What does your process look like? How do you know when you have material for an essay? Do you start with a theme? Or do they evolve on their own?
Usually, I start from the place of something that’s obsessing me, something I can’t stop chewing on or thinking about. Like I said, it’s usually an idea, since I’m an idea person more than a story person. I’ll think this is something that might be interesting to write about and then I’ll just keep it rolling around in my mind for a few weeks or months (or sometimes years!) until I figure out how I might work with it in an essay. Unless I’m on a tight deadline or doing something very assignment-based, I generally don’t sit down to write something until I have at least a vague sense of how I can express a certain idea or set of ideas in a way that hasn’t been done before. I want to offer the reader something new. Even if I don’t necessarily know where I’m going to land, I want to be able to invite the reader to think alongside me as I ruminate about the topic at hand. The important thing, though (and this goes back to the question of how to avoid solipsism) is to have those ideas pretty well baked before you declare yourself finished. You want to present the reader with something that’s been carefully considered, that shows craftsmanship, that’s polished, that offers a coherent assemblage of thoughts. This is especially true when you’re writing personal essays. You want your reader to trust that you know what you’re doing, that you’re under control and not just spewing all over the page. Otherwise, you’re just confessing to the reader and leaving the reader holding the bag of all your messy emotions and half-formed theories of life. To me, that’s simply not fair to the reader. That’s an imposition. In some cases, it feels almost like what you might call a literary emotional hijacking. Don’t do it!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers or essayist?
My advice to writers, especially in this moment, is to write from a place of intellectual honesty. Dig deep into your mind for what you think and feel and offer that up in as precise and rich a way as possible. If what you think and feel is slightly controversial, all the better! We’re in a bizarre and often really depressing moment right now where social media is largely dictating a certain set of narratives and, in extreme cases, ganging up on people who diverge from them. I’ve written about the demise of nuance in the public discourse, about this strange resistance to gray areas or granting people and issues their complications. That to me is deadly. Denying people their complications is denying them their humanity. Denying yourself the right to explore complicated and controversial issues on the page is, frankly, shirking your responsibility as a writer. So my advice is this: take responsibility. Notice I did not say, “be brave.” Yes, we should be brave as writers and be fearless in sharing our stories and ideas. But the “brave” trope strikes me as a little redundant. If you’re a writer, it’s your job to take on this responsibility. So, don’t be brave. Do your job!
Read full length here
Meghan Daum is an American author, essayist, and journalist