This last year, I had to (well, really, got to) teach a creative writing class for the first time. I was excited but also realized: I had no idea what to do. So I started reading a bunch of different craft essays. And what they taught me was: I don't really like craft essays.
But one of the books I picked up was You Must Be This Tall to Ride, edited by Hobart buddy, B.J. Hollars. Its basically an anthology of about 20 "coming of age" (loosely defined) stories. And they're all great. But it also includes, as the subtitle says, "contemporary writers take you inside the story." And what these taught me is I kind of love behind-the-scenes types of essays. I love director commentaries on DVDs and documentaries on how movies and other things were made, a love for which inspired the "bonus materials" websites we do for every print issue.
What the anthology is is the aforementioned 20 stories and then a short 2-4 page essay by the author about the writing of that specific story. What happens, more often than not, is these become perfect little craft essays but with the context of this being how this specific author wrote this specific story. I love them for the cool, interesting, and somewhat voyeuristic aspect but there's something about knowing how an author wrote a story that both demystifies it and kind of endlessly reminds me, "oh yeah. You can get at a story like that, too. Or, like that. Or that."
Along those lines, I've been slowly working my way through Rose Metal's great Field Guide to Prose Poetry for weeks -- been meaning and wanting to write something about it forever but instead just keep going back to it and reading, rereading, thinking about. From the preface: "They (the editors) made clear that while they both enjoyed and respected the power of the critical essay, they found the lack of personal essays about prose poetry to be a gap that they wanted to fill." Yes! Personal essays! That's what I want!! And then, still from the preface: the "Field Guide to Prose Poetry operates not unlike a field guide to wildlife, plants, or tress in that it surveys and showcases what the field has to offer while encouraging active engagement with that landscape." More yes!
I think what I like so much about these kinds of essays, and these anthologies specifically, is really a few-fold:
1) Reading something and recognizing myself in it. When Christopher Kennedy (one of, if not my sole, favorite prose poets) writes that his "sense of how I became anything is spotty" I think, "phew. It isn't just me!"
2) Reading a "how I write" that is completely unlike anyway I've ever written anything myself and just that reminder of how everyone works differently. It's fun to know other people's processes, no? Whether you have any desire to try to mimic it or not.
3) The pure fun of reading behind-the-scenes pieces by some of my favorite authors.
4) Reading an essay by an author I'd never read before and kind of coming to the writer backwards -- finding their personal essay interesting and so reading their poems excited to find a new voice. (Which, in a collection like this, being a fiction dude and not really reading much poetry, was a lot. How can you not be won over with a first line like David Lazar's "I had one one good idea in my life, and it turned out to be a bad idea." And I absolutely loved both pieces by Jeffrey Skinner, but especially "The Experiment" and I'm now in a hurry to track down more.)
Which is a long way of saying: pick up these books.