AWP2015: The Challenge and Attraction of the Young Essayist

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMS128. The Challenge and Attraction of the Young Essayist. (Lucas Mann,  Brian Oliu,  Kristen Radtke,  David LeGault) In Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, he writes it is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth. There are numerous arguments against the young essayist: can one write about life without first experiencing it? Can one write with authority from a place of uncertainty? Panelists will consider these questions and provide their own perspectives concerning successful nonfiction from the young writer’s perspective.


Within minutes of the panel’s start, both Brian Oliu and Lucas Mann had noted the irony of hosting a conversation about writing while young at 9am on Saturday morning.  And yet it’s a testament to the necessity of this conversation that despite the early hour, the room was full. The panel’s purpose: to inspire and encourage young essayists to keep on keeping on.  The panelists each shared anecdotes about professors and critics who’d shaped them, for better or worse:  The editor who called an essayist’s work “talented but facile” and invited her to resubmit in ten years, when she was older.  The acquaintance who expressed outrage that a man in his mid-twenties could be working on a memoir.

Moderator David LeGault began by citing Lucas Mann’s Essay Daily post “On Writing Young,” which had inspired him to put together the panel. DeGault discussed his love of writing about pop culture, specifically an essay he wrote on Beanie Babies.   He argued that “all the events of our lives are in our work, whether we intend them to be or not,” and that young essayists shouldn’t get too hung up on any perceived lack of life experience: “Voice is what’s important, and authenticity is available at any age.”

Lucas Mann discussed shame and the essay, how we fear small events and writing about them in their immediacy, as if only big, traumatic events could be worthy.  Young writers (all writers?) worry about whether we’ve earned the right to write about our chosen subject matter.  Mann suggested writing about what we feel is lacking the world or in ourselves, arguing that a strain of nonfiction being written today involves “writing about saying over and over ‘I don’t know.’”  Mann read a paragraph from Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams and argued that her work suspended the speaker between past and present as the writer continuously questioned her right to speak.

Brian Oliu began with a mad-lib: “young writers are too young to do ________.”  Every panelist could fill in the blank with a devastating anecdote–and so could most audience members, which came out in the Q&A.  Oliu admitted to his fear of becoming one of these teachers.  He assuaged audience members’ anxiety about originality: “People claim that fiction has only two plots: 1) someone goes on a journey and 2) a stranger comes to town—why would nonfiction be any different?” Oliu ended with a call for young essayists to not feel trapped in the belief that they ought write only about what had happened to them.  He encouraged them instead to write about their passions: “Essay the head and heart first.”

Kristin Radtke began by discussing how in comics, no one cares if you’re young (Radtke creates illustrated book reviews). When an editor accused her reviews of being shallow and suggested she submit again when she’d matured, Radtke pointed out that her review “might have been facile, but it wasn’t because I was young.”  She stated emphatically that “no one can tell you you don’t have the authority to write your story.” Radtke presented the strongest arguments against the young essayist: that reading takes time, as does writing practice, and the longer you live, the more time you’ve had to do both.  To refute these claims, though, she pointed out that your teenage years and into your twenties are a time of rapid change and growth, perhaps the most rapid in your lifetime, and that since the essay thrives on self-reflection, rapid internal growth is its engine.

Some helpful writing prompts and advice from the panel:

  • Life is the name of a leviathan.  Don’t try to describe the whole beast all at once.  Begin with the color of its toenails.
  • Ask yourself “What am I doing?  Why do I keep doing this?”  Examine especially those behaviors and compulsions that you repeat without thinking. 
  • What are the small moments only you have experienced?
  • You have infinite chances to tell the same story.  Don’t not write out of fear of getting it wrong.
  • Be so specific in writing about your own life that you cause others to daydream about theirs.


Bio: Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa.  Her nonfiction has appeared in North American Review, DIAGRAM, and Brevity, and she reviews for American Book Review, Essay Daily, and Entropy Magazine.  Her blog can be found at


Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).


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