Repeat 44 More Times: How to Write a Presidential Essay

Repeat 44 More Times: How to Write a Presidential Essay

Read “Warp and Weft (#17)” Here

Step One: Get your tools. I like these small notebooks from Muji—they’re nice enough to feel important, but not too fancy that I feel bad about writing first drafts in them. The pen is a Uniball Signo; I’m left-handed, so I need an ink that dries quickly.

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Step Two: Walk. If I get to pick my route, I like walking across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Chinatown, because there are dumplings and tea at the end and it’s less crowded than the Brooklyn Bridge. But I live in Richmond, Virginia, and only get to NYC a few times a year, so often I walk to my neighborhood coffeeshop. As I walk, I think about the president I’m writing about, and after a while, I usually find a phrase or form that will be the key to the essay.

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Step Three: Get some coffee or tea (a slice of pie is optional, but recommended) and set up your tools. Caffeine is a drug that stimulates the brain, and I figure buying a cup effectively rents some table space for about a half-hour or so—enough time to write a first draft of a flash essay. I put on a writing mix made up of music interesting enough to keep my internal editor occupied but not so distracting as to make me notice it. After 45 presidential essays, I now have a Pavlovian response to this mix; it’s a handy shortcut.

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Step Four: Write! You’re now in public, performing as a writer, so make your half-hour count. No time for the procrastination rituals. Those people you see on laptops who look like they’re working on the Great American Novel? I can tell you from experience that they’re either on social media or doing spreadsheets. Disregard bad handwriting, mistakes, whatever your internal editor tries to point out—the goal is to get a full draft done.

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Step Five: Back home, and after a little time (ok, after you finish writing all 45 essays), go to your notebooks and type your essays into your computer. Adjust the essay as necessary—your editor is welcome to chime in now. It helps if you have an appropriately presidential workspace in the corner of your guest bedroom—a bust of Madison, a Lincoln pencil topper, a Washington coaster. Print a copy of your typed-up essay.

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Step Six: Mark up your essay. Re-write, change words and phrases. Be willing to sacrifice what you love, and be willing to realize things that will change the entire essay. Repeat these last two steps as necessary, until you get something that makes you feel good about the work.

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Step Seven: Repeat 44 more times. Realize that creative nonfiction is a genre that has more than 45 ways to write about its subjects.

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