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Essay Writing Life

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Writing Life Stories, Tenth Anniversary Edition
How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature
By Bill Roorbach, with Kristen Keckler, PhD
Writer’s Digest Books, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-58297-527-6
$16.99 paperback, 304 pages

Read an excerpt from chapter two: "Challenging the Limits of Memory."

Whether you’re creating a memoir or a personal essay, writing about your own life can be a daunting task: How much do you remember? What’s important to include in your story? What about truth and artistic license? How do you even get started mining a life’s worth of memory?

From drawing a map of a remembered neighborhood to writing from old photographs to composing open letters that reveal the power of your own voice, award-winning author and teacher Bill Roorbach offers innovative techniques that will trigger ideas for all writers of creative nonfiction. With humor and candor, this completely revised and updated second edition of Writing Life Stories—which includes dozens of new lessons and exercises—will teach you to see your life more clearly and show you why real stories are often the most compelling ones.

Praise for Writing Life Stories

Writing Life Stories is an inspiring way to begin writing a memoir. Roorbach is a fine author whose enthusiasm is infectious.”
—Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine

“Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories is brimming with valuable suggestions, evocative assignments, insights into the writing process, and shrewd common sense. I can’t wait to try some of his ideas in the classroom and on myself. This writing guide delivers the goods.”
—Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay

About the Authors

Bill Roorbach writes fiction and nonfiction, and is the author of numerous books, including a novel, The Smallest Color, and a book of stories, Big Bend, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The title story, “Big Bend,” won an O. Henry Prize as well.  Temple Stream: a Rural Odyssey, his most recent book, won the 2006 Maine Book Award in nonfiction and received a Furthermore Grant from the Kaplan Foundation. Other books are Into Woods (essays); Summers with Juliet (memoir); A Place on Water (essays, with Robert Kimber and Wesley McNair), A Healing Touch (essays, with Gerry Boyle, Wesley McNair, Richard Russo, Susan Sterling, and Monica Wood). Bill is also the editor of the Oxford anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. His short work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York, The New York Times Magazine, and many others. He has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Ohio State, and Colby College, and currently holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He lives in Farmington, Maine, and is at work on a novel.  For more information, updated biography, signed copies of books, news about readings and workshops, and to send queries and comments directly to the author, go to www.billroorbach.com.

To read an interview with Bill, click here.

Kristen Keckler is a teacher, writer, and editor whose PhD (University of North Texas) is in the field of creative nonfiction. She writes in all genres—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—and her work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Ecotone, The Sonora Review, The Dallas Morning News, Cold-Drill, Palo Alto Review, and Concho River Review. She was editor-in-chief of North Texas Review an editor of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, a national book contest co-sponsored by the UNT Press. On the way she’s worked as a clown, a cook, a librarian, and a group home counselor. She’s just completing a memoir about life and work called What Do You Do?

Table of Contents for Writing Life Stories, 10th Anniv. Ed.

1.    Getting Started
2.    Memory
3.    Scenemaking
4.    Big Ideas
5.    Characters and Character
6.    Stage Presence
7.    Finding the Facts
8.    Metaphor and Meaning
9.    Saying It Right
10.    Building a Building
11.    Getting Published

Appendix A: “Into Woods” by Bill Roorbach
Appendix B: “The Olive Jar” by Kristen Keckler
Appendix C: “On Apprenticeship” by Bill Roorbach
Appendix D: Suggested Readings in Creative Nonfiction

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Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

1. Pick a topic.

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?

Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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