Phillip Lopate on Making Your Essay Your Own
Author and Columbia University professor Phillip Lopate sat down with University Writing lecturer Tana Wojczuk in front of an audience of University Writing students for a lively and thought-provoking discussion on the art and craft of essay writing.
I was thrilled when author and professor Phillip Lopate agreed to speak with me about the essay, specifically how writers can develop their own unique voice within the essay. Lopate had recently published two books that illustrate his committment to both the pedagogical and creative aspects of essay writing. To Show and To Tell is a guide for nonfiction writers both within and outside of academia. It emerges from Lopate’s many decades of teaching writers of all ages, most recently in Columbia’s own MFA program. It organizes each chapter around a specific writing challenge, such as “On The Challenge of Turning Oneself Into a Character.” Lopate’s second book, out the same month, is A Portrait Inside My Head, a collection of his own personal essays that reveal, in their diversity of his approach and subjects, the very writing moves he advocates for in To Show and To Tell.
Our conversation, attended by students from several sections of University Writing: Readings in American Studies, also focused on the interconnection between theory and practice in writing. Lopate began with a whirlwind tour of essayists past and present, focusing on American essayists he particularly recommends. Then we focused in on specific topics, like character, voice and what happens when a writer tries to write about something that makes him have to confess himself less than perfect. Thoughout our discussion, Lopate made a move similar to those he makes in his books, alternating between big ideas that writers can take home and write on the wall above their desk, and tangible examples culled from his own essays and life experience. Keep an eye out for Lopate’s reading of one of the essays in To Show and To Tell. Above and beyond specific advice from one of America’s leading essaysists, which you’ll find throughout this video, writers of all kinds will find in it the kind of enthusiasm, rigor and passion for essay writing that Lopate displays in his classes and his own writing. —Tana Wojczuk