Writing Personal Essays Together
November 15, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic
We’ve been writing personal essays – together – for 10 years. Yes, this is an oxymoron. Personal means unique, individual, one’s own, yet we often find ourselves writing about “our children” or “the time we burned our dinner.”
How do we present our joint point of view without the reader assuming we’re polygamists with five children between us? While we don’t share husbands, we’ve shared paychecks, bylines, and the microphone at our speaking engagements ever since we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words in 2001. We write, blog, tweet and post as one – but we really are two people.
We are partners but that not kind. We’re married to different men, but they both thought we were talking about him when we wrote that “our husband” wanted to leave the wedding before dessert. Likewise, when we described our husband as the nicest man in the world, they both said, “Thanks, sweetie.”
When we write together, we meld our point of view for the sake of the essay. So as not to embarrass a particular child, we disguise their identity. We use pronouns instead of names, add up all their ages, grade point averages and incomes, and divide by five. Still, the kids recognize themselves and accuse us of exaggerating:
“Everyone gets detention; it’s not big deal.”
“They gave archery ribbons to everyone. You don’t have to brag about it.”
We don’t want to be outed by Oprah for faking our autobiography, so we’ve never totally invented a child. Our own give us plenty of material. But we have created an imaginary uncle for a holiday column about rude dinner guests.
Like a personal trainer, a writing partner provides motivation. On our own, we wouldn’t make time to write, just like we wouldn’t make time to lift weights. Together, we commit to writing once a week. We sit in front of one computer. Joyce types; Ellen talks.
As the date approaches, the wheels start turning. We scan the news, look at the calendar, and examine what’s going on in our lives for inspiration. We’ve written about our children’s interests in “Different Paths to Diplomas,” favorite foods in “The Great Knaidel Konundrum,” and the rush to purchase presents for the winter holidays in “Calendar Confusion.”
Sometimes our inspiration is mundane. Joyce reached for a coffee mug and realized that her mug collection was snapshot of her life – the Mother’s Day cup with the faded photo of her toddlers, the college logo mug. When Ellen confirmed she was sentimental about her mug collection, too – the souvenir mug from the trip to Chicago, the one her son made at Paint-a-Pot – we knew we had enough material for a column.
Our writing skills are complementary. Ellen is imaginative; she’s known to exaggerate to get a bigger laugh. Joyce is an editor by background; she likes to Google everything and find out the facts. “Ellen, you are making that up. Those gourmet chocolates didn’t cost $39.99. We need to look it up.”
We are a writer’s workshop of two. While we write together, we check in: “Do you think that’s funny?” “Is that the best word?” After years of working together, we don’t hold back our opinions. We don’t feel compelled to give positive feedback before we say, “That needs some work.” We’d don’t get our feelings hurt when one of us points out, “That sentence doesn’t make any sense.”
In the time that we’ve been writing together, our children have gone from kindergarten to college, our phones have gone from our kitchen counters to our pockets, and our hair needs a touch-up every few weeks now. Together we’ve written 119 blog posts, dozens of published op-ed essays, 751 tweets, 1,400 definitions of Jewish words, and spent hours and hours together driving to book talks. But we still look forward to writing together. We long ago got rid of our personal trainers because we thought we could exercise on our own — but we know better when it comes to writing.
Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words, and The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selies and chicken soup memories. Find their books on Amazon and visit TheWordMavens.com. Follow them on Twitter @TheWordMavens