Where Essayists Find Ideas

September 20, 2013 § 4 Comments


bird headOur friend Aaron Gilbreath has written a useful and thorough essay for the Green Mountain Review on where nonfiction writers find ideas. (The gist of it: don’t stick your head in the sand.)  Here is an excerpt followed by a link to the entire essay:

For those of us who don’t work for publications that give us assignments, we’re left to assign ourselves. I find material in different ways. For my more straight ahead articles or topical essays, many ideas spring from life. I go about my day-to-day, eating and working and walking around town, and I take note of what I’m doing. What am I reading? What am I listening to or thinking about? When I find something of interest or recognize that I’m obsessing on something, I look more closely at it as a potential subject. Am I really into Korean snack foods right now? I should probably write about those. Am I listening to a lot of mid-period Coltrane? I should explore his life and music.

Because this process requires self-reflection, it can also lead to more personal narratives. The initial approach is the same: Look at yourself and dissect what you see, dissect your thoughts, emotions, encounters, behavior. Personal essays require we go further than reporting, though, that we gaze beyond our obvious subjects–the food, the music–to deliver larger revelations. It’s not enough to recount what happened. What matters more are the themes that emerge from the patterns of your existence. Are you fixated on death? Love? Aging? Injustice? Keep going. Consider recent life events: have you had any encounters that seem to represent something deeper about our times, our culture, human nature? Or about the shape of your life or character? Would these events be compelling to you as a reader if they were rendered as scenes? Now reach back further in time and think about moments from years past that you find yourself returning to over and over, moments that haunt or amuse or mystify you, things you can’t stop thinking about. Look closer. Write them down, and while you do, learn to listen to yourself and the conversations around you, even if it means eavesdropping at dinner. That’s dialogue. Maybe those exchanges will prove useful when you write a future scene. Maybe they’ll help you arrive at a related idea. The point is to look at your life and see what it reveals. That’s your material.

Even if this sounds suspiciously self-helpy, the results can be profound. By dissecting your own history, fixations and behavior, you can find big ideas. You can see this dynamic in essays by Marcia Aldrich, Steven Church, Elena Passarello, Lee Zacharias, Roxane Gay, Peter Selgin, Ira Sukrungruang, Kim Dana Kupperman, and on and on. I’ve written a number of personal essays this way–one, for instance, about what my childhood Star Wars toys reveal about my relationship with my mother, and about the nature and loss of youth; another about the resurgence of the word ‘rad’ and what it reveals about fashion, American ingenuity and the aging process. Had I not looked at what I was hearing at the coffee shop, what I was buying at the grocery store and thinking about in bed, I would never have found these subjects.

Read Aaron’s full essay here.

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