How to Write an Essay

February 20, 2019 § 25 Comments

ShuberHeadshotBy Sonya Huber

  1. That thing that makes your guts turn queasy, the thing you did, the thing you saw… you know what I mean. The thing that swims in front of your eyes before you’re even awake, the face of the haunter, the hurricane. Scream at it with the alphabet until it becomes a piece of toast or at least a grave, anything with edges. Make a list of all the people with that same piece of toast and feel less alone.
  2. Procrastinate on a major serious to-do until the procrastination gets a pedigree and health insurance, turns from Pinocchio into a real boy. Take your bullshit seriously, unless you’re one of those people who was born doing that. In that case, take your bullshit out back and shoot it in the head.
  3. Smell smoke—or some weird almost-smell, cardamom mixed with musty stairwell, and put off picking up your kid from daycare in order to find that smell. Catch it and nail it to a piece of plywood and then describe your failure and how glad you are that you failed.
  4. Stop capitalism for a moment by being kind to yourself and to others. See a human in the turn of a hand, the flick of a gesture. Then try to sell that little portrait on the sidewalk. Have a fight with the person you painted who thinks you made them look mean.
  5. Get really good at bonding with strangers as your honesty with friends and family atrophies into a voracious gnarled beast who breathes the smoke of dirty laundry and wants only more and more material.
  6. Write an essay to make people fall in love with your brilliance but then have the essay turn out to be about your endless need for praise and your intellectual insecurity.
  7. Pick a fight with a dead person. Lose.
  8. Pick a fight with a leader of the un-free world and destroy.
  9. Become skilled at writing 3000-word personal ads in which you portray yourself as a supremely sensitive and reflective person able to see nuance and subtle conflict in the smallest scene. In real life, become even more of a conflict-avoidant mess of anxieties.
  10. Love bricks. Love people. Love the decapitated wooden head of a decoy duck. Let language welcome you home when home has been a hard idea. Let words locate the people who are home to you.
  11. Freak out about endings and the even number “10” and resist the urge to end cute, end with a bow, blow up the ending. Wreck it good with a side (chopped, smothered) of restraining order. End on a noun, end on the nametag from Waffle House.
  12. Throw in some asterisks and numbered lists and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the cocaine of essayists) and then roll this all up into a bottle, pour gasoline in it, and light it on fire … but only on the page because, come on, the most dangerous thing you’ve done besides grab a microphone is press command-P.
  13. Be soft. Be shattered.
    Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. She swears this is not reflective of in-depth, wonderful, and non-surreal curriculum in the Fairfield MFA.


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§ 25 Responses to How to Write an Essay

  • Christine says:

    This was so fun to read! Thank you for starting my day with delight. 🙌🏼

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Sonya Huber! My cocaine. Love this edgy, funny, brilliant set of 13 missives!

  • Ah yes, the dictionary definition hit. Thank you especially for that.

  • Joanne says:

    I love this! So playful–and wise. Thank you!

  • linda laino says:

    “Let words locate the people who are home to you”. Beautifully and poetically written. The imagery opened me up. Bravo! and Thanks!

  • Sharon Silver says:

    I would embroider your words on a pillow but doing so would just be another excuse not to rewrite one particular essay that could be perfect (or close enough) if I only shoved myself down that rough path of memory again. You are one fine writer, lady.

  • Elaine Thomas says:

    So good!

  • ktquinblog says:

    And here I thought I was the only mess of anxieties still afraid to press command-P.

  • Thanks for this. My delighted laughter was also deeply rueful. 😉

  • Abigail Thomas says:

    just bought your book–the pain essays, you’re so funny and honest and raw and familiar and unusual.

  • Brilliantly written!!! I will work on this

  • Great, clever essay, Sonya! Came at a perfect time in my stalled writing life.

  • Marilyn Weisman says:

    Love, Love, Love it!

  • Yvonne says:

    How do you do it? Unique, thought provoking while wrapped up with giggling strangeness. Funny stuff there!

  • Sandra says:

    This is wonderful.

  • Brilliant! I’ve got two upcoming assignments- one an essay, the other a second blog post, so I’ve been trying to rid myself of all tendencies to procrastinate… by procrastinating about how much I procrastinate 😂
    But thank you for the post, really concise and to the point!

  • Ethan_07 says:

    ” Be soft. Be shattered. ”

    That’s deep.

  • dinspiredone says:

    Useful tips. Thank you

  • ninagaby says:

    Pick a fight with a dead person? Lose? Jeezum crow that it just too good.

  • […] Benjamin Dreyer about his new manual on writing, Dreyer’s English. And here’s some advice on writing essays from Sonya […]

  • Gyan Sanchar says:

    Good very useful tips

  • Claire says:

    I am mostly stuck on 6. I think, hahaha

  • Megan Weimer says:

    Sonya Huber’s blog styled literature piece “How to Write an Essay” captivatingly exemplifies very different characteristics from that of a normal guide on how to write an essay. Ms. Huber uses a lively tone to relay absurd ideas to the reader such as to, “smell smoke—or some weird almost-smell, cardamom mixed with musty stairwell, and put off picking up your kid from daycare in order to find that smell” and to “pick a fight with a dead person… [and] lose” in order to successfully write an essay. I think it is particularly interesting how she defines how to write an essay with things that are completely unrelated to essay writing or literature at all for that matter. Ms. Huber’s use of humour really enhances the excerpt specifically when she says, “Throw in some asterisks and numbered lists and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the cocaine of essayists) and then roll this all up into a bottle, pour gasoline in it, and light it on fire.” Ms. Huber’s suggestion to blindly throw in asterisks and a random definition from the Oxford Dictionary and then roll it, “up all into a bottle, pour gasoline on it, and light it on fire,” creates a playful tone and is what makes the passage so amusing. I also appreciate the irony of Ms. Huber’s stature as such a renowned author and the way she conveys the steps to construct an essay in such a comical and ludicrous fashion. The format of this excerpt also stood out to me as it is constructed by a list consisting of thirteen concise bullet points like a step-by-step manual one would use to build a piece of furniture from Ikea. Obviously, writing an essay is not a formulaic procedure what-so-ever, which is why I thought that the numbered step list was particularly comical. “How to Write an Essay” has shown me the effectiveness of incorporating, humour, irony, and a playful tone into literature. In the future, I am going to try to include the aforementioned literary elements into my writing as I think they will make it much more interesting to read and will ultimately leave the reader feeling cheerful.

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