The essay I wrote about last week has been published. You can read My Bread Loaf, a short memoir about my nontraditional working experience at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, at The Millions.
I originally wrote this essay a number of years ago when the Writers' Conference was celebrating some anniversary. I'd say eleven years ago when it was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary, but come on. It can't be that long. At the time, I tried to publish it in local Vermont publications where Bread Loaf is a big deal because that's where the Conference is held, in Ripton, Vermont. No takers. I thought, Well, this is a case of no one wanting to think of Bread Loaf in any way but as a highbrow literary gathering.
When I decided to take a look at the essay again and submit it to The Millions in time for this year's Conference, which starts on Wednesday, I realized that though it may very well be that there are people who only want to think of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as a highbrow literary gathering, it was also true that my essay rambled and was unfocused. If I'd found someone to publish it as it was originally written, I would probably be quite embarrassed about it now.
I cut it down a lot before submitting and was careful about transitional material between paragraphs, which helps to keep an essay on topic. If you can't create a transition between one thought and the next, it's probably because the thoughts aren't similar enough to do so and something should be cut. The editor's response to that submission was that he liked it but that he thought it could be tighter and more focused and gave me a suggestion for the opening. Clearly I was on the right track, even if I was not moving along it very rapidly.
Here is the big thing I learned while working on this essay over the past month--with memoir, and probably with all kinds of essays, it's important to leave things out. I don't mean that you have to leave out anything that could get you into legal problems. I mean you have to leave out good bits because too much detail can actually overwhelm and confuse readers. With a personal essay or memoir you have to have the equivalent of a thesis statement/topic just as you would with a formal essay, even if you don't formally state it the way you would, say, in an argumentive article on why the U.S. economy is in the toilet. And then you have to stay with that topic. It may be a little harder to stay with it with a less formal essay because without a hardcore, clearly stated thesis statement at the beginning of the work, it's hard to create topic sentences that loop back to said statement. You have to be aware, yourself, what you are doing with each paragraph even if there isn't a formal thesis statement for you to direct readers back to. That means that good thoughts, anecdotes, and funny lines that don't relate specifically to your topic cannot be included.
I didn't formally state that this flash essay was going to be about the writing of My Bread Loaf. But that's what my intention was. Oh, and look--the paragraph above takes the essay from the particular--My Bread Loaf--to the general--writing personal essays/memoirs. I am pleased with how that worked out, cause I had forgotten to try to do that.
Maybe I'm developing a little muscle memory for essay writing.