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 .


§ 15 Responses to I Feel An Essay Coming On

  • Karen says:

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’ve been ignoring these flickers lately but you make it sound doable!

  • angshumand says:

    Do you believe in thesis statements?

  • Nina Gaby says:

    All that brilliance lost due to “the lack of a notepad.” How true, LOL. And the reminder to keep the shoreline in sight. Great piece, thanks!

  • Thank you for the reminder: “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.”

    When I was first hired to teach Junior English at the local public high school, I asked the department Chair what my students should know and be able to do by the end of the year. She responded: “When you figure that out, let me know.” The other new hire poo-pooed the 5-paragraph essay.

    Over the next nearly-three decades I figured out what I wanted students to know and be able to do. I taught reflection, creative nonfiction, fiction, literary analysis, and both satirical and seriously researched persuasive writing.

  • dkzody says:

    >>Write it all down.<< I would tell my students something similar. Throw the words at the page and see what sticks. I still do that, many years into retirement, when I have a thought, and idea. Sometimes the words make an actual piece of readable print. Other times, the words sit there for me to admire and either toss or keep. I am grateful that now I write only for myself. If others like what I put out there, I'm grateful for that, too.

  • candidkay says:

    I often joke that my muses visit only at impossible hours. When I’m driving and the inspiration is flowing but I can’t write or type what’s going through my head. In the shower, when the words tumble into my brain and I race, dripping, to my computer. They like to have fun with us, don’t they? Glad you put virtual pen to virtual paper for this one:).

  • debrakva says:

    This is so me and the essay inspirations I fail to acknowledge. I have been using NOTES in my phone to record words or phrases. Later you can send them by email to yourself. I put them in a “tickles” file.

  • Ingrid T says:

    Great description of how ideas bubble up from our subconscious and how to capture them. I’ve found if I pay attention and record these ideas that the muse rewards me with more.

  • I can relate to the feeling of an essay sprouting out of a mundane or momentous moment. Having a brain injury put normal experiences at odds with earlier experiences.
    You have me a reminder to nurture the urge.

  • In the event you’re reading the comments, what do you do when you feel the essay coming on and are there recommendations? What I mean is, I feel them coming on, too, but find if I don’t follow up on them immediately, they are gone. Thoughts, Kathy? Thanks as always for the wonderful writing.

  • I immediately- and I mean immediately- write down at least a fragment of the idea on whatever piece of paper is handy. Even if it’s just a possible title… but a few sentences jotted down for later is even better.

  • Elaine says:

    I like your metaphor for essay writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading I Feel An Essay Coming On at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: