15. Essay Therapy: A Dialogue w/ Nonfiction Writer Suzanne Hegland


Suzanne Hegland completed her MFA in Nonfiction at Lesley University in 2011. Something of a perpetual student, she also holds a Master’s in History and a Master’s in Education. Founder of Essay Therapy, Suzanne has combined her deep knowledge of what goes on “back stage” in higher education with her love of teaching and her passion for narrative nonfiction to work with students on the dreaded college application essay. Suzanne teaches College Writing and is the Director of the Writing Center at New England Conservatory in Boston. When she’s not talking about writing to musicians, she plays the role of Associate Dean of Students. Suzanne’s work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The World Scholar, Femamom, The Huffington Post, and Creative Nonfiction. She claims to be working on her manuscript Comfort Measures Only, and sometimes this is true. {27:54}


“I remember when I was applying to programs wondering whether you needed to already have a fully-fledged idea of where you were going… I knew the topic I wanted to write about, but I didn’t know I would put it in memoir form.”

“I decided to get an MFA because I, like most of us, have always written. And I was at a point in my life and in my career that I decided I wanted to honor this. I wanted to take some time to learn this craft.”

“I felt slightly ridiculous, because in my mind I was 97 years old, even though I was 42… I thought, I am going to be as old as dirt, sitting around a table with people who are 22 years old… That’s one of the reasons I chose Lesley and chose the Low Residency model… I liked the diversity of ages we had at Lesley. I liked that there were people at all different places in their life journey.”

“I’ve worked in higher education for over 20 years. I’ve worked in admissions; I’ve read these essays, so I know how standard and formulaic they sound. I told him, Trust me. They are going to want to hear something a little bit different. If you’re conversational in your essay–as long as you have something to say, and there aren’t grammar mistakes and things like that–it’s not going to be a detriment. It’s going to be a huge plus for you.”

“You have to know the rules before you break them.”

Who’s Who

Jane Brox — Author of Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History

Rachel Kadish — Author of I Was Here

Susan Schnur — Our guest in April 2014. Click here to listen to The Map vs. The Compass.

Peter Elbow — Author of Writing Without Teachers

Grub Street — A creative writing center in Boston, Mass.

Closing Quote

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we all have too much of. Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done. If something inside you is real. we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk putting real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write towards vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act — truth is always subversive.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

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