Usually it doesn't become obvious until after you've written about it and had a chance to reflect on it.
That's why the personal experience essay can also be the most interesting paper to write.
But a sketchy “I don’t know what to write about” opening should never make it into the paper you submit. (I habitually fix a typo or supply a word here or there, but I am much more interested in engaging with student writing, intellectually and personally, to challenge students to become better at writing.) Simply producing a page free of grammatical errors is not enough.
If your writing teacher asks you to write a personal essay, rather than submitting a laundry list of every detail you can remember on a particular subject, satisfy your reader by delivering a sustained development of a single, vivid incident that shows your reader what the experience was like.
In many ways the personal experience essay is the easiest one to write. You are the one the paper is about, it is your own experience that you are sharing, and you know the ending.
Surprisingly, though, you may not yet know the lesson you learned from the experience.
You wake up to a shrill voice calling, "Fire, wake up, get downstairs fast." Or the sound of crunching metal as you slide on the ice into the car in front of you. Always use sensory details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch). There must be emotional involvement: while readers may not have ever had your experience, they will be able to relate to the emotion.
Show, don't tell, what you went through—let readers arrive at their own conclusions. Do your best to move your reader, inspire him, make him cry. Once you've gotten the reader hooked, you can give any background that is needed to explain how you ended up in that situation.
Abella holds a Master of Arts in composition from Indiana University.
This class is the chance to create your personal essay or extend into a full memoir -- from planning and structure to bold narrative brushstrokes to the layering of significant detail.