An online journal called Numero Cinq (“a warm place on a cruel web”) has a feature called “What it’s Like Living Here.” Short essays describe living in a certain place, along with offering some of the author’s trials and personalities. The best way to explain this is to show an example, and this example is from my MFA thesis director, Dr. Lisa Roney:
You can find more examples on the website as well.
This is a great exercise. Where have you “lived,” big or small? You can think of a city, which most of the contributors do, a neighborhood, a house, or something else, like a hospital or workplace in which you’ve spent a lot of time. Consider “live” as a verb open to interpretation. What does it mean to you?
When writing an essay like this, it’s best to focus on things outside of you and then connect them to yourself. The format of these essays, as you can see even from scanning Lisa Roney’s, is that they are written in sections with a photo or piece of multimedia at the head of each section.
For this exercise, starting with a photo or some multimedia can be helpful as it allows you to describe and explain first, and that can open you up to an anecdote and then a connection to you emotionally.
For example, I might write about the places I frequented in Orlando in the summer of 2006, when I was on a break from grad school. That summer, I spent a lot of time at a friend’s house with a group of like-minded people, splashing in the pool and listening to Tilly and the Wall (an indie twee band). At the end of that summer, we went to a musician friend’s show at a dingy, orange coffee shop where I met my current boyfriend of six years. I would write about my apartment and how my friend Emily slept on the couch, usually wearing my clothing, for two weeks and how I woke her up one morning by playing Carole King progressively louder on my record player.
I would start by thinking about the place itself and then something that occurred there, and then I would try to convey, using as many concrete details as possible, what I felt there. Hopefully there would be a progression and form of change as the essay reached its ending, and these tend to show themselves after the writing is complete and you haven’t thought about it at all.
When you’re finished drafting and are on to revising, consider the order of the segments and how they might be reorganized to tell a more complete story.
Essays are stories, too: stories of thought processes and changes in the mind.
If you’d like to share your work, please post it as a comment. If you have questions, please contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.