Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide
A design professor from Denmark once drew for me a picture of the creative process, which had been the subject of his doctoral dissertation. “Here,” he said. “This is what it looks like”:
Aha, I thought, as we discussed parallels in the writing process. Although I may start an essay with a notion of where I am headed, inevitably I veer away as I get new ideas or encounter dead ends. Sometimes I even seem to go backward, losing all direction.
Nothing is wasted though, said the design professor, because every bend in the process is helping you to arrive at your necessary structure. By trying a different angle or creating a composite of past approaches, you get closer and closer to what you intend. You begin to delineate the organic form that will match your content.
The remarkable thing about personal essays, which openly mimic this exploratory process, is that they can be so quirky in their “shape.” No diagram matches the exact form that evolves, and that is because the best essayists resist predictable approaches. They refuse to limit themselves to generic forms, which, like mannequins, can be tricked out in personal clothing. Nevertheless, recognizing a few basic underlying structures may help an essay writer invent a more personal, more unique form. Here, then, are several main options.
Narrative with a lift
Narrative is the natural starting place since narrative is a natural structure for telling others about personal events. We instinctively turn to chronology as a way to recreate the past, putting our lives into a neat moment-by-moment order. Beware, though. The march of time can be methodical—first this, then this, then this. If unrelieved, it becomes the ticking clock in the jail or, worse, the flat line of death. Savvy essayists, as a result, twist their chronology, beginning at the end or breaking to a moment in the past, even weaving together several timelines. More crucial, though, is their use of tension, which changes the flat line of chronology into a rising line—a plot. Such tension forces the reader into a climb, muscles contracting. It raises anticipation. Will we reach the top? And what will we see from there?
Take, for example, Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” The narrator, abandoned by her husband, is caring for a dying dog and going to work at a university office to which an angry graduate student has brought a gun. The sequence of scenes matches roughly the unfolding of real events, but there is suspense to pull us along, represented by questions we want answered. In fact, within Beard’s narrative, two sets of questions, correlating to parallel subplots, create a kind of double tension. When the setting is Beard’s house, we wonder, “Will she find a way to let go of the dying dog, not to mention her failing marriage?” And when she’s at work, we find ourselves asking, “What about the guy with the gun? How will he impact her one ‘safe place’?”
Narrative essays keep us engaged because we want answers to such questions. The tension begs for resolution. We keep on reading unless the writer stops stair-stepping upward toward the critical moment when change becomes necessary. If she flatlines on an emotional plateau, not raising the tension, then we are likely to lose interest and walk away. “Readers do not want to put their foot on the same step twice” is the way veteran essayist Bill Kittredge put it while swapping ideas at a writing conference. He had learned this principle from screenwriters in Hollywood and insisted, “Think what you want, those guys know how plots work.”
One interesting side note: trauma, which is a common source for personal essays, can easily cause an author to get stuck on the sort of plateau Kittredge described. Jo Ann Beard, while clearly wrestling with the immobilizing impact of her own trauma, found a way to keep the reader moving both forward and upward, until the rising tension reached its inevitable climax: the graduate student firing his gun. I have seen less-experienced writers who, by contrast, seem almost to jog in place emotionally, clutching at a kind of post-traumatic scar tissue.
The whorl of reflection
Let’s set aside narrative, though, since it is not the only mode for a personal essay. In fact, most essays are more topical or reflective, which means they don’t move through time in a linear fashion as short stories do.
Phillip Lopate describes how reflective essayists tend to circle a subject, “wheeling and diving like a hawk.” Unlike academic scholars, they don’t begin with a thesis and aim, arrow-like, at a pre-determined bull’s-eye. Instead, they meander around their subject until arriving, often to the side of what was expected.
One of the benefits of such a circling approach is that it seems more organic, just like the mind’s creative process. It also allows for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles. A classic example would be “Under the Influence,” Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his alcoholic father. Instead of luring us up the chronological slope of plot, Sanders spirals around his father’s drinking, leading us to a wide range of realizations about alcoholism: how it gets portrayed in films, how it compares to demon-possession in the Bible, how it results in violence in other families, how it raises the author’s need for control, and even how it influences the next generation through his workaholic over-compensation. We don’t read an essay like this out of plot-driven suspense so much as for the pleasure of being surprised, again and again, by new perspective and new insight.
The formal limits of focus
My own theory is that most personal essayists, because of a natural ability to extrapolate, do not struggle to find subjects to write about. Writer’s block is not their problem since their minds overflow with remembered experiences and related ideas. While a fiction writer may need to invent from scratch, adding and adding, the essayist usually needs to do the opposite, deleting and deleting. As a result, nonfiction creativity is best demonstrated by what has been left out. The essay is a figure locked in a too-large-lump of personal experience, and the good essayist chisels away all unnecessary material.
One helpful way to understand this principle of deletion is to think of the essayist looking through a viewfinder to limit the reader’s focus. The act of framing a selected portion of raw experience from the chronological mess we call “life” fundamentally limits the reader’s attention to a manageable time and place, excluding all events that are not integrally related. What appears in the written “picture,” like any good painting, has wholeness because the essayist was disciplined enough to remove everything else.
Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting” is an odd but useful model. She limits that essay to a single evening walk in London, ostensibly taken to buy a pencil. I suspect Woolf gave herself permission to combine incidents from several walks in London, but no matter. The essay feels “brought together” by the imposed limits of time and place.
As it happens, “Street Haunting” is also an interesting prototype for a kind of essay quite popular today: the segmented essay. Although the work is unified by the frame of a single evening stroll, it can also be seen as a combination of many individual framed moments. If we remove the purpose of the journey—to find a pencil—the essay falls neatly into a set of discrete scenes with related reveries: a daydreaming lady witnessed through a window, a dwarfish woman trying on shoes, an imagined gathering of royalty on the other side of a palace wall, and eventually the arguing of a married couple in the shop where Woolf finally gets her pencil.
Today, many essayists are comfortable simply letting go of the overarching story line (such as Woolf’s journey to buy a pencil) so they can organize disparate scenes in a more segmented fashion, separated by bits of white space. All that remains to unify the parts is an almost imperceptible thread of theme, not narrative. Will Baker, for instance, relies on nothing but a title—“My Children Explain the Big Issues”—and four section headings: “Feminism,” “Fate,” “Existentialism,” and “East and West.” Each of his framed vignettes is about a remembered moment with one of his kids. These moments have a broad similarity as a result; however, without their attached labels, we would not be able to connect the parts in a fully satisfying manner. The titles allow us to string together a kind of thematic necklace.
Dipping into the well
Our attention to thematic unity brings up one more important dynamic in most personal essays. Not only do we have a horizontal movement through time, but there is also a vertical descent into meaning. As a result, essayists will often pause the forward motion to dip into a thematic well.
Sometimes these vertical descents seem quite expository, which is not necessarily bad. Contrary to the high school teacher’s oft-repeated maxim—“Show, don’t tell!”—the essayist is free both to show and tell. In fact, I once heard the nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild scold a group of MFA students for being so subtle in their writing that they left out critical signposts that readers needed. “Don’t be so afraid to say what you mean,” he counseled.
Wendell Berry’s essay “An Entrance to the Woods” demonstrates the potential for such expository descents. In the middle of a quiet description of an overnight camping trip, Berry notices the distant roar of cars on a highway, and the “out-of-place” sound leads him on a long tangent. He describes how the “great ocean of silence” has been replaced by an ocean of engine noise, in which silence occurs only sporadically and at wide intervals. He imagines the “machine of human history—a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it.” And the reader realizes that what appeared to be an odd tangent is actually an essential descent into the well of meaning. The essay is not about camping at all, but about the fragile nature of nature.
In fact, Berry uses several of these loops of reflective commentary, and though they seem to be digressions, temporarily pulling the reader away from the forward flow of the plot, they develop an essential second layer to the essay.
Braided and layered structures
So far we have looked at narrative, reflective, and segmented essays, but we have not exhausted our structural possibilities. Far from it. Many essays, for instance, are braided, weaving together two or more strands of story line in an interactive fashion. Judith Ortiz Cofer, in her personal meditation “Silent Dancing,” creates a particularly revelatory braid from two strands: a home movie juxtaposed against her own memories of childhood as a Puerto Rican in New Jersey. To help the reader with transitions, she brackets the home movie with white space, putting the text into italics. We look at the italicized home movie for a while, then her memories, then the movie, and so on, letting one strand surface while the other is momentarily submerged.
Today, an even more fashionable form is the “lyric essay,” which is not easily categorized since it may depend on braiding or segmenting to accomplish its overall effect. However, like the lyric poem, the lyric essay is devoted more to image than idea, more to mood than concept. It is there to be experienced, not simply thought about. And like many poems, it accomplishes this effect by layering images without regard to narrative order. A lyric essay is a series of waves on the shore, cresting one after the other. It is one impression after another, unified by tone. And it seems to move in its own peculiar direction, neither vertical nor horizontal. More slant.
Want an example? Look at Judith Kitchen’s three-page essay “Culloden,” which manages to leap back and forth quite rapidly, from a rain-pelted moor in 18th-century Scotland to 19th-century farms in America to the blasted ruins of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the author’s birthday. The sentences themselves suggest the impressionistic effect that Kitchen is after, being compressed to fragments, rid of the excess verbiage we expect in formal discourse: “Late afternoon. The sky hunkers down, presses, like a lover, against the land. Small sounds. A far sheep, faint barking. . . .” And as the images accumulate, layer upon layer, we begin to feel the author’s fundamental mood, a painful awareness of her own inescapable mortality. We begin to encounter the piece on a visceral level that is more intuitive than rational. Like a poem, in prose.
Coming Full Circle
Regardless of form, all essays must end, which raises a final worthwhile question: how to bring closure?
First of all, endings are related to beginnings. That’s why many essays seem to circle back to where they began. Annie Dillard, in her widely anthologized piece “Living Like Weasels,” opens with a dried-out weasel skull that is attached, like a pendant, to the throat of a living eagle—macabre proof that the weasel was carried aloft to die and be torn apart. Then, at the end of the essay, Dillard alludes to the skull again, stating, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
Of course, the effect of returning to her initial image, transforming it into a symbol, is a sense of completion. For Dillard’s weasel-skull conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete. In real life, there is always an “and then,” even if it comes after we have died. So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.
See how deftly Dillard accomplishes this effect simply by positing one last imagined or theoretical possibility—a way of life she hopes to master, that we ourselves might master: “Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.” Yes, the essay has come full circle, echoing the opening image of the weasel’s skull, but it also points away, beyond itself, to something yet to be realized. The ending both closes and opens at the same time.
All diagrams rendered by Claire Bascom. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Volume I, issue 1 of The Essay Review.
Don't miss a word of the best true stories, well told.
Subscribe today ››
Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”
Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay
Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.
But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”
Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.
Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.
Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.
Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.
People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.
Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.
Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:
This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.
Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.
And there are more artful ways.
Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.
For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:
Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.
Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?
Well, consider that Rodriguez has
- introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
- informed us that writing is central to his life,
- clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
- provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?
These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.
Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.
Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.
Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.
The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.
And then you’ve lost the reader.
Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.
Here is his opening:
A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.
Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.
Are these emotions true?
Yes, they are.
Are they interesting for a reader?
Often, they simply are not.
The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.
These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.
In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.
This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.
Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.
And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.
You might also like:
Craft & Technique, Creative Nonfiction Writing, Excerpts, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, Memoir, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Editor Blogs, Writing Short Stories & Essay Writing, Writing Your First Draft
Are You a Born Storyteller?
11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description