Using the advice column as your form, write about a problem or challenge you have faced. Addressing a fictional recipient who is facing the same issue, offer your best advice on how to handle the situation. For inspiration, check out the Rumpus's advice column, "Dear Sugar," penned by creative nonfiction writer Cheryl Strayed.
The letter is one of the earliest and most widely practiced forms of the personal essay: It tells a story about the author's life; it poses questions; and, perhaps most important, it's a way of connecting to a reader. Write a letter to someone you know, keeping the basic tenants of the personal essay in mind. The letter should be about you, but should also somehow address a larger question or idea. For inspiration, check out Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road (Grossman, 1970), a collection of letters that documents her years-long correspondence and relationship with the owners of Marks & Co., a bookstore in London.
The summers of youth—and the unparalleled magic carried with them—have inspired many great works of literature. In "Once More to the Lake," E. B. White's classic coming-of-age essay about the August when he was twelve, the author writes: "Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end." Write an essay about being a child in the summertime. It may be about one particular moment or one particular summer, or about the season as a whole. For inspiration, read White's essay or Ray Bradbury's semi-autobiographical novel about summer and youth, Dandelion Wine.
In literature of every genre, some of the most interesting reflection takes place in transit. Write about a time when you were in transit of some kind—on a train, plane, bus, or bike, in a car or even on foot. Write about where you were going and why, and focus on what you were thinking, seeing, and feeling as you moved.
For the past seven years, Nancy Kline has been leading P&W–supported senior writing workshops at Queens Community House in New York City. Her short stories, essays, literary criticism, and translations have appeared widely. She is the author of the novel, The Faithful, and edited and contributed to the essay collection How Writers Teach Writing. She also reviews regularly for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Kline generously shared with us reflections on her writing workshops with seniors.
What makes your workshops unique?
It’s the students who make my workshops unique—their jokes, epiphanies, reticencies, and idiosyncrasies; their chemistry with each other, with me, and with words.
Could you share a few examples of stories written in your workshop recently?
In one workshop, we used pieces from Flash Fiction Forward as springboards into workshop participants’ own work.
Rick Moody’s “Drawer” inspired a hilarious description of the anarchic contents of one writer’s drawer and her increasing hysteria as she searched through it for some coveted item.
In response to the prompt "just like her mother," suggested by Pamela Painter's "Toasters," one workshop participant wrote about how, as a small child, she accompanied her mother to forage secretly for an apronful of grain with which to feed her starving family in decimated, post-World War II Germany.
Rob Carney's “Traveling Alone” inspired one eighty-six-year-old student's biblical monologue. When asked what she planned to write about next, having just done God, she replied: “Sex.” And so she did.
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
In my experience, all writers are shy, at least on some level. We are naked in the page. For this reason, I try to establish a respectful, attentive environment in my writing workshops. Laughter helps.
I try to teach students to listen to their readers’ comments, without defensiveness or undue docility, and to comment on other people’s work with rigor and charity; to write any written comments in pencil, rather than pen; and to try to phrase their comments as questions, rather than statements.
There’s a difference between asking a writer "Could you clarify this?" and stamping a text "Unclear." The former recognizes that the writer is in charge of her own words and has the power to change them. The latter suggests, to my ear, that the reader is in charge and the writer has failed.
What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
It is always that moment when a student gets it, whatever it happens to be. Sometimes a writer who has been struggling with constricted prose suddenly writes in a text so lush and genuine that the workshop falls silent in admiration. Smaller epiphanies occur: During a recent session on comma use, one of the seniors exclaimed, “Commas actually communicate information! I never knew that!” This was thrilling.
What affect has this work had on you?
It is deeply moving to be in the presence of the accumulated wisdom, imagination, and courage of the women and men with whom I’m working. Four of my students have died since I began to offer these workshops. Their deaths have marked me and their colleagues, and have underlined the collective sense that each of us has many stories to tell, and that we had better hurry up and tell them.
Photo: Nancy Kline. Credit: Adam Piore.
Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.
As Tolstoy's axiom goes, "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." Freewrite for ten minutes about each of these premises, then turn one—or both—into an essay.
Describe one of your earliest recollections of fear. What caused you to be afraid? What sensations—physical, mental, emotional—do you recall? How did you react? Next, describe a similar experience you've had as an adult. In what ways have your responses to fear changed since you were young? In what ways have they remained the same?
The erasure is a poetic form created by obscuring words and phrases from an existing text and using those that remain to construct a poem. Apply the erasure to an essay. Make a copy of three or four pages of your favorite essay. Then, using a black marker or Wite-out, compose a short lyric essay by selecting certain words on the pages and erasing the rest.
Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.
Research the news for an event or incident that occured during your life or during the life of a close relative. It could be an historic sports event involving your home team, a crime that happened in your town or city, or something else that had a significant effect on the people nearby, such as the building of a major bridge or highway. Write an essay about this event, blending it with anecdotes from your (or your relative's) life that took place during the same time the event occured. Use the personal to elucidate the historic and vice versa.