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How to Conceive & Structure Personal Essays: an Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

How to Conceive & Structure Personal Essays: an Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Explore the art of personal essay writing with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, a National Magazine Award finalist and author of the award-winning debut collection, Barefoot Dogs. Antonio brings extensive experience and profound insights to his new Zoom seminar, How to Conceive & Structure Personal Essays. This one-time seminar offers a unique blend of traditional journalistic methods and the narrative flair of short fiction and memoir to craft essays that captivate readers.

Antonio's class will provide a thorough examination of the essential elements and structure of personal essays, guiding students through the process of shaping their own experiences, anecdotes, fears, and ideas into compelling narratives.

From crafting the ideal framework for an essay to mastering the balance between scene-setting and summarization, participants will develop essential skills to tackle essays of varying lengths with clarity and confidence. Whether you're an experienced writer looking to refine your craft or a novice eager to explore the power of personal storytelling, Antonio's class offers an invaluable opportunity to elevate your writing skills.

WW: Antonio, your journey from Toluca, Mexico, to becoming a celebrated writer in English is both inspiring and remarkable. How do you think your transition and the challenges of writing in a second language have influenced your approach to teaching the art of conceiving and structuring personal essays?

ARC: When I started writing in English and didn’t have full control of the language, I realized I had to focus on those elements of the craft I could control — characterization, voice, plot, detail. It was especially important to me to develop the ability to deliver emotion in a language that was not my own. After trial and error, I understood that I didn’t need to have full control of the language — no one really does, even if it’s your native tongue. What I needed was to develop my own voice with the elements I could control, and master my use of the elements of the craft to write my stories. All these elements are crucial for a personal essay to succeed — in the end, you’re telling a story and delivering an emotional journey to the reader. Understanding this has been very useful to me as a writing teacher.

WW: Your upcoming seminar, How to Conceive & Structure Personal Essays, promises to blend journalistic techniques with the narrative drive of fiction and memoir. Can you share how your experience writing fiction and nonfiction writing has shaped the curriculum of this seminar, especially in terms of structuring and energizing essays?

ARC: My professional background is in journalism so I’ve always taken a very journalistic approach to my writing regardless of the genre. At the same time, I’ve been practicing journalism during the day and writing fiction at night (or on weekends, or very early in the morning) for many years, so I have a keen sense of what you can and can’t do in each genre — I have no doubts about the separation of church and state, if you will. As a personal essayist, you need to wear both hats — the hat of the novelist and the hat of the hack. A personal essay tells a story after all, but its elements need to be true — emotionally and factually true. How to achieve that is one of the main topics we cover in the seminar.

WW: Personal essays allow writers to explore and share their deepest experiences, fears, and ideas. What do you believe are the most common hurdles for writers when they attempt to turn these personal stories into coherent essays, and how does your seminar aim to help them overcome these challenges?

ARC: You need to put enough emotional distance between yourself and the experiences you’re planning to write about, otherwise you risk turning the essay into self-help or therapy — nothing wrong with either, but that’s not the purpose of a personal essay. The purpose of achieving emotional distance is to turn your experiences into writing material, and doing so is tricky. You need to be close enough to the material to remain emotionally vulnerable — that’s where the energy for the essay will come from. But if you’re still too close to it, you’ll be unable to be subjectively objective and the essay won’t connect with your readers. What does this mean? Come to the seminar to find out!

WW: The seminar description mentions teaching students to figure out the essay's 'frame'. What do you mean by 'framing' an essay? Perhaps you can give an example of how a well-chosen frame can transform a personal anecdote into a compelling narrative.

ARC: When I started writing personal essays, I initially thought I had to conceive them around an idea. Many budding writers think essays revolve around ideas, not emotions. The most successful personal essays are, at their core, stories supercharged with emotion. In a personal essay, you show AND tell. When you approach them that way, you realize that you do need to frame a personal essay in terms of storytelling. 

WW: In the class, there's an emphasis on understanding what to summarize and what to dramatize through short scenes. How do you guide students in making these decisions, and could you provide an example from your own writing where this distinction played a crucial role?

ARC: In the first portion of the seminar we discuss the elements that make a personal essay successful. In the second portion, we discuss and dissect three very different personal essays from three very different writers — Joan Didion, Karan Mahajan and yours truly (I know that assigning your own work in class is considered anathema, but I’ve found it particularly insightful because it allows students to go into the brain of the author and have access to the decisions they made). We look at these pieces through the lens of storytelling, so seminar participants can see with their own eyes how these essays were put together, what decisions the authors made on the page, and how, in reality, these are stories masquerading as essays. 

WW: Fact-checking one's memory, especially in personal essays, is a unique and intricate challenge. How do you approach this aspect in your seminar, and what strategies do you offer your students to ensure their essays remain authentic yet factually accurate?

ARC: We talk a lot about fact-checking in the traditional journalistic sense, how to go about it and why it’s so important for personal essays. But we also talk about the concept of emotional truth and why it’s important to keep that in mind as you write — in the end, it’s your own version of the story, and while it can, and has to be, fact-checked and accurate to the best of your abilities, it’s also going to be inherently subjective.

WW: Finally, this seminar seems to focus on the craft of writing and the introspective journey of understanding oneself through writing. How has your own personal and professional journey informed the creation of this seminar, and what do you hope students will take away from it on a personal level?

ARC: Writing personal essays is one of my favorite things as a writer, but they can also be incredibly emotionally taxing. As writers, we’re always trying to understand ourselves and the world through our writing, but in no other genre are we so exposed, so vulnerable to the public eye, as we are when we write, and publish, a personal essay. You’re basically discussing and dissecting your deepest emotions, joys, sorrows, failures, shortcomings, in front of everybody — how’s that not terrifying? And if you’re not real in an essay, your readers will feel it and you’ll fail. It’s different when you write fiction or journalism, there’s always a layer of anonymity, an emotional shield, behind your intent. I’d argue every writer in every genre is always, in one way or another, writing about themselves, but only in a personal essay they’re doing so with their name and face nakedly exposed. Understanding the elements of the craft through the lens of an essayist can help students be better prepared for this experience, avoid pitfalls and emotional traps, succeed at it and enjoy it.

Learn more about working with Antonio:

You learn more about Antonio's upcoming How to Conceive & Structure Personal Essays Zoom Seminar and sign up if interested.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is a National Magazine Award finalist. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs won the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction, and was named a Best Book by Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Texas Observer and PRI's The World. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Texas Monthly, The Millions, and elsewhere.

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