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.