Writing Your Life Into Short Creative Essays: Tips from Melanie Faith

Monday, June 21, 2010
"In the writing of memoirs, as in the production of shows, too much caution causes the audience to nod and think of other channels." Gerald Clarke.

The writer in us desires to share where we've been, what we've learned, our thoughts on life, love, forgiveness, strength and the art of being human. We pick up the pen and...suddenly all our experiences seem dull and lifeless. Good news, Melanie Faith is coming to the rescue with her class The Art Of Truth: Writing Your Life Into Short Creative Essays which begins Friday, June 25th, 2010. There is still time to enroll in this exciting class; please visit our classroom page for information.

Melanie Faith is a poet, educator, photographer and returning WOW! workshop instructor. We had a nice chat this week about her upcoming class:

Welcome Melanie! We're excited to have you as a returning instructor here at WOW! Workshop and Classes. This time you will be teaching a course in creative essay writing. Would you please elaborate on what exactly is a creative essay? How is this different from other forms of memoir?

Melanie: Thanks. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with WOW! writers and staff in the three other writing courses I've taught, and I'm excited about this new essay writing class! I would be happy to elaborate on the creative essay. While both memoir and creative essays are based on the life experiences of the author herself, memoirs tend to be linear and ordered in sequential time periods, whereas creative essays (sometimes referred to as the "creative nonfiction" essay genre) may jump backwards or forwards through time or omit certain eras or details entirely, choosing to focus a spotlight on one particular theme or one particular experience. In general, creative essays are shorter in length, but still integrate many of the fascinating literary techniques of memoir as well as fiction and poetic techniques, too--such as a focus on setting along with rich and resonant imagery. In the class, students will use various prompts to inspire five individual essays of under a thousand words each for supportive and constructive feedback and suggestions each week. I will also provide three professionally-written and published personal essays each week as examples of the variety of essay styles and techniques which students may study to note what other essayists have done and then incorporate into their own drafts.

I see, so creative essay is more artistic than the average auto-biographical account of one's life experiences.

What is the benefit to learning the art of creative essay? What skills will students learn that can be applied to other areas?

Melanie: Students will delve into memories (and in many cases unearth details they'd long forgotten) and have the chance to set those moments onto page. For many writers who dream of one day telling their own stories in their own ways but find it difficult to begin, completing an essay can be a huge accomplishment. Whether wanting to note these experiences for one's own clarity at a crossroads in life of hoping to set down the way it truly was for future generations, students will find the essay form to be both accessible and illuminating. Many of the essays we will read and use as class examples read as fascinating and immediate as a chat with a good friend or an afternoon with a good fiction story--with the added bonus that students are sculpting meaning from real life events. So seldom in life do we have time or energy to reflect at length on what we have done or what has been done to us, much less where we have been and where we hope yet to go. This course will provide that invaluable opportunity--along with learning tools to structure a compelling and meaning-rich personal narrative from the dizzying array of details the writer may choose.

Sounds like there is a therapeutic quality this style of writing (smile).

What are some of the struggles or obstacles students are facing in their writing practice when they come to you?

Melanie: One of the biggest struggles my students share is the deep desire to write despite various limitations on time in making writing a priority in everyday life. As busy caregivers, grandmothers, sisters, career women or stay-at-home moms, having a consistent weekly deadline can be extremely helpful in making time to write in an already crowded schedule. I very much admire my students' breadth of commitments to so many others in their lives as well as their determination to see their own experiences shine on the page.
In addition to the structure and motivation in the form of regular deadlines and teacher feedback on their pieces, the course also provides a community of writers. Writing can be a solitary craft, and the support and interaction with other writers can be tremendously motivating. In my last WOW! writing course, I created a Google group for students to introduce themselves, ask writing questions (of the instructor as well as each other), post writing quotations and excerpts of their own writing and writers who have inspired them, as well as to download instructive writing files that I post. I was thrilled at the level of interactions and camaraderie of the students, and I will be creating a private Google croup again for the essay writing course. For writers without a writing group in their community in particular, the online class group is a wonderful space to discuss the writing craft, challenges and joys of works-in-progress, and to develop contacts and courage to write one's own best work. I look forward to virtually "meeting" and getting to know my students who sign up for the course!

We love that feeling of group camaraderie here at WOW! It is amazing how much more inner strength a writer experiences when she has access to a group of people sharing similar goals.

Many times when we begin to write about our past experience we find ourselves writing about an incident from an outside or distanced perspective. Can you share with us a tip or trick on how to get back into the emotional memory?

Melanie: Great question! Particularly when writing about painful or previously suppressed memories, it can be a challenge in the first draft for the essayist to draw near to the incident without emotionally distancing. One of the best tricks for drawing close to the memory is the "five minute challenge"--an initial five-minute free write. (Students may, of course, keep writing past those initial five-minutes on the clock, and are encouraged to do so, but five minutes appears to launch writing without too much second-guessing or criticism from the internal editor.) Within that amount of time , it is very difficult to self-protect or shield the emotional details from bubbling up from the pen; it's truly amazing what five mere minutes can deliver! Students typically begin the first two or three sentences in third-person, in a more formal and distanced Voice, and then (because of the constriction of time) find their sentences relaxing and becoming more fluid and self-revealing as the draft progresses. Students have frequently noted an "aha!" moment half-way through an essay draft which draws very close to a personal truth or emotional vulnerability that otherwise they would not have felt comfortable revealing at onset. When editing the piece after the free-write, students often find that they can edit or even entirely omit the first few sentences where the essayist is cautiously working a way into their real emotional territory, once the subconscious begins to deliver ideas and the essayist begins to follow the flow, letting the emotional guard down and daring to write what before seemed impossible to share. So I would certainly suggest a five-minute challenge, followed by editing to get to the "real" emotional terrain of a piece. Another little trick I've shared with students wanting to draw closer to emotion in a piece: highlight one sentence in the piece that seems to shimmer with beauty or to leap off of the page with vital truth--then begin the second draft of the piece with that sentence.

Another tip to draw near the emotion (and which our class text, Courage & Craft also suggests) is to practice keeping a journal. "A journal should be raw and messy... The more secure you feel about the privacy of what you 're writing, the more free you'll be when you write... When you write about traumatic events or huge milestones in your life, you'll get the energy and the feelings down, but in the moment it's unlikely you'll have the perspective. It's all raw data-- valuable for its energy and detail, but it needs time to cool so that it can be shaped into meaning. During the bad times, just take notes." Writers can then integrate the emotional energy and specific details from their unorganized journal entries into their more-ordered essay drafts at places where the authors have backed away a bit from he emotional detail of gone flat out of self-protection.

Terrific Tips! Thank you for sharing them with us.

Melanie, what do you hope the students come away with at the end of the course?

Melanie: First and foremost, their experiences in life matter and can be shaped and molded to an art form that others will find compelling. While a creative essay may ostensibly focus on the experiences of one person's daily life, the essay form is amazingly connective.

Also, I want students to come away with further ideas for writing future personal essays, and enriched sense of the variety of literary techniques used in crafting writing, and (just as importantly) five of their own new creative essays to refine and, potentially, to submit for publication.

I sounds like this class could open up new doorways in a writer's life. Thank you so much for visiting with us today, Melanie. We are looking forward to this class.

Readers, if you are interested in learning the art of writing creative essays or would like to read more about Melanie Faith please visit our classroom page. The Art Of Truth: Writing Your Life Into Short Creative Essays begins Friday, June 25th, 2010 and runs for 5 weeks; enrollment is still open but we encourage you to register now as class size is limited.

Interview by Robyn Chausse


Marcia Peterson said...

Great tips, Melanie! I enjoyed this interview.

Melanie Faith said...

Thanks, MP! :) So glad that you stopped by to read the interview. Robyn did a great job, asking quite insightful questions.

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