How To Fall in Love With How-To Essays

Why do literary instruction manuals hold so much appeal?

My first encounter with the how to essay was in the fifth grade. It was one of a series of essays we had to demonstrate we could write. January was the persuasive essay, February was the descriptive essay, March was the reported essay, and April was the how to. We were taught that a how to was a list of instructions. It was chronological. It was directed at a singular reader, the magical “you.”

At a young age I wanted to poke at that thin membrane between the you of the self and the you of the reader. I wrote to an audience that didn’t exist yet, that was part of the fantasy of being my young self. In writing a how to, I had authority. I had the reader’s attention. I was in charge of the chronology and thus in charge of the outcome.

In writing a how to, I had authority. I had the reader’s attention. I was in charge of the chronology and thus in charge of the outcome.

For our how to essay, we each had to demonstrate our instructions to the class. This way, the how to was written in our wide pencil handwriting on sheets of looseleaf, erasers slashing dirty holes through the paper if we made a mistake. Then, we had to be the expert at the front of the room. Because it was 1994, and video cameras were in fashion, my mother borrowed my uncle’s camcorder and set it up in the small kitchen of our row home to record my how to. I stood behind the counter with my stringy hair and oversized glasses, wearing a sweatshirt with a puffy painted mountain on it with snow and skiers. I had never been videotaped before. I beamed into the camera, my ingredients set up in front of me, and said, “Hi. Today I’m going to show you how to make chocolate covered peanut butter balls.”

You can imagine how that clunky embarrassment went over with my peers.

A tool of the self-improvement genre — how to meditate, how to knit, how to use Excel, how to play guitar — the how to holds power as an invitation. It’s a reading experience that promises a result or, if not a result, an intimacy. You want to know how to do this thing? I am going to tell you how. That very promise has captivated the hopes and curiosity of so many readers and writers alike.

It’s a reading experience that promises a result or, if not a result, an intimacy. You want to know how to do this thing? I am going to tell you how.

And then there’s the literary how to: the piece of fiction or nonfiction that will use the how to to subvert a story, share experience, flaunt expertise, advertise failure. When my creative writing professor put a photocopy of Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be a Writer” on my desk my heart leapt. “How To Be A Writer” was going to answer all of my questions. It was going to be my shortcut to everything I wanted to know. Of course, the essay did not provide the easy map I thought it could. But it did employ the intimacy of the how to to create dark humor and self-deprecation. Still, for someone who had only read a how to in the form of an instruction manual, it was a revelation. A how to is a promise. A how to is an offer. Let me show you. The literary how to slips in this house of chronology and expertise and then shows the reader that it is not a house, it is not a manual. It’s a story. It’s a tightrope walk.

My life is made of learning how to do things. How to do things I didn’t know how to do yesterday, how to do things I didn’t think I’d ever want to know (how to get sober, how to listen without interrupting, how to ask for more money when you don’t believe you deserve it, how to shave your mother’s head two weeks into chemo). And then there’s sharing what I know with others — you want to get sober, you want to listen, you want to ask for more money, you want to honor your mother — let me show you. Open palm. Open story. Here’s how. How is a transitional word, a bridge between wanting and having. It’s a connection. If writing is being of service, I couldn’t adore a service more than the service of learning how.

As I was taught in the fifth grade, a how to is made possible by the second person. We eschew the boundaries of the third person (a safe distance) or the first person (a presumptuous intimacy) for the delicate second. Second person can quickly sour (think valentines, bad poetry, religious tracts). It’s a thin blade on which the writer walks. In a how to, the you has the potency to be the reader, to be the narrator, to be the subject. Pair this with the gasoline of the present tense and you’ve got a potential disaster. There’s so much at risk in the literary how to, this cocktail of intimacy and expertise, second person, present tense. You’re leading the reader along, but you’re also carving your own narrative. You’re performing a magic trick and praying the rabbit will come out of its hat.

There’s so much at risk in the literary how to, this cocktail of intimacy and expertise, second person, present tense. You’re performing a magic trick and praying the rabbit will come out of its hat.

I’m one of those writers who has definitely abused the second person, especially when I was in college, especially when I thought it was a sexy vehicle for writing about ex-girlfriends (sorry). I spent years pulling the second person apart, looking under its hood, and I always came back to the literary how to because it was such a perfect setting for the second person. The second person isn’t just hanging out there, begging for attention. It’s serving a purpose. It’s providing instructions.

For many years I tried to write the story of a girl we’re going to call Angela Giaccini, who was important because she was the only other queer girl at my high school. Angela Giaccini had a shaved head, a leather jacket, a quiet intensity, and a sense of self that I longed for. We would kiss for the first time on her parent’s driveway, in the cold of March, just a few months before I broke her heart. Over the years I tried to write our story over and over again. I tried it as a short story, I tried it as a letter (terrible!), I tried it as a young adult novel, I tried it as an earnest essay about crushes. Nothing worked. It wasn’t until I wrote a how to for my younger queer self, “How To Like Girls,” that I found the right place for Angela Giaccini. In a how to I could walk through every one of my insecurities, my high-octane love, the story of what was said an when it was said and how it was said, all under the guise of writing an instructional pamphlet for other women who found themselves crushing on women and unsure of where to go from there. There’s the punctuation of the certainty of instructing someone on how to do something. Warm your hands in your pockets. Look at the asphalt. Hold your breath. Catch her eye. Kiss Her Now. A literary how to has the potential to cast a spell.

In 2016, BuzzFeed published a version of the title essay of Alexander Chee’s collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. There’s a playful layering within the title. Even the promise of what’s in this how to — the reveal, the secret, the auto in the autobiographical — is evoked. What could get bogged down in a reality-based set of instructions is actually a series of ephemeral observations. The first line — “You are like someone left in the woods with only an axe and a clear memory of houses deciding to build a house” — sets the scene. The writer and the idea of what they want to write are at odds: “A novel, or is it, you aren’t sure yet. But it is as suddenly real as an unexpected visitor. Someone you both know and do not know. You watch each other, carefully, perhaps for years.” This phrase — suddenly real — is the same effect that a how to has the potential to create: instant, tangible. The motif throughout the essay is an axe, a weapon and a tool, a symbol of hard work and violence, something you use outside, alone, with no one else around you. In my spiritual practice there’s a woman who often says, “Chop wood, carry water,” as a mantra, as a simple description of what we do every day, as what the path to what we want looks like. What I love so much about Chee’s how to is the balanced authority it has.

This isn’t the only how to on writing an autobiographical novel. You could argue that every autobiographical novel is its own how-to, for any reader who has ever read a novel and flipped from the chapters to the biography, from the epilogue to the author photo, from the acknowledgements to the side characters, hunting for clues. I read for intimacy and I read for instructions. I read with a hunger that someone show me how to write, that I constantly reinvent what I know about writing, that I search for what I don’t know so that I can add it to my repertoire.

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