Looking Outside the Self: Research and the Personal Essay
This morning, my wife and I watch a swan gliding along on the lake near the bank, and we talk about how unusual it is to see this lone swan when we typically see two, three, as many as six.
I know, because my wife passed along information she got from a game warden who came to collect a dead swan (a sad story involving an electrical line), that the one we’re now watching is a mute swan, a particularly aggressive bird who often threatens kayakers if they unknowingly get too close to a nesting spot. These swans have been known to attack and even kill people with the enormous force of their wings. “Get hit with the wing of a mute,” the game warden told my wife, “and it’s like getting hit with a ball bat.”
This single swan, though, looks completely at ease, so graceful as it moves along. From time to time, it lowers its head, dipping below the surface of the water, feeding on vegetation and roots, and possibly insects or small fish. Its orange beak is edged with black. A knob atop the beak announces its species. It dips that beak below the water again and again. Watching the swan, I’d never have a thought of how dangerous it could be. On this morning, it’s just going about the business of being a swan and to watch it is calming.
I’m writing about the swan because I’m thinking about how to get the students in my advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop to extend themselves beyond personal narratives. Too often, young writers fail to recognize there’s a larger world outside themselves. A skillful essay will connect that larger world to the individual, and by virtue of that connection, to the universal.
Here, then, are some tips for how to extend the personal narrative.
1. Start small. If we start writing about something outside the self—something like a mute swan on a lake—we’ll be more likely to write about personal material in a significant way. The small detail issues an invitation. All we have to do is accept it and see what personal material it brings to the surface.
2. The detail can become metaphor. I might recognize in the swan, for example, something about protection, acceptance, love. Describing it helps me begin to think about these issues.
3. Good essays begin with curiosity. Now that I have that swan in my mind, I get curious about all sorts of things involving its behavior, it’s habitat, etc.
4. The personal essay can benefit from research. I can read about the swan, talk to people about it, gather information, and then choose what I sense is relevant to the personal story I want to tell.
5. We can use the detail—in this case the swan—to create a scene that will contain what we’ve come to the page to explore. It can lead us both forward and backward in time as we draw upon moments from the past and the present with which the container scene connects. We can use research to help us think about what we might not even know we need to think about.
The swan, then, also becomes a metaphor for the writing process. An essayist can glide along the surface of the material in a technically proficient way but with no significance or resonance. Staying on the surface will get us from beginning to end in a personal narrative, but we know the real stuff is below that surface. We have to dip down into it from time to time in order to think more fully about what perplexes us, remains unresolved for us, requires our attention. We write what we don’t know in attempt to know it better. Looking outside the self can bring us closer to knowing and also to connecting with others. Research skillfully used can help make the personal story one that will resonate with readers even if they haven’t had exactly that same experience. When I think of those issues of protection, acceptance, love that I associate with the swan, I can’t help but believe that no matter the personal circumstances connected to them, I’ll be better able to communicate with my readers.
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