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Personal Essay Idea to First Draft: an Interview with Samantha Ladwig

by Writing Workshops Staff

A month ago

Personal Essay Idea to First Draft: an Interview with Samantha Ladwig

by Writing Workshops Staff

A month ago

Samantha Ladwig is a writer with an eye for the profound, a book reviewer for BUST magazine, and co-owner of the beloved Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her impressive portfolio, featuring publications in New York magazine's The Cut and Vulture, Literary Hub, Real Simple, Bustle, and CrimeReads, is a testament to her versatility and skill.

As she prepares to launch her much-anticipated workshop, Idea to First Draft: A Personal Essay 4-Week Zoom Workshop, we had the opportunity to sit down with her and delve into the inspiration behind the class, her approach to personal essay writing, and what participants can expect.

Ladwig’s workshop promises to be an engaging and transformative experience, guiding writers through the intricate process of shaping personal experiences into compelling narratives. Over the course of four weeks, participants will learn to craft essays that connect with readers, develop their unique voices, and refine their work to create polished first drafts ready for submission. The course is designed for writers of all levels, offering a supportive environment filled with insightful feedback sessions, discussions on editing and pitching, and practical exercises to uncover the stories within their experiences.

Samantha’s curated reading list, featuring works by Melissa Febos, Vivian Gornick, Roy Peter Clark, and William Zinsser, alongside real pitch examples, promises to inspire and educate. Participants will not only complete a first draft by the end of the workshop but also gain invaluable editing techniques and pitching strategies to further their writing careers.

Join us as we explore Samantha’s journey, her insights on personal essay writing, and what makes her upcoming workshop a must-attend for any aspiring essayist.

Writing Workshops: Can you tell us about your own journey from idea to first draft? How has your writing process evolved over time?

Samantha Ladwig: When I first started writing, I pretty much went from idea to first draft in one go. It was erratic and messy and not every sentence served a purpose. I worried that if I didn’t get what I needed down on paper fast enough, the whole thing would vanish. But it was that kind of raw, unfiltered new-writer experience that I can appreciate now because it built my confidence.

Nowadays, when an idea comes my way, it’s a softer experience. I can sit with it longer, interview it, because I trust that it won’t disappear. I might go for a walk and jot notes down on my phone, or if I don’t have time, I’ll write the idea on a piece of paper and then parse it out the following day in the early morning. It’s a much more thoughtful process. With nonfiction, when you’re writing about other people or stories that involve other people, it must be thoughtful.

Once enough of the idea has been fleshed out, it’s just a matter of writing the difficult first draft. I try to get an idea of what the first two or three paragraphs will be about so that the blank page isn’t as daunting. Then I dedicate the first hour of every morning to writing until it’s finished. If I’m in a good flow and I can structure my day around writing, I’ll do that and keep at it. If not, I try to stop at a place that I can easily pick back up, which I recommend to all my students in feedback workshops. It’s really motivating to go into a writing session with direction rather than an obstacle.

Writing Workshops: As a co-owner of Imprint Bookstore, how does your day-to-day interaction with books and readers influence your writing and teaching?

Samantha Ladwig: It's all interconnected. I’ve written a lot of essays on bookselling and how the bookstore has influenced my writing over the years. I talk about my work and other people’s work, and writing in general, at the bookstore. And just learning about the books people are reading, how they feel about them, what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, is really inspiring.

Sometimes our writing is just for us, but a lot of the time it’s also for readers, so hearing what they connect with in a story is insightful. Especially when it comes to teaching because it gives me the language I need to help a writer take an experience or an obsession they want to write about and turn it into a story that others are going to want to read.

Writing Workshops: Your class promises to help students transform their personal experiences into captivating essays. What key elements do you believe are essential in making a personal essay stand out?

Samantha Ladwig: The ability to identify the intersection between your unique perspective and the thing you want to write about is key. It’s important to the story and it’s important to the editor because it helps the essay stand out.

Personal essays aren’t just about something that happened, or a chronological retelling of a life, they’re about what the writer made of what happened, how an experience changed them in some way. Often writers will show up with a funny story or a trauma, and those experiences have value. But when we want to share them with the world, we have to with them to find out why those moments are so significant to us. Or, similarly important, we discover that they’re not the main story but a moment within a larger story.

Writing Workshops: Could you share a bit about the readings you’ve selected for the workshop, such as those by Melissa Febos and Vivian Gornick? How do these works exemplify the techniques you’ll be teaching?

Samantha Ladwig: I love a craft book, a craft essay, any writing on writing. The readings for this workshop are simply meant to inspire. I wanted to share some of the texts that have helped me with my own writing to create a sort of foundation for participants, so that they have something to take with them and reflect on as they move forward with the project they plan to work on in the workshop and other essays moving forward.

Each essay will relate to what we talk about in that week’s session. Gornick’s is about the heart of personal essay, Febos’ is about writing about people, Zissner’s is about writing about place, and Clark’s is a tool for editing.

Writing Workshops: Editing and refining are crucial steps in the writing process. What are some common mistakes you see in early drafts, and how do you guide students to improve them?

Samantha Ladwig: Redundancy. I wouldn't call it a mistake though because it's not a technical mistake. It's more just a common practice that once you notice yourself doing, you can be on the lookout for it when you get to the editing stage.

When I say redundancy, I'm talking specifically about lines and paragraphs that say the same thing. It’s almost like evidence building – the writer has made a claim or a point and then they feel compelled to make a case. One usually sits more comfortably than the others, but the writer has to identify it. And in order to do that, they have to remove themselves enough from the piece to look at it as objectively as possible. Read like your reader. If you can manage to do that, you can identify areas that need more detail, that are redundant, or steer the piece off course.

Also, a quick but crucial piece of advice I always give is read your work aloud. Usually from the beginning after each edit. It can get annoying if you have to retrace your steps multiple times in one sitting but it’s the best way to find those words and sentences that don’t sound quite right.

Writing Workshops: Pitching essays can be intimidating for many writers. What strategies do you teach to help students effectively pitch their work to editors?

Samantha Ladwig: Pitching is its own art and it’s not always approached as such. Separating those two can be really helpful for the writer. Sometimes I write a pitch before the essay to give my essay direction, and sometimes I write the essay before the pitch to give my pitch direction.

When I teach a pitch workshop, I break down the elements of a good pitch because I find that parsing it out takes the pressure off and gives the writer some direction in terms of how to articulate the heart of their essay, why it’s important, and why they’re the person to tell this story. It’s all about the writer putting themselves in the editor’s shoes to get a sense of how to stand out among the many pitches editors receive each day. 

Writing Workshops: Your workshop includes a strong focus on group feedback. How do you create a supportive environment that encourages constructive criticism and growth for all participants?

Samantha Ladwig: I've been facilitating feedback-based groups for over six years and they're some of my favorite workshops to teach. There's so much magic in a group coming together and investing themselves in their own work and others.

I’m very involved in the facilitation of each person’s feedback. I provide clear instructions and expectations at the beginning. For example, pointing out what works is as important as highlighting moments that pulled the reader out of the essay. And I ask folks to leave grammar and punctuation remarks at the door, to save that work for their final read through before sending it off to an editor who will take care of all that. Our focus, particularly in this workshop, is on drawing the story out.

Writing Workshops: Thank you for this great interview, Samantha. Interested writers can learn more about your class, Idea to First Draft: A Personal Essay 4-Week Zoom Workshop, and sign up now!


Instructor Samantha Ladwig is a writer, book reviewer for BUST magazine, and co-owner of Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her work has been published by New York magazine's The Cut and Vulture, Literary Hub, Real Simple, Bustle, CrimeReads, and others.



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