The Art of The Essay

chelsea-ashleys-december-bp-pictureIn school, we are tested by our ability to comprehend prompts and answer their questions through essay format. We are graded on our diction, syntax, and if we actually answered the question. Before students even get to college, where it seems term papers are at their peak numbers, we know the five paragraph format like the back of our hands. Sure, we can cut it down to four or three paragraphs and even up the ante with as many paragraphs as the teacher requires. We are not writing for ourselves, but for the teacher and most importantly: the grade. That is what worried me about creative-nonfiction essays. I was tolerant of essays about books I’d read over the summer or what president was my favorite, but writing an essay on an experience that was actually personal to me seemed a little over the top.

I was first introduced to the idea of writing creative non-fiction work my freshman year of high school. We read pieces out of miscellaneous collections by well-known writers and also writers that weren’t as known but had stories that needed to be shared. That’s how my teacher hooked me on the idea of writing essays about your own experiences. We all have stories that need to be shared, whether we consider ourselves a writer or not. My teacher allowed us to explore the idea of writing these essays for ourselves instead of feeling as if we had to write about the experiences that would shock or allow happiness for other people. That was a worry of mine. I, along with my fellow classmates, had been writing academic papers for so long that I felt the need to write for my audience. With creative non-fiction, you are your own audience and when you cater to the needs of yourself you will consequentially impart wisdom to your readers. That year, I wrote about everything my thirteen-year-old mind could possibly imagine. Deaths in my family, lost dogs, and self-esteem riddled the pages of my composition books. Now, these topics seem weak to me. I’ve experienced new things, learned from them, and can write about them with stronger diction and tactful syntax. However, one aspect of my creative non-fiction writing that has not changed is how I can learn about myself from these pieces. When writing fiction and even poetry, you can find yourselves in the characters, imagery, etc. When writing creative non-fiction, I have no choice but to find myself in the work because I am the entire piece. Sometimes, the piece doesn’t revolve around me but I am there in the background or on the sidelines. Either way, it is illuminating to step outside of your body and see yourself on that page in a way that you didn’t see yourself in that moment.

Presently, I find myself using creative non-fiction outside of the essay format. I dabble in writing strictly about my own experiences from time to time, but I find my experiences expand and grow into something bigger than myself when I input them into my other work. I insert milestones of my life into my poems and place poignant moments of my own into stories. It doesn’t have the same effect as creative non-fiction, where I put myself out on the page and make the reader analyze me. However, it does allow me to flesh out ideas and characters with the one thing I know better than any five-paragraph-format: myself.


Prompt: Pick one room of your house randomly. Think about all the events that have happened in that room, no matter if they are monumental or seemingly irrelevant. Choose the event that you weren’t directly involved in but somehow impacted you. Write a creative non-fiction piece about it from your perspective.

-Chelsea Ahsley, Digital Communications Editor


On Writing the Truth

logan-january I didn’t walk into Creative Nonfiction at the start of sophomore year expecting to hate the class, but I didn’t expect to love it either. My main concern was that my life didn’t offer enough experiences to write about; inspiration for wild fictional stories is endless, but my own life is finite. I didn’t know what I would write after the second or third essay.

What I didn’t realize is that while I have limited experiences, there are unlimited ways to tell those experiences. I can write about my parents’ divorce from the perspective of myself when I broke my arm while they were arguing, or I can write about standing in front of the front door with Mom’s suitcases on the night that we left. Even in those specific moments, there is more to tell; with the broken arm, do I write on the realization of the fact that my parents weren’t “alright,” or do I write on the duality of pain I felt in that instant? I have written none of the experiences that I have described so far, but recognizing the possibilities in that I can write on these things is the most important part.

Creative nonfiction opened doors for me in respect to both its secular genre, and in respect to all other genres, because what is more applicable to writing than the truth? Creative nonfiction was the first time that I felt it was okay to write the truth in the same ways I had written stories, and it was the first time that I realized that truth is essential to all writing. My current tactic on writing poetry is drawing from my own life, because there is nothing that I can write better than what I have already experienced. My fiction now includes pieces of me, whether a character is dealing with loss or visiting a setting that I am familiar with. In general, I have felt a lot better about all of my writing since I took Creative Nonfiction class, because it has allowed me to know more about my own writing. I can take a situation familiar to me and alter it in the name of fiction without sacrificing the fact that I know enough about the situation itself to write about it in a pseudo-personal manner.

Even more integral to my writing is the fact that creative nonfiction has allowed me to look at my own life experiences from a different perspective and gain from the writing process. I can learn from what I have already gone through in a new way, each time I create a new piece, each time I redraft. The beauty in writing what has already passed is that I can continue to learn from the moment long after it is gone, because in writing, it continues to happen, over and over and over again.

-Logan Monds, Social Media Editor

From Fan to Senior Poetry Editor: How I learned what it meant to be a part of a long-standing tradition

Aracely's Blog PictureBefore I joined the Élan Literary Magazine Staff I was a fan and a contributor. In my sophomore year of high school I was giddy to learn the publication accepted my creative nonfiction piece about my process of character development. The following year, my junior year, they published my poem about my revelation concerning my sexual identity.

At the end of both years I held the glossy finished product in my hands. I flipped frantically to find my work in there, sure enough with its own page, and my name among the table of contents.  As with any budding writer it felt wonderful to feel validated, my words printed definitively into the page.  I still have the books, tucked lovingly next to yellowing copies of Black Beauty and The Collected Poems of Pablo Neruda.

But this time around the published book will hold a greater weight.

My Senior Year I joined the Élan Staff, not quite sure how I was going to contribute but knowing I wanted to dip my hands in the process of compiling and creating the book.

My first taste came when the reading process took place to prepare for the publication of our winter online book. Before I knew it I was bursting with nearly a hundred poems, all of them singing the particular cadence of a young writer. I sat there, knowing I had a major hand in deciding which ones would find their way to the book. I’ll admit, I was overwhelmed. To make matters worse the poet in me was flailing with indecision. One poem would distract me with its fascinating imagery, and another with the blunt, lyrical voice of its speaker. Eventually I settled myself and made decisive albeit difficult choices.

Next came helping those whose work fell into a tricky in-between. To clarify, those who the magazine wanted to publish, but whose work still needed some polishing. Again, my position came into play. I sat down with young poets like myself and tossed myself into their poetry. I sat for several minutes going line by line, making notes, and then later talking to them face to face. Though intimidated at first, I grew to love the investigative nature of it. Learning to respect the writer’s voice and work while discovering the intricacies that needed improvement.

Since 1986 someone or several people have been in the same position as I am. Falling gently for the poetry finding itself in front of them. As well as left pondering over paper with thumb pressed to their lips, brow thoughtfully wrinkled.

Though Élan has a myriad of books chronicling its literary journey since the 80’s, it also carries a group of former editors behind it. It pleases me to think that my experience with Élan is a shared one, and will continue on to be just that for those who choose to involve themselves in the magazine. The magazine itself will go on to enrich the community and encourage young writers through sharing their work, just as it did for me, and just as I am doing for others.

-Aracely Medina, Senior Poetry Editor