Essay Camp Day 3
“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Welcome to the third day of Essay Camp.
How is camp treating you so far? Have you had a chance to visit the (imaginary) lake? Can you smell the blooming hawthorn on the way to the (virtual) breakfast tent? Have you suffered any bug bites?
We’ve been writing together for two days now, and some of you may be starting to wonder—when will what I’m writing turn into an essay? I know that some of you are finding yourself writing drafts of essay-shaped things already, without even meaning to, while others are still keeping it more fragmented. Both are fine. Tomorrow we’re going to start talking more about essay structure, and different kinds of essays, and how to coax your own writing into the form of a finished piece. But for today, let’s stay in the writing phase a little longer. I want you to spend more time with that strange and unknown place where words come from, when we’re not yet trying to “be good” or “do it right.”
This may sound like a non sequitur, but have any of you seen the British TV show Derry Girls? It’s a comedy about a group of teenagers in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and there’s a scene in the first season where they take over the school newspaper. They need to brainstorm articles for the new issue, and on the blackboard they have written their only two pitches: “shoes of the world” and “animals.”
I love that scene. It’s so funny, but it also reminds me of the way our brains tend to work when we have to come up with “good ideas.” If we aren’t spending much time connecting with our own intuitive space, “shoes of the world” and “animals” (or some version of that) may be the only ideas we can come up with.
So forget good ideas. Those can come later. Do not try to be talented or charming. Just be present, and write honestly. Conjure images with your writing. Tell it like it really is, or like it really was. Write to find out what it is you want to write about.
Susan Sontag once said that every writer must really be four people: the nut or the obsédé (“the obsessed”), the moron, the stylist, and the critic. The nut provides the material (or the desire to write), the moron lets it out, the stylist is the writer’s taste, and the critic is their intelligence. The irony is that the moron sometimes has the best ideas.
Be the moron, and don’t be afraid to be boring. You do not have to come up with “good ideas” or “good things to write about.” Write about anything. If you don’t know what to write about for your five things, just focus on writing five true things that you saw, or that happened, in the past 24 hours.
I know that some of you are feeling good about the writing you’re doing, while others have struggled, to find topics that inspire them, or just to get it done. I spoke with one participant last night who said that they had reached the end of the day, and didn’t think they still had time for Essay Camp. This is what I told them: do the Five Things prompt, and only write down one word or short phrase per number. Just five words in total, if necessary. It will only take one or two minutes, but it will keep you tethered to the practice. It keeps you connected. You will have accomplished the hardest and most important part of the process: showing up.
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