Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Essayer: to try, to attempt (French)

During the long weekend writing retreat of week-before-last, I dove into my work-in-progress essay collection (see Plot Twist). The challenges and joys of writing memoir reliably reared their little heads, leaving me somewhat dumbstruck for the first 24 hours. Some things you have to learn over and over.

Essay is my very favorite genre, and yet there is no getting around the fact that it can be heart-wrenching, soul-searching, scratch-around-in-your-past-and-see-what-leaps-out kind of work. Writing essays has brought me great pleasure and deep frustration. Kind of like motherhood, but with rejection letters.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far about writing narrative non-fiction/memoir/essay successfully:
  • You’ve got to be completely honest.
  • Completely honest does not mean you must reveal every last detail of your life (i.e., humiliate yourself and/or bore people to tears).
  • Essay is all about voice. Find it, work it.
  • Don’t think too much about the audience. Write what you write. If they like it, great. If they don’t, they aren’t your people and you must not worry about pleasing them.
  • Definitely don’t think about the (potential) publisher, unless you are on assignment. You can’t read their minds and trying to will only cramp your style.
  • Make ‘em laugh or make ‘em cry. If you can do both in one piece, all the better.
  • Concrete anecdotes, not general memories.
  • Trying to write something that everyone will relate to is the kiss of death. Precision, not inclusion.
  • Essay is personal. Reveal yourself. Be willing to learn things about yourself.
  • Even a powerful story needs literary quality to become a work of art.
  • Every essay must be about two things: something obvious and something deep and subtle.
  • Conclusions are necessary but must be understated. Never preach.
  • Search for the fun. If it isn’t just a little bit fun to write, it probably won’t be fun to read, either.
  • Do not expect to write anything truly fabulous when you are a) in charge of the children b) in charge of the gigantic child masquerading as your husband C) drunk. Okay, this trio of advice actually applies to all writing. But holing up alone is especially important in essay, because essay is about you and you gets swallowed alive by all of the things other people need from you (at least in my experience).
  • Proceed without fear! (In essay and in life)

I have about 25,000 of the 45,000 words I need for an adequate draft. I'll keep you posted.


  1. *Be not afraid of calling old friends droopy, if they are indeed so.

    : ) Great points!