Let's get one thing clear, the personal essay isn't all about you.
It's about your experience, your opinion, your unique way of interpreting the world, but the story can't be so personal that the reader starts to yawn and fidget because they have no reason to care about your your great aunt Clara who made the most fantastic jam. However, in the beginning stages of writing, it is okay to turn the focus inwards!
So how do you get started?
Find a Topic
Find something to write about. What thoughts have been with you recently, something that is under your skin, a decision you are trying to make (it could be as simple as choosing a paint colour, or as big as changing careers). Perhaps you pass a homeless person on the street everyday and you are trying to make sense of the feeling you get. Or your daughter has just left home for university and you are having panick attacks, or maybe you feel relief.
Try to be specific about the decision, situation or feeling you choose to write about. Remember, the essay is about process and something in your thinking needs to change by the end. The reader wants to know how you worked through this situation, how you dealt with it, or made peace with it.
This is crucial. Without insight all you have is blah blah blah. Give the reader your a-ha moment. What made you decide on the Functional Grey paint instead of Ravenous Red? How did you stop waking at 2 am in a cold sweat with thoughts that your daughter didn't need you anymore?
Drafting and Exploring
Exercise - Sit down with a pen and paper (not a computer) and make list of possible topics. Choose the one that has the most emotional impact for you. Maybe it triggers a feeling of frustration, or deep sadness, or fear. If it is a decision you are/were trying to make, ask yourself what was holding you back.
Stay tuned for Part Two - The Personal Essay - More Ways to Find Your Topic