Poet Stanley Plumly used to say that poems must weigh more at the end than at the beginning. What matters to us has emotional weight, and as with poetry, the personal essay also supplies a vehicle for writers to find out what matters and to feel the weight of what matters. As writers, we take ourselves, and ultimately our readers, on a journey during which we learn from our experience as we relive it on the page. The best essays allow the writer and the reader to establish and maintain solid footing as they go. This solid footing comes partly as a consequence of the speaker inside the essay revealing the reason the essay is being written right now. Although you as a writer may have been interested in your topic for a while, the speaker inside the essay must have an occasion upon which to start talking in the "now" of the essay.
In other words, inside each personal essay, you, in the form of the essay's speaker, have a clear occasion for assembling images and anecdotes that add up to discovery and emotional insight. At the completion of this journey, you will have learned from your writing as well anyone who reads it. Moreover, anyone who reads it will experience the same enlightening journey you took rather than a mere string of events or ideas that do not move toward an emotional destination.
Let's take a look at how this works:
Recently, I assigned university students the task of writing a description essay about a place for which they have strong feelings. One student came to see me in my office. He had chosen Dodger Stadium in his home city of Los Angeles as his topic because he loves baseball and thought he could write about it. He had associated many images with the topic, including the voice of Vin Scully, the game announcer he had listened to for years on TV when he watched games at home with his father. "But where do I start?" he said, "I have so many memories and thoughts about baseball."
You might be feeling something like this as you look over some of your essay sprouts -- they may be something like morning glory vines that spread everywhere instead of maintaining a succinct space. Herein lies the magic of occasion! As we talked, my student told me that he had recently gone to Dodger Stadium for the first time after years of listening to the games at home. At the ballpark, he searched for a glimpse of Vin Scully and could almost make out where he was sitting. He suddenly realized, though, that he wouldn't be able to hear Scully like his father would be at home because Scully's voice was being broadcast over radio and TV, not over the playing field. He experienced a moment of shock when he realized that this game, the first live one he had ever attended, would not be narrated for him by Scully's familiar voice.
As I listened to my student talk, I realized that one occasion his speaker could write from would be going to Dodger Stadium the first time and missing the voice of the adored and familiar sportscaster! I knew this because not being able to hear Scully made this game emotionally different from others for this young man. I asked him to describe the moment when he went to Dodger Stadium and looked for Scully and saw him. What did he think at that very moment? He said he wondered about his dad, listening at home, who had turned his son onto baseball, but had never gone to the stadium himself and now refused to go. And yet, unlike his father, the son wants to see the game live. So the occasion of the essay is going to Dodger Stadium for the first time and realizing he would not hear Scully's familiar voice. That realization leads him to explore what it felt like going to Dodger Stadium without his father and what that meant to him. Emotionally, this sounds like an essay about having learned from one's dad, going beyond what he has taught you and then not being able to share that new experience with him. The journey to this emotional information ultimately occurred in the written essay through descriptions of the event at Dodger Stadium, comparisons to watching games at home, memories of what the student's dad taught him about baseball and times he played baseball to impress his father. His father's refusal to attend a live game made the student aware of his father's support and the need to grow beyond what his father could offer.
Here is a second example of how reviewing the essay's occasion helps writers embark on their essays' emotional as well as physical journeys. A journalist and technical writer approached me to coach her on personal essay writing. She wanted to describe her mother, an Italian immigrant who raised her daughter with gestures and words about the evil eye. She knew that her mother's old country superstitions had made a great impact on her, and she wanted to write about them as a way of exploring who she is as a mother raising her own children. The topic encompasses so much. It's that question again: Where to start? Well, what is the speaker's occasion? What has prompted her to speech as the essay starts? Has she had an interaction with her son and responded in a way that reminds her of her mother? Is she facing a situation with her son that she doesn't know how to handle but thinks her mother would have handled by invoking fear of the evil eye? If this is so, she can start the essay with the situation and her hesitation in handling it and the knowledge about how her mother would have acted. Then she can write about what she was taught about the evil eye and what it takes to discourage the evil eye. She can write about the resulting effect on her thinking and feeling. Finally, she can return to the interaction with her son, ready to either do as her mother did or do something else she has figured out from thinking about her mother and her upbringing.
If you know the topic you want to write about or the subject you want to explore and yet feel unable to make what is at the bottom of your heart and mind come into being on the page despite many details, images, anecdotes and much dialog, you might have some confusion about your occasion. Ask the writer inside your essay, the one on the page recounting your experience, this question: "Why are you writing this essay now?" "Because I missed hearing Vin Scully at Dodger Park and I missed having my dad there, too." "Because I caught myself in the act of doing something my mother had done in raising me, and I wanted to explore how her actions affected me so I might choose a different way of behaving as a parent."
Remember, a personal essay, like all genres, is a "made" thing. You are the writer but you have created the speaker in the essay who represents you. The personal essay requires its speaker to reveal a reason for speaking now. Once you realize what the reason is, you will find a way to start and to end your essay. You will also find the words that both tell your story and evoke your struggle toward understanding its meaning. Your success in winning the struggle is the very thing that makes your essay weigh more at the end than it did at the beginning.
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