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We all have stories about trips gone awry.

C’mon, admit it. You’ve got one.

Maybe you were bound for Aruba and your luggage spent a lovely weekend in Iowa. Or the guy behind you boarding the cruise ship shared his viral conjunctivitis with you and 6,237 other folks on a floating week-long germ fest. Maybe it was just a trip to the grocery store that turned left and kept going.

If your story is interesting (and you relate it in a captivating-enough manner), you could win some serious coin in the Institute For Writers’ personal-essay contest.

I’ve got my own tale of galloping woe—er, silliness … but I’m disqualified from entering the contest, so I’ll just share it with you here in my own personal essay. Later.

What the Heck is a Personal Essay, Anyway?
Awesome question!

A personal essay is precisely what it sounds like: an essay from your personal perspective and experience. It’s like a snippet of memoir.

You may have heard “personal essay” called “creative nonfiction” (or the phrase dreaded by students everywhere: the “composition”). Personal essay is a subset of creative nonfiction, and it can be great fun to write.

Finding Inspiration in the Most Unlikely Places
When my siblings and I were young, any experience was—in Mom’s eyes—excellent fodder. “What a composition that would make!” she would often chirp. (Mom led a remarkably imaginative life, considering that exclamation could have applied to anything from her getting us lost on the way to Dr. Quinto––that would be our ophthalmologist––to getting caught in an unexpected thunderstorm when exiting the hairdresser’s shop one late-July afternoon.)

Once you’ve got your topic, you’ll want to pick out the highlights of the incident or memory, and, if applicable, the lesson learned. Or, if it’s a humorous story, the punchline. Organize these bits into a layout that works for you, and begin writing.

I can’t stress that enough—don’t put off your writing.

Mom often said, “If I had the time, I’d write a book!” Sadly, after raising a family, earning her master’s degree, working full time, volunteering at the hospital after retirement (while enjoying her grandkids), she never got the opportunity … which was a pity, because Mom was a terrific—and, as witnessed above, wildly imaginative!—writer. Alas, when Mom finally had time to write her memories, Alzheimer’s had left her with none to write.

But you don’t have to wait. In fact, you should submit your story now. Just remember: You’ve got a thousand-word limit and a July 31 deadline, so get started!

My Story, Such That It Is
Now, as promised, my traveling misadventure:

Years ago, dear friends of ours lived in the woods of Burlington, Connecticut, off a road that was off a road off Route 4. I couldn’t find my way home from there by daylight—never mind after dark. One night, as I drove Frances (what, you don’t name your cars?), I relied on my roommate’s bearings to get us home.

Chris must have gotten turned around because going east to New Britain, we ended up way west. We ended up by a quaint white church in New Hartford. The headlights illuminated a simple, carved wooden sign out front: NEPAUG CHURCH.

It was long before GPS or Mapquest.

Eventually he found Route 4; we got home about 1:30am, having snickered the whole way. We were giddy 20-somethings, unencumbered by common sense. Or directionality.

Some months later, my mechanic advised it was cheaper to keep a case of oil in my trunk (to appease a drippy something-or-other) than to have him rip apart my ’82 Chevy’s innards, looking for a leak he wasn’t even certain he could find. A friend had recently left the uncertainty of radio for the greater uncertainty of auto sales. I gave Frances a nice slurp of 10W-30, hopped in and headed out, to let Bill sell me a shiny new car. I drove and drove.

Before I knew it, I’d overshot Simsbury by a good 10 miles and arrived at … Nepaug Church.

Once I stopped giggling, I pulled out my roadmap—an archaic paper replication of roads and highways—sort of like Google Maps, but infinitely limited. It was outdated by the time it was printed, and virtually impossible to return to its original configuration without significant tearing along fold lines. I guessed at where I’d gone wrong and tried to recalculate my route.

I never did find the dealership. But I arrived home with an entertaining story for Chris.

Over the years, “Nepaug Church” became a recurrent punchline to Christopher’s I-got-lost tales—did I mention his dreadful sense of direction? We wound up at Nepaug Church more times than I can recall.

Years after “Nepaug Church” made its way into our personal lexicon of absurdity, my hubby claimed he wanted to take me to dinner at a restaurant in Litchfield County for my birthday. On that early-summer Saturday, I drove while he dictated turn-by-turn directions. I had no cause to suspect my beloved was bamboozling me. After almost 45 minutes, he announced, “Up ahead, there on the right. Slow down, you’re about to pass it.”

And there it was: Nepaug Church.

Now It’s Your Turn
Okay, that’s my story. As for your story, you’ve got another week to get it submitted.

So what’re you waiting for? Get writing!

There’s $1,300 worth of prize money up for grabs!

Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.

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