“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

Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.

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.

The Water of Life

When the second prince had thus been gone a long time, the youngest son said he would go and search for the Water of Life, and trusted he should soon be able to make his father well again. So he set out, and the dwarf met him too at the same spot in the valley, among the mountains, and said, ’Prince, whither so fast?’ And the prince said, ’I am going in search of the Water of Life, because my father is ill, and like to die: can you help me?

— “The Water of Life” by Jacon and Wilhelm Grimm http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-51.html

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Hunt’s Hole at Witcher Creek, West Virginia. Long, dark, leafless branches reach to the water’s edge, lines of ink against the untouched snowfall that blankets the woods and marks the creek margins. Heavy rocks, large and small, sit with all their weight in the same position for generations. Used to be you could dive from the biggest rock right into Witcher Creek from this place. Teenaged bodies, skinny from nicotine and hard work, flying like sinewy prehistoric birds into the air and hanging, just for a moment, in the sun above the water, off the rock, frozen in that perfect pose and moment of  everything being right. Nothing can touch them in that place, that sacred place where you are not held down to earth by anything. You fly out over the Water of Life of your own volition, and you are weightless, and everything below you is just that, below you, and when you land you are submerged in something holy.

White marble statues of a baby deer and a blessing angel watch over the ever diminishing water; someone placed the guardians there after a young man in the community was stabbed to death by his own cousin for not going out to get more beer; that’s what my friend and her friends who lived out there and grew up there told me. My friend said the murdered boy was about the sweetest boy you could ever meet. She said that exactly, “He was about the sweetest boy you would ever meet.” She also said the cousin had spent time in jail for scalping someone. Took a knife to another man and pulled his outer self clean off his head.

This was the swimming hole and the baptizing place for many local churches.  My friend was baptized there. There was a man who used to climb up on the rock and dive into the water; he had no legs. How did he get up there? No one could remember, but they remember him diving, diving off the rock into the water that made people disciples of Christ. They remember the water used to come all the way out to the road. It was deep enough to dive in. It used to be.

I take some whiskey up there in my mind. I’m at Hunt’s Hole, on Witcher Creek. It’s summer and I’m in a two piece bathing suit. I drink and watch the sky, pull leaves off of branches and throw them like little scrap messages into the water. Standing up I roll my neck, then my spine, and pull up the bottoms of my suit. It’s foolhardy to drink and swim but no one else is around and I want to feel the water around me, want to feel that moment in the air. I fly, and I feel the warm air and precious minute where the world can’t hold me, I am free. Then I’m falling, and I hit the water, and it rushes over my head and pulls my hair out long and far behind my neck. I push up and burst clean and free into the outside world.

From the rock above I hear a boy shout, “Hell, yes!” I look up to see him, all bones, a stark frame against the suddenly-night sky, white and linear and I realize the water is too shallow now. “Stop!” I yell as loud as I can but it comes out a whisper. The boy freezes in his perfect moment, and another voice says, “Aw, shit, let him go.” My eyes track the voice to a man sitting on the rock, smoking a cigarette and laughing, his legless torso long and straight, my own legs now just ankle deep as I stand up to walk out of the water.

The Fine Art of Catching a Firefly

I learned the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly when I was a child. I think it was the best way because I was at my most intuitive about magic. I would see their luminous nearly green yellow liquid light and shriek with delight, sometimes on the outside, but just as often on the inside. I knew it was kind of Philistine to just grab them, even though it was hard to resist. The best, most effective way, I learned over time, was an open hand and a willingness to merge.

bug,hand,light,firefly,cool-f046206fe921306a6db60e4264733497_hIt always started with a summer evening. Assessing the transitional time between afternoon and evening, as well as the time between evening and too-late night, was as much as part of it as how to hold your hand. Some people may tell you now that nets are permissible for capture, but that is not the art. You may hear that a Mason jar is allowed as well, for the midway release from first capture.

But these elements are not the art I know.

It would start with a spark in my heart. I’d feel a burst of light and heat inside. Around me I could perceive the summer air was buoyant enough to float the magic of tiny flying flames, glimmering under a dark heaven. There was a soundless hum that supported my procession toward mingling with these charming little mysteries.

I would walk among them then. Sitting still feels dishonest, and these creatures are all about having nothing to hide. On instinct you know not to try to trick them. Your walk must be slow and full of the pauses that allow the fireflies to orbit your damp skin and your natural breathing. Every now and then you reach out one arm, your palm open, fingers relaxed, falling in gentle curves. It’s the bend of your fingers that calls them to you. One will hover over that hand as if to say, “I am the one.”

Raising your hand slowly you make soft contact and the wings that have spun into blur stop and fold. Antennae you didn’t notice before now bend alternately to touch your skin and little feet, delicate and fast dance along your skin as the light quiets under two aligned and slender shields.

You learn what the mistakes are with time. Don’t hold them inside a closed hand. Don’t put them in a jar. Let them light and land and rise and fall as they choose. If you are practicing the fine art, they will choose you.

I found this out a long time ago. I would bet you did, too. But if you haven’t learned it yet, it is not too late to learn the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly. Come with me because, look! It’s that time. Leave the jar and net and bring your quiet calm and open hand. Bring yourself.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story 2013: The Man by My Bed

Last year I posted a rambling ghost story from a dream I had. You can read it beginning here.

This year my friend Eric Douglas posted his own (Call of the Raven Mocker), and I was inspired to share another dream. At least, I hope that’s what it was.

A few nights ago I opened my eyes in the dark to see a man standing beside my bed.

The man was not anyone I knew. My husband lay beside me, sound asleep. Only he and I and our child live in our house. I knew this man was an intruder.

He was illuminated by a strange orange light, and it appeared to emanate from something he was holding his hand. He was scanning around by the head of the bed, and on the floor. He didn’t see me looking at him.

I held my eyes wide open. I felt as if I blinked or closed my eyes or moved in any way, that is what would allow him to see me. He might think I was still asleep if I just didn’t move at all.

In my mind, I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream to my husband, to wake him to face this man, to help me. But inside I knew I was too frightened to make enough noise to do anything but alert the intruder to my awareness of his presence. The whole time, my heart rate was steady. I could not figure out why it wasn’t pounding.

Finally I realized it was a dream of some kind. I forced my eyelids closed. I knew when I woke up this would all be gone.

I waited a minute and opened my eyes.

The man was still there. He looked right into my eyes. I started blinking my eyes as fast as I could. Wake up wake up wake up this is not real. Wake up wake up wake up.

Each time I opened my eyes, he was still there. I finally closed my eyes as hard as I could and eventually the sun came up.

Last night when I was giving my daughter a bath, for the first time ever she stopped playing  and said, “I want out. I want out now.”

“Why?” I asked, confused.

“Because I do. I just want out right now.”

I took her out. I put her to bed.

Two weeks after I first saw him, when I open my eyes I still see his shadow beside my bed. Not the orange light. Not his eyes.

But he is still standing there.