SARI BOTTON has worked as a journalist, essayist, ghostwriter, and teacher of various kinds of writing. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, More, The Rumpus, plus other publications and anthologies. She has been an adjunct professor in the journalism department at SUNY Albany and taught first-person writing in the continuing education program at SUNY Ulster. She edited the popular Seal Press anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York, forthcoming in October. She also co-edited Get Out of My Crotch: 21 Writers Respond to America’s War on Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health, and is editorial director of the award-winning TMI Project.
“Getting Personal” 11/6/14
Author and editor Sari Botton arrived at Word Cafe with exciting news: her anthology Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York just made it onto the New York Times bestseller list! She treated us to a wonderful reading from her essay from the collection. See my profile of Sari in the November Chronogram.
Our topic was “Getting Personal,” and we talked about the differences between personal essay and memoir, going deep to release and explore material, and then learning to edit and shape it; reading aloud really helps. We also talked about facing fears and the importance of creating a safe space to share work when it’s still raw. Sari is editorial director of the TMI Project and writes a column for The Rumpus called “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me.”
Sari suggested that if you resist writing about something, that probably means it’s a story worth telling. You may not choose to publish or share what you’ve written, but getting it on paper helps you unlock what you do want to write about. And often the things we struggle with are what will connect most with others. No one wants to read about the perfect surface of someone else’s life. We want honesty.
This does not mean all personal essays have to mine traumatic experiences or melodramatic events. Sari is a big fan of what she called “the familiar essay,” in which the writer conjures details of an experience that readers can relate to, or comes at something familiar from a different angle. Personal and specific detail, she said, is the route to making a piece of writing feel universal.
When participants got up to read the (excellent!) beginnings they’d written based on Sari’s (also excellent!) writing prompts, she offered a TMI rule that Nina thinks should pertain to all aspects of life, not just writing workshops: No self-deprecating remarks.
Write a true story about:
A time when you tried to seem cool.
How NYC turned you into YOU.
The me nobody knows.
A song that is or was your personal anthem.
Write about a time when you had to wear something you wouldn’t usually wear. Where were you going and how did you feel?