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Essay Camp Day 1
“The act of writing is an act of courage.” —Annie Ernaux
Welcome to the first day of Essay Camp.
You made it. Here we are in November, near the end of the year, together. You’ve booked passage across imaginary oceans, weathered virtual long-haul flights, and driven through the fictional night to arrive here. I’m so glad you could make it. It’s the first day of Essay Camp, and we’re going to do some writing.
Being a writer is hard—far harder than it has any business being. A lot of people might imagine what it would be like to create essays or novels, memoirs or biographies. They can see the books with their name on the spine there in their mind’s eye, stacked on tables at fancy parties where they are the guest of honor. But it’s much easier to fantasize about the benefits than to actually do it. When it comes time to put words to page, many freeze. We all do, even those who have done it before. To start is often the hardest part of the process, and the biggest difference between those who write and those who don’t is simply that first decision: to begin.
The thing that stops most of us is fear. We’re afraid we will fail. We’re afraid we’ll look stupid, untalented, uncool, crazy, or boring. This week at the very least, I am here to tell you not to worry about any of that. I am here to give you permission to be as stupid, untalented, uncool, crazy, and boring as you need to be, in order to put one word down after another on the page. To quote the recent Nobel-winner Annie Ernaux: “Writing is an act of courage.”
We’re holding this session of Essay Camp during National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, but our goals is to write essays or essay-like things. What is an essay? An essay can be long or short, personal or impersonal. It can express your truth, explain your stance, introduce an idea, or marry two seemingly unrelated topics together. Essays can be quiet or loud, modest or grandiose. They can tell readers what to think, or leave them to puzzle it out on their own. There’s sometimes an assumption that an essay must make an argument or tell a story with a clear lesson attached, but many of the best essays do neither of those things. To write an essay is to reach for something, not so much to explain as to explore.
You do not have to fully understand a story or a topic to write an essay about it. Not only can you write to find out what it is you think or feel about something, but doing so is highly encouraged. Many, many writers, from James Baldwin to Joan Didion, have written about how they write in order find out what it is they think, feel, want to know, or don’t want to know.
As I wrote in a previous Essay Camp session, a lot of beginning writers have been given the impression that in order to write a powerful essay, they must get very personal, and dredge up the hardest, worst, or most interesting thing that has ever happened to them, and write about that. They think that their past must be strip-mined in this way, for content. But that is not really true. While you are certainly welcome to write about whatever you want this week, you do not need to go there, if you know what I mean. You can, but you don’t have to. In the kingdom of essays, all subjects are equal, from the very big to the very, very small. The things you don’t write about will shine through anyway, adding color to the things you do. Only you will know where the shine comes from.
This week as you write, you are encouraged to tune out all external noise about right or wrong, good or bad, when it comes to writing. Focus only on telling the truth. No one ever has to see these first drafts but you, so write in whatever way feels the most true to you.
The only thing I really want you to focus on doing today is to begin.
I’m going to use the same metaphor that I’ve used before. Our habits, our fears, our preconceived ideas of work, and art, and self, can sometimes feel like an itchy old coat that we wear, day in and day out. By writing in this way, we’re creating a warm space where we can take that coat off. Forget the self, and shrug free of routine identity. Lose your voice and walk voiceless into the place inside of you where voice does not exist. There are words there. Grab them. Take them from where they lie gleaming in the dark and carry them out with you into the light again.
“I write to reclaim my own voice.” — Annie Ernaux
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Writing Assignment, Day 1
Today you are going to write. All you have to do is get started. You don’t have to have any idea where you’re going with it yet, you just have to begin. I would like to invite you to use the prompt that I myself use every day (or every day that I remember): the Five Things essay prompt. It’s easy, open-ended, and gives you the freedom to write about whatever topic feels most pressing. For this session, I would like to encourage you to do this in a pared-down way if you find it necessary. If you’re strapped for time or sapped of energy, try just writing down five sentences.
Here’s how it works:
Open up a blank document, turn to a new page in your notebook, or pull up your favorite writing app, and write or type the number 1. Then write about whatever comes to mind. An image, an idea, a memory, something that you saw yesterday or remember from twenty years ago. It doesn’t matter as long as what you write is true, or feels true. Write for as long as you want without going back to read any of it. Do not retrace your steps to edit. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. It’s fine to be grammatically incorrect or narratively repetitive. Then without reading over what you’ve just written, move on to number 2 and start again. Your second thing can be related to the first, or completely unrelated. It might be secretly related in ways you don’t quite realize yet. You can let each section be as long or as short as you need them to be, from a single word to many pages. When you’re done, move on to number 3, and so on, until you have completed all five things. Then you’re done. Put it away and don’t think about it until later today or tomorrow.
I like this prompt because it can often push you to keep going just a little bit further, to push past the places where you might normally stop.
If you are choosing to use a pared down version of this prompt, where you only write five sentences or even single words, try sticking with observations from the real world, without using metaphor. This is an assignment that the poet Marie Howe likes to give, for example: “I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places.” You may be surprised by what you produce when these observations start to add up.
Alternate Option 1: Freewriting
If you’ve already tried the Five Things essay prompt and didn’t like it, or would just prefer to do something else, you can go ahead and try some freewriting instead.
Set a timer for whatever interval of time you have—ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour—and write whatever comes. As with the Five Things prompt, try not to look back at what you’ve written as you’re writing it. Keep going forward, without worrying whether it’s good or not, until you’ve reached the end of your allotted time.
For those who would like a specific prompt, you can try out some of these:
Write about what the world smelled like the first time you fell in love.
Finish this sentence: ‘The last time I danced like that was when…”
Write about being given a favorite toy when you were a child.
Write about a Thanksgiving past.
Write about a time you did or did not see a live animal—at the zoo, in the wilderness, or on a boat.
Describe a supermarket you don’t shop at anymore.
Describe the hottest day you can remember, and what you did to get through it.
Describe the hairstyle worn by your best friend in high school.
Write about a time when you were happy.
Write about a time when you were cruel.
Write about the fact that you hate writing, have no talent, or cannot write.
Write about the most boring thing you can think of.
Write about oranges.
Write about locks.
Alternate Option 2: Rebel Mode
If you’re here for the camaraderie of the write-along exercise and plan to write something other than essays, go ahead and work on your project for as much time as you have.
Reading Assignment, Day 1
If you want to write essays, you should be in the habit of reading them. If you have time to both read and write over the next five days, please do both. If you don’t, please prioritize the writing, and you can catch up with the readings over the rest of the month.
Today I would like you to read an essay. You can select one from a book you already own, buy or borrow a new book (e-books make this easy), find one you’ve been meaning to read in a literary magazine or newspaper online, or select one of several classic or well-known essays suggested below.
Essay Camp is always a mix of new and returning participants, so some of you will recognize these from previous sessions. Please try to choose one you haven’t read before, or haven’t read in a while.
“Goodbye to All That,” by Joan Didion, about 4,000 words, 18 minute read (PDF)
“Equal in Paris,” by James Baldwin, 6,775 words, 33 minute read (PDF)
“Tiny Beautiful Things,” by Cheryl Strayed, 896 words, 4 minute read
“Me Talk Pretty One Day,” by David Sedaris, 1,847 words, 9 minute read (PDF)
Time To Write!
Without further ado, let’s get started. To connect on social media, use the hashtag #EssayCamp, or look for the Essay Camp feed on BlueSky.
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