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The Art of the Personal Essay with Charles Salzberg
Charles Salzberg, faculty member, and one of the founders of the New York Writer's Workshop, gave a one-evening seminar at the Mid-Manhattan Library on December 11th. Sign-ups for the evening's seminar closed at the 15 people who registered online at the New York Public Library's website, but Mr. Salzberg graciously allowed in 9 more people. To introduce the program, I brought two copies of The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberg, and asked the participants whether they had heard of this title, which remained on the New York Times' Bestseller List for many weeks a few years ago.
A few of them had, but may not have read the testimony written by Ms. Weisberg, under the "Totally Free Writing Classes! At the New York Public Library" heading at the New York Writer's Workshop website. Her book, The Devil Wears Prada, began as an essay with the same title while attending Mr. Salzberg's classes. Not only was the book made into a movie a few years later, but was also translated into different languages.
Mr. Salzberg framed the evening's seminar by reading excerpts of his former students' essays. He then asked for the participants' take on the readings, and only afterwards did he give his assessment. You didn't hear the usual: about a beginning where you tell them what you're going to tell them, a middle where you tell them, and an ending where you tell them what you told them.
However, Mr. Salzberg sprinkled in a few rules-of-thumb for personal essay-writing. The first was to be truthful or authentic. It should be a process of self-discovery or exploration — if the writer doesn't discover anything in his/her essay, it won't go anywhere. Also, it should be something between a letter and a short story — you hope that many people would read it, but it is a letter to one person — and of course it should have a beginning, middle and end. A good writer illuminates his/her subject. One must never write when angry or in love, for anger will show in your writing, and if you're in love, everything you write will be just-too-happy. Instead of beginning an essay by telling the reader what it is you are going to write about, you could instead give an image, as he demonstrated in an essay he read to us by a medical doctor, Richard Selzer, titled "Spying on Patients." One participant's take on this was, why would a doctor want to spy on his patients, since he sees them routinely? Mr. Salzberg explained that Dr. Selzer knew that his patients were terminally ill, and since he wanted to observe their behaviors for an essay, it would have been in poor taste to tell them, so he spied on them.
After the publication of Julia Scully's Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood, (a New York Times, 1998 Notable Book) she began attending Mr. Salzberg's classes. Her essay, "Room to Spare," was published while attending Mr. Salzberg's classes. As Mr. Salzberg read this essay to us, it was not immediately apparent what it was about. I invite you to read the essay, and perhaps share in the comments your impressions of Ms. Scully's essay.
Charles Salzberg's latest work of fiction, Swann Dives In, is now on order. It is the sequel to Swann's Last Song. His advice to would-be essayists, is to obtain a copy of The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Another last suggestion was to submit blogs to Huffington Post, where, if you are just starting out, others will get to read your work. You may also search the New York Public Library's online catalog with the keywords "essay writing" for items in various formats.