The Art of the Personal Essay

“You know the saying. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears…’ After a 20 year creative hiatus to raise my daughter, I was ready to get back to writing but floundering. A Google search for a writing retreat brought me to Kathryn’s site and I had found my teacher. A year later, I have published my first essay and written the draft of a novel. In class and one-to-one mentoring, Kathryn taught me the elements of effective writing, introduced me to a treasure trove of writers who use those elements so beautifully, and helped me find and develop my unique writing voice. She also connected me to a community of writers where I have made lifetime friends. The rest of the saying goes: ‘When the student is truly ready, the teacher disappears.’ I have a feeling I will be studying with Katy for a while yet as she has so much to give.” — Francesca, New Hampshire


  • £495
  • 8 sessions
  • Feb 12-May 21
  • 4-6:30 PM GMT
  • Every other Sunday
  • Personalised feedback
  • Limited to 14 people
  • Tea break midway

*Accommodating Easter (April 9)


The Art of the Personal Essay is a live online creative writing course that celebrates a rich literary gem — the personal essay. Honest and informal, intimate and influential, the personal essay is a classic genre for all skill levels.  This course provides the space and place to listen to lectures about the essay, to read an array of diverse essays from classic to contemporary, and to grow as a writer. No matter your skill level, this creative writing course provides the time and space to expand the breadth and depth of your essay writing in the company of like-minded writers.

Each session flows from lecture to discussion to writing workshop with time for reflective writing exercises as well.  Lectures are focused on specific approaches in essay writing and draw upon techniques used by writers of narrative nonfiction use to make their writing come alive — sense of place, characterisation, dialogue and internal monologue, and more. You will have the opportunity to write your own personal essays and share your work with a supportive writing community in workshop sessions. You will learn how to develop ideas through mind-mapping, personal journaling, and outlining.  Through writing, you will discover your own creative processes. Whether your aim is publication or writing in personal enrichment, this course will have a holistic impact on your life.

If you have questions about the syllabus, skill level or need flexible tuition payments, e-mail


  • Practice techniques used by personal essayists
  • Explore different levels of intimacy, honesty, and confession
  • Create compelling narrative arcs (beginning, middle, and end)
  • Become comfortable writing in the first-person
  • Make essay writing a mindful creative process


Selections from Essay Collections

  • The Best of Me by David Sedaris
  • The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross
  • Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World by Kathryn Aalto 
  • The Nature Chronicles with an Introduction by Kathryn Aalto – guest speaker is Nicola Pitchford whose essay won first place in the 2022 The Nature Chronicles Prize 



  • Essentials of Narrative Nonfiction: Harnessing Fictional Techniques to Make Your Nonfiction Come Alive by Kathryn Aalto (available February 5)


Nicola Pitchford is a British immigrant who lives in Marin County, California, on land from which the Coast Miwok people were uprooted. She has published poetry and literary criticism and studied at Pomona College, the University of Warwick, the University of Wisconsin, and the 2018 Rural Writing Institute. Her essay, “A Parable of Arable Land,” won the 2022 (inaugural) Nature Chronicles Prize. Her nonfiction work-in-progress explores the relationship of migrants and immigrants to land and nature. You can find Nicola on social media @NJPitchford.



Kathryn Aalto’s teaching philosophy is focused on encouraging a uniquely personal exploration of narrative nonfiction. At its core, she believes teaching is about responding to each student, whether they are an emerging writer or writing beyond the level of content mastery. She cultivates a mindful and supportive learning environment that fosters personal expression, critical thinking, and individual artistic growth in the literary arts.


Kathryn Aalto is a passionate practitioner and teacher of narrative nonfiction.  For more than twenty-five years, she has taught writing and literature courses at colleges and universities including Western Washington University, Everett Community College, and Plymouth University and has given guest lectures at Cambridge University, Vanderbilt University, Cornell University, and more. She has a global mentoring practice, guides students in a vibrant online writing school, and leads in-person retreats, courses, and workshops in the United States and United Kingdom. She is a judge for The Nature Chronicles Prize, an international bi-annual award for nature writing in the English language. She is represented by Peter McGuigan at Ultra Literary in New York City. As a public speaker, she has given hundreds of talks at distinguished speakers’ series and is represented by Chartwell Speakers in New York City.  Kathryn endeavours to bring all these skills into classes to benefit her students.


“Kathryn is an inspiring writer and gifted teacher of narrative non-fiction. She creates a warm and inviting atmosphere in the virtual classroom, even as she encourages writers to pursue their craft with rigour and tenacity. The classes pivot from instructor-led teaching to student-centred learning, with a dynamic range of activities, including lectures, discussions of craft/technique in assigned readings, writing prompts, workshops, Q&A sessions with published authors, industry insights and more. Aspiring writers receive detailed and actionable feedback, whether to build on existing skills or experiment with fresh approaches to craft. Beyond the classroom, Katy is happy to answer any questions, suggest further readings and encourage writers to publish.”  Wendy, Maidenhead, England

“Kathryn Aalto is an exceptional teacher. As a best-selling author, she knows the publishing industry first-hand. And she is highly adept at refining one’s technical skills without stifling a writer’s voice. I love the combination of rigor and nurturing she provides. Without her mentoring, I would still be stumbling in the dark along my path to publication. Her guidance, support and knowledge are game changers. I cannot recommend her enough!” Lise, Los Angeles, California

“Kathryn possesses a rare talent to hold a learning space in such a way each participant is supported while doing the hard work of being vulnerable. She extends an invitation to share space together in a small circle across time and distance as writers gather from around the world in a digital classroom with warmth and grace.  As a new writer, I felt unsure and intimidated. Was I ready? Did I have anything interesting to say?  Kathryn dispelled my fears, welcomed me and never stopped encouraging me to stretch just a little further. She weaves and layers lectures, writing prompts with workshopping along with insightful feedback (often with sketches!) for every session. Kathryn is attentive to the temperament of each class, pausing a little longer here, waving a brief hello to something over there. I rave about these classes! Not only for how each has helped me to learn the craft of writing but for how she has helped me discover my voice. Quite honestly, growing as a writer has profoundly affected my relationships. Deepening my relationship to self, to loved ones and the world I habit. What a joy!” Beth Anne, New Jersey