A Book of Essays: Is This Really A Good Idea?

As I transition from college into the real world, much of my time is spent dreaming and planning for a future of my own making–and part of that is figuring out the writing aspect.  My eyes are wide with the dream of publishing a book of some sort, but if what I write isn’t worthy of being shared in some form, I get frustrated that I’m not being as productive as I should be.  Perhaps because of my age and place in life, I struggle with writing if the writing doesn’t have a set purpose. But I know that most writers struggle with simply getting time spent in the chair.

Now that I’ve written a few essays about my travels in Europe during my semester studying abroad in Liverpool, England, I naturally start to wonder what they could be for.  Is this potential for a book of essays?  My mind plays around with order, overall story, and purpose.

In the context of that mental conversation, I came across Rebecca McClanahan’s “Forest in the Trees: The Challenges of Shaping a Book (not a Collection) of Essays” and she starts off with a warning that’s important for me to hear: writing a collection of pieces can be a much bigger challenge than working with a single long form.  I’ve figured that out for myself.  But the larger question of which comes first, the essays themselves or the book-as-a-whole is worth considering, because each nonfiction writer makes that determination with each individual book. Sometimes an idea for a whole book happens–and it provides a jumping off point for what kind of essays need to be written.  Other times single essay topics arise and the challenge is finding the link between them.

Does it make a difference if I go into writing each essay with the intention of putting it in a book?  Or should each essay emerge more authentically depending on what it’s about instead of perhaps forcing it into the larger theme of a book?  What could the consequences be of each process?

McClanahan bluntly gives some tips for anyone thinking of shaping a book including choosing which essays to use and when to re-shape the essays for the sake of the whole book.  Though she discusses the challenges, she ultimately declares that essays, and essay books remain a special form of writing that is worth the struggle.

Thankfully, McClanahan is not the only one with this view.  Guest blogging on “Lisa Romeo Writes,” Faye Rapoport DesPres tells us about the process of writing her new book Message From a Blue Jay, a book of essays.  She relates similar struggles of forming a book out of some essays that were quite different from each other and the challenge of finding a publisher for this type of book.  After writing individual essays, her editor suggested finding an over-arching theme and turning it into a chronological memoir. Check out her post to see how it all came together.

What has been your experience in this special process of putting a book of essays together?  What are the hardest or most rewarding parts of shaping a larger work? Did you write the pieces first and then find a structure or did your structure come first?


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