One thing about writing a personal essay is that you don't have to devote your life to it. Right now I'm writing a book with a September 1st deadline and quite frankly this is the focus of my existance. Writing a book, especially when you have a deadline, is relentless. It's like a difficult marriage with a lot of unruly children. An essay is more like a date.
Last week I was feeling so overwhelmed with my book and what I had to accomplish, that I figured out on a calculator how many days I had left, how many pages I had to write, and leaving room for rewriting and teaching, just exactly how much did I have to write every day to finish it on time. Once I had the numbers I calmed down. I can do it of course, I just have to keep working six days a week until next September, which is fine.
When I'm not marching toward a deadline, I have time to fool around with essays, and I love writing them. (An opening line for one just floated into my head this morning.) Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. I wrote one for an anthology that came out last year that was so terribly earnest I can't bear to read it. Another, coming out in an anthology next spring, I wish I could rewrite, soften it a little. But I figured out a lot about my own life writing it so maybe it's worth it. And this is one of the joys of writing personal essays - clarity. Putting a small part of your life on the page and wrestling with it until it makes sense and there's meaning to it.
To write an essay, especially a short one (under 1200 words), is flirting, not total commitment. I'm not saying that you can knock one off quickly (though sometimes that can happen) and I'm not saying that you don't take it really seriously, but it doesn't take the time and focus a book does, and you have such a better chance of getting it published. That's why I love teaching the personal essay so much - I know that all my students can write one, and if they work as hard at marketing as they do at writing, they'll get it published. And so will you.
(If you're in LA next month and are interested in personal essays sign up for my four day class at UCLA Extension's Writers Studio.)