The 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference worked hard—and well—to address the many subgenres of creative nonfiction, but as a personal essayist I was most excited to hear Kristin Kovacic speak on the panel “Revising Essays and Short Work.”
Kovacic identified herself as a writer of personal essays and spoke of them with both fluid eloquence and sharp intelligence.
“First draft writing is like no other kind of writing,” she said. “You go into the woods and you have to keep going.”
“Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” And this is where you start to revise.
For personal essay, revision involves distance. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own story, your own thoughts, your own feelings. But to ensure that you achieve a level of necessary distance, Kovacic asks three vital questions (adapted from Patricia Hampl’s excellent book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory):
- How many things is this about? (Don’t ask what this essay is about but how many things.) Then make a list.
- How are these things connected? (That’s where the surprises come.)
- Who do I represent? (This is a great question through which to achieve distance, which, in turn, shows the importance of the story.) Are you representing an innocent abroad, a third wave feminist, an only child, a motorcycle rider? How do you write differently as a representative as opposed to an individual?
After answering these questions you can turn to details. The details of the story you’re telling have to bridge two things: what happened, and how you make sense of what happened.
“The artful part,” Kovacic said, “is how you track your thinking. The creative part is following a mind a work.”
Kovacic also suggested to always title your essay, even if your first title serves as a temporary, working title. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways. It’s an invitation” but it’s also an indication of what your essay is about. You may find that your essay’s content – and therefore title – changes drastically in the revision process.
Other helpful tips included:
- “A resonant work picks up meaning each time you use it; a repetitive word doesn’t.”
- “The best place to look about how to stick your ending is back at the beginning.”
- “There’s a lot of mea culpa in this work that makes it honest.”
- “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings – that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.”
For more wise advice from Kristin Kovacic, find her teaching at Carlow University or the Chataqua Institute, or read her essay “On Usefulness” for guidance by osmosis.
Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.