The Art of The Essay
In school, we are tested by our ability to comprehend prompts and answer their questions through essay format. We are graded on our diction, syntax, and if we actually answered the question. Before students even get to college, where it seems term papers are at their peak numbers, we know the five paragraph format like the back of our hands. Sure, we can cut it down to four or three paragraphs and even up the ante with as many paragraphs as the teacher requires. We are not writing for ourselves, but for the teacher and most importantly: the grade. That is what worried me about creative-nonfiction essays. I was tolerant of essays about books I’d read over the summer or what president was my favorite, but writing an essay on an experience that was actually personal to me seemed a little over the top.
I was first introduced to the idea of writing creative non-fiction work my freshman year of high school. We read pieces out of miscellaneous collections by well-known writers and also writers that weren’t as known but had stories that needed to be shared. That’s how my teacher hooked me on the idea of writing essays about your own experiences. We all have stories that need to be shared, whether we consider ourselves a writer or not. My teacher allowed us to explore the idea of writing these essays for ourselves instead of feeling as if we had to write about the experiences that would shock or allow happiness for other people. That was a worry of mine. I, along with my fellow classmates, had been writing academic papers for so long that I felt the need to write for my audience. With creative non-fiction, you are your own audience and when you cater to the needs of yourself you will consequentially impart wisdom to your readers. That year, I wrote about everything my thirteen-year-old mind could possibly imagine. Deaths in my family, lost dogs, and self-esteem riddled the pages of my composition books. Now, these topics seem weak to me. I’ve experienced new things, learned from them, and can write about them with stronger diction and tactful syntax. However, one aspect of my creative non-fiction writing that has not changed is how I can learn about myself from these pieces. When writing fiction and even poetry, you can find yourselves in the characters, imagery, etc. When writing creative non-fiction, I have no choice but to find myself in the work because I am the entire piece. Sometimes, the piece doesn’t revolve around me but I am there in the background or on the sidelines. Either way, it is illuminating to step outside of your body and see yourself on that page in a way that you didn’t see yourself in that moment.
Presently, I find myself using creative non-fiction outside of the essay format. I dabble in writing strictly about my own experiences from time to time, but I find my experiences expand and grow into something bigger than myself when I input them into my other work. I insert milestones of my life into my poems and place poignant moments of my own into stories. It doesn’t have the same effect as creative non-fiction, where I put myself out on the page and make the reader analyze me. However, it does allow me to flesh out ideas and characters with the one thing I know better than any five-paragraph-format: myself.
Prompt: Pick one room of your house randomly. Think about all the events that have happened in that room, no matter if they are monumental or seemingly irrelevant. Choose the event that you weren’t directly involved in but somehow impacted you. Write a creative non-fiction piece about it from your perspective.
-Chelsea Ashley, Digital Communications Editor