A personal essay

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Suzanne Chazin taught a seminar about writing personal essays at the Smithsonian Institution. It was early… too early for a weekend… but I just made it on time.

To me, she is like an old friend… an acquaintance you catch up with over coffee every few years. Since our last meeting, her baby daughter grew into a toddler of two, keeping her from publishing fiction until now.

As I stepped through a back door and searched for an empty seat, Chazin started off with the comment…

“It can be dangerous to read too much bad stuff.”

… which immediately brought to mind Lev Grossman’s Codex (to date the only book I put away after finishing a mere 90 pages).

I settled into a seat in the back and looked around the windowless room at the other 150+ people taking notes or leaning forward, waiting anxiously for that secret formula that would turn them into published writers.

Most of the attendees were white, under age 50, and female – almost five women to every man. They wrote on legal pads and spiral notebooks and slim PDA’s, using fountain pens or pencils or hi-tech wireless keyboards. The men mostly sat in the front rows, wearing pastel plaid or bold blue stripes, while the ladies favored shades of pink.

Then there was me, a smudge across all this gentle color, dressed head to toe in black.

The usual suspects were present. The graying woman in front who thought she could sell a 10,000 word essay to a publication for $10,000 (“but they pay $1 per word”); the fluffy blond who insisted on protecting all her work through the copyright office (“I heard this one editor in Boston stole this one idea…”); the college coed majoring in English who asked uberliterate questions and refered back to lingering incongruous symbolism (or was it incongruous lingering symbolism?); the retiree looking for a how-to manual on writing a memoir (“there’s got to be a right way to start”).

In a nutshell, here’s what I took away from the day-long event:

    1. Write.
    2. Write everyday.
    3. Write some more.
    4. An essay is like an onion… it’s a layer… a slice of life… like a short story, but not fiction.
    5. Don’t preach.
    6. Be vulnerable.
    7. If you can write funny, you should immediately move to Hollywood where you can pretty much write your own ticket.
    8. Adverbs and adjectives are not your friends.
    9. When you read published work, you’re reading Draft #17.
    10. The best writer is a rewriter.

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