Assay@NFN15: “Writers on Essays that Took Forever to Get Right”

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 Aviyah Kushner, Mary Margaret Alvarado and Kerry Reilly, read and discussed essays that took years to finish, and examined the process by which a story can start quickly but take time, reflection and editing to get just right. There was discussion about how latter events can send you back to an older, unfinished essay; these events can be portals to a fresh look at a piece. Alvarado advised that as writers, we think about the means, not the ends, and be faithful to the means.

Mary Margaret Alvarado set the tone with her opening comment that these essays can “come in a rush…but sometimes they take years.” She said that she did not write one essay, as much as she pieced it from letters, using sentences as the unit of composition, taking the piece from found poem, to a found essay. She read from her essay, “Dear Joshua”, based on letters to her friend Joshua Casteel, who was an interrogator and linguist at Abu Ghraib Prison.

Alvarado also discussed the role of time, considering it a gift. Over time, time allows the work to be “cold” and she can read it as a reader, with a new perspective. She also spoke about the physical nature of her work, the part that is plastic, tangible. She asks herself this question: What is the key and is it in tune? like one might ask of violin playing. Alvarado spent time throwing pots, which she also considered as a way of looking at structure in her work. Memorizing poems became a way of examining the fabric of her writing, searching for the knots, the rip. These have been effective ways for her to evaluate and work on her essays.

Kerry Reilly read parts of her essay, “Body Worlds,” and said that it took seven years to finish because of her fear of the material and because she didn’t quite understand it. In her essay, Reilly goes to Ireland to bury her father, the only one of her siblings willing to do this; this is where the writing began. This journey is juxtaposed with a date to a museum to see the traveling display of plastinated bodies. Her essay reveals family secrets, or those secrets known but not discussed.

The essay took time for the reasons discussed above, but what kept her going was the need to “find something redemptive” in the work. She also had to develop the other dating relationships more fully in the final piece, advice she received from her editor at The Gettysburg Review, who felt that although the piece was nearly done, it was the dating relationship that could be the other thread that would complete the essay. Reilly also shared a story of sitting in on a MFA class where she observed, rather than participated, and the instructor slipped her a piece of paper on which the words, “You are allowed to speak” were written. Although this was intended as an invitation to join the workshop discussion, as a writer, Reilly seized the larger meaning of the invitation.

Aviyah Kushner’s essay, “A Duck with One Leg,” which was inspired by her piano teacher of 14 years, took 11 years to finish. Kushner read parts of the essay and shared her process of revision and writing. The opening lines, “I once lived in half a dorm room in the middle of Paris,” are part of the first paragraph, which was written last. In this section, she talks about playing Chopin’s second piano concerto over and over again, and the essay itself is about listening. Not only was the essay composed over years, one section was a poem, a remembrance of her teacher tapping the timing of sonatas on her arm during childhood. Kushner said she it was only possible to write the essay because it took so long, suggesting that can take time for a work to come together. For her, “there was nowhere to go to remember, except my own mind.” Because of this piano teacher, she learned that “the life of an artist is always worth living because it transcends life.”


Ramona M. Payne (@RamonaPayne1) is a writer and essayist living in the Midwest. Corby Books published her most recent essay and she completed a creative nonfiction program at the Graham School of the University of Chicago.


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