Writing an Essay

Tell It SlantIn 2009, I received my master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. Through three years of workshops, I learned a lot about structure, audience, and craft. Despite these lessons, for me, one of the hardest parts of writing an essay has always been figuring out a topic. Or, to be honest, not giving up on the topic in the first three paragraphs.

A turning point in my schooling was a visit from the illustrious Brenda Miller, coauthor of Tell It Slant and author of Season of the Body, among other masterpieces. Reading these two very different books and working with her in a small group changed my approach to essay writing.

She instructed us to take a memory and relive the moment through smell, touch, and sound. Then, we brainstormed around the memory. She told us to be free about this process—the weird connections are what make the technique magical. Next, we combined the connections with the sensory.

I left that workshop with the beginnings of an essay that juxtaposed an early memory of my brother and me catching fireflies in summer dusk with the scientific and biological processes that allow the fireflies to shine. (Did you know, for instance, that the compounds luciferin and luciferase are the catalysts of this chemical reaction, as in Lucifer of fallen light? Cool, right?)

Those moments of connection are what drive me as a writer. They blow the world wide open.

Try Brenda’s approach yourself—no matter your preferred genre—and let me know how it works for you.

  1. Pick a memory (example: brother catching fireflies)
  2. Relive the memory through all five senses (example: crickets chirping, fireflies rising, the smell of mown grass, the creak of the screen door on the house)
  3. Brainstorm freely around the memory (example: fireflies look like embers, fireflies shine to attract a mate, my brother studied fireflies and their “cold light” with his ex-girlfriend for a chemistry class in college, female fireflies of one species sometimes trick and then eat the males of another species)
  4. Weave strands of the brainstorming and the memory together (example: brother finding a life partner and marrying, me releasing him from our childhood to his new life, the scientific background of what makes a firefly tick, why luciferin is thusly named, and so on)

Happy writing!

PS: I also highly recommend both Tell It Slant (a guide to shaping creative nonfiction) and Season of the Body (a collection of heartwarming and heartbreaking essays).

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