Personal process and the art of the essay

People often ask if I teach essay writing. The answer is: sort of. I’m better one-on-one and in small in-person groups (a holdover from being a therapist, perhaps?) and, so, consult accordingly.

I was recently asked 5 questions about essay writing (see below) for a class. These questions and answers will hopefully get you thinking about your own work.

Tell me about the first essay you sold.

Me[redith]: The first essay I sold was more of an essay/advice piece, and it was to Bride’s.  My father had passed away before my wedding and I wanted to write something that shared both my personal story but that included information that might also help someone else in a similar situation.

Can you tell me a little bit about your process? How do you go about writing an essay?

Me[redith]:  Sometimes it turns out that there is a specific topic I want to write about, and so I just write and write and write until I have a vague idea of where it’s going beyond the “idea.” I do this because, as a writer and a reader, I’m most interested in connections that “make themselves” rather than me trying to seek them out. Once those connections present themselves, and I have enough of them, the “writing” becomes more about shaping and editing and refining.

Where/how do you find ideas?

Me[redith]:  I don’t go looking because I’ve found that the approach of looking and seeking doesn’t work for me. Having said that, while I don’t go looking, per se, I’m receptive to my environment and also to what’s going on internally. From there, I am always writing down sentences on scraps of paper or typing them into my phone. I’m also lucky to have three separate writing partners who I trust and with whom I feel safe so when we write together, and ideas come, I can let them flow onto the page.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of essay writing? How do you overcome those challenges?

Me[redith]:  The most challenging part is when there is a gap between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page. This often becomes evident when I’ve let someone read the piece and they “want” it to be something it is not ever going to be. I’ve learned to realize this is likely because the piece is not done yet. This brings me back to that gap, the one between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page.

What advice do you have for aspiring essayists?

Me[redith]:  Concern yourself with the quality of what you publish rather than the quantity. That also goes for where you publish – quality first.