In a recent article on the rise of the first-person essay, Laura Bennett argues in Slate that “We are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm.” But when such editors are inundated by hundreds of submissions and pitches each week, how does a writer generate, develop, present, and see to completion a piece of first-person writing that sets them apart from the pack? How does one turn a personal experience into a personal essay that readers will want to read and editors will want to publish? These are some of the questions we’ll explore in this course as I share with you my own experience both as a personal essay writer and editor.
We’ll begin by reading stand-out examples in the form, essays by writers such as Meghan Daum, Zadie Smith, Meghan Stielstra, Sarah Hepola, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Maggie Nelson to name a few, taking a close look at the ways these writers craft and shape the raw material of experience into a compelling story. We’ll examine some of the questions and conundrums unique to writers of personal essays: is there such a thing as too much information in this genre? Is it okay to write honestly about people you know? What’s the best way to write about oneself without coming across as narcissistic or self-absorbed? And how, in first-person essays, does one move beyond the strictly personal to engage with issues of social, political, or philosophical import? From these discussions, we’ll launch into the nitty-gritty of how to actually pitch an idea to a publication, how to turn a pitch into a finished piece, and how to develop a strong working relationship with an editor. Students should bring some of their own first-person nonfiction to class, but we’ll also be generating new material.
Kim Brooks was most recently the personal essays editor at Salon. Her first novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press, and her memoir, Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear, will be published in 2018 by Flatiron Books/Macmillan. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Michener Copernicus Fellow, her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, FiveChapters and other journals, and have received four special mentions in Best American Short Stories. Her essays have appeared in Salon, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Lenny Letter. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.