“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.

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“Vacancy” — Advent Ghosts 2013

Vacancy

Raking his fingers through his hair, he paused at the temples. She was silent, eyes tight with increasing pain.

Filthy, really, where he’d sent her to finish but he couldn’t have her bleeding inside. And maybe she was a screamer. No one wanted to hear that.

His animals were circling, facing the doorway where the woman entered. He saw them from his bedroom window. He could see everything. He pulled a blanket over his head to shut out the light.

Tomorrow, that woman and whoever else was with her now had to go. He would make sure they were gone.

(Read more 100-word creepy stories from a range of writers on I Saw Lightening Fall’s Advent StorytellingCheck out my stories from previous years here.)

The World Blanches before Winter: Preparing for Advent Ghosts 2013

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2013, the fifth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my third year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

Last year, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

This year I am again using a sacred story in “Vacancy.” I’m curious to know if you can identify it. Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post on Friday, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!

 

“For Later” — Advent Ghosts 2012

From the back of the church the crèche scene glowed softly from the manger. A lone wise man shuffled, heavy, and knelt. “Where are the others?” whispered the pastor but there was no response. Lifting a leaden urn, the sheet-wrapped stranger only whispered, “For later.”

There was supposed to be gold. There should have been frankincense. There should have been more to praise the child. Where were the shepherds, the angels, the gifts? Instead, left behind was an analgesic known to numb pain and heal wounds.

As he passed me in the pew, I heard him say again, “For later.”

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You can read some background thoughts on this 100-word story here: Light is the First Thing to Go. Read other entries in this annual storytelling event here: I Saw Lightning Fall.

“Unwanted” — Advent Ghosts 2012

“I don’t like this one,” my daughter said, handing me the perfect, brand-new doll. “There’s something wrong with her.” The doll’s hair was glossy black, her clothing immaculate, each tiny fingernail a flawless oval.

I sighed and carried the last toy of Christmas over to my husband. “I didn’t know you bought her this one. She doesn’t like it.” He looked at me, eyes wide, then at the empty space under the tree. “I didn’t buy that. I’ve never seen it before.” I turned the thing’s face to me, saw eyes with scars, and dropped it to the brick hearth.

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You can read some background thoughts on this 100-word story here: Light is the First Thing to GoRead other entries in this annual storytelling event here: I Saw Lightning Fall.

Light is the First Thing to Go: My Advent Stories

Last year I wrote a piece of flash fiction for Loren Eaton’s Shared Storytelling – Advent Ghosts project, and it was difficult. Writing exactly 100 words is not especially hard, but purposefully dredging up fear and loss at Christmas time feels ugly; I wondered last year and I wonder again this year — especially this year — how people will react to this kind of writing.

Then I reread Loren’s words:

Light is the first thing to go as we near the year’s nadir, the days dimming earlier and breaking later. The dark is truly rising. So as Advent approaches, flip every switch in the house, break out the blankets and steel yourself to outlast the gloom. But in all your preparations, pause for a moment, just long enough to peer up into a firmament black and cold as flint. See the frosty flecks of stars? See how the borealis coils its frigid fire around them, eldritch and writhing? What speech do they pour forth to us, and what unearthly knowledge do they show night after endless night?

I have 2 pieces for the Advent Ghost project this year. Following Loren’s example, I am writing one secular story and one sacred story.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes; I wrote it before Newtown, but I think like every parent I wrote it from a place of fear of the idea that this presence has designs on our children.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

Advent is about waiting for the light of the world. It is about waiting for God with faith, even on the darkest days. I hope you will read these pieces of flash fiction with a heart and mind willing to look into the dark, so that the brilliance of Christmas day is truly a day of love, gratitude, and salvation for you and yours.

The stories will post later today.

Peace be with you.