It was once decreed that “the personal essay boom is over.” In the years since, the personal essay has evolved: Authors are making the personal more explicitly political, connecting their individual experiences to broader cultural topics, trends, and ephemera in order to better understand the former, the latter, or both. But this evolution, Montaigne might argue, is in fact a return to its roots; they are “essays” or “attempts” at making sense of the confounding world we live in.
In this one-day craft class, open to writers with all levels of experience, we’ll discuss why and how to deploy the personal essay form to elucidate the issues that trouble and fascinate us most as writers of color.
We will begin with a short seminar on the personal essay, followed by generative exercises to develop ideas for essays that tell compelling personal narratives and incorporate fact-based research, reporting, and/or analytical commentary. The second half of class will be devoted to a short workshop on how to pitch personal essays to magazine editors. In discussing the place of the personal essay in today’s literary and media landscape, we’ll consider arguments by writers like Jia Tolentino, Tajja Isen, Kyle Lucia Wu, Nicole Chung, and more.
You must identify as a writer of color in order to take this class. The value of limiting this seminar to writers of color is to create a space where writers don't need to explain themselves or the language they choose to use, as well as not needing to subscribe to any writing tradition that is not inclusive of minorities. In this generative space, we'll be creating work for us, work that resonates with our communities. That is deeply vulnerable work. It is of extreme importance that this remains a safe space, one that serves writers and reserves their energy to create and to admire other people's work instead of having to defend their right to create.
The class will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features. The Zoom call will have automated transcription enabled. Please let us know ([email protected]) if you have any questions or concerns about accessibility.
Check out this page for details about payment plans and discount opportunities.
- One or two ideas/beginnings for essays that weave personal narrative with research, reporting, and/or cultural commentary
- A take-home list of best practices/tips for pitching personal essays to magazine editors
- A stronger grasp of the essay form as a vehicle for ongoing personal and cultural interrogation; an essay is never a final answer
- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Optional readings will be supplied before the class and all work will be short in-class exercises, e.g. a headline game/workshop, an idea/pitch generator exercise, etc.
Part I: Housekeeping and introductions
Part II: Short lecture on the personal essay
Part IIIa: Generative exercise: crossing IDs + expertise/passions
Part IIIb: Sharing work in breakout rooms
Part IV: Seminar on pitching and best practices as a writer online
Part Va: Generative exercise: headline game
Part Vb: Sharing work in whole class
Part VI: Q&A
Part VII: Wrap-up & closing
Matt Ortile is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name. He is also the executive editor of Catapult magazine, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler. Previously, he was the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines. He is a MacDowell Fellow and has written for Vogue, Esquire, Out, Into, and BuzzFeed News, among others. He is a graduate of Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn. You can find more of his work on mattortile.com and on Twitter @ortile.
“I don’t have an MFA, and so for years, I held myself back from pursuing my dreams of becoming a creative nonfiction writer. But I realized, after working with Matt Ortile, that the most important lessons of the MFA can happen in your working relationship with an editor. Matt was able to see the potential for a published piece when I had just a kernel of an idea—a tweet, in fact! The way he shepherded me through the publication process helped me develop my confidence as a writer. As an editor, he was lovingly rigorous. In the end, my piece he edited not only got published, it ended up becoming my most viral piece ever. I can’t wait to work with him again.”
“I love working with Matt Ortile because he knows that ‘personal essay’ doesn’t mean ‘exploitative tell-all circa 2011.’ He knows it means a rigorous work of art. He takes it seriously, helping an author sound, not like him, but like themself on their very best day.”
“Matt Ortile is the editor of my dreams. He knows how to tell a good story and doesn’t keep his wisdom to himself. He will treat your work with care and respect, provide you with actionable feedback, casually offer nuggets of genius that will make you nod and snap your fingers, but my favorite gift of his is this: He will make you excited to write.”
“Matt is a generous, thoughtful editor. He encourages my weird ideas and encourages me to make weak ones stronger, and helps me give the reader everything they need in a piece. Working with Matt, I find new ways to make my writing sharper and deeper, and our collaborations always leave me excited to write more.”
“An intellectually ambitious, politically engaged, ideologically sensitive memoir.”
“A whip-smart essay collection explores the intersection of race, sexuality and identity through the lens of one queer immigrant's personal history.”
“Weaving stories together about his life and the history of the marginalized communities he belongs to, Ortile seamlessly brings readers into the intersections of his experiences.”
“Ortile’s writing is insightful and honest, giving readers a window into a world with which they may not be familiar.”