• “How Do You Write An Essay?”

    Recently I’ve had several people approach me about my essay writing process. I enjoy thinking about the craft of writing, so it was simple for me to jot down a few bullet points to share by e-mail. Because I wanted to respond to the questions right away, I wrote the following thoughts quickly.

    Later, when I looked at them again, these points seemed like ideas that might interest anyone who wants to write a creative nonfiction (CNF) essay.

    CNF is different from novel writing or short story writing. There are overlapping craft elements in each of these genres of course, but I think the essay process can be a little bit less predictable and controlled. Or should be. The writer is, after all, trying to chip away at an experience in order to reveal its value beyond the obvious and beyond the individual. It can be a long process, but one I find most worthwhile.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you go about writing an essay, or what questions you may have about writing in general.

    • I tend to focus on something unforgettable. Something that lingers in my mind from my own experience.
    • I try not to worry about whether or not, on the front end, other people will care about the subject matter. If I can’t forget about it, I’ve learned there is something there — a nugget — that speaks to the human experience.

      The primary objectives are:

      1) Express the human experience.
      2) Include the reader in that experience.

    • This takes many drafts.
    • So first I just write it as it comes to my mind. Then I walk away. Then maybe I do draft 2, and ask for feedback.
    • At that point the things that are and are not getting through usually are revealed.
    • For me, the essay is a treasure hunt. It takes time, and a dedication to write, review, and rewrite. Also, I have a need just to separate from the work for a few weeks if not longer at various points in its development. I can’t see what’s too close to me.

    Finally, and this was not in my e-mail text, it is essential not to fall in love with your own work. Often it is tempting to write about something we want to tell other people. We’ve decided that some experience means a certain something, and we are going to tell the reader what that something is and why he should care. This rarely results in a good essay. I like to accept the mystery that I may have no real understanding of what something means and trust that because I can’t forget it, there is something there to be revealed even to myself.

    Let the reader in. Let the reader see enough to draw his or her own conclusion. Let the reader be complicit in your work.

    Let it happen.

    keep-calm-and-write-your-essay-21

  • West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow: Writing an American Vignette

    vignette (vɪˈnjɛt) – n.
    1. a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter
    2. a short graceful literary essay or sketch

    I’m in good company having been rejected by Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (see “Wooing Brevity”); nonetheless, I dream of joining that other, smaller party — the one with writers who have wooed and won some DInty W. Moore love. Brevity is where a lot of CNF types like me hang out and admire fine writing. The journal publishes writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.

    My 750 words were bounced back about two years ago, and I can say with confidence that my work has improved since then. I have a long way to go, but when I look back at what I sent to Brevity, I see one of my most egregious writing flaws glaring back at me, the tendency to stay in my own head and talk to myself on paper. I struggle with setting, with scene, with grounding events and people in a tangible world. I am learning how to create a place that a reader can enter and experience.

    In Andrea Badgley’s call for submissions on the Brevity blog, I saw an opportunity.

    Andrea Reads America: A Literary Tour of the USA is Badgley’s  effort to read literature by authors in all 50 states. She writes, “I want to see the state from different points of view. Whenever possible, I would like to read authors who are native to or are longtime residents of the state they set their fiction in, for whom the land is a part of their psyche.” American Vignette is the creative nonfiction component of her journey.

    My vignette is about some of my experience growing up as a West Virginian. My family spans generations of Appalachian people. I have a loyalty to the state and an affection for it despite its many flaws that is difficult to explain. I’ve blogged about my feelings and their complexities on Esse Diem before, but with American Vignette I captured some of my favorite elements from a longer work. I also tried to make the narrative more reader-inclusive — to “teach the reader something” as one of my professors said — and not be satisfied with an internal monologue that just happens to be written. The original essay had ragged emotional edges. I was in a lot of pain when I first started writing about West Virginia, and it shows in my the early drafts. Revising those drafts and consolidating them into a sharper piece helped give me closure in some ways. My experience is still there and unchanged, but it has been tempered with time. I am becoming able to reflect and engage outside of my own distress.

    For me, my essay is about losing my grip on an important place. It’s about hard questions and unknowable answers. I anticipate some people might be unhappy with this vignette and think that it is unfair or unkind to West Virginia. This is about my observations, experiences, and decisions. It is in no way intended to be the final word on anything, or even the only word. I hope my essay will generate online discussion. West Virginia is complex and contradictory. At times it is an unbearable series of shouts off a mountainside, the caller waiting for a response that seems never to come.

    But we linger a little longer.

    (You can read my American Vignette on Andrea’s blog project here.)

    Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain.