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An Exercise in Essay-Writing
by Sheila Bender

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Although it might not be obvious, those of us who write personal essays can benefit greatly from not knowing what we have to write about. This is surprising to people who think of the essay as researched knowledge with a professorial, didactic tone. But to write an essay is really to "assay" or test out a hypothesis.

If writers walk around with a head full of ideas and think they have to commit to writing them, they miss the hypothesis part of the process, the part about finding something of interest to test. In other words, the essay is an exploration, not an initial knowing. Because of this, I use exercises for finding topics that model not knowing as a way of beginning essays.

After providing directions for a series of three freewrites, I will show you how to mine a collection of such material for writing an essay.

Freewrite 1

Go to a place you have not previously used for writing. It can be the corner of a room or a chair facing a different window than you usually face; you might sit at a cafˇ or park bench new to you. Even sitting in your car will work if you park somewhere other than your habitual spot. Just getting out of the driver's seat and sitting in the passenger seat can make a parking spot new for the purposes of this freewrite.

Begin your freewriting by describing where you are and what you see there. You can add in what you think you will be able to see in the near future. Then involve your other senses to stay "in scene" and really deliver the experience of the place you are describing. A sound or sight, smell or texture, or even the taste of something you are eating or have waiting for you for lunch will offer new experiences and associations. Stay specific.

Don't be cursory. Don't write, "Here I am again writing before I go into work and there are cars as usual and I am tired as usual."

Instead, stay in the moment and record details from where you are:

Here I am again writing in my journal before I go into work and I am parked dangerously close to the white line that separates my space from the next car's slot. That spot is empty now but within minutes someone will drive in and our cars shall remain close, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the eight hours of the workday. I hear the fibers of my wool scarf like Velcro releasing as I pull the scarf from off my coat collar and I smell the boiled egg I've packed in my lunch today and think of the animals that have scent glands and release smells as warning or to mark territory like this sandwich might if I left it out on my desk. When I open the car door, pulling the hard plastic handle will be like a handshake I don't quite want to make with a person I must depart from though I don't feel our business is done. I will leave my scarf in the car so I don't later forget to replace it around my neck. What secrets does it keep wrapped up here on the seat till I return? I will enter the cement-chilled air of the basement garage heading toward the chrome-lined elevator. I will go up and up, hoping the crowd of my thoughts will stay warm and hatching until I return.

Freewrite 2

After writing from where you are, imagine yourself inside a place you can't really write from, the pantry in your kitchen, a drawer, or perhaps a window box:

If I were sitting in the window box under the leaves of the trailing geraniums, I would look down at the impossible height and draw in my legs under my chin. Would I feel cramped under scalloped leaves, next to the segmented stems? Would a pink petal form a little rug at my feet or blanket my knees? Nothing could protect me from the onrush of the watering hose, the torrents, the floods. Would I sink into the spongy earth to arise like a swamp monster or get washed overboard to a new destiny, landing perhaps upon the heavenly bamboo or the thorned bougainvillea?

Freewrite 3

Now, open something in print and let your eye fall somewhere on the page. Use the words your eye falls upon as an opening for this next exercise. When I last did this exercise, I randomly opened William Kittredge's collection of essays, "Who Owns the West?" to page 67 and pointed to these words:

"Tess had worn a little path around the grave. She went down there and talked to him, she said. I tell him the news, she said. Like all of us, Ray was given to a love of gossip and scandal."

Knowing this passage was about mourning for the late short story writer Raymond Carver, whose stories I had recently taught to an intro to fiction class, I wrote:

Like all of us, author Raymond Carver was given to a love of gossip and scandal. Although I never knew him, I've read and enjoyed his short stories, even taught one in particular, "The Cathedral." In this story, a narrator tells about the overnight visit of his wife's former boss, a blind man from Seattle. The narrator is a narrow-minded man with little real connection to others, and in the course of the evening, he does enjoy a moment of pure human (and therefore cosmic) connection with the blind man as they draw a cathedral together. And gossip does seem to be a way of thinking in this story -- the narrator uses all he has heard from his wife about this man to build notions about blindness that keep him from entering the moment. I can certainly identify since I keep myself from living in the moment by leaning on structures in my mind. One of those is the to-do list I seem to carry perpetually.

There are clothes at the cleaners waiting to be picked up, food to be found at the market, a resume to update and send out, and evening plans that require I bring a dish for the meal. I have a set of papers to grade and more e-mail than I want to answer at the moment waiting on the spool. The cats are out of food and I have forgotten to cut their nails this month so they are sharp and leave scratches when they launch from my lap after a moth or a fly. The outdoor plants need watering, on all three levels of my home. The jasmine is in bloom. I should fertilize. Measure, mix, fill the jug, lift the heavy thing and hear the water rush into the pots. Too much overflow in the dishes beneath the plants. Must empty that. They don't like to get their feet wet, my horticultural friend reminded me. No blooms on the bougainvillea, perhaps over-watering. Container gardening -- there are rewards but the plants suffer if I am not attentive -- cold roots, wet roots, underfed, overfed. White fly, aphids. Bites out of leaves from something else I haven't seen. Somehow, the plants survive. Like me!

Mining the Three Freewrites

Whether you have done these freewrites in the course of one writing session or over several days, to find out what the freewrites have to tell you about an essay you might write, comb through them and jot down images and phrases that interest you.

When I look over what I have written, I am grabbed by: "overwhelmed", "dangerously close to the white line", "shoulder- to-shoulder", "heavenly bamboo", "thorned bougainvillea", "the plants survive" and "like me". I don't know why exactly, but these words and phrases jump out. Next, I'll challenge myself to write a paragraph that involves them all:

I live in Los Angeles shoulder-to-shoulder with millions, never far from others in our cars and apartments, on the busy beaches and walking and biking paths along them. I was overwhelmed the first year I lived here by the sheer numbers of people, power poles strung with cable that buzzed audibly night and day, billboards and clogged freeway lanes. Slowly I came to see what was planted, first the heavenly bamboo shrubs and of course the palm trees, draping bougainvillea along the banks up from the roads and the ficus trees lining the sidewalks. I began to see the Morton Bay Figs, trumpet vines, stag horn ferns and exotic fruit trees, the kumquats and pomegranate trees.

It is perhaps not a surprise that distinguishing the plants coincided with making good friends and finding good work; that lonely, I saw only roads and cars and masses of people, and now more connected, I see flowers and trees, the way the people of LA cultivate what grows in this watered desert. I struggle with my own container garden. Against pests and fog, my diverse plants survive. As I water them and watch people of diverse ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds drive and walk by my balcony, I realize I have come once again to value the American melting pot spirit that is alive and thriving in this city of angels and progress. I have let the American Dream touch me once again.

From here, I could shape an essay that evokes the newly awakened American dream inside me. I see that I might be talking about a process of growing numb to the dream for awhile before it reawakens in me. I could talk about becoming jaded while coming of age in the '60s when the country was engaged in an unpopular war, and then again when raising children in the '70s and '80s and trying to teach environmentalism during a time of abundance and spoils. Now, watching and listening to people from all over the world raising families and seeking education, I am revived. I believe that I could write this view of Los Angeles and of myself at this point in my life.

Opening ourselves as writers to a state of not knowing exactly what will happen on our pages allows us to invite topics for interesting exploration. When we are in this not-knowing state of being, words come through and we start to figure out the terms of our explorations. Teasing topics to the page in this way reminds us that every essay is written in response to the question, "What do I really know?" Finding out how we can put experience together into new knowing, we are on a treasure hunt; we search our way out of the not knowing. This is the spirit that makes our writing come alive.

Find Out More...

Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal - Heather Haapoja

Finding Your Writing's "Occasion" - Sheila Bender

Personally Speaking - Kathryn Lay

Writing From Anticipation - Sheila Bender

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away! - Uma Girish

Copyright © 2005 Sheila Bender
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Sheila Bender is a poet, essayist, author, and publisher of http://www.WritingItReal.com. Her poems appear in many North American literary journals and anthologies such as Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, Writers' Forum, Northern Lights, and We Used to Be Wives, among others. Her many books on writing include Keeping a Journal You Love, A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery, Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Life Experience, Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page, and Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down. She is a past contributing poetry editor to Writer's Digest Magazine and is on the faculties of the Colorado Mountain Writer's Conference and the La Jolla Writer's Conference. She holds a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Keane College in New Jersey.


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