Sometimes I even seem to go backward, losing all direction.
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. 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.
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? ” Narrative essays keep us engaged because we want answers to such questions. We keep on reading unless the writer stops stair-stepping upward toward the critical moment when change becomes necessary.
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.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.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.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.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 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.