May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments
As a widely published writing coach, NYU writing professor, and assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.
In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.
As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.
Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program.
What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:
We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.
Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.
Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.
The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.
I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.
Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.
Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline. You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.
Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Week, Insider, The Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for Narratively. She also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
April 27, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
I believe in keeping a journal. Daily, weekly, twice-monthly, whatever. I began to keep one regularly about seven years ago when my son was born, and I’ve mined the diary for material that made it into several essays published by well-known outlets. I also simply enjoy using it as a repository for resolutions, observations, ongoing concerns and funny comments from my second grader. It’s become an essential part of my life, and I suspect a key ingredient to my well-being.
So now that I teach writing, I always encourage my students to keep a journal – whether they are undergrads, graduate students or the kids I teach in summer camp. Write whenever you can, I say. Take your mental temperature, I tell them. The journal can be a place for observations from your daily life or a running log of ideas for future assignments, I say. The habit will reward you, I add, as they look at me with an air of disbelief. Yet I have not found a satisfactory way of checking if they are keeping the journal without invading their privacy, and I suspect many don’t bother with it beyond the first few weeks of class.
Until now that is. When my graduate memoir writing class went online because of the coronavirus epidemic, I decided I should explore some of the tools of our class’s cyberhome on Moodle. Tools that I probably would otherwise have ignored since live teaching provides so many normal points of connection. Plus, how many discrete assignments can students juggle? My course meets at night after the students have put in a full day of work.
Take the forum feature. If I want to create more work for them – more stuff to do between our weekly classes – I could post questions there about our readings. But why not just incorporate those questions into our discussions?
Yet on a whim, I wondered if using the forum tool to create a weekly diary might make sense so I inserted one during the first week of our confinement that was simply called ‘Coronavirus Journal.’ I told them they should not see it as a mandatory assignment but rather as a refuge.
I wasn’t sure how that would sound. I know when I tell students not to worry about their grade point averages but rather if they are learning, they mentally roll their eyes. Perhaps it would be the same with this new journal assignment.
I needn’t have worried. Judging by the voluminous entries some have posted, they are galvanized in this hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear. Forced suddenly to live in new ways – or in some cases, return to living in old ways, specifically with their parents! – they’ve received a jolt of inspiration paired with a desperate need to vent their frustrations. The first week, the students flooded the journal with thoughts, observations, routines, rants and intimate details of their new lives in confinement.
One student is a professional caregiver to the elderly who has remained on the job because it’s been deemed essential. She says she does not mind since working means earning a paycheck, noting wryly that it’s one of the few emergency situations whose very nature hasn’t screwed her over. She describes her work as being a well-paid granddaughter and a living life-alert button.
Another student tells us he’s keeping up his daily walks with his camera. One day, he writes about taking photos of a mobile coronavirus testing center in his town. The line of cars snakes around the corner, behind them a burst of flowering trees. The juxtaposition catches his eye.
One of his classmates writes that he is ashamed to say he initially welcomed the surplus of time quarantine would provide to tackle some projects. Instead he finds himself following his curiosity down Internet rabbit holes, and realizes the limited schedule afforded by the normal work week applies needed pressure to complete projects. He fears he is less productive.
The forum is peppered with moments of humor and abandon. One student who shares a house with a gaggle of roommates muses about the difficulty of rationing apocalypse snacks when you are staring at them all day. All. Day. Long. Maybe I am easily amused but I beamed when I saw the title of her entry on the forum: “Snacks, sweatpants and screens.” That sums up our lives right now, no? Another student muses that dogs have created this virus to squeeze more daily walks out of their owners. The humor feels necessary, almost a form of medicine.
So far, my students are capturing exactly what I imagined — the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).
I’ve tried to respond to every post, and other students are following suit, which is especially gratifying. Students are asking me shoot-the-breeze kind of questions like, ‘Is this the time to try to read a really long book I’ve been putting off or lots of short ones?” I relish a chance to talk about my reading life in a way that might actually sound helpful instead of pompous.
All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I’ve been trying to convey. Indeed, the journal-writing portion of this class will almost certainly be the highlight for me when I look back over the semester to see what went well and what needs some re-working. But I will be left with a question: how to stimulate this habit without an emergency the next time I teach? When the pandemic eases off, how will I show them the urgency of recording the little moments when we go back to our regular lives?
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers.