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Writerly Roundup — September 2015

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Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.

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Photo by Jena Schwartz

In The Essay in Parts at Assay Journal, Steven Harvey (@THEsharvey) and Ana Maria Spagna (@amspagna) tag team to present a thoughtful and compelling overview of the different elements of the essay form. For example, Harvey speaks to how "the beginning is a choice. Life is one continuous stream of time offering no beginnings or ends except as we make them. We don't discover the beginning after a long search, we choose it." Or here's Spagna on how "a scene is like an invitation. You're inviting the reader to enter the story without taking a long detour through the filter of your mind."

The Essay in Parts, which is peppered throughout with illuminating examples, is based on a presentation that Harvey and Spagna gave at the annual River Teeth Nonfiction Conference on May 30, 2015 (video available here), and is worth reading in its entirety.

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In No Comments, Lauren Apfel (@laurenapfel) writes candidly in Vela about her position, as a personal essayist, to never read the on-site comments section of the pieces she publishes. She deftly describes why ad hominem attacks to first-person accounts can feel so damaging:

A piece of writing is two things at once. It is content and form. It is what you say and it is how you say it. The problem with being a personal essay writer, as opposed to a novelist or a reporter, is that you are vulnerable on both of these fronts. You are laid open, soft and quivering, to critique of your skill as much as to critique of your beliefs. Attack on the first front is bearable and potentially useful: skills can be improved, lessons can be learned. Attack on the second front is less so: Beliefs are not as easily shifted as commas.

Her thought-provoking piece touches on the different approaches one can take with respect to readers' on-site reactions, and she ultimately justifies shielding herself from them wholesale because "if I get myself into a situation where I am worrying about how my readers will perceive me as a human being, I will write differently. Less honestly, less powerfully."

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At The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone (@nickripatrazone) compiled an excellent roundup of writers relaying their rejection tales. In Lessons From No: Writers on Their Most Formative Rejections, Ripatrazone sets forth seven writers on their most formative rejection stories, including Pamela Erens ("Artists are very vulnerable people. We don't know what the hell we're doing a lot of the time, and it becomes easy to transform someone else into a guru who has the Word.") and Andrew Ervin ("The opportunity to continue improving a story is one I've learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal 'crude, superficial and too long' test before I send it out."). As for himself, Ripatrazone astutely concludes, "I am now thankful for the rejections that used to frustrate me. I am also thankful for sharing the experiences of others. Pity the writer who thinks he or she is finished learning from failure."

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Earlier this month, both Slate and The Guardian ran pieces that shed light on the personal essay "boom" - its pleasures and perils. The original Slate piece, by Laura Bennett (@lbennett), depicts the somewhat problematic rise of the first-person essay in publishing. Her premise:

First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention...

She concedes there is a select subset of essays that are more polished, self-aware, that succeed in writing "about oneself in a way that is at once gripping and sensitive and that sheds light on broader sociopolitical issues," but remains troubled by the bevy of others--salacious attempts at self-exposure--that miss the mark: "So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection." And the dilemma from the editorial standpoint:  "It’s harder than ever to weigh the ethics of publishing these pieces against the market forces that demand them..."

The Guardian piece, by Ruth Spencer (@ruths), adds to the conversation by eliciting the opinions of several senior editors at publications well known for publishing personal essays--from BuzzFeed to Jezebel to The Hairpin and XOJane--on what they value in these pieces, how they protect their writers, and whether there's a gender disparity. The predominant takeaways here are that there is a persistent value in this first-person writing, in the telling of an individual's story, and that the writer's privacy and preparedness for the piece to go live on the Internet is paramount.

Whatever your view, both pieces' insightful of-the-moment commentary on the rise of the personal essay is not to be missed.

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Last month, The New York Times ran a lovely piece about writers' rooms, giving us a glimpse into the diverse and delightful spaces in which certain writers write and why, in their own words.

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Finally, I will leave you with this masterpiece on omission by John McPhee in The New Yorker--about how writing is selection, how what is left unsaid is as important, if not more, than what is stated. Here, my favorite paragraph in the piece:

To cause a reader to see in her mind's eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!


Dina L. Relles is a writer with work in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River TeethSTIR JournalBrain, Child Magazine, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work on her own site, Commonplaceand you can connect with her on Twitter She lives in New York with her husband and children. Dina is a former blog editor for Literary Mama.


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