A “tiny master” of an essay on writing personal essays

I am constantly worried that I spend too much time reading online. It can’t be right to switch on the computer first (or second) thing in the morning, or to check email last thing before bed. Conducting a life lived in the two opposing time zones of  Sydney and New York is partly the cause, but the rest is my own sheer inability to shut down.

Overture: Migraine
A migraine two nights ago took these fears to a new level. Lately I’ve had to (see? I feel I must, rather than choose to) catch up at night on what I can’t get to during the day because of my short-term day job (which I’ve taken, for the usual reasons, at a place that literally refers to itself in the third person as the Organization — and yes, I’m keeping notes).

In the hour of the migraine’s overture, before the symphony of by-now-familiar symptoms began,  I discovered the great resource of The Craft Essays over at the Brevity nonfiction blog. Specifically Sherry Simpson’s 2008 contribution “Tiny Masters: An Artful Trick to Writing the Personal Essay”. It’s a personal essay-writing 101 for beginning writers, and for those like myself who sometimes need a reminder to keep things simple.

Tiny Masters?
Simpson borrows this enchanting phrase from the prolific Susan Orlean, who once stated she was mostly interested in “writing about people who were masters of their ‘tiny domains'” – such as the orchid thief who is Orlean’s best known subject.

Simpson’s technique is simple:

  1. Write a list of 10 things you can do well. “Include talents, skills, hobbies, qualities of character.”
  2. Free-write about one of them, describing the how, when and where of your mastery.
  3. Write about a person you associate with this mastery.
  4. Write a specific event (a scene, in other words) that involves both your mastery and the person in 3. above, incorporating some dialogue.

How I wish someone had been so practical and instructive when talking about writing with me when I was in my teens, when I mooched around with pen and paper, scribbling godawful poetry with the gnawing dread that I might have nothing to say. Ever. For one thing, I’ve now realised I could probably try writing about my lifelong relationship with migraine. (A subject the sui generis Oliver Sacks chose for his first book, which today is an illuminating read both for the complexity of migraine and for the rather dry and academic origins of his style, which in subsequent books was distilled into bestselling chronicles of the obscure and debilitating neuro-scientific disorders of his patients.)

Brevity is looking for essays on craft
By the way, for those with something to share about the craft of creative nonfiction, the folks at Brevity want to hear your pitch:

Want to write a craft essay, or do an author Q&A or podcast interview for an upcoming issue of Brevity? If so, send your essay topic or author-interview idea and a brief bio note to craft editor Julie Riddle at brevitymag+craft@gmail.com.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Virginia: I’m addicted to your post, to the slant your posts present. I just started reading this one and can’t wait to finish it, but I’m too tried to read anything more online tonight—which is a shame, since the personal essay is probably my favorite form!

    Until tomorrow,
    – Lynette

    1. Lynette, thank you for the encouraging feedback. I’ve really struggled knowing how to focus the blog because I wear several hats professionally and the audiences are slightly different. I’m about to redo my website so these questions are top of mind right now. Since this post I’ve had another response asking for more posts on essay writing, so between that and your comment on my having a distinctive ‘slant’ reminds me to keep on going. (Have a great weekend — and thanks for the retweets!)

  2. Hi Virginia

    I have been enjoying reading your blog this afternoon when I ‘should’ have been doing something else … and just wanted to say I found this post particularly inspirational! I rushed away and jotted down the outline for an essay based on Susan Orlean’s advice, and have bookmarked Brevity online. Thanks!
    Miriam

    1. Shucks, Miriam, I know that spare time for you is in short supply, so thanks for reading and for taking the time to tell me what you enjoyed. I know what you mean about this “tiny master” advice, as it prompted several ideas for essays in me. Which remain unwritten, of course, due to a book-length manuscript in progress … but I’m looking forward to writing the personal essays. Best, Virginia

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