On craft

Angela Pelster on “Temple”

Most writers I know don’t like writing exercises. I think it’s because the reason we write is not because someone else gave us a good prompt, but because we saw/felt/believed something we needed to put into words. It began from urgency, not an exercise. Nonetheless, it’s always hard to get going on something new. So if you need help getting started, first of all, sit down and read something you love. There is no substitute for that. Then, do something that inspires you: watch a film that moves you, cry in front of a painting at a museum, take a trip to the science center, visit the zoo. And then write about the things that you noticed, and write about why you noticed them. And what they made you think about.

One of the nicest things about being an essayist is that you get to follow your passions. There is no such thing as a subject you have to write about. You get to write about and think about and research the things you love. So do that, too. Make a list of what you love, what you want to know more about, and then pick one. And start researching. Get some smart friends to talk about it with. And then write. Just write. Stop putting it off and waiting until you’ve done enough research and know what you’re going to say and what it’s all about, just write.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Annie Dillard: Teaching a Stone to Talk
  • Kathleen Norris: The Cloister Walk
  • Anne Carson: The Autobiography of Red
  • Michael Ondaatje: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
  • Elizabeth Smart: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
  • Richard Rodriguez: Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
  • Marguerite Duras: The Lover
  • Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia (translators): The Logia of Yeshua
  • John Berger: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos


“Temple” is from Angela Pelster’s most recent book Limber, which was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award for the art of the essay and won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, Granta, Granta Finland, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, Passages North and The Gettysburg Review amongst others. She lives in St. Paul with her family and teaches creative writing at Hamline University.