Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Guest Blogger Candy Schulman on How Personal Essay Writers Think (and what they need to do)

When you’re a personal essay writer, you notice the bylines on every personal essay you read, anywhere, every time, and you keep a mental list of other essayists whose work has muscle, exemplifies the craft, and is just plain good to read. Candy Schulman’s name is on the mental list I keep. So I was especially delighted (and a little embarrassed) when she contacted me not long ago to let me know she is a regular reader of this blog.

Candy's essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Travel & Leisure, Glamour, Parents,, and in the anthology Lost and Found, Stories from New York. She is also an Associate Professor at The New School, where she teaches the creative non-fiction workshop titled Finding Your Voice in Non-Fiction.

Please welcome Candy Schulman.

One day last winter, as I was picking up my mail in my apartment building lobby, I noticed that the front of my building was sealed off by crime tape as if an episode of Law and Order were being filmed. But this was a real life crime scene: an elderly woman had jumped to her death from her eighteenth floor window. I stayed in the lobby, mentally taking notes on neighbors’ reactions and the ensuing police investigation.

Was I intruding into someone else’s tragedy? Was I a voyeur? Or was I just a writer, doing my job?

I remember Philip Roth once remarking that at his mother’s funeral—the most profound day of his life—his mind was taking note of every detail, knowing he would use this material somewhere, someday. He felt guilty at first, but then reconciled the fact that this is what writers do. It’s part of our job.

I couldn’t get my mind off the poor woman in my building who’d committed suicide—and immediately wrote an essay called The Nameless Old Lady Who Jumped. An essayist cannot just record the facts of what happened—she must take the story somewhere. I connected this tragedy to my own mother, who had recently died after a long illness, knowing first hand how desperate elderly people can be. I was both an observer and participant in the story. The theme of loneliness in old age was identifiable and generalizable to many readers.

A writer always “takes notes” because ideas are everywhere. Once I was on the subway, rattling under Manhattan, when I heard a faceless conductor’s voice, announcing each stop with poetic descriptions of city neighborhoods. I took out the notebook I always carried with me, and started recording—not only the conductor’s lilting announcements, but the way the subway riders at first found it annoying (interrupting their reading or music selections), and slowly started to smile, bonding with each other the more the conductor orated. He was transforming a tedious job into something that made the riders feel uplifted.

Never leave home without your writer’s notebook. But taking notes isn’t enough. How do you take an idea and lift it into an artfully-crafted essay?

First you need characters. Bring them to life. Make them engaging and identifiable.

Create a point of view. Is the writer a part of the story? Are you a protagonist? You can’t just recite facts—that’s what journalists do. Why do you, as the narrator, feel passion about telling this story? What do you know about it that others do not?

Define the conflict. All literature has conflict, and essays must have dramatic tension to keep the reader curious to read on.

Develop two levels to your story. There are often two stories: the one on the surface, and the one below the surface. Be intimate with your story, yet step back to give yourself enough distance to see the underlying metaphor.

Use dialogue. You can’t always remember exactly what someone said, but do the best of your ability. As Vladimir Nabokov said, “Memory is a form of fiction.”

Balance the narrative, description, dialogue. Think of the essay as a piece of music, with different tones and harmonies. Incorporate fictional techniques to make your essay multi-dimensional rather than monochrome.

Move the plot forward. Of course you must compress and leave the mundane details out, but ask yourself: what are you trying to write about? Why are you crafting this story? You’re writing to tell—and show—the reader something you know, something you’ve discovered, something you’ve learned. Avoid trite phrases such as, “In conclusion,” or “I learned that…” Be subtle, especially with the ending.

Visualize the arc of your story. Build toward the climax, the denouement, the resolution.

Revise, rewrite, revise. Don’t underestimate the number of revisions it takes to finish a 1,000 word essay. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” I have printed out hundreds of revised pages before calling an essay “finished.” My ecologically-minded teenage daughter worries that I am wasting paper, but my response is: this is how writers write. And then I donate my old drafts to the recycle bin.

Note from Lisa: To find out more about Candy, visit her website.


Laura Shumaker said...

Terrific and inspiring article. Thank you Candy and thank you LISA!!
I needed a kick in the butt and now I've gotten one.

Laura Shumaker

Amy Deneson said...

Excellent advice Candy! Thank you. I’m writing your tips in my notebook and carrying THEM everywhere.

Marisa Birns said...

Read this post twice because I admired it so much! Then printed it out.

I do carry a notebook with me, for the very reasons you've stated.

Thank you for the reminder on how to take those notes and turn them into an essay full of art. I also write short stories and your points are very much applicable there, too!

Uli said...

What a great post. I'm always whipping out my notebook to record my observations -- most recently at a Journey cover band show (don't ask) using my husband's shoulder as an easel -- and I never know what to do next. Now I have a checklist. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent post, I'm sharing it with all the essay writers I know. Would love to see more guest posts from Candy.

Lisa McKay said...

Amen, especially the part about the number of revisions it can take to polish 1000 word essay. Very occasionally complete essays are "gifted" to me. More often they take weeks to construct - sometimes the process feels like working to build a bridge from both banks of the river simultaneously. Thanks for your post.

Catherine Stine said...

Powerful post! I remember feeling guilty when I was telling myself, during some very weird and dark events, that it would all be valuable fodder for a novel. Now I know I'm not the only one feeling that way!

Unknown said...

To Lisa McKay: Nora Ephron wrote an excellent essay on the revision process called "Revision And Life: Take it from the Top--Again," originally published in the New York Times Book Review. --Candy

Ryder ziebarth said...

I am printing this and posting on my memo board--great stuff--many thanks. and if i get an Ipad for my birhtday on Sunday, I have just found its purpose in my purse......

Anonymous said...

Such good ideas here. Thank you! I'm delving into the essay world . ..