3 Lessons Learned in a Class on Writing Essays

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Saturday, our library system hosted a series of writing classes. Each was offered at a different branch, but all at the same time. This meant that you had to choose carefully. I almost didn’t pay attention to the session offered at my own branch. “Creative Nonfiction Workshop.” 

But then I looked at the subheading. “The Art of the Essay.” Ang is always nudging me to write essays. And I try after a fashion. For the most part, I rough them out and then reread them wondering why my life is so boring. It must be. Because these essays are like rice cakes. In case you couldn’t tell, I find rice cakes depressingly dull. 

But what did I have to lose? The instructor was Deborah Jackson Taffa. She has a memoir, Whiskey Tender, coming out from Harper in February. Her work has appeared in Salon, Huff Post, Best of Brevity, and more. 

By Saturday morning, I was excited. Taffa told us we would be doing a series of exercises. I fought not to roll my eyes. I am notoriously bad at doing exercises in workshops. It is embarrassing. 

First, she had us write out a series of details about someone we know. Sounds, visuals, and scents. Then we wrote a letter to that person. I wasn’t surprised that mine was awful. After all, it was a Workshop Writing Exercise. 

“Did everyone remember to include a line of dialogue?” Ugh. I didn’t even follow the instructions! But I took a quick look at the piece and slotted in a line of dialogue. What . . . how could that be? The improvement was instant and obvious. 

Then we started making lists. We made lists of our roles in life. Our fears. What we are good at. Our quirks. 

Taffa reminded us that in every essay we write, we are a character. We are a character who didn’t know what we do now. The character we are today has changed in many ways. We need to keep the role of that character in mind as we write. 

She took us through how to use a published essay as a mentor text. Then she showed us how preceding students have followed the mentor texts but changed things up. In the end, the final piece is entirely their own. 

As we made lists and wrote, we read and discussed. I noted the essays that most appealed to me. 



What did I learn? 

First – these short, linear pieces are the pieces I need to use as mentor texts. I can use them to study pacing and technique. But I must be willing to veer off in my own direction. 

Second – many a first draft is a flat, lifeless, boring thing. 

Third – add dialogue. By giving a character voice, you can breathe life into the most static essay. 

 Not every piece will work no matter how often you revise. But many things can be fixed through revision. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of 40 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.  Click here to find her newsletter.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on  August 7, 2023).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins August 7, 2023) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins August 7, 2023).


Angela Mackintosh said...

Yay, Sue! It sounds like the workshop was a hit! I loved hearing about the exercises you tried. It's so true, in CNF you can use another essay as an example (or "mentor text") and use it as a frame to insert your own life story. That isn't as advisable in fiction since ideas/plot etc. are what makes the piece unique, but in nonfiction it's your life story that makes it unique. So no matter what, yours will veer off from the original and be different. You can always put "after (author's name)" if you're worried about it being too close and to give the author who inspired you a nice credit. :) Have you seen all those essays that have been modeled after Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"? So many!

I agree, dialogue can do so much for character building. And what Deborah said is the key to writing memoir - to see yourself as a character because it was who you were and no longer are, which will allow you to write about tough things and also show growth.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

That's funny because I use mentor texts in fiction. For me, it is generally a study in pacing and mechanics. How does the author introduce a character? What kinds of details do they give? Where/when does the climax occur? Also things like how do you use setting details to create emotion?

But in nonfiction, I don't use them as often. Or I didn't.

Now I have a better idea how to do it with micro essays. Step by step.

Renee Roberson said...

Sue--This post was immensely helpful to me. If I were to go back and look at my essay drafts in regards to a character who has grown, I'm sure I could make positive changes. And I agree about the dialogue being helpful. I feel like dialogue is a strength in my fiction writing so I should utilize it in CNF, too. Sounds like you had a great workshop!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

It was amazing! I think I'm better at selecting meaningful verbs. I always have to tighten my dialogue!

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Hi SueBE! I'm back, Stateside, from my month in Prague! Just came across your post, and it warms my heart that you're trying CNF. Yay! I hope I can credit myself just a tad, along with our fearless leader, Ang, that you're dipping your pen into these waters after listening to us go on and on in the ButtKickers world about the highs and lows of CNF. :) Will you be tinkering with your essay with a goal of publication, or was this more of a fun experiment?

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Ann,
Ooo, I can't wait to hear about Prague.

At this point, I'm not really interested in pursuing publication. I just want to keep playing with micro essays, in particular one specific form. I want to see what I can do with that. Then I'll start to mess around with another form.

That said, I may need help picking something else out. I'll let you know!

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