How to Write an Essay

June 15, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Amanda Smera

Inspired by Sonya Huber

  1. Enter the blank page with your anxieties crumbling up inside you. It’s the healthcare crisis, the meaning of a word that doesn’t sit well with you, the cat that fell from a four-story building and didn’t land on its feet.
  1. Write about the answers you seek, the ones you don’t already have. Walk into the unknown armed with your doubts. Let the words pour out of your fingertips in a magical inquiry, in desperate need to find the ones who are losing sleep over the same ifs.
  1. Write about where it hurts. Write until it hurts.
  1. Find it in the pain of a sprained ankle, of a mysterious pressure on the bladder, in the frozen leaves in winter, in the cry of an infant moments before latching on the breast, in the cry of a kettle that has reached boiling point, in the break of your own heart.
  1. Promise the process will be messy and confusing. Promise it will lead to nothing. But might lead to everything.
  1. Be enraged with your premise, make love to your discoveries, punch the certainties right in the face.
  1. Get lost in the tangents, throw a metaphor in there for flavor, quote the birds chirping by the window, use the spin of the Earth to guide your every word.
  1. Swallow everything you can find, let it drool down your chin, pick it up with your finger and lick it clean.
  1. Scream “Eureka!” from the top of your lungs, jump out of the bathtub, run down the streets naked and euphoric.
  1. Be smug, know-it-all, be barely there and hesitant.
  1. Be the hero and the savior, be the villain, the secondary character no one remembers the name of.
  1. Be the moving force that defies the rules and laws of physics.
  1. Be the first to notice, be the last to realize.
  1. Be the one who dared to write.

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Amanda Smera is an essayist and journalist from Brazil who is currently obtaining a master’s degree in writing at Rowan University.

To Do or Not To Do: On the Comfort of List Essays

November 5, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Jill Kolongowski

As a nonfiction writer, I’m scared of plot. Perhaps that’s why I’m a nonfiction writer. I’m drawn to writing about the way things are, or thinking about the way things could or might be. It feels like my job is to find a plot in the senseless.

And the past year and a half has felt utterly senseless. Our first daughter was born three months into the first lockdown in Northern California. I wrote some pieces about the weather, but they were fragments, incomplete. I felt like I could not write any beginnings, and I couldn’t write endings either. Especially in the early days with a newborn in a pandemic, time felt unmoored, and completely beside the point.

But what I could do was make lists. With a list, I could put a small bit of sense in the senseless. Do this, then do that. Sometimes, there was no “then,” either. Just a list—one thing, another, ways to shape the day, a container of some form of order, when every moment felt beyond unpredictable. In between feeding the baby every two hours, I made small lists. Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. I sometimes crossed things off, and sometimes crossing things off felt like it took too long, but the list was a concrete object narrative I needed.

My writing started to take the same form. All I made were list essays: “Ways I Was Afraid My Daughter Might Die In the First Two Months of Life.” “Things I’ve Forgotten.” “Cliches for New Mothers.” “Things I’ve Googled at 3 am.” The lists had no beginning, no end. They jumped in wherever my brain was stuck, and followed with me as my worries jumped from one thing to the next. The list essay didn’t demand anything from me, didn’t tell me I was doing anything wrong—all things I needed to feel, as a new mother. The lists were expansive, welcoming, and forgiving. I didn’t need to put things in order. I didn’t need to find sense in the senseless, or have an epiphany. I didn’t need to get anything right. I just needed to get it down.

Of course, the trick is that list essays do have plot. They do have story. Their story lives in the rhythms, in the juxtapositions, in the crescendos. When I wrote the collaborative “161 Things That Scare Me” with my students for Brevity, I collected our fears on notecards, and then spread the fears out on the floor. I looked for patterns. I saw fears of creatures, fears of voids (heights, depths, space), fears of the body, fears of the heart. I saw how often we listed the same thing (fear of a loved one dying. Fear of losing ourselves. Spiders). The plot, as it always does, revealed itself as I wrote—that we have our own fears that are uniquely ours, the result of traumas or circumstances, and we have fears that we all share. The cumulative list was a list of human vulnerability.

The list essay is what I use to get unstuck. When narrative or plot or sense seem impossible, there are still rhythms, juxtapositions, and crescendos worthy of consideration. Make a list of what you did today. Make a list of what your cat did today. Make a list of things that scared you today. Make a list of your internet searches today. Make a list of texts you wrote then deleted. Make a list of the flowers in your neighborhood. Make a list of what you see in your neighbors’ front yards—the dog and the fence that were there, and now are gone. Make a list of things you saw in the gutter, and wonder how they got there. Like Ross Gay, make a list of what delighted you today.

Then, look for patterns. What came first, second, and last? Does that order mean something? What kinds of things do you list? Why do you think you’re drawn to those lists? As Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in Several Short Sentences about Writing:

“…everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice.
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. |
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you”
(37, emphasis mine).

Make a list of what you did today, and you have a story now. It’s not just a story of the day-to-day minutia that can feel oppressive, but it’s your story, the story of how you’re spending your moments. Story lives in every object, in every list, in Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. That’s a story about me, becoming a new mother and a new person, and learning to put the fragments together into a bigger whole, even though it feels slow. Thaw chicken is a story when a family needs to eat. Write a paragraph is a story of a writer trying her best. Put away laundry on a list for three weeks / forever is a story of how we choose to spend our time, what matters, and what doesn’t.

The list essay taught me that there is always story to be found, even if your lens focus feels microscopic or unimportant. The story is yours. What should you write about? Make a list.
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Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). Other essays are published in BrevityWaxwingSweet: A Literary ConfectionRiver Teeth, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster, and you can find her online at jillkwrites.com.

Teaching Brevity: Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost”

May 18, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

I open up each session of my five-week memoir and personal essay workshop with a writing prompt. The first session is probably the most challenging and also the most important because this is the start of the students’ journey and they may be nervous about meeting a class of eleven strangers and about what will be taught, especially if they are beginning memoir/essay writers. I often use Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” for that first opening lesson and prompt, as I think this list essay has a lot to teach, in an accessible way.

First, I love list essays as prompts. They provide structure to a writer—and structure can make things easier. If I told my students, “Hey, write an essay about what you’ve lost,” I know some of my students (beginning ones, especially) might be overwhelmed, but Arundel provides the scaffolding: the essay is made up of not just a list of things he’s lost, but each item has a particular format. First, the name of the item itself. Second, a colon. Third, when Arundel lost the item, or sometimes where. And fourth, a tiny bit of context. For example, his opening line: “Fleece hat and gloves: in the backseat of a Boston cab in 2002, before driving back to Maine.”

I should also add here that every week of my memoir and essay workshop, we focus on one main learning goal, and for that first week, it’s all about detail—sensory detail and the importance of description and specific examples. This list essay is a gold mine for that.

Arundel starts with concrete objects—hat, gloves, sunglasses—and then moves on to abstract items: a ‘“measurable dose of self-skepticism” and a “school-wide presidential election in sixth grade” and in doing so, this essay begins its first deepening. Arundel returns, however, to concrete objects throughout his essay, and I think this grounds the reader.

In the second paragraph, he begins weaving the items more tightly together. He dedicates this paragraph to the things he’s lost related to romantic aspirations and notions—a chance to kiss someone, his virginity, his heart. These items move, seemingly, chronologically as well, and this, along with their thematic connection, do the further work of deepening the essay and what we know about the narrator. If I said to my students, “Make sure you are developing character along the way!” they might look at me with wide eyes. But Arundel’s technique allows this character development to happen naturally, almost without our noticing he is doing it, one of the signs of good writing.

The third paragraph is largely focused on beliefs he has lost, and isn’t that the sign of wisdom gained through life lessons? The essay here is moving more into the abstract, but he ends this paragraph with something concrete, a shift. I point out to my students how Arundel mixes big, important items (“[g]eneral insecurity and inadequacy”) with smaller, less important items (a “taste for soy sausage patties”). These contrasts (concrete and abstract, larger and smaller, as well as serious and funny) create a texture to the fabric of the essay.

As the essay moves along, Arundel doesn’t exactly stick to his format—it flexes and changes, and you could argue that this is what he is showing: the flexing and changing that happens in a life.

After examining and discussing the essay with my students, I ask them to write their own “The Things I‘ve Lost” essay. I tell them that they can start by just brainstorming the items—they don’t have to yet think of where and when and context. They can just start jotting down whatever items come into their head when they think of things they have lost. I encourage them to start with concrete things before moving into the abstract, and to let their list get big before deciding which items they will actually use. Then, I ask them to try Arundel’s four-part format for each item, or come up with their own.

I have used other Brevity list essays in my workshop as well for writing prompts, most recently “Some Things About that Day” by Debra Marquart and “Work Lessons” by Lizz Huerta. They all give some structure to students and offer wonderful lessons on detail and specificity.

I don’t expect my students to have all the details in their first draft at all. But I hope that once they have the scaffolding of their own essay they will add the sensory details and descriptions that Arundel has in his essay. I hope, most of all, that my students will let their own essay take them wherever they are meant to go in their writing that day, even if it ends up being that they focus solely on one item on their list. I tell them to trust their mind to lead the way (even if it’s unexpected), which is maybe the greatest writing lesson of all.

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Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author. Her books include the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press) and A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53). She teaches memoir and personal essay workshops. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.

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THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.

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