Craft Essays

Craft Essays

Our Craft Section for the 51st issue features four new Craft Essays: Silas Hansen on the importance of asking hard questions, Randon Billings Noble on writers notebooks, Chelsey Drysdale on healthy expectations for writers,  and Sheila Madary on travel writing. We hope you find them of interest.  

On Keeping a (Writing) Notebook (or Three)

In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes about the odd notes she has taken over the years – on conversations she has overheard (“That woman Estelle is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today”), facts she has learned (“during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on every square...

Becoming a Writer in Due Time

I recently found a line in my old journal that reads, “What I really want to do is get an MFA in creative writing.” I wrote this on April 25, 2000. More than fifteen years ago. At the time I had spent two exhausting years getting a single-subject credential to teach high school English, and...

On Asking the Hard Questions

When I first started writing nonfiction, as an undergraduate creative writing major, I struggled—a lot—to find my subject matter. These days, I write about my ever-evolving relationship with masculinity, particularly now that I have been living openly as a transgender man for five years and have been sporting a beard for three. Back then, though,...

Textures and Contrasts: Starting Points for Travel Writing

We walk toward the Saturday flea market in Hannover, Germany; my eyes saccade between the shop windows and my children, who dart ahead toward the river. A woman is kneeling on the ground at an intersection of this pedestrian zone—a square that interrupts the busy street. In front of her are shopping bags and a...

Revision Advice from the Judges’ Table

Writers are connoisseurs of criticism. At least, this is how I justify some of my love for the television program Top Chef. Each week the show’s “cheftestants” compete in cooking challenges judged by professional chefs, restaurateurs, food critics and celebrity guest-judges. Every episode features moments of creation and revision, as the chefs plan, execute and...

Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief

When I was an undergraduate, I volunteered with a youth outreach program at a local high school. One of “our kids,” a sophomore boy named Nile, lost his father to cancer halfway through the year. Two other youth leaders and I visited Nile at home one evening to offer support. I was just twenty and...

A Picture’s Worth: Learning from Looking at Photographs with Judith Kitchen

Four years ago I attended a class, “Worth 1,000 Words,” taught by essayist and critic Judith Kitchen, who passed away in fall 2014. At the time, Kitchen was finishing a book that had grown out of a collection of family photos, and she was interested in talking about how photographs and text relate on the...

Line Breaks: They’re Not Just for Poetry Anymore

As someone who writes both poetry and prose, I’m often (okay… sometimes) asked to talk about the difference between the two. Over the years, I’ve played around with all kinds of lofty pedagogical answers (firecrackers versus bottle rockets, making a long story short versus making a short story long, etc.) but really, I think it...

Writing Trans Characters

When I was in my early twenties in the early part of the aughts, I gravitated towards anything with a transgender character. Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the bizarre zombie flick and Guitar Wolf vehicle Wild Zero, The Kink’s “Lola,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild...

A Balancing Act

As a memoirist, I often write about my family. I don’t worry too much about offending the people I write about for one simple reason– they’re dead. When you die, you lose the chance to object to what people say about you. I don’t know if I even could write as candidly as I do...

Write Like a Cow: On Taking Craft Cues from Your Subject

In her chapbook The Cows, Lydia Davis begins with the promise of drama: Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play. They amble out from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful...

Beyond Beautiful: The Significance of an Objective Critique

“Beautiful.” If I had $10 for every time I heard this word during my first MFA residency, my full tuition for the residency would be back in my bank account. Beautiful. This word, which I reserve for something unique or rare, something that makes me take pause from life, was assigned to just about every...

The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study

I often teach classes on the form of the “hermit crab” essay, a term Suzanne Paola and I used in our textbook Tell It Slant. Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide,...

Going Cold: Writing Emotion, the Earley Scale, and the Brilliance of Edwidge Danticat

In a scene that is central to Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, eighteen-year-old Sophie Caco’s mother guides her gently to her bedroom and “tests” her for virginity—with a finger, just as Sophie’s grandmother tested the mother and her sister every week. It’s an invasion that shatters Sophie’s sense of boundaries and will make her...

Consider the Prompt

Writers, on your marks, get set, go— I was supposed to be doing this writing, and/but/so… * A little background: I heard a celebrated writer say that. That is, she’d written it. That is, it turned up in the middle of an essay she read for a roomful of writers. Come to find out “this...

When Free Writing Will Not Make You Free: Resistance Training for Writers

In July 2013, I ran a marathon up Mount Adams near Trout Lake, Washington. Nobody questioned my physical prowess, because the accomplishment was indisputable. But, if you actually pressed your fingers against my belly, you would have felt pudge, and you probably would have been surprised to not feel functioning abdominal muscles (you’d also be...

On Riding and Writing Boldly

It was the summer of 2013, and I was in midair. My horse, Eragon, was not very tall, but I’d been launched from his back on a hillside at speed, so I had a long way to fall. My view of the sky between Eragon’s ears flipped to the approaching ground, studded with sticks and rocks....