Sunday, October 12, 2014

How to Write an Entitled and Shiftless Personal Non-Essay

There's a website called CourseHorse with like ten thousand adult school classes. You can learn to make kasha varnishkes or ride a horse or reupholster your couch. There's a whole section for writing classes. I decide to take one, mainly because I've never taken a writing class before and, judging by the curlicue of my so-called writing process, it's probably fairly evident I have no idea what I'm doing. 

Most of the class listings I discard based on my only two selection criteria— a solid mid-morning start time, and a location that does not require me to board a subway line I find annoying. I settle on a 10am class that is eighteen blocks from our apartment. Perfect. 

Energetic and Motivated Gotham City Writers
Photo credit: whatsgoodinny.com/
2014/01/calling-all-creative-writers-get.html
The class gets off to a rocky start. A Gotham City Writer guy tells me "goodies" are for the taking in the lobby. I envision coffee and maybe a tiny muffin with raisins. My hopes flatten like a dead pigeon on the street. There is nothing on that pristine white table top but orderly rows of logo pens and pads. With a black look befitting someone so cruelly led astray, I slump into a seat in the classroom. The woman next to me crinkles around in a shopping bag and pulls out a slice of warm buttered bread and some kind of delicious fruit smoothy. I doodle morose pictures of coffee mugs on my new notepad with my new pen.

Melissa the Instructor shows up and writes An Introduction to the Personal Essay on the white board. Ah yes, the personal essay. I have no idea what a personal essay is, but it has a ring to it. Soon, I will proclaim, "Behold the personal essay I have penned" instead of "I cranked out this blog post and it's all about MEEEE." It will be a legitimate cover for the glorious narcissism I so enjoy. I am all ears.

We go around the class and introduce ourselves. The woman next to me was up at 4am to catch a train from DC to take this class. The two across the room come from Toronto and Melbourne respectively, both gobbling up a month in this city taking classes and inspiring themselves visa vis cultural pursuits and minor clubbing. The lure of this town brought the dude in the black T-shirt here by way of Michigan. Two locals sit by the windows, Manhattanites born and raised.

Every single one of my classmates is here for reasons more to do with personal essays and less to do with logistical convenience. This becomes obvious when Melissa the Instructor scribbles a topic on the board and tells us to write about it for 15 minutes. Immediately I begin to write about something else. A prescribed topic transforms every other topic into forbidden fruit and I am helpless to resist. At the end of the 15 minutes, Melissa the Instructor wants us all to read what we've written aloud. This is unanticipated. 

Everybody else wrote a few paragraphs bordering on worthwhile. I announce that I had approached the topic more metaphorically and pass. It occurs to me that this is a genuine class with genuine students. I feel a little sweaty but it might be because I had hauled ass up the sidewalk the whole way to midtown instead of riding a Citibike. I just didn't feel like going through the incredibly minor hassle of docking so near Penn Station so early in the mid-morning.

Is this squirrel farting noxiously?
photo credit: slideshare.net/
stratt45/nut-graf-spring-2013
After that, Melissa the Instructor dissects the personal essay. There is one essential ingredient. She writes Nut Graf on the board.  I snicker like my spirit animal, which happens to be a fourteen-year-old boy. While Melissa the Instructor explains the Nut Graf, I picture some sort of perverted EKG machine.

Eventually, Melissa stops talking and announces a lunch break, I still have no idea what a Nut Graf is but do not have time to worry about it because my attention is immediately diverted by the chick from Toronto.

Her name is Theresa and she says loudly, "There is a bodega up the street I like, if anyone wants to join me there to grab a bite." My eyebrows skyrocket. She's been in this town for three weeks and is sitting next to two people who have lived in NYC for at least sixty years by the look of them. This is apparently irrelevant. Theresa has had 21 full days to evaluate the vicinity and qualify a DELI she likes better than the other fifty on the block. I am not surprised. Earlier, she had taught us all where to find the best soul food in Harlem so I am already aware of her subject matter expertise.

I go to lunch with one of the New Yorkers who took this class because she's writing a memoir about living in Harlem in the 60's and how much it's changed since then. On a scrap of paper, she jots down for me the names of her two favorite soul food joints. 

Four hours later, Theresa has produced a half-decent personal essay and I remain confused by the Nut Graf. I can say I learned enough to know the words you see before you are not a personal essay. My new aim is to become the Grandma Moses of prose. The work I produce shall be somewhat pleasing if you overlook all the blobby paintwork.
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