In the lead up to his Writers Journey Workshop on creative non-fiction, we chatted with James Dryburgh about his writing journey and the art of the essay.
When did you start writing professionally?
I haven’t started yet! One day… I started sending things hoping to get published in 2011. These were essays based on experiences and people in Latin America. I had pieces published in Smith Journal, New Internationalist and Island within a short space of time and the idea that someone valued those words really motivated me to keep writing.
Did you enjoy writing at school? Were your teachers encouraging?
Not until Grade 10 and Mrs. Hawkins. Up until then, I was in the lower levels for English and thought I was very weak. But Mrs. Hawkins made me realise I found language interesting and suddenly my motivation and my marks improved. I then took a Writer’s Workshop in Year 11 and had another wonderful teacher. Then I had Pete Hay at Uni!
Have you ever been interested in writing fiction?
Definitely, but I don’t think I have the talent or a big enough brain.
Who are some essay writers who inspire you?
Eduardo Galeano has repeatedly blown my mind. Garner, Flanagan, Montaigne, many journalistic essay writers.
What were the first major essays you wrote about?
The first was about Francisco Ramos, an ex-guerrilla fighter and refugee in El Salvador (https://jamesdryburgh.com/articles/chicos-story/ ). Then I worked two days in a mine in Bolivia so I could write about that (https://jamesdryburgh.com/articles/a-tale-of-two-mines/ ).
What topics do you keep coming back to in your writing?
People, the environment, memory, imagination, change.
What, in your opinion, is the best way to conduct an interview?
Face to face, preferably with a drink of choice in a relaxed atmosphere
Can you tell us about your writing process, from idea to publication? How many drafts does it normally take before you’re happy with your work?
It really depends on the essay. Some things are interview or research-based and can come together reasonably quickly. Deeper pieces sometimes float about in my head for years and I accumulate little notes before trying to write them up. The deeper pieces often have a number of drafts. My wife Anna is usually my first and last editor – she tells it like it is and I try not to get in a huff with her too much (because she’s generally right).
What do you think are the aspects people struggle with the most when writing essays?
Essays need some poetic and fiction techniques to bring them to life, this can be a hard balance at times. But they must always be honest.
What can people expect to learn in your upcoming workshop? What would you like them to take away?
I’ll be sharing what has worked for me and what hasn’t, and why I keep bothering to write. I hope people go away feeling that essays (or our use of language in whatever way) can be powerful, and that they are the most qualified person to use them to tell the stories that they think matter.