Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sue Eisenfeld on the Personal Essay

The first personal essay I ever wrote, in 2003, came out of me all in one sitting, with no warning. As I sat at my computer, my fingers typed a 700-word essay, plying the question of whether or not to have children. It was 13 paragraphs long and 30 sentences. When I finished, I sent it to Editor Bill O’Sullivan at The Washingtonian, and in short time he accepted it for the back page of the magazine.

The week it was published, The New York Times Syndicate contacted me and wanted to syndicate the essay for unlimited use by newspapers and magazines around the globe, for a year.

“Boy, that was easy!” you might say at this point about my maiden writing, submission, and acceptance experience. And, “Your writing career must have been set!”

Let me dispel these myths, gentle reader.

Writing that essay occurred after approximately 10 years of reading the back page essay in The Washingtonian, before I even considered myself a writer, plus reading other similar short personal essay columns on a regular basis. After all those years of absorbing the rhythms and flows of short essays—the structure, the pacing, the mix of scenes and summary, the tight arc of a story—the DNA of this type of essay had, apparently, integrated itself into my subconscious.

Also during the previous 10 years, I had been employed as a writer, working day-in and day-out writing beginnings, middles, and ends for newsletter articles, journal articles, brochures, fact sheets, Web sites, video scripts, white papers, proposals, and other less “creative” and more technical documents. I practiced using words for up to eight hours each day, playing with sentences, crafting transitions, improving the organization of paragraphs—perfecting flow and drama and story.

I was like a carpenter, experimenting with different ways of putting together pieces, learning new techniques, and improving my skill. I didn’t even know it was happening.

In addition, during the previous five years, I had been pondering this topic of pregnancy and parenting. It was a frequent point of discussion between my husband and me as well as between me and my parents. I had been searching for reasons and answers to explain my torn emotions, grappling with societal and familial expectations and whether my future self would disagree with my decision. I wracked my brain for understanding, hoping to unlock within myself the key to the mystery of what shaped me.

My voracious reading, the relentless practice, and my drive for self-discovery all converged one fateful night in the form of this one simple, honest essay, much to my great surprise.

But writing another essay is a whole new mountain to climb. Just because I wrote one that worked did not mean that the very next one to find its way to paper would come as easily or as quickly or would be any good. The slate is new again each time.

Though I’ve since had long and short essays published in many publications (and acquired a large pile of rejection letters too), each of them has only happened as a result of the same parameters that created the first one.

I must meditate on topics for months or years before I can write them, before I have found the interest or passion or angle that is sufficient and important enough to compel my writing. A writer of personal essays must be curious about the world, and her connection to it, and to people, and to what it all means; must continually tap the vein of interest that perplexes and confuses, turn issues around on all angles, and mine her life for the stories and scenes and similes that express the inexpressible emotions of living and being human. The moments of clarity and “brilliance” are few and far between and take time to cultivate.

I must continue to read voraciously the kinds of essays I want to write, in literary journals, books, magazines, and newspapers. Reading is my constant teacher, not only because—like with any experiential, hands-on education—I don’t always know what lessons I am taking home, but also because I must constantly refresh my knowledge of markets—who publishes the kind of work that I like to write?

Above all, I must continue to sit down at the computer each day, doing hard time in front of the blank page—experimenting with language and ideas, revising and throwing out drafts, starting over, putting some things away and reviving others (knowing all the while that much of what I write will be rejected numerous times by the publications I most admire)—and let the combination of forces work their magic.

Sue Eisenfeld is leading the upcoming Personal Essay Workshop at TWC from 10/27-12/8. See the listing and sign up for her workshop here.

Sue Eisenfeld has been published twice in The Washingtonian, as well as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, Under the Sun, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications, and is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain. Her work has been twice listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays, and she is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She holds an M.A. in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her work can be found at:, and she can be reached at

1 comment:

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