What writers can learn from Shakespeare–from Margot Livesey

  1. Don’t be dismayed or surprised if some pieces of work turn out to be rehearsals
  2. Be careful how you repeat yourself, and why.
  3. Begin dramatically.
  4. Don’t keep back the good stuff.
  5. Consider beginning in the present.
  6. Negotiate your own standards of plausibility.
  7. Once you’ve invented your rules, keep them.
  8. Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don’t need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee.
  9. Don’t overexplain.
  10. Be sure that borrowing a plot, a character, or situation doesn’t seem like theft.
  11. Know which kind of suspense your narrative depends on, and use accordingly.
  12. Be aware that form and tone govern content.
  13. Ask if your plot needs a subplot, or two.
  14. Develop your characters both as individuals and in relation to each other. Let the reader know which characters are major and which minor.
  15. Be ambitious with your language.
  16. Whatever you do, keep making rhymes, lines, puns, clauses, phrases, metaphors, sentences, paragraphs, sonnets, scenes, stories, plays, poems, novels…

–From Margot Livesey’s Essay “Shakespeare for Writers” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft on Essays from Tin House

At the End of the Semester. What is an essay?

In my composition classes, we have a semester long conversation about what an essay is and how best to write different forms of essays. Alan Lightman, in his introduction to the Best American Essays 2000, puts it pretty succinctly: horn_lightman_post

“When I’m reading a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important, but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his his anchor line, testing and pulling hard.

I suppose that in the end, the real subject of an essy is the essayist. Not the bald facts of autobiography, on the one hand, or the bald opinions about issues, on the other, but some kind of union between the inner person and the outer world, a melding of internal and external, the life and mind of the essayist in reaction to the universe. The essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself, and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.”