Do I Have an Essay Here? Thoughts on Writing Small
December 11, 2015 § 26 Comments
By Rachel Hanel
After years of writing “big,” how do I make the transition to “small”?
For the first time in fifteen years, I don’t have a big writing project in front of me. My memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013; it took me thirteen years of revision to find its final form. For the past two years I’ve been enrolled in the Creative Writing Ph.D. program at Bath Spa University. In that time I’ve written an 80,000-word narrative nonfiction manuscript as well as a research paper of 20,000 words. That, combined with full-time teaching, left no time for other writing, save for quick blog posts.
Now that the dissertation is submitted, I’m in a place I don’t recognize: a place with free time and the luxury of writing anything I want. How do I navigate this new world?
I have long feared this moment. This moment of needing to write because it’s what I do, but having no idea what to write. As I was finishing my latest manuscript, I struggled to identify my next project. I wondered that maybe I had nothing more to write about. I tell people that my memoir tapped out everything I had to say about my own life. I still often think about my dad, and I could continue to explore the ways his death changed my life, but I don’t want to become a one-trick pony.
My manuscript-in-progress is a narrative biography, and I’m in love with my subject and am grateful I found her. But I feel like I hit the jackpot, stumbling across a once-in-a-lifetime story. I can’t recreate that serendipity just sitting at my computer.
I submitted my dissertation on November 16. I gave myself a week off, then I started to write again. Without a topic, instead I gave myself a 30-day writing challenge. Write a little bit every morning, whatever comes to mind, using the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction as my prompt.
I admire essayists who explore, ponder, and examine a topic from many angles. I admire essayists who write about day-to-day, routine adventures that are anything but. But do I have the ability to do the same? I’ve only written about big dramas; I doubt my skill in writing small. I’m so dismissive of my own life, a life that seemingly takes its cue from Seinfeld (“It’s a show about nothing!”). But could I, for thirty days, look at my life in a new way and see the extraordinary in the ordinary? Can I pay attention to my routine and see it for what it really is?
On a recent Sunday, I arrived back home after day trip to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, where I met my mom and her husband. At home I asked myself, inspired by the reading I had done in the past week from the Rose Metal Press book: “What happened today?” Was there something more to that routine visit I had with my mom? I thought for a few minutes and remembered dialogue Mom and I exchanged, and suddenly I saw a theme. The next morning, I wrote. After a few minutes of typing, I saw that our seemingly bland conversations about family were really about silence, about family members who don’t speak to each other, who don’t ask questions. Then I remembered when we parted that day, standing near our cars in the Mall of America parking lot, the jets roaring overhead every few seconds, taking off from the international airport across Interstate 494. We paused our conversation each time a plane took off, because otherwise we would have had to shout in order to be heard. Shout in order to be heard. Not us. That’s not what we do, either in that moment or any other moment.
Do I have an essay here? I thought. I reflected upon what had otherwise appeared to be an ordinary day, and I realized it was not ordinary.
A couple of days later, I wrote about the first snow of the season, how we prepare for it, how each season it seems like we’ve never seen snow before no matter how long we’ve lived in the North. Again, something more came out of the ordinary than I had expected. In fact, when I opened the blank page on the screen, I had to push back thoughts of “This is stupid. Who wants to read about snow?” Once I got past that, my words became about more than snow.
These writings are rough, but they give me hope. I want to be that essayist who can write about the small. It’s going to take trust in myself, and the willingness to take a leap, learning to see the small things for what they’re worth.
Rachael Hanel is a writer and assistant professor of mass media in Mankato, Minnesota. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (2013, University of Minnesota Press), was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her essays have appeared in online and print literary journals such as Bellingham Review and New Delta Review.