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Personal Quest Essay

This is a college essay submitted by a student who now attends Northwestern University. This student is a Quest Scholar at Northwestern. The student was awarded with a full-ride scholarship. As you read this Quest Scholarship college essay example, think about your own personal experiences and what you could write about if you are eligible for the scholarship. You can learn more about the Quest Scholarship here.

This is a solid personal essay for several reasons:

  1. The opening paragraph frames the story and presents to the reader a frustrating situation with his younger brother that leads the reader into the second paragraph with an anticipated even more acutely personal insight into this student’s life. A potentially stronger opening would have been starting with his mother’s condition and remaining focused with the main topic as this opening paragraph is a bit of a tangent in the grand scheme of things.
  2. The second paragraph demonstrates the reader’s understanding of his mother’s condition. It paints a vivid picture with the reader of the condition, demonstrating to an admissions counselor that not only has this student had to overcome extenuating circumstances, but also that he fully understands the nature of his mother’s condition.
  3. The third paragraph digs deep as the student reflects on what he has learned from watching his mother suffer the effects of MS through the years. He closes the paragraph strongly with a takeaway of what he has learned to value the most from watching his mother endure her MS condition through the years.
  4. Finally, the student concludes by wrapping the essay together nicely. The reader finishes reading the essay with a comprehensive understanding of the student’s life experience, how he has learned from this experience, and a bigger picture understanding of the human condition. This is vital. Strong admissions essays often have a message that provide admissions officers with insights of the student’s understanding of the human condition. These essays are often acutely personal and feature an overall theme—in this case, hardship and how the student came to terms with it.

Throughout my life I have encountered many circumstances that have shaped me into the person I am today. I started life in a small house outside of Mackinaw, Illinois. I lived in that house for eleven years, and while I was there I became the oldest of four children. That in itself has been an experience, teaching me a lot about being an example and impacting my views on responsibility. I have a brother who, quite frankly, is the worst behaved kid I know. He lies, steals, and misbehaves compulsively. Academically he is not much better. He was held back in first grade due to a refusal to do homework, and has barely scraped by ever since, consistently getting D’s and F’s. Miraculously, he is now in eighth grade, but he still is not doing much better academically or behaviorally. He is actually very smart; he just refuses to do work which is why he fails. At home he fights with my younger brother and sister and pushes my patience to its limits constantly. Through it all there is a silver lining. He has taught me tolerance and patience. I have learned to deal with other people and annoyances through my experiences with Brock, and find that I am generally harder to anger than others. The lessons in patience that I have learned from Brock have helped me a lot in working with others, and have contributed greatly to my successes in academics, but no single person or experience has impacted my outlook on life as much as my Mom.

Right around my tenth year, when my parents started looking into building a house in the country so my dad could have a shed to work on tractors in, my mom started having problems with her vision. It was often blurry, and she frequently suffered bouts of double vision. She went to several doctors, and numerous specialists, seeking a diagnosis. Eventually one came. Multiple Sclerosis. Abbreviated as MS, multiple sclerosis is ravaging disease affecting the nervous system. MS is caused when the myelin sheaths of nerve axons in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, causing scar tissue to form. The scar tissue hinders neural impulses, thus interfering with commands sent from the brain to motor nerves throughout the body. Eventually, problems with movement and balance develop. The progression of the disease is different for each patient and sometimes leads to an early death, but almost always leads to major disabilities.

Since her diagnosis, my mom’s condition has only worsened. Her double vision went away after a few months and has not returned since, but other complications have risen. Since then, little by little, I have watched my mom lose much of her ability to walk. Today at the age of forty, she walks almost everywhere with a cane. She has been told by her doctor not to drive because of slowed reaction times. Any time we go somewhere where there will be a lot of walking, she uses a wheelchair. Essentially, MS has forced my mom to age at a much greater pace than any human should have to endure. Remarkably though, in these eight years, I have never once heard her complain. Never once has she shown us any sign of self-pity. Instead, she has remained strong, accepting what fate has dealt her. In my parents’ room, she keeps a saying in a picture frame. It reads, “What is, is actual. What might be, simply is not. I must not therefore query God as though he has robbed me of things that are not.” It took me a while to understand exactly what it meant, but once I did I realized that my mom lives her life largely by the quote’s meaning. She realizes that she has MS, and nothing is going to change that, and so she accepts it and keeps going. It takes a special kind of person to do that; I do not think that many people would deal with it as well as my mom has.

Through my mom’s actions, she has taught me that no problem that I could possibly have merits complaint, because, truthfully, nobody cares. Everybody has problems in life, and no amount of complaining will ever change that. If everyone was like my mom I sincerely believe this world would be a better place. Aside from her refusal to complain, I have gained something else from my mom’s attitude. She has taught me the value of our talents and abilities, and that they should be used to their fullest while we possess them. She has inspired me to do my best in everything, and because of that I have been very successful. I love my mom for what she has been through and what she has taught me.

Photo by The College Preparatory School [CC BY 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Dave Hood

One way to write a personal narrative in creative nonfiction is to tell a story about a journey. All journeys have a starting point and destination. The journey usually begins with some question, which the central character desires to learn from the journey.  Along the path, the character is a participant in a series of events, which impact his/her psyche. The character also faces setbacks and obstacles, encounters a crisis, participates in story that has  climax, and ends with a resolution. The journey also provides the character with new insights or illuminations, which help to answer a nagging question. Often the central character experiences an epiphany or a lesson that you learned.

This is certainly true for the creative nonfiction book, ” Into the Wild,” a true story written by Jon Krakauer,  about a young, idealistic man who abandons his possessions, gives away all of his $24,000 in a savings account, and then journeys across the United States, then to Alaska, where he dies by misadventure. It is a sad, true story of a journey about a naive man. Near death, dying from unintentional poisoning (He eat poison berries in an effort to prevent starvation), Christopher McCandless, the central character, realizes that “man cannot be an island unto himself.” Happiness must be shared.

Writing about a journey, a quest, or a pilgrimage is a popular form of creative nonfiction. Esteemed writer, E.B White, in his narrative a journey called “Walden”, shares a story about his trip to pay homage to Henry David Thoreau. (You can read it in Creative Nonfiction by Eileen Pollack) He writes about the trip by car, the surroundings at Walden pond, and personal reflections at Walden.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a bestselling book called “Eat, Pray, Love” in which she shares her journey to find herself after her marriage ends. She shares her reflections and describes the surroundings, adventures, new experiences, people she meets, cuisine, and culture while  traveling to Italy, India, Indonesia.

Not only can a writer craft essays about a journey, the writer can also write entire books about a journey. Author Michael Krasny wrote about a spiritual quest in “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” Krasny narrates a life story about his struggles with faith, his ambivalence toward religious doctrine, and his desire to answer a variety of metaphysical questions, such as Does God exist?

In this article, I’ll explain how write a personal essay or literary journalism essay about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage from a creative nonfiction perspective. First, I’ll define the difference between a journey, quest, and pilgrimage. Then I’ll explain the elements of a story, followed by an explanation of the narrative arc or story structure. Finally, I’ll identify a few tools and tips for writing about a journey, quest, or narrative.

Definition

There are three ways to write about an adventure. First, you can write about a journey. A journey involves traveling to some place and experiencing some epiphany or a lesson that you learn.

Secondly, you can write about a quest. It is a journey in which you seek to find or discover something of value.

Finally, you can write about a pilgrimage. In this type of journey, you travel to some place to pay homage or show your respects to a religious place or religious person, or to uncover something of spiritual or moral significance.

A journey, quest, pilgrimage also includes setbacks and obstacles. For instance, if you are writing about a bike trip, you’d include the significant obstacles you faced, such as the horrendous traffic, rainy weather, bumpy roads. You’d also write about the setbacks you faced. Perhaps you got lost. Perhaps someone stole your wallet. Perhaps you fell off your bike and were injured. Perhaps you were forced to repair a flat tire in the rain.

A journey, quest, or pilgrimage also has a climax or turning point. For instance, the turning point in your bike trip could be achieving the destination and realizing you’d wasted your time. There is also a resolution to your journey. All unanswered questions are answered, and loose ends are tied up.

A journey, quest, or pilgrimage should also include some insight, illumination, or epiphany. Otherwise, readers will say to themselves: So what? What is the point of your story?

In Creative Nonfiction, author Eileen Pollack suggests that a journey, quest, or pilgrimage requires several elements:

  1. A question that the writer has a desire to  answer
  2. A destination-where are you going?
  3. Motives for taking the journey.
  4. Observations and experiences as you journey
  5. Personal reflections, insights, illuminations, or an epiphany.

What is a Story?

Whether you are composing a narrative poem, short fiction, or some sort of journey based on real-life experience, the elements of a story are the same. A good story includes the following elements:

  • Central character or protagonist. If you are writing a journey about yourself, you are the protagonist. Every central character has desires, wants, needs, goals to achieve.
  • Conflict. The conflict can be within the character’s psyche or external, such as a conflict with another family member, a religious group, society.
  • Plot. All stories require a series of related events in which the central character participates. As the character moves forward, attempting to achieve a particular goal, want, need, a series of related events unfold.
  • Complication. A good story includes one or more setbacks or obstacles that prevent the central character from achieving a desired goal, need, want.
  • Resolution. A good story requires that all unanswered questions are answered, the conflict is resolved, some sort of epiphany or lesson that is learned from the journey.

And so, when you write about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage, make sure to include character, plot, conflict, complication, and a resolution.

Narrative Arc or Story Structure

How do you organize or structure your story about a journey, quest, pilgrimage? Use the fictional technique of a “narrative arc” to structure you adventure. Writer Jack Hart, author of “Story Craft”, explains the narrative arc in his chapter on “Structure.”  This narrative arc has five phases:

  1. Exposition. It is the first phase of the story. The writer provides a backdrop to the story, such as the setting. He introduces the background details of the story, main character, and inciting incident that starts the character on a journey. Sometimes the writer begins with a crisis instead of the inciting incident.
  2. Rising Action. It is the second phase of the story. A series of related events unfold in which the central character is a participant. These related events create dramatic tension. Often there is mystery and suspense. As the character takes the journey, he experiences one or more setbacks or obstacles, which make it more difficult to complete the journey. Sometimes, the writer shares background information as one or more flashbacks.
  3. Crisis. It resolves the complication. It includes the event just before the climax. The crisis takes the story to its main event or climax. It is the point in the story in which everything hangs in the balance. For instance, suppose you are writing about a journey to take a trip. You are at the airport, experiencing conflict about whether to hop on the plane or remain behind. This conflict creates a crisis, whether to begin the journey or not.
  4. Climax. (resolution) It is the main event of the story, and turning point in the story. It is the event with the most tension and drama.  It leads to a resolution of conflict and crisis.
  5. Falling action (denouncement) The pace of the story slows, the drama subsides, unanswered questions are answered. Often the writer shares an epiphany or lesson that he has learned from the journey.  Sometimes, the writer ends with a quote or final point. The reader knows that the story has reached its end.

Other Techniques of Creative Nonfiction

Your personal narrative about a journey should be written in scenes, summary, and personal reflection. When writing about significant events, write in scenes. A scene shows the reader what happened. It includes action, dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view, imagery.

To explain, use summary. It tells the reader what happened. Your true story about a journey also requires personal reflections. How did you feel? What did you learn? What insights came to you about the people and surroundings and the experience?

Include intimate Details. These are images and ideas only you know. They are images and ideas that reveal a truth about a person, place, event. Readers will not be able to imagine them unless you share them in your writing. In short, you are writing about the intimate details that capture the essence of the story or heart of the story. Intimate details are those that readers will not imagine without you writing the details in your story.

Use the inner point of view.  You share what you see, feel, experience as you take the journey, quest, or pilgrimage. If you are writing about your own journey, use the first person point of view (“I”). If you are writing about someone else, use the third-person point of view (“he/she”).

Also include concrete and specific description, poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery.

If you are writing about someone else, you’ll be required to conduct research, such as interviewing, immersion, and fact-collection from the Library or Internet.

Your journey requires a theme. What does this mean? You’ll have to determine the meaning of your journey, quest, pilgrimage, and share it with readers.

Tips for Writing about a Spiritual Quest, Journey, Pilgrimage

Here are a few tips for writing about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage:

  1. Avoid using clichés and jargon. Write with fresh and original language.
  2. Begin with a question you want to answer, then take a journey to answer your question.
  3. Engage the reader by telling a true story or narrative about a spiritual journey, quest, pilgrimage. A story includes a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative includes elements of an inciting incident, setbacks or obstacles, climax or turning point, resolution, some insight or epiphany, a universal truth about the human condition.
  4. The best way to structure your story is to use the narrative arc. A story begins with an inciting incident, includes a personal motivation or desire to achieve some purpose, requires setbacks or obstacles, has a climax, turning point, and insight, lesson learned, or epiphany.
  5. Don’t proselytize, which means to attempt to convert others to your religious views and beliefs.
  6. Write with the purpose of informing, educating, entertaining the reader.
  7. Use both scene and summary. Craft scenes when writing about setbacks or obstacles and a climax. A scenes is like a scene in a movie. It includes setting (time, place, social context), dramatic action (something happens), dialogue (spoken words of significant people), intimate details (including details that the reader would not be able to visualize or expect to imagine), inner point of view( experiencing the word through the eyes of the person you are writing about) Use summary to explain, to condense, to compress. Summary means “to tell” or “to explain.”
  8. Use personal reflection-share your emotional truth. Share  how the spiritual journey felt to you.
  9. Avoid self-centred writing, focusing on yourself. Unless you’re writing in a personal journal, creative nonfiction writing must be an unselfish activity. Otherwise, readers will stop reading. And so, seek to engage readers with the outside world—the journey itself, the quest itself, the pilgrimage itself.
  10. If you are serious about writing about a spiritual journey, read “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostics Quest by Michael Krasny.”  His book illustrates how to write about the spiritual from a creative nonfiction perspective—with scene, summary, personal reflection. His memoir is a personal and philosophical journey in search of God, in search of spiritual meaning and purpose, in search of faith, religion, spirituality, supreme being he could believe in.

In writing about a journey, quest, pilgrimage, always keep in mind that you are telling a true story.  As well, you purpose is to inform and educate readers about the journey itself. You must entertain your readers by using the fictional techniques of storytelling, such as character development, narrative, setting,  and use poetic devices, such as simile and metaphor.  You`ll also create scene, summary, and share personal reflection. Structure your story as a narrative arc.  The journey, quest, pilgrimage should end with an epiphany or lesson learned.

Resources

For additional information on writing a personal narrative about a journey, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny

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Tags:journey, narrative arc, personal reflection, pilgrimage, quest, scene, summary

By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Literary Journalistic Essay, Personal Essay, Personal Narrative Essay, Travel Essay on .

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