“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” —Ernest Hemingway
Welcome to Essay Camp!
You’re here, you’ve made it. Well done. I hope the virtual drive was pleasant.
It’s the very first day of the very first Essay Camp, and we’re here to write essays. (Some of you are here for the write-along camaraderie and plan to work in other genres, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
You may be starting to ask yourself—what even is an essay? Many writers of essays have struggled to come up with a firm definition. It has been called a “non-genre” and “the most open-ended of forms.”1 Essays can be memoir, criticism, or manifesto. They can be tidy or chaotic, linear or fragmented, shockingly personal or glacially impassive. There’s sometimes an assumption that an essay has to say something, make an argument, or tell a story with a clear lesson attached, and yet many of the best ones do none of those things.
According to writer Mary Cappello, an essay is “one part conundrum, one part accident.”2 The very word means an attempt, or to try. To write an essay is to reach for something, not so much to explain but to explore.
As we’ll see in today’s suggested reading material, an essay can be about almost anything at all, from the death of a moth on a windowsill, to “what it was like to fly high above the capital, through silver mist and hail, when flying was yet new.”3
Writing Assignment, Day 1
Today we are going to write what will eventually become an essay, or several essays, or part of one. Don’t worry too much about “writing an essay” just yet. Your job is simply to open up a new document or turn to a blank page. Write one sentence. Write the first true thing that comes. This can be anything: an opinion, an observation, a memory, the beginning of a story, a complaint. Then write the next sentence. And the next. And the next one after that. Keep going until you run out of time or things to say.
Don’t worry about making the sentences good at this point. This is the stage where we just need to throw a great big hunk of word-clay down on the table. To hew the raw marble from the Tuscan hillside of the brain. The sculpting, all that editing and fretting, adding and subtracting, will come later.
Option 1: Freewriting
Just start writing. Whether you’re using a pen on paper, typing on your laptop, or tapping into your phone, your only job is to keep the words coming. Don’t stop to go back and read them. It is okay if you repeat yourself, write badly, or have no idea where you’re going with any of this. In fact it is encouraged. This is an exercise for putting thoughts down on the page, not for crafting pretty sentences. Write like nobody is watching. Because nobody is watching.
Option 2: The ‘Five Things’ Prompt (Recommended)
If you’re feeling intimidated about jumping free-form and cold into writing hundreds or even thousands of words on whatever comes to mind today, you can try this little trick I like to use instead.
Write down the number 1, like you’re beginning a list. Then write about the first thing that comes to mind. Start with one true sentence, and then see if there is another sentence that wants to come after it. Keep writing until you come to the end of this particular thought, whether it’s one line, a paragraph, a whole page, or even more.
Regardless of length, when you’re done with the first “thing,” simply continue on to the next in a new paragraph. Write the number 2, and start again. This can be connected thematically to what you’ve just written, or it can be totally, even wildly unconnected. Go wherever your mind takes you. Trust the intuitive connective tissue of the essay-writing process. It doesn’t have to make sense just yet. Keep going until you’ve finished your fifth thing.
How will I know I’ve reached the end of each section?
If you were having a conversation with someone else, this might be where you would pause to see what the other person has to say. When I do this exercise, each section usually ranges between 200 and 500 words—remember, the goal is to write five of them, and few of us have unlimited writing time—but they have sometimes been as short as a single short sentence.
But I Really Don’t Know What To Write/Am Blocked/Can’t Write
Start as if you were writing a letter to someone, a real person, whom you have not seen in a while, and tell them about the things you’re struggling to say in essay form.
Start by writing a letter to your mother.
Start by writing a letter to someone who is dead.
Describe your street.
Describe what you can see around you.
Write about the fact that you hate writing, have no talent, or cannot write.
Write about the most boring thing you can think of.
Option 3: Be A Rebel
Some of you are not using this time to write new essays, but rather to take part in a community of many writers writing together, and that’s fine too. If you are on deadline for book edits or need to work on your screenplay, then take what you can from the material provided and spend your time doing that.
Reading Assignments, Day 1
If you want to write essays, you should also be in the habit of reading them. If you have time to both read and write this week, please do both. If you don’t, prioritize the writing for now and catch up with the readings when you can.
Today we’re going to read the classic essay The Death of the Moth, by Virginia Woolf (1,175 words, 4 minute read). If you have some more time, you can move on to A Good Café on the Place St-Michel, from A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1,639 words, 6 minute read). From there, if you can manage it, you may proceed to the slightly lesser known essay Night Walks by Charles Dickens (3,788 words, 14 minute read). In all three of these essays, not much happens in terms of plot—at least not to the writer of the essay. They are largely observational. Woolf watches a moth struggle against the pane of her window. Hemingway spends a rainy afternoon writing in a favorite café. Dickens battles his insomnia by wandering around London at night. Somehow, none of them feel passive. The vitality of the images carries the narrative. By doing exercises like freewriting or the Five Things prompt, it is this skill that we are seeking to cultivate. You can even imitate these essays’ premises or themes if you so desire.
For The Week
Over the next five days, I’d like you to take a look at two essays from Brian Dillon’s book Essayism. The first is On Essays and Essayists (1,491 words, 5 minute read) and the second is On Dispersal (1,153 words, 4 minute read). He was kind enough to give me permission to share the second excerpt with you for this workshop, even though it is not otherwise available online. If you can afford it, I recommend you buy the book. It’s available wherever books are sold, from Fitzcarraldo Editions and New York Review Books. In these two essays in particular, Dillon gets at an important component of modern essay writing, which is the way in which seemingly disparate topics and images can play off of one another to create a particular (or particulate) emotional effect. Feel free to mine them for inspiration for your own writing, too.
Note: Links to these and other PDF documents are temporary and will remain online for the duration of the workshop plus one month.
Time To Write!
I hope I’ve given you enough to get started.
You can use the hashtag #EssayCamp on social media to find each other and share your progress or frustrations (there are now close to 1,200 of you signed up to participate). Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to reply to any questions that arise.
I’ll see you all back here tomorrow! Happy writing!
(PS. My publisher would never forgive me if I failed to mention my own book of thematic essays, published in 2019 by Bloomsbury, called High Heel. It is part of the excellent Object Lessons series and is available now from Bookshop.org, on Kindle, as an audiobook, or wherever books are sold. You may also enjoy my first book The Oyster War, a work of narrative nonfiction, from Penguin Random House, on Kindle, or at your local independent bookstore like this one.)