I Feel An Essay Coming On
December 27, 2021 § 15 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
I never know when or how. Or even where I might be when it happens. I could just be waking up, rambling along on my morning walk, or driving to the grocery store. I might read an article in the newspaper (I still get a real, paper one delivered to my front porch), or I might have a reaction to a conversation I overhear at the pastry shop I frequent.
I could really be anywhere or doing anything. I could be on the Metra train to Chicago or on the treadmill at the health club. Those circumstances are always in flux. What is always the same, though, is the sensation – a frisson that I now recognize as something I need to pay attention to. Sometimes it’s just a flicker of an idea – there and gone, if I don’t record it on a notepad or my phone. I have trained myself to do this. Even if you are convinced you will remember your idea later (because it’s so good!) the chance is too great that you won’t.
Not that the world will come to a standstill if your brilliant idea is lost forever, due to the lack of a notepad. You might look at the phrase or sentence you wrote later, and wonder what it even means – this jotting, this fragment – that you were so compelled to record. I have over a dozen notebooks filled with these (often cryptic) messages to myself. Certainly not every one of these nudges to my creative muse are worth pursuing. And yet… enough of them are. If not right then, maybe at some future time, when that exact brief note might be just what I need for a story or essay.
In high school and college my fellow students and I were often assigned what I now call “the dreaded five paragraph essay.” Later, as a 7th and 12th grade English teacher at an all-girls school in Philadelphia, I assigned many of these dreaded essays myself. I can still feel the tension and dismay that my students would display when I announced the assignment of one of these essays. But, why, Mrs. Stevenson was their lament. Why do we need to write these essays?
Because the 7th grade curriculum demands it, I would usually say to my students. And you 12th graders will need to be proficient in organizing your thoughts into five paragraph essays for your college entrance applications – where (when you get to college) you will be asked to write even more essays. (Students silently screaming…)
With my students I tried to demystify the essay writing process as best I could. Just start with a “feeling” I might say. (Teenage girls are very big on feelings.) Then make a story out of that feeling. Like you are telling a friend – only with a topic sentence, supporting statements and a zinger of a conclusion. Oh, and proper spelling and grammar usage.
It was a process.
The thing is, it still is a process, no matter that you left school behind decades ago. Organizing your thoughts into the form of an essay – a publishable essay that other people might want to read – does not come naturally to most people. The idea – or germ of something you feel compelled to express – might start haunting your every waking moment. You might suddenly feel an essay coming on.
Write it all down. You can go back and take out the parts that don’t belong later. But you won’t know what doesn’t belong until you actually write or type the whole thing out.
I think of this initial attempt to write an essay like I think about jumping into Lake Michigan for a swim on the first really hot day of June. You know the water is going to be very, very cold. But you also know there is only one way to get in. You have to put your foot in and then keep plunging forward – quickly, without thinking.
And that’s what essay writing is – you plunge in, then you take strong strokes away from shore, but you always keep the shore in your sight line, because you will have to circle back at some point to return.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, The Writer, and several other newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Her short fiction has appeared in the literary and online journals Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and The Same. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives just north of Chicago. Kathy has written several essays about the writing life for the Brevity blog, and you can learn more at www.kathystevenson.com .