Terrain.org Nonfiction Editor Joshua Foster on Writing the Personal Essay
A professor from my alma mater recently invited me back to campus to discuss with his freshmen composition class the writing of personal essays. A few weeks prior, it came to my attention that the college had used an essay I’d written while there, a short two-pager called “Second Day of Sun,” as a student example in their comp textbook. A flattering and overwhelming predicament, realizing that all incoming freshmen would be reading (or, better said, assigned to read) my work.
The problem came in teaching the writing principles of personal essaying. I’d written “Second Day of Sun” inspired by a gut urge while walking to campus one melty winter day, punching out the text while at work in the basement of the Engineering building. The whole process, start to finish, took maybe two hours. I handed it in a few days later, and then sent it off to Idaho Magazine a week after that. Idaho Magazine accepted it [read essay], and the essay became my first official publication. If anything, the composition seemed like a lucky accident.
The answer came in a metaphor. Idaho in January is a frigid place—the farm fields buried in snow, the naked trees spindled and bare. On a clear morning, one can see for miles across the glistening expanse. And so I asked the students to imagine being alone, outside, on those barren fields. Perhaps they have on snowshoes, or cross-country skis. Perhaps they are barefoot. Darkness falls. Out across the plain a light can be seen. They fumble in that direction, trudging and plodding toward the beacon. Finally, they arrive. There sits a house with no front door, and a fire can be seen inside, roaring and lapping in the stone hearth. What would one do in such a situation? Easy: go in through the open door and get near the heat.
Perhaps personal writing is not that different. Any writer will attest that the blank page is looming and lonely, a tundra to track through and traverse. And that is what happens until a light is found. And then the writer needs only to do two things—at least in their initial efforts of composition—to pen the personal essay. Burst through that open door and face the flames.
Though I didn’t understand those principles while writing “Second Day of Sun,” I do now. Spare the reader the meandering quest of arriving at a subject. Instead, guide them through the opening and convey to them the emotional core, the heat of the piece, and keep them there until the only solution is to step away or combust.
Joshua Foster lives and works on his family’s potato and grain farm in southeastern Idaho. He recently earned an MFA degree in fiction and nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona. He serves as the nonfiction editor for Terrain.org: A Journal for the Built & Natural Environments.