The Essay inside the Essay
There’s a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis whose glass panels catch the reflection of a smaller skyscraper opposite it. To look upon the taller skyscraper makes one believe that the smaller one is rising up inside it.
This is how an essay can work. One structure can contain another. The first gives us an organizing principle; it also provides a point of focus, the thing upon which we keep our eyes.
But so much is going on outside our field of vision. A second structure is rising up, one that will eventually demand our attention. We don’t know what that second structure is, nor should we, when we’re writing our first drafts. We want it to surprise us, so it can also surprise the reader.
When I wrote my essay, “A Month of Sundays,” I began with memories of Sundays during my childhood. My mother took me to church with her. My father didn’t attend. So as I began to write, I was looking at my mother’s faith, my father’s seeming lack of faith, my life as an only child of older parents. Then I remembered a night when a terrible thunderstorm was raging, and my parents and I sat around our kitchen table in our farmhouse. My mother lit an oil lamp. As I wrote this scene, I remembered that my father said, “God promised he’d never again destroy the earth with a flood.” That was the moment in my draft where the second structure began to rise within the first.
Soon I was writing about the stroke I had when I was 56, and through that story I came upon this surprise: “There will always be a part of me that will wish for the certainty of the boy my mother taught to believe.” I’d thought I was writing about my mother’s steadfast belief in a higher power and my father’s lack, but all along I was writing about my own desire to believe when I have to proof of the effectiveness of faith. I was writing about a vanishing family, a desire for its return, a resurrection, a belief. I was writing about affirmation even while resisting it.
So the point of all this? Start writing from the details—the memories of wooden church pews, and coal fires, of corn stubble and rain-streaked windows—and then look for a line that surprises you. Follow that line through more details—heart monitors and memory tests, prayer books and the sound of my mother’s voice when she told me each night to count my blessings—to see what might emerge.
An essayist is always writing two essays in one—the one that announces itself in the opening and the one that rises up within it. “God promised he’d never again destroy the earth with a flood,” my father said. With that line, “he became strange to me.” In our first drafts, we should look for that strangeness and then follow it until it becomes familiar.
Lee, this is so true and, at times, scary. I started an essay, “A Fur for Annie Pearl,” thinking I was writing about my quest to find a thrift store fur coat for an elderly friend who once knew my father. But as the essay developed I realized I was really writing about my mother, my ambivalence toward giving her gifts and, ultimately, how I’d blamed her for the death of my 43-year-old sister. It was painful to come to this realization, but wondrous to see this other essay rise up from my original intent.
Sophronia, as you know the indirect approach often yields surprising and important results. So good to see you at AWP!
Yes, Lee, it was wonderful to see you too and hear your words of wisdom in person!
Lee, this relates to the novel, too, doesn’t it? Reminds me of your wisdom in Vermont that August.
Thank you for this essay. It helps me to understand structure more completely. It also helps give me more ways to explain to my students about rough drafts and revision work.
Claire, thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you and your students well. When it comes to writing, we’re all life-long students, yes?
Mr. Lee, thank you for giving us such amazing tips on what to do when your writing. You have poured such memory into these few paragraphs, that I honestly got swept up into your childhood, where you lived, the farmhouse and the county line road. I’ll definitely keep this in mine when I’m working on future projects and to be able to give my own work the same imagination and feelings as you do when you write.
Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.