WW: Your course aims to help participants "sense and craft the story only [they] can tell." Can you share an instance from your own writing career where discovering your unique narrative angle made a significant difference in the outcome of your essay?
SH: Yes! There was a haunting time I wanted to write about, a time when I had acute anxiety and panic attacks (even though I was teaching and practicing lots of yoga). I knew I had to write about this era to process it, but wasn't sure how to craft an essay out of the material. Through talking it out with a friend I realized during this time I had a five year old student who began having panic attacks in front of me in class. I'd totally forgotten about that, and realized that relationship could be my angle for exploring my own anxiety and healing. The lived experience of both yoga and anxiety gave me material I could draw upon authentically….because I’d been there. Finding the lens on the story helped me craft the piece, and it was the first piece I published in the New York Times.
WW: A critical part of your workshop is the peer review and feedback process. Could you share some insights on how constructive criticism has played a role in your writing journey and how you cultivate a supportive yet critical feedback environment in your classes?
SH: It's so hard to see your full story with all its potential by yourself. (one example is above!) There have been times I've brought my own work to workshops or shared with a trusted reader and realized I could start in a different place, or enlarge the piece to engage with bigger topics. Sometimes the helpful feedback is something simple---like forgetting to describe yourself, make yourself a character. The workshop is a great space to get help seeing beyond your own blindspots.
I aim to hold class spaces that are both rigorous and kind. On day one we establish guidelines for workshop to ensure safety. I always let writers set the "temperature" of workshop, for example (before you get feedback you can let us know if you want mild, medium or spicy feedback depending on your needs and mood) and writers can share what questions they want answered about the piece. Even though we are writing nonfiction, we discuss the stories as if they are fiction (for example, rather than saying "you" we say "the author.") But at the same time I want writers to leave workshop with pointed, helpful feedback they can use right away to strengthen the piece. I know it's possible to lead kind, pointed workshop sessions!
WW: The New York Times has various essay columns, each with its distinct flavor. From your experience, what are the nuanced differences between columns like Modern Love, Solver Stories, and Opinion? How does understanding these nuances benefit a writer aiming to get published?
SH: Each column has its own needs, aims and audience. It ups your chances if you read columns closely (which we do in class) and understand not just thematic differences but voice and structure patterns, too. For example, for Modern Love you center (obviously) love while Solver Stories centers around a game / game-play, though love may be part of the weave. If you’re sitting with a strong opinion or anger you may have an OpEd in you. In workshop we work to match our stories with the needs of different columns.
WW: Your workshop promises to leave participants with a well-revised essay and a plan for submission. Can you share some success stories of past participants, including two students from this course who have had their essays published in the NYTimes Modern Love column, and how the skills they learned in the workshop continued to aid them in their writing journeys post-class?
SH: Sure! Several students have found homes for their work out of this process, including two Modern Loves. In class those students revised the same essay each time they workshopped, aiming specifically for that column. We looked at pacing, where to summarize and where to have a scene, and creating a narrative arc of change. These skills, learned through close work on one essay, can be used for future essays, too. For example, one of the Modern Love writers later shaped a piece that landed in the Huffington Post using a similar process of "hot mess" first draft, then refinement through drafts and editing to shape the story for readers.
WW: Week 2 of your workshop delves into balancing an "arc of change" with flashbacks and balancing showing with telling. How have you navigated this delicate balance in your essays, and why do you believe mastering this skill is pivotal for aspiring essayists?
SH: I love looking at how the first paragraph of any essay relates to the last. There should be a change in the "I"---whether large or small. Change works as an engine for essays. It's important to read work outloud to notice pacing----if there's a part of the essay you want to highlight, you might do that through a scene (with dialog and description) vs. summary, which moves quickly. Writing an essay is similar to composing a poem or even music in this way---- there's a mix of voice and pacing that adds up to delivering emotion. Whenever I read my essays out loud and they're lagging or vague I think of "zooming in" techniques like dialog or description and try that. Some of my favorite essays start "in scene" ----even with dialog to hook the reader!
All this is important to make essays interesting to strangers/ readers who aren’t us.
WW: One of the daunting aspects of essay writing is the submission and potential rejection. Based on your own experiences, what insights can you provide to budding writers about navigating the submission process, handling rejections, and understanding the best practices for submissions?
SH: Rejection is so hard! I think one of the hardest parts of writing is we somehow have to be sensitive enough to write, but tough enough to handle rejection.
For these essays I submit to one place at a time. If I get a no, I have another place on my wish list of places I'd love to share my work, and send it out to another spot. I also recommend working on a new piece while one is out on submission to keep you distracted so you don't keep refreshing your inbox for an answer.
In class we talk about how submissions work but also how to practice self-care as a writer, to keep our spirits up through the process. A lot of times finding a home for a piece is simply a numbers game, so we talk about how to build resilience! And, self-compassion.
You can learn more about Sarah's upcoming Nonfiction Workshop: Writing the New York Times Essay 6-Week Zoom Class, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?
Instructor Sarah Herrington is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Modern Love, Anxiety, Solver Stories and OpEd columns, the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Slice, Nylon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Interview, Poets & Writers, O, The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University where she was a Goldwater Fellow, an MFA from Lesley University and teaches writing at Fordham.