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Essay Camp Day 5
Enough talk. Let's make something.
“A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
Welcome to the fifth and final day of Essay Camp!
My dear friends and fellow writers—thank you so much for joining me this week for the fourth session of Essay Camp. As we stand together on this final day, I hope you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished!
If you decided to attend camp, I hope you managed to write this week. If you did the writing assignments, you might have anywhere from 100 to 6,000 new words or more to work from and play around with. If you worked in rebel mode, I hope you managed to make some progress with your project or gained a clearer idea of what you want to do with it. If you did the reading assignments, I hope you found at least one essay that inspired you, made you think, or gave you permission to try something new in your own writing.
If you’re planning to freewrite or do a Five Things prompt today, go ahead and do that now before continuing. You know what to do, so go ahead and write. We will wait.
Finished? That’s great. Let’s continue.
Now that we’ve reached the end of another Essay Camp, the time has come to read over what you’ve written and see what your nets have pulled up from the deep.
As you read back over your drafts from the past five days, either now or over the next few weeks, please take note of the following:
What have I chosen to write about?
Is what I’ve written personal, general, or both?
What different topics or stories are represented here?
How, if at all, are any of them connected?
Do I notice any common images or themes?
Is there something here I’m drawn to write more about?
Do any lines, passages, descriptions, or turns of phrase appeal to me?
Please feel free to jot these observations down as notes if you find it helpful.
Like poems, essays have their own logic. We do not have to have it all figured out before we put pen to paper, or lay our fingers on the computer keys. As Joan Didion said: “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Do not be afraid to write without first understanding why. Things like understanding, themes, and conscious intent can all come later. In the beginning, it’s best not to worry too much about crafting sentences, but rather to simply employ oneself as a stenographer to our own memories, ideas, and thoughts.
A freewriting exercise like the Five Things prompt is not supposed to feel like throwing pots on a ceramicist’s wheel—expert and graceful, with a finished and useful thing resulting at the end. At this stage, it’s more like digging up the clay. You’re mining the necessary minerals. Later on is when you can make or refine the raw material. You must dry it, grind it, make a slurry, pour it through a screen, let it stand, and knead it. Then you can try to make your pot on the wheel. Then, and only then will you find out how good your clay is. If your clay turns out to be poor— it doesn’t hold together, or it’s insubstantial—then you will know you need to work on your clay production. For now, let’s see if we can’t make a little pot or two with the material you’ve already dug up. Let’s try to write something essay-shaped from what we’ve already written.
Before we get to the final assignment for today, and the homework for the coming week—yes, there will be homework!—let’s review what we’ve covered the past four days.
On the first day, we gave ourselves permission to begin; to put one word down after another, and tried to do so without fear of judgment from ourselves or from others. We allowed ourselves to be as stupid, untalented, uncool, crazy, and boring as we needed to be in order to get the words out. As Annie Ernaux said: “The act of writing is an act of courage.” We decided to tune out all external noise about what is right or wrong, good or bad when it comes to writing, and focus only on telling the truth.
On the second day, we took the advice of Lucille Clifton and focused on asking questions rather than thinking we must already know the answers. By writing for two days in a row, we began to establish or reestablish our writing practice. I invited you to think of your rough drafts as seeds planted in the shelter of a greenhouse, that may or may not be cultivated and replanted to form a mature garden one day. Our job was not to worry about garden design just yet, but rather to focus on shaking the seeds loose and sticking them in the soil. We reminded ourselves that a writing practice must often be created and re-created many times, but that what mattered most was the consistent decision to return and begin again.
On the third day, we remembered the words of Louise Glück: “Poetry survives because it haunts and it haunts because it is simultaneously utterly clear and deeply mysterious; because it cannot be entirely accounted for, it cannot be exhausted.” While most of us here at Essay Camp may not have spent the week writing poems, I believe this sentiment also applies to the ever-shifting and inexhaustible essay form. In this spirit of deep mystery, we tried to spend a little longer in that exploratory, generative phase, that strange and unknown place where words come from when we’re not yet trying to “be good” or “do it right.” Whether writing personally or generally, the idea was to try and strengthen the connection to our intuitive selves, that weird and wonderful place in all of us where some of our best ideas come from.
On the fourth day we talked about different essay structures and how to begin to think about revising what we’ve written. We examined some common types of essays including the braided essay, the lyric essay, the fragmented essay, the narrative essay, and what some call the “mimetic” essay—an essay that takes the form of something else, like a letter or a questionnaire. There are other forms too, like the vignette essay, which is my current favorite form, and one used by Hemingway in his early days.
We remembered that all essays, no matter their structure, must have three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning draws you in, the middle holds your interest, and the ending sees you out again with a sense of closure. All essays, no matter their type, structure, narrative, or lack thereof, will always have these three things. If each does their job well, then details like topic, style, or formal label become relatively unimportant.
We were encouraged to develop our own creative “muscle memory,” so that we can work by following what feels right, and figure our the reason or justification for it later. We were invited to ask ourselves if any parts of what we’d written so far felt like a beginning, a middle, or an end, and to begin to arrange them accordingly. As Virginia Woolf said, whom I quoted during a previous session: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” In the words of Leonard Cohen: “The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
Now is the time to arrange the pieces that have come our way; to cut the gem.
I would like you to take what you’ve written this week and finish at least one essay based on the collected material. Most people will only use some of what they wrote, but if you feel you can incorporate everything, feel free to give that a try. What’s important is that you tailor your plans to your schedule. Take on something manageable, that you can finish in the next few weeks. Getting into the habit of finishing things, even before you have the skill to make them good enough to satisfy your own taste, is more important than almost any other skill you will learn in writing.
So without further ado, on this last day of Essay Camp, let’s get down to work.
“I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
Writing Assignment, Day 5
Please write a Five Things draft. If you have avoided writing one this week, maybe now is the time to give it a try? Please write all five things, even if you can only manage one word or short sentence apiece. When you’re done, read back over your drafts from today and the previous four days, and see if you like anything that you’ve written. Does any of it feel true? Is there anything that surprises you? Are there any topics that you’d like to choose for an essay? Is there an essay here already, or the seed of an essay, or an idea? Pay attention to any sentences or passages that might serve as a beginning, a middle, or an end.
Alternate Option 1: Freewriting
If you’re not working with the Five Things prompt today, proceed to freewriting instead.
Set a timer for whatever interval of time you have—ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour—and write whatever comes. Try not to look back at what you’ve written. Keep moving forward, without worrying whether what you’ve written is good or not, until you’ve reached the end of your allotted time.
In case you need a prompt:
Write about a moment in your life when you decided to take action.
Describe what it was like as a kid when you stayed home from school.
Write about a time when someone stood you up.
Describe a memory that involved pumpkins, zucchinis, squash, or gourds.
Write about a time when you broke the law.
Write about the room you would need in order to fix everything that is wrong with your life, and what’s in it.
Describe a moment when everything changed.
Write about a particular autumn.
Write about a funeral.
Write about a fire.
Write about moss.
Alternate Option 2: Rebel Mode
This is the last sprint of the week, so work on your own project as much as you can.
“The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.” —Zadie Smith
Part 2: Revision
Now it is time to edit. You can do this today, or you can schedule some time to work on it next week or in the coming weeks. Time is the best editor, but use it wisely. Taking a little space from your work can sometimes yield answers if you’re feeling stuck, but our goal is to have a finished essay by the end of the month. You can take as much time as you need, but please plan to finish your essay as soon as possible.
If your drafts were written by hand, now may be a good time to type them up. Feel free to add or change things as you go, and expand on what you’ve already written. To begin the revision process, focus on what is working for you already. This may be an idea, a sentence, a whole paragraph, or an entire passage.
One method you can try is to cut and paste the parts you like into a new document, or re-type the sentences from these sections while changing and adding as you go. See where there are holes. Do you need a better beginning? A longer or more coherent middle? An end, or a stronger end?
Your essay can be very short like a Hemingway vignette, very long like Suzanne Rivecca’s Ugly, Bitter, and True, or somewhere in the middle. It’s up to you. Think about the different kinds of essays we’ve read and discussed, and see if there are any common forms you’d like to try. Do you want to combine different subjects in a braided essay? Or do you have a story that is best served when told as a cohesive, single narrative? Do you want to lean into a fragmented quality, or experiment with the mimetic form? Do you want to add more context to your poetic images? Or would you prefer to remove the specific context of your imagery and let your essay develop along less logical and more lyrical lines?
Remember, your essay does not have to be perfect, or even very good. Take the pressure off. It just has to be done.
For essays that are 2,000 words or shorter, please have your essay finished by midnight, local time, on Sunday November 12th. For essays longer than 2,000 words but shorter than 5,000 words, your deadline is midnight, local time, on Sunday, November 19th. For essays longer than 5,000 words, please have an initial finished draft (with a beginning, middle, and end) completed by midnight, local time, on November 30th.
Important note: if you don’t like anything you’ve written this week, that is good news! There are a million terrible sentences inside every writer’s mind, and you need to get all of them out first before you can get to the good ones. You are now that much closer to the words you’ll feel good about. If you really and truly hate everything you wrote this week, you can put those words away for now. Shape them into a short essay if you can, even a bad one, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and save it. If you already hate it, then the stakes are low, so you might as well do it anyway, right? Keep writing, and then revisit what you’ve written in a month or two. See what you think of it then. You might find that your words have improved with age. If not, no worries. Just keep writing; keep digging your way through.
“I have to finish it in order to know whether it deserves to survive.” — Leonard Cohen
Reading Assignment, Day 5
For inspiration, feel free to look back at any of the essays shared this week. You can also draw inspiration from fiction, poetry, and any other form.
Essay Camp Extended: The NaNoWriMo Alternative (New!)
This session, for the first time, I would like to encourage those who wish to do so to continue their writing practice on for the next 25 days, until the end of the month. As many writers know, November is known as “National Novel Writing Month,” the brainchild of writer Chris Baty. He created the challenge in 1999 and later formed a nonprofit organization to support it. The official “rules” of NaNoWriMo are these: a writer must finish the first draft of a novel; the novel must be new; it must be at least 50,000 words long; it must not be co-authored; and the wordcount must be met on or before midnight on November 30th. If you achieve these goals during the 30 days, then according to NaNoWriMo you have “won” the challenge.
This challenge is fun and useful for a lot of people, and less enticing to others. I think it lends itself better to fiction than to nonfiction, and privileges stories that are told in a more straightforward manner. What a time-based challenge is great for, however, is getting your creative synapses firing and producing a lot of new work.
For our November Essay Camp, I would like to invite you to extend your practice to the full 30 days. There is still no word count, but stick to your commitments. If you decide to write five things every day, write five things every day. If your decide to write two pages longhand, do that. Make a commitment to yourself and keep it, even when it’s inconvenient to do so.
I am so grateful to you all for coming along on this journey. Thank you so much for writing along with me, for creating community for each other, and for sharing your progress. You’ve all given me so much with your creativity, curiosity, and determination. Some of you stayed up late to write, or got up insanely early. You wrote on the subway, in bathrooms, in libraries, and at kitchen tables. Some of you wrote while feeling uninspired, tired, sick, and discouraged. But you did it anyway.
Thank you for showing up. Thank you for supporting me and each other. If you’re continuing on with Essay Camp Extended, keep in touch via Substack Chat and let the group know how it’s going.
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