Does the word “essay” immediately take your mind back to the pressure of writing the perfect admissions essay as part of a college application or give you flashbacks to pressure-filled language arts exercises in high school or college? If so, spend a half hour listening to Patrice Gopo talk about her journey toward being an essayist, and you may associate personal essays with a more positive idea.
Note: I chose to watch the profile of Patrice as I was seeking a blogging topic for today. The profile is part of the Flourish Writers Conference a free online gathering of “authors … as they share personal insights into the challenges and victories faced by every writer.”
After perusing the videos available as part of the conference, I decided to watch and reflect on Patrice’s, due to this three-word description in a summary of the video in the email introduction: “writing creates knowing.”
Here are my takeaways:
Chance plays a role in our destinies
Patrice is not a writer by training; she is a chemical engineer with graduate credentials in public policy. Had she not moved to Cape Town, South Africa, after marrying her husband, and found herself unable to do her usual work because she lacked a work permit, she may not have begun this type of writing. Maybe it wasn’t chance that led her to that place and the choice to write, but something more serendipitous.
A reminder to keep trying
Patrice explained that the word “essay” has its roots in the concept of “to try.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says it comes from the Latin “exigere” (“drive out; require, exact; examine, try, test”). I like the idea that a personal essay is less a finality than it is a query.
Patrice discusses one of her goals: to “demystify.” This is something I aim to do with my blog. In my mind (and in my experience), demystifying things we don’t understand dilutes the fear surrounding them. If an explanation, accompanied by putting a human face on a problem, can make a difference for the better, I have done what I set out to do.
Encouragement to be kind to ourselves (yet tenacious simultaneously)
One topic Patrice addressed is whether there are certain boxes that must be checked off for someone to call themselves a writer. Do they have to be published? Do they have to get paid for their writing? When is a writer “a writer”?
You don’t have to be published to be a writer, Patrice contends. I agree. I would argue there are snippets of excellent writing in some of my friends’ Facebook comments, run-of-the-mill emails and other exchanges that say “I am a writer” about that person even if the words never make a formal publication.
One of the interesting parts of the discussion was regarding the role of writing classes, coaches and conferences. Patrice says finding a balance between “learning more about writing” and doing the writing itself is an individual thing. However, she says some of us get so wrapped up in the “how” of writing that we never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were).
It is easy to conclude that our time has passed us by as writers, that we are too old, too inexperienced, too [insert factor hindering progress here] to succeed. I liked the example facilitator Mindy Kiker used of William Zinsser, whose On Writing Well was published when Zinsser was in his 50s. “Zinsser said he didn’t really find his voice until he wrote that book in his early 50s,” said Mindy.
Although the Ken Follett example I think of frequently isn’t solely about age, it is about defying expectations of others. He had become a bestselling spy novelist by the time he discussed Pillars of the Earth with his agent. This is what he said:
My publishers were nervous. They wanted another spy story. My friends were also apprehensive. They know that I enjoy success. I’m not the kind of writer who would deal with a failure by saying that the book was good but the readers were inadequate. I write to entertain, and I’m happy doing so. A failure would make me miserable. No one tried to talk me out of it, but lots of people expressed anxious reservations.
If you feel that you are too old, to connected to a particular genre, too undeveloped as a writer, keep going. And, Patrice urges, enjoy the journey.
To learn more about Patrice
Patrice’s website: patricegopo.com
Patrice’s book, which “examines the complexities of identity in our turbulent yet hopeful time of intersecting heritages”: All the Colors We Will See
A favorite line I selected while perusing one of Patrice’s essays: “When the brain decides to forget, to carve out gaps in memory, why does it leave the hands idle?”
Keep up with all things Patrice by subscribing to her newsletter. (I did, and I RARELY subscribe to anything these days, given the high volume of my email inbox.)
And as a side note, learn more about the Flourish Conference here.
My half hour with Patrice (and Mindy) was time well spent. I agree that “writing creates knowing.” For me, sometimes the “knowing” has more to do with the additional clarity the process of writing brings to me personally. Other times, it is my hope my writing helps others have a wider perspective about a contentious or misunderstood topic.
If you have felt the pull to write, but haven’t found your way around the obstacles that have arisen, there’s no better time than now to “create knowing.”