The stories of our lives don't always fit into a book-length memoir, which is why the universe invented the Personal Essay. Translating your thoughts and feelings into a personal essay is one of the most rewarding and challenging forums for any writer. But because personal essays can — in theory — be about whatever you want, sometimes the possibilities seem overwhelming. As Susan Sontag once said: “An essay is not an article, not a meditation, not a book review, not a memoir, not a disquisition, not a diatribe, not a shaggy dog story, not a monologue, not a travel narrative, not a suite of aphorisms, not an elegy, not a piece of reportage, not a – No, an essay can be any or several of the above.”
This class will help you discern which of your ideas and stories are best suited to this form. And once you've gotten a draft onto the page, we'll work on whittling down your personal essays to a manageable (and pitch-able) length, thinking carefully about the question of audience. We will also focus on infusing your short-form creative non-fiction with the right amount of authority and zeitgeist savvy, while retaining and honing your unique voice. After all, these essays are called personal for a reason!
- intensive feedback from peers and instructor on two personal essays
- one private meeting with the instructor over the phone or Skype to discuss writing style, goals, and areas for improvement
- straightforward, practical lessons on how to structure personal essays, come up with new ideas, and find the right voice for the story
- detailed information on the submission process, from best practices in preparing pieces for submission, to what editors look for in pitches, to what venues are best suited to your work
*Writers will have two opportunities to workshop, will meet once with the instructor for an individual conference, and will also engage with the lessons via weekly writing prompts and craft materials.
Week 1: What is an essay? Exploring the types of personal essays available. How to determine the right approach to your essays.
Week 2: Characters in non-fiction essays. What can you change about the biographies of real people? How to mine people you know for the traits you need in essay writing. Plus, ethical questions about using the lives of real people in non-fiction.
Week 3: Themes. What are these essays about? Are they just stories from your personal life? How to move essays beyond being just anecdotes in prose.
Week 4: Structures of essays. Should stories occur in a linear order or not? Here's when to break up information for maximum narrative impact. Plus, how to control tension when you know how it ends.
Week 5: Revision. Why does non-fiction require so many drafts? How to look at your essays honestly and cut what you don't need.
Week 6: The Business. Where can these essays live in the world? A look at how to publish essays in the wide world. Plus, when to put an essay in your back pocket for later publication.
"Ryan Britt is an inspiring writing teacher. I first met him when I enrolled in his Memoir class at Gotham in 2011, during a time when I was teaching at one of the worst public middle school in Brooklyn. My life was hell, and I couldn't write. Honestly, Ryan's class teased the words out of me. Ryan creates a climate of humor and support, but he is also real; he doesn't blow rainbows when the work is seriously flawed. He actually maintains the right balance of rainbows and real, so when I realized Ryan believed in me, I started to believe in me."
"Ryan is smart, funny, and understands what makes a good story. His teaching style is clear, giving specific examples of structure or form, and versatile, supporting students with interests as diverse as health system reform or satire of spinning classes. Ryan helped me to strengthen an editorial on opioid addiction and incarceration, which was picked up by the Huffington Post, and complete several personal essays that I am compiling for a book. Participating in Ryan’s workshops has benefited me professionally. I publish 5-10 journal articles annually and am expected to give feedback to colleagues and mentees on their writing. My writing is clearer and the persuasiveness of my discussion sections have improved. I am better able to articulate constructive critiques. Accordingly, I recruited Ryan to teach medical students about persuasive writing for a health advocacy elective, and I have referred friends who are interested in writing to Ryan’s workshops."
"Ryan's classes were my favorite place to fail; where I was never afraid to go out on a limb and really try something new. And I think that's because he creates such a great community amongst his students. We were inspired to be open and thoughtful with our critiques without any anxiety or judgment. And with this kind of curated support, you tend to work harder, write strategically and ultimately gain a bit more confidence. It's a very subtle magic he has, but ultimately allows you to receive all his wisdom and become a better writer. He's the best."