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Personal Essay Spotlight: Amy Poehler

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Personal Essay SpotlightHello, readers!  Welcome back to Personal Essay Spotlight!  We know that you are now confident that you have SOMETHING to write about (but if you’re still struggling, try these great brainstorming techniques!), and we know that you’ve nailed the concept of keeping sight of the big picture, so this week let’s talk about storytelling.

Benjamin Franklin said “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.”  What makes something worth reading?  The content or the style?  At CEA, we want you to find what works best for YOU.  Perhaps you line up more with the latter half of Franklin’s sage advice and have an amazing story about narrowly escaping death by punching a shark in the face?  Or maybe you’re a wordsmith at heart and can spin any dull story into riveting, page turning gold.

In her personal essay “Take Your Licks,” Amy Poehler recounts her summer working as an ice cream scooper at Chadwick’s.  Not the most exciting job in the whole world (although definitely a tasty one), but Poehler makes her story a great read through vivid imagery, attention to detail, and particular word choice.  Check out the opening of her essay and take note of the words and descriptions that jump out at you:

I was seventeen and sticky. It was the summer of 1989, and I was off to college in a few months. The Massachusetts town where I grew up was decidedly blue collar, filled with teachers and nurses and the occasional sales manager. My friends and I fell asleep to the sound of our parents arguing about car payments and tuition. It was our soundtrack, this din of worry. If you were young, you were expected to have a part-time job.

I got one, scooping ice cream at Chadwick’s, a local parlor that specialized in sundaes and giant steak fries. Summer jobs are often romantic; the time frame creates a perfect parenthesis. Chadwick’s was not. Hard and physical, the job consisted of stacking and wiping and scooping and lifting. At the end of my shift, every removable piece of the restaurant would be carted off and washed. Vinyl booths were searched and scrubbed. This routine seemed Sisyphean at first, but I soon learned the satisfaction of working at a place that truly closed. I took great joy in watching people stroll in after hours, thinking they could grab a late-night sundae. I would point to the dimmed lights and stacked chairs as proof that we were shut. It was deliciously obvious and final.”

Wow!  Never thought you’d be that interested in ice cream scooping unless you were ordering a cone at Coldstone, did you?  So, what did Amy do that caught our interest?  Was it right at the beginning with her use of the unexpected word “sticky”?  Or when, rather than saying that her town was just blue collar, she said it was “decidedly blue collar,” adding  emphasis and insight into the attitudes of the people in her town?  Maybe you weren’t grabbed until you laughed at Amy’s sassy dismissal of customers who came in just too late to get a sundae.  In one way or the other, Amy snags the reader’s attention by letting the details enliven her tale.  So what that it was a boring, horribly sticky, and generally thankless job?  Amy takes that opportunity to tell a slice-of-life style story so that the reader is more focused on her personality, than the job itself.

Read the full story here on the New Yorker website and stay tuned for more advice from the greats in the next Personal Essay Spotlight!

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Read our guide to the 2015-16 Common App Essay.

Looking for more personal essay examples? Check out the last spotlight.

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