Jan Shoemaker is a master of the essay. She will be sharing tips and skills at this year’s A Rally of Writers. Jan gave us a few insights into winning essays in this Q&A.
Why personal essays over other genres?
I fell into reading personal essays quite a few years ago and found so much to admire in the genre. As importantly, I’m a natural brooder–and the personal essay is just made for sitting yourself down on a dune and dwelling on the message in a horizon.
How much should disclose about family members in personal essays?
This is a very tough question–and I haven’t always gotten it right. I have heard other essayists say that if people don’t want to be exposed in your writing, they should behave better–and I see the justice in that–truth-telling and all. But, unless you are writing about true villains–abusers, swindlers, exploiters–I think it’s wise to be generous and sometimes discreet.
How do you know a piece of essay or memoir has legs?
I know it has legs when it has balance–enough sober reflection with enough levity. I want seriousness laced with humor when I read and I aim for it when I write.
Which essayists do you read for inspiration?
E.B. White, Laura Beard, Annie Dillard, David Sedaris, Adam Gopnik, Terry Tempest Williams, Stephen Kuusisto.
Which personal essay are you the proudest of these days?
I recently wrote an essay called “Grace” which will appear in the next issue of River Teeth Journal. I feel a friendliness toward it because it does what I want it to do.
How do you learn to trust yourself with essays?
Honestly, affirmation helps, thoughtful responses help. I suspect it’s disingenuous to say, “I’m writing for myself and I don’t care if other people get it.” Why would you do the hard work of writing if not to reach another person? So when someone says, “I read your work; it’s important to me,” it matters. It means, at least in part, that the writing is effective, that I am doing something right.