| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft Drafting a Personal Essay Is Like Stumbling Through a Dance
You can study all you want, but it’s only in the act of doing that you learn what’s right and what isn’t.
The first Zumba class I ever took was at Miami University’s newly remodeled rec center, shortly after arriving for my freshman year. I’d been drawn to the school’s beautiful campus and academic programs but didn’t realize that the Oxford, Ohio, university also had a reputation as “J. Crew U”—filled with beautiful, preppy students. At first I laughed at the stereotype; then I walked into the dance studio and encountered an assembly of women who looked like they’d all been backup dancers for music videos.
Apart from a brief foray into ballet and tap as a five-year-old, plus a couple stints in the chorus for my high school’s musicals, I didn’t dance much. Standing six feet tall in sneakers, my body often felt gangly and awkward. But a group of new friends wanted to try Zumba and assured me I didn’t need any prior experience. At that point, in the first month of my first semester, every bonding ritual felt critical to establishing real friendships.
What ensued was an hour-long episode of red-faced fumbling and increasingly potent humiliation as the tan, toned, and blonde instructor led the class through a long series of dance moves to the tunes of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. All around me, seemingly competent dancers tossed their ponytails, shimmied their hips, and flew through the moves, while I watched myself in the wall-length mirrors, standing almost a head above everyone else and bobbing around like an ungainly kangaroo. I swore I’d never go back.
Even though I’ve kept that promise, the panic of being unable to wrangle my body into any semblance of rhythmic movement is uncomfortably similar to the feeling of writing the first draft of a personal essay. There’s so much uncertainty in setting out the details of one’s life that it can induce the same full-body cringe of doing the wrong dance move in front of strangers.
There are the obvious questions of ethics, like how much information it’s appropriate to share about one’s friends and family without betraying their trust or damaging their reputation. But equally challenging are other questions inherent to the genre: How do you navigate the line between honesty and artificiality? If I confess to not knowing the difference between President Jackson and President Johnson, does it make me sound relatable or woefully uninformed? How much trauma is too much trauma? Does the reader really need to know about the biology of guinea pigs to understand the love I had for my first pet?
The point is that both writing first drafts and dancing new routines involve trial and error.
Every personal essay presents a hundred problems. It’s a terrifying balancing act—like trying to string together a hip thrust, a pivot, and an elbow bop all at one time (sorry, I really don’t know much about dancing). The point is that both writing first drafts and dancing new routines involve trial and error.
Being a diligent reader of essays isn’t enough to prevent the embarrassment of drafting either. Even when you learn something about craft or structure from another writer’s work, it might make the first-draft process feel worse , because your scraggly caterpillar of a draft is so far from the beautiful butterfly you’re taking as an example. It’s not enough to see a successful dance or personal essay—you can study all you want, but it’s only in the act of doing that you learn what’s right and what isn’t.
Let’s say I decide to write an essay about the summer my family lived on a sailboat. There are some obvious details to include: what the boat looked like, who all is included in “my family,” how old I was when we moved onto the boat, and why we were doing it. But then I run into one of those myriad problems: Where to start the story in a way that makes sense dramatically and thematically?
Maybe I decide to go with the car ride when the plan was hatched. I set the scene: a winter night, dark country roads, the hard door of the Jeep Cherokee pillowing my head, my damp hair that reeks of chlorine. We’re listening to classical music, because Dad always put that on after swim practice. I’m tired and hungry. Then bam : the thrilling announcement that we might move onto a sailboat and travel the world.
But after writing the opening, I realize the story ends with my parents deciding, after only three months on the boat, that it’s not the right time to sail around the world. The question of theme becomes a new problem to solve, alongside the issue of the opening: Is the story actually about disappointed hopes? Maybe I’d better start with the hidden sadness of leaving my friends behind.
So I pick up my pen and begin again. And probably again. And again.
The bad news about first drafts is that they are necessary. The good news is that they’re only a starting point. Being a little erratic can lead to more focus later on. It’s like stumbling in a dance: make a big mistake, and it reinforces the need to practice that particular move. In both writing and dancing, practice and repetition help you through the most challenging maneuvers.
Another problem in both art forms can be the uncertainty of what comes next. In a dance class, you may assume a certain move is coming up, but instead the instructor demonstrates something else entirely. In writing, you may lose the thread by inserting unnecessary digressions. But even those mistakes are useful. Sometimes, as a writer, you don’t know what you’re trying to say until you figure out what you’re not trying to say.
Okay, you might be saying, but I am not a lumbering wildebeest when I dance. I have moves that even Manny Jacinto wouldn’t sneeze at.
Fair enough. I have a couple friends who were briefly professional dancers, so I can certainly accept that other people have more innate talent. And I also know plenty of untrained people who are so confident when they dance that, even if they look silly, their enthusiasm makes them oddly compelling.
Some level of innate talent can help with writing, but confidence is unfortunately not enough to carry one through a personal essay. While it’s true that you can get better at writing first drafts, there is no magical shortcut that will spare you the discomfort of having to go through the rewriting process. You can compose the world’s greatest first draft, and you will still need to do some edits. Explaining subjects as complicated as your life, yourself, and the world around you is hard . So is figuring out the subtle difference between writing an essay on envy and an essay on jealousy. There are many ways to get better at writing—take classes, join critique groups, read voraciously—but nothing gets you around the fact that you must also write and revise.
Even the Misty Copelands of the world have to practice new dance routines. But in a way, this is encouraging—no matter how much innate talent a person may have, practice can still make all of us better at our craft.
I have yet to participate in another dance-exercise class (I’ll never shake the memory of seeing my reflection in those floor-to-ceiling mirrors as I almost flailed into someone). But I haven’t abandoned dancing altogether. Before our wedding, my fiancé and I decided to take a one-day course on ballroom dancing. We didn’t want to have our first dance look like one of those middle school slow dances where an adult monitor is lurking in the corner to insist we keep five inches between us.
The class was held on a stage, with heavy velvet curtains clumped around the wings. No mirrors, no sequence to learn after one demonstration. Just a few basic waltz moves performed over and over: the box step, the turn, the dip. The instructor wandered between couples, offering pointers without being condescending. There was still a vague sense of embarrassment, but it was also fun.
Back in our apartment, we cleared some floor space and practiced the moves. It took a while to match our first step with the music, and then to feel comfortable enough with the rhythm that we could transition from one step to another. But after a couple months, we understood the process well enough that it felt natural. The day of our wedding, we spun in time with the music. My new husband dipped me, kissed me, and neither of us fell over. We weren’t about to win any competitions, but it was a long way from where we’d started.
Writing personal essays can be like that too. After a bit of practice, you grow comfortable with different writing techniques—a certain structure, a type of metaphor, a specific topic. If you’ve used these fundamentals often enough, you can arrange them more creatively.
But when you’re taking on a particularly hard subject, or exploring the form in a new way, the first drafts can make you feel like you should never write again. It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself.
When that happens, take comfort in the fact that your words are still on the page. You’ve done the hard part and unleashed your awkward vulnerability. Give yourself credit for it! And then dive into revisions—because maybe the world doesn’t need to know quite as much about your obsession with dragons as you first thought.