Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer
Many Chautauquans know Alumni Hall as the place where the authors read, where the banners hang and where people bring lunches and hear literary lectures on the front porch.
It also is a place where Chautauqua writers learn how to get published.
Elaine Harrigan is one such Chautauquan. After taking an essay-writing workshop last year at the Writers’ Center at Alumni Hall, she was able to polish one of the pieces she wrote and land it in the spring 2011 issue of Creative Nonfiction, a published literary magazine.
“Workshops are really great, because you’re surrounded by people who all have the same ambition and all understand what you want to do,” she said. “I want to be able to have published pieces, so I can start building on that, in whichever direction I go in.”
Harrigan is the marketing director of the Kenan Center, a community arts and recreation center in Lockport, N.Y. When she was staying at Chautauqua last year, Harrigan noticed the writer Ann Hood was coming to teach a workshop on essays.
“It was unusual,” Harrigan said. “I never really had any ambition to be an essay writer, but I knew Ann’s work, and I had just read an essay she had put in More magazine.”
So she decided to sign up.
It had always been a goal of Harrigan’s to be a writer, ever since she could spell and punch the keys on her father’s Smith Corona manual typewriter, she said. After a stint at her high school newspaper, she decided to follow advertising, rather than journalism, and so she worked for years as a copywriter for an advertising firm in Buffalo, writing for radio, television and billboards.
Being a full-time working single mother, she has had more time to pursue writing now that her daughter is grown, she said. Since 2008, Harrigan has kept a blog called “Blooming in Midlife,” and she was a guest writer on More.com, the website for the women’s magazine in which Hood was published.
She found it inspiring that the workshop leader started as an airline attendant, she said.
“When someone tells you that, and now she’s a nationally published author, it makes me think, You know what, you can do it if you really have to do it,” Harrigan said.
The workshop itself was two hours every day for a week in late August 2010. Harrigan said she found it very helpful, and she realized writing an essay is not too different from fiction.
A good essay needs to emotionally draw in readers and give them something to relate to, with dramatic tension and a clear conclusion, she said. Getting feedback from Hood and the other workshop writers also helped her see the way an audience would respond to her work.
“(Hood) knows how to encourage and stimulate the creative process without tearing you down,” Harrigan said. “You can cut someone’s dream right off if you critique them without giving positive criticism. But that wasn’t true with Ann.”
During the week, Harrigan started on an essay about food, memories and her father, who had died that summer.
She stayed up late for four hours the night before class writing it, using the advice she was given. Called “Red Sauce,” it talks about her big Italian family and the way she and her father expressed emotions through his cooking. When he died, she caught the scent of his red sauce in the air when a neighbor probably put it on the stove in remembrance, she said.
“I think this is one of the things Ann got across to us,” Harrigan said. “The best essays are those that are real, that come from the gut. They are the things that are buried deep inside you, and they’re the things that you also make sense of.”
She was invited to read the essay aloud on the front porch of Alumni Hall before Hood’s Brown Bag lecture on Aug. 20, 2010, and in November, she set about finding a place to publish it.
“I was feeling like, this is something that I would like to do, because it was about my dad, and he didn’t get the advantage of getting to read it, so I was thinking, This is going to get published,” she said.
It did. In February, she was notified that it was chosen out of 600 submissions, and it then was published in Creative Nonfiction.
Now, she is waiting to hear from another publisher, Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her daughter was 27 when Harrigan wrote “Note to My Daughter: Plans Change,” the same age Harrigan was when she had her. So far, the essay has made it into the final selection for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new edition, called The Magic of Mothers and Daughters — something accomplished only by a small percentage of writers.
Harrigan said the essay is about how whatever dreams she had of being a writer, of moving to Hollywood or publishing books, were put on hold when her daughter was born. Yet this was not a bad thing.
“I tried to work in the fact that no matter what you plan in your life, there are enormous gifts that come from what you do,” she said. “I actually let my daughter read it before I submitted it, and she rolled her eyes at me, and said, ‘Oh, mom, this is about me, isn’t it?’”