ESSAYS THAT TAUGHT ME HOW TO WRITE ESSAYS

I recently had to write a personal essay, a harrowing experience for a fiction writer. I can only learn about writing by reading. It’s such a rich time for essays, especially by women, but these in particular were my teachers.
  1. A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
    Every time I read it, I feel invited to be a writer and I am so grateful.
  2. Writing a Novel - Elizabeth Hardwick
    I have a Hardwick obsession, yes. This essay is the outline for her “novel” Sleepless Nights. Questions of female identity, autobiography, truth. The form is experimental, the prose, lapidary. Everyone does the fiction memoir hybrid now, but she started it.
  3. In the Islands - Joan Didion
    Is it the best? Maybe not. But the most textured, the most surprising, and the one I reread most often for a lesson in craft.
  4. Forty One False Starts - Janet Malcolm
    Janet, you’re just a fucking genius. Like all her work, this essay exposes the scaffolding of journalism to say something true about art. This one in particular has the added bonus of being funny.
  5. Illness as a Metaphor - Susan Sontag
    “Illness is the nightshade of life.” I mean. This is dark stuff. She’s perfect.
  6. October 27th in The Folded Clock - Heidi Julavits
    What a stunning book. It made me want to quit being a writer, that’s how good it was. Not one sentence feels compromised or unnecessary. She travels an incredible emotional distance in probably 1000 words.
  7. The Blue of Distance - Rebecca Solnit
    I’m partial to the “blue” books – Bluets by Maggie Nelson, On Being Blue by William Gass –but I return to Solnit’s essays for the perfect blend of abstraction and the personal. I finish her essays feeling more observant and – the real miracle – calmer.
  8. Write Like A Motherfucker - Cheryl Strayed
    The best advice you can give a writer. @carlybee sent this to me recently and I had forgotten how urgent and powerful it is.