen, etc. you are now writing a work of fiction aka a short story. Recently, I obtained from the library the newest memoir from Chelsea Handler, titled, "Chelsea, Chelsea Bang Bang." I do not recommend because not only was it boring, and not particularly funny, but as I read I found some stories rather implausible. The lack of validity of this essay collection was confirmed for me when the NYTimes did a piece on Ms. Handler and interviewed her former boyfriend and current boss, who alleged that he thought the book was funny even though some of the stories/details were not true. If Ms. H or anyone else wants to write fiction -- write it. Don't waste my time or anyone else's by writing fiction and calling it an essay. You are making a fool of your reader when you do so.
Essays also are more than personal stories (I went to the beach, it was great, I'll definitely go back!) An essay uses a personal story to make a more global point: A day at the beach put my problems in perspective. Looking at the grains of sand I realized I was one of many people on earth with issues and my issues are just a drop in the ocean. (I'm riffing here, but you get the idea.)
Last but not least, essays have a central idea, or thesis, which holds the essay together. It is the point of what the essay intends to show, prove or do. If you had a bad experience using cosmetics and hair products with chemicals and want to write an essay, your thesis would be: Women are poisoning themselves with chemicals for short term beauty.
I have found success writing essays. Not because my life is so exciting and action-packed, but because I have found messages in the mundane; and the more personal you get in an essay the more people can relate, because we have more in common with each other than we often know.
Causes Lorraine Merkl Supports
The Legal Aid Society
The Inner-City Scholarship Fund