“How do you learn to write?” It’s a question I ask myself often, particularly when teaching writing classes. Hanif Kureishi, author of Buddha in Suburbia and a creative writing instructor, says you can’t. Does he think the same when it comes to writing personal essays?
I disagree with Kureishi. Obviously.
How could I spend the last 20 years of my life teaching writing — personal writing, fiction, non-fiction, composition — if I believed such a thing?
But the classroom alone will not teach you to write. You need to practice and you NEED TO READ!
Every month in The Writer’s Process — my online writing academy to build writing skills, find a community and make money with your works — I bring in a guest speaker to teach one aspect of the business of writing. Anjali Enjeti, a writer, editor and also a creative writing instructor, joined us to teach The Art of Writing Compelling Personal Essays.
Over the course of an incredible hour, Anjali gave us tips on how to focus your essay. She offered advice on what to do when your emotions are still raw, and she shared her favorite personal essays!
Reading is the very best way to improve your writing!
You nod your head in vigorous agreement. You catch your breath. At times, you clench your fists because you know something awful is coming, but you can’t help but continue reading.
Your favorite books and essays are your writer’s toolbox. When you read them, you see new ways to structure your story, uncover creative ideas for dialogue and uncover ways to strengthen your message and reach your reader more powerfully.
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal,” said TS Eliot.
Or perhaps it was Pablo Picasso who said that. Or maybe it was Aaron Sorkin. I dunno. But the sentiment remains. We writers take what we see, hear, taste, touch, and experience and transpose them to the pages on which we write.
The essays below span a wide breadth of topics and represent different styles of writing. At the heart of each, though, lies a truth, a concise mirror held up to reflect a common lived experience. We may be left breathless, moved, laughing, devastated or anything else on the emotional spectrum. Most of all, they leave us inspired to write.
Reading one essay is a lesson learned, the ten pieces of writing below offer you a comprehensive course in personal writing. You’ll learn dialogue, structure and character development. They’ll teach you how to build tension and what questions you should ask yourself as you write.
For each, I’ve included a brief excerpt from the piece as well as a link so you can read it yourself. And finally at the end, an added gift. I’ve included a recent piece from Anjali, so you can not only revel in her favorite essays but see how her own reading creates the narrative and beauty of her writing.
10 essays that will teach you how to write
1. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
2. Karrie Higgins’ Strange Flowers
I love you like xo.
Ever since my brother died, I have dialed his disconnected telephone numbers, tracking where they terminate over time, hoping to cross his ghost voice in the wires. He is finally returning my call. We have a downlink.
3. Jo Ann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter
I have an ex-beauty queen coming over to get rid of the squirrels for me. She has long red hair and a smile that can stop trucks. I’ve seen her wrestle goats, scare off a giant snake, and express a dog’s anal glands, all in one afternoon. I told her on the phone that a family of squirrels is living in the upstairs of my house.
“They’re making a monkey out of me,” I said.
4. Lydia Yuknavitch’s Woven
It was a night I wanted never to end.
Or, I wish with all my heart that the story ended there.
But that’s not where the story ended.
5. Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast
Bubbies has been attending to his own education—proceeding from one word, to several, to two-word sentences, to three and more. Some say that children learn to speak in order to tell the stories already in them. An early word of his was “back.” He wanted reassurance that when any of us left the house, or even a room, we were coming back.
6. Eula Biss’ Time and Distance Overcome
Content warning on this one. It is a difficult read. Lynchings and racism.
The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.
7. Mariama Lockington’s What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew
I know that my hair is curly and thick, that my mother wants me to love it natural. I know that when she drops me off at Jasmine’s to get my hair braided I feel safe. That even though it hurts when she untangles my kinks I don’t mind because she smells so good. I learn that I love the smell of black women. Of grease, flat irons, and cocoa butter. I know I am black and that my parents love me, but I know I am different.
8. Tim Bascom’s Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide
Contrary to the high school teacher’s oft-repeated maxim—“Show, don’t tell!”—the essayist is free both to show and tell. In fact, I once heard the nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild scold a group of MFA students for being so subtle in their writing that they left out critical signposts that readers needed. “Don’t be so afraid to say what you mean,” he counseled.
9. Laurie Herzel’s But Will They Love Me When I’m Done
Late in her mother’s life, Hampl asked her why she eventually allowed the poem to be published, hoping her mother would say that it was because the poem was so good. Instead, her mother said, “Because I loved you. I’ve always hated it.”
10. Anjali Enjeti’s Drinking Chai to Savannah
I survey the tourists poring over guidebooks, tapping their phones. I worry one of them will mutter something derogatory about this group of seven brown women whose mere presence seems to have doubled the minority population of this historic district.