Edelman was born in New York City and spent most of her childhood in suburban Spring Valley, New York. The death of her mother to breast cancer in 1981 was a pivotal moment in her adolescence and became the subject of much of her early writing. She obtained her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois. While living in the Chicago area, she interned at Outside magazine and in 1985 was chosen as an American Society of Magazine Editors summer intern. After graduation, she took an editorial job at Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she discovered a love for the personal essay. She then attended The Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she studied with Carl Klaus, Mary Swander, and Carol Bly, earning a master's degree in nonfiction writing in 1992.
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