For our first issue, we spoke with essayist Aurvi Sharma about her thoughts on craft and developing as a writer. A Pushcart-nominee, Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the AWP Emerging Writer Prize. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, James Merrill House and Sarai-Delhi. Her writing has also appeared in Fourth Genre, and she is a contributor at Essay Daily. See below for our conversation and a light-themed excerpt of her essay ‘Hymns for the Drowning.’ You can find more of her work at http://aurvi.com.
How did essay writing come to be your genre of choice? What appeals to you about the form?
I cannot write fiction to save my life. Thankfully the banality of everyday can be fascinating and I’m riveted by all the material around. I used to write flash essays (bordering on cringey poetry) when young, but as I kept writing, they grew into research-based hybrid lyrical essays.
The fluidity of the essay appeals to me, the way it flirts with poetry, the way it can be as unreliable as fiction.
What is one challenge you face in writing essays and how do you overcome it?
I write personal essays, which means my family and friends are my material. Writing truthfully – or at least writing in a way that expresses my truth (because truth is subjective) – without making my loved ones feel betrayed is a line I tread/risk I take.
What advice has helped you most in honing your craft?
Each word must have a reason. Cut adverbs and adjectives, make the verbs and nouns work hard.
Can you recommend two or three must-read works by other essayists? Why do you love them?
- Meatless Days by Sara Suleri
- Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
I love them because they don’t pretend to be reportage, they don’t want to be fiction. They are what they are: experimental, matter of fact, gorgeous all at the same time.
Do you have any tips for emerging essayists?
- Read: Copiously and diversely (poetry and fiction too) from around the world. I love reading ancient literatures and their conceits.
- Re-re-rewrite: Never be satisfied by the first draft.
- Rejection: It’s tough but once you’ve taken the time to wallow in pity (go on, you deserve it), treat it as another chance to polish your essay further.
An excerpt from Aurvi Sharma’s essay, ‘Hymns for the Drowning’
There were visits, of course, but time speeded up, rushed by. When apart, we looked at
maps, we traced wind patterns, ocean currents, bird migrations. We sought each other around the world. Days and nights spun but we were at a standstill, stuck in the middle of our own story.
Primitive eyes were more clocks, less organs of sight. By detecting light with photoreceptor proteins, organisms distinguished between day and night. This helped them regulate body temperature, hormones, metabolism, even memory. These light-loving proteins slowly evolved into eyes but circadian rhythms remained so important that evolution coded them into our genes. With eyes we can distinguish between day and night but with circadian rhythms we can feel time loop through our cells. This moment, this instant, this never to come back second. Blink, and it vanishes.
Five years later we flew north to the Atacama Desert. The night was frosty as we stood in a circle around an astronomer telling astronomic tales. With telescopes we peeked into galaxies making suns. For an hour we stared at stars rising and falling in the sky and felt the earth turn. And then the astronomer inclined his laser pointer to a star whose light had left it the year we were born. We raised our faces to the stelliferous night and found each other.