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From the Front Lines: Why the long essay is the perfect container for all your thoughts

Read fat, write fat.

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Last September, my latest book came out. It’s very literally a small book – roughly 4×6 inches and 66 pages cover to cover. It takes 45 minutes to read. And yet, it is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever published. It’s marketed as a memoir, and while there are a lot of reasons it was a worthwhile undertaking for me, I think the key reason I enjoyed it so much is that its length allowed me to explore.

At a little over 9,000 words, Pin Ups is a long essay, a form you still see in a good number of magazines and newspapers and on websites. Now that I’ve been successful at it, I want to attempt more of these. And I wanted to share with you the reason I found this process so fulfilling and how you might go about conceptualizing one of your own.

I recently read Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. In it, she describes the idea of “reading fat.” For her, it means not just reading a novel, for instance, but reading around it. While she’s reading the novel, she’ll also read the author’s biography; letters the author penned to loved ones; books the author recommended. President Barack Obama, in the foreword to his latest, A Promised Land, relates a similar way of thinking, but from the writer’s perspective: He writes that he tried to keep the book at one volume, but he found his “mind resist[ed] simple linear narrative. Often, I felt obliged to provide context for decisions I and others had made…Repeatedly my memories would toss up seemingly incidental details…that captured, in a way the public record never could, my lived experience.”

In much the same way, as I tried to answer the question of why I am so obsessed with outdoor sport, I kept on realizing that there were experiences and interests in my life that seemed unrelated but that eventually revealed themselves as inextricably tied to the more simple question of why I gravitate toward the outdoors. In the end, the book addresses the subjects of race and racism, of women’s leadership, of what it means to be American.

Often, when we write shorter essays – say, maximum 3,000 words – we’re asked to explain one idea and explain it well. I’ll never forget my editor at Patagonia, for which I penned essays and copy, telling me, “Look, you have 750 words to get an idea across. What do you want to tell your reader to make sure you can really hammer that one idea home?” But in the longer essay, you get a chance to go down the rabbit hole, to pull at all the threads and questions that inevitably spring out when you ponder something deeply enough to write anything about it.

Here is the big difference: In a short essay, say, a piece of 750 words, there is real challenge and subsequent joy in finding the anecdotes and the language that best evokes the story you are trying to tell. In a mid-range, more conventional essay, you pick and choose the strongest parts of the argument. But in a long essay, you can buttress and deviate; provide context like President Obama did, or, as Robin Wall Kimmerer does in a recent essay that is ostensibly about serviceberries, take the reader with you on a journey that runs from wild fruit all the way over to a discussion of economics and giving. 

I think it’s this last, this taking the reader with us, that provided so much of the joy of seeing Pin Ups out in the world. With an essay of this length, I could feel like the reader was tracking with me, could understand my particular methodology and experience my own experiences in full form. As I went from my childhood home in California to my young adulthood in New York and to a city I think I want to retire to on the northern coast of California, I could feel confident that the reader would experience the same discoveries I did as I worked my way through my own understanding. This leads to a more satisfying publishing experience.

So, let me provide you some ideas on how to get started on one of these of your own.

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First, ask yourself: What are some perennial things in your life? What pops up over and over again, what questions do you consistently ask yourself? This is the idea, the kernel. From this, some other thoughts will spring, and we get there by taking a second step: We dig a little deeper.

To do this, consider the psychologist Stephen Kosslyn, whom I read about in Tharp’s book. There are four ways Kosslyn says you can act on an idea. You can generate it, which you’ve already done. Then you retain it – that is, hold it in your head and let it roll around a little. Write it down on a sticky note and put it on your monitor or jot it into your planner or spend a couple of lines noodling over it in your diary. Inevitably, you’ll find you want to inspect it, which is where all those funny little sticking-out threads come in. These are the ones you want to pull on. Pull on all of them; see what’s at the end of them. And finally, finally, you want to transform the original idea.

What does this mean? Well, in the case of Pin Ups, it meant realizing that my original question – the question of why I love the outdoors so much, despite all indicators that I do not belong – is really a question of belonging. It also meant transforming the form of the thing. Originally, I’d conceived of it as a magazine article. But then I realized I wanted more permanence to it; I wanted a format that people could pass around; gift to each other; hold close to themselves if they needed to feel less alone. So, I transformed that idea of a magazine article into a book format. And now I’m thinking about it in screenplay form. It is constantly evolving, even now, after it’s been published.

(The beauty of our business of storytelling is that our stories can take many forms.)

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Here’s the really strange thing about it, though. Although I had told some of the anecdotes that appear in Pin Ups over and over again, although I had relayed their lessons multiple times, I do not feel the need to drag them out once more. In Pin Ups, they have found their final resting place – they have found the physical container in which they make the most sense. They provide the context that President Obama speaks of when he talks about relaying the experience he lived. And this sentiment, I think, is the other part of the satisfaction of having put together a project like this.

The market for long essays is significant. Periodicals are still taking them. Outlets like Narratively and Longreads are still thriving. And a quick Google search for “nonfiction chapbooks” turns up a good number of publishers who take longer essays for publishing as their own discrete volumes, much as mine was published.

I think the long essay is a fine way to flush out a lot of thoughts a writer might have; to clean house. But I’ll also encourage you to think of it as a jumping-off point. For a while there, I was thinking of Pin Ups as the introductory essay to an anthology on women in sport. I still do entertain the idea of a book of essays from women who were leaders in their relative fields. Or a book of interviews or just an inspirational coffee-table book of some sort featuring short bios and quotes. What I think this particular long essay has done for me is to clear out the cobwebs and make space for more ideas around this topic.

After all, as we all know, just because we’ve written about a thing, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to write, and read, more about it.

 

 

—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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