Advice from Judy Juanita, Judge of the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest
My favorite bedtime reading is the great Irish writer Frank O'Connor. I never tire of his short stories or insights. Rather than pretending to have great advice, I defer to him because I have an affinity for what he terms "might-have-beens" or "outlawed figures wandering at the fringes of society." O'Connor said, "There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness." (The Best of Frank O'Connor, Knopf, 2009). He also wrote extensively about childhood though he was an only child. He's said, "Children...see only one side of any question and because of their powerlessness see this with hysterical clarity." So that's a small essential for writing—look at marginalia, the smallest, youngest, the never-was, the never-will-be.
Tim O'Brien talks of the consoling power of stories: "If I'm lying in bed at night I'm a little less lonely in a lonely universe. Stories connect me not just to other people, but to myself." Is that another way of saying you need to write a feel-good story? It is not. When we manage to plumb the heart, we touch the reader's heart. It may sting, comfort, sadden, dishearten even, but the touch is the measuring rod.
Essays are a horse of a different color. Opaque doesn't work well in essays; a through line does. I want to follow the complexity of an argument but need markers along the way, like subheadings and bullets. The main lesson I've learned from writing a column is the necessity of moving from the personal to the universal/global. Being 100% personal reads as smug or self-indulgent and tries the reader's patience. Being transparent has enormous value, but the writer has to lead the reader from the deeply intimate detail, e.g. a family tragedy, through extrapolation to the deeper meaning in the detail.
Sometimes, the elements of an essay are like a family—they don't all get along. Some people suffer from too little or too much closeness to a relative. Nowhere is copy and paste handier than in essay writing. Set your essay with care like you would a family dinner. And, remember, you can't invite everybody to everything, even if they are family. You can't dump all your set pieces into one essay.
Categories: Advice for Writers