“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.


“There’s No Crying in a Tobacco Field”

Writers participating in the 2011 Essays on Childhood may be interested in this link from the North Carolina Writers’ Network (NCWN):  Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition Winners Announced.  This essay sounds right in line with the work we are doing at Esse Diem around Essays on Childhood, especially the sense of place focus in 2011.

The winning essay, “There’s No Crying in a Tobacco Field,” is described by a contest judge as follows:

“This essay took me into a world I barely knew—a North Carolina tobacco field—and taught me something,” Varner said. “The writer effortlessly weaves together a personal narrative about working as a ‘tobacco kid’ in the fields and the chilling research about the unseen health hazards thousands of children surely suffered. Here is a piece wrestling with the hard lessons learned plucking leaves from the field and long-term medical concerns these former tobacco kids could face.”

The NCWN is a wonderful resource, and I encourage anyone writing for the EOC project to peruse it.  I like to think of the Essays on Childhood as one day being part of something larger that will offer even more resources and encouragement to writers, a la NCWN.

West Virginia is fortunate to have West Virginia Writers, Inc., which I am rather ashamed to say is new to me but I was quite pleased to find online today.  I am looking forward to being a part of that network, and I hope anyone participating in the EOC project will visit the WVW site and engage the resources there.

Happy writing!

Image credit:  The Human Rights Brief