by Jenny Chi
Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her essays and articles have also appeared in Modern Love: Tales of Love and Obsession, Behind the Bedroom Door, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Self, Jane, Elle, Elle UK, Marie Claire, Psychology Today, The Medium, xoJane, The Frisky, Largehearted Boy, HeeB, and Redbook. Her memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying was published by Scribner in October, 2009. It got a nod from Oprah and won ELLE Readers’ Prize, Chicago Tribune’s Best of 2009, and Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writers Award. Abby also wrote two young adult books, Kissing Snowflakes in 2007, and Breaking Free in 2014. She continues to perform at different theaters in New York (usually in a moustache), and is writing for TV and film.
We’re very privileged to host her as an instructor at the Pad starting late September. She will be teaching a 6 week online class on crafting the perfect personal essay starting Tuesday evening, September 30.
Abby took time out of her busy schedule to share some tips about publishing for the first time and what to expect in her upcoming class.
1. You have performed improv for Second City and ImprovOlympic and were also featured on NPR. Do you feel that a background in storytelling or improv is important in writing a riveting personal essay?
I think a background in improv is important in life, period. It helps me toss out ideas and take myself less seriously (hopefully). Even if it’s just playing some improv games or saying “Yes, and” more often. Getting to play onstage definitely changed my brain, in a good way. I definitely love crafting an essay on the page, but when I get on stage, I try to never look at anything written. I just know my beginning and my end points, and the moments in between that make me laugh. Whatever happens next is really a mystery.
2. What was your inspiration to write Breaking Free, your new book about survivors of sex-trafficking?
Honestly, I wanted to write something about anyone beside myself. I read a few survivors’ stories that blew me away, and Barron’s was looking for new topics for YA non-fiction, so I said what about trafficking survivors? Young adult non-fiction is a pretty untapped genre. So it was a real exploration – finding these incredible women, hoping they would trust me, and writing their stories in a way that young adults could really hear them. And feel not just the horrors that they had been through, but also the hope of their survival.
3. As a published memoirist for Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying, what is something you learned about publishing your experiences?
Well, it sure saves time when you’re making friends. You can just say, Yeah, I have issues. You can read about it in my book. Also, I think it’s helped me start from where I am, as opposed to rehashing the past. I already wrote it, so I can evolve from there. And it was fascinating to hear from complete strangers who’ve dealt with OCD or loss and see how we are so connected.
4. What are the most common rookie mistakes that you see new writers make?
Self-censorship! Please, please if there’s one thing I want all my students, friends, Romans and countrypeople to know it’s that the most freeing thing about writing is writing it all. Every nonsense thought, brain fart, half-dream. Write it all down. it will make sense later. The only way to push through to the real meat of a moment is to write and write and sometimes it looks like blah blah blah. I hope it does. It will become the most riveting piece if you can get to that raw blah.
5. Can you recommend any great personal essays that readers can use for inspiration?
A few of my favorites are:
“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard
“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison
“Dentists without Borders” by David Sedaris
and then one on the art of personal essays that’s great: “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” by Phillip Lopate
6. What is something that most people don’t know about publishing articles or essays?
Hmmm, I don’t know what most people know or don’t know, but I guess one thing I didn’t know and am still learning is that it’s so important to read. That may sound ridiculous, but I always want to read and then save it for my reward at the end of the day and then fall asleep by the second paragraph. Not only is it so helpful to know what publications you want to write for and who’s saying something completely new, but it also teaches you so much about what kind of voice resonates for you.
7. What is the most valuable piece of wisdom that you wish an experienced journalist would have shared with you when you were first getting started?
There’s no right way to do this.
8. You will be teaching a 6 week online workshop on writing the personal essay from September 30 to November 4. What can we expect from your online personal essay class?
An amazing, fun, scary, wild dive into your psyche. A chance to dig into your brain, your heart, your guts and say something you’ve never said before. And at least one essay ready to be published. 🙂
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Abby! Catch her online class on Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay this September from the comfort of your computer!