Essays and Making Sense of Our Lives

This morning at the YMCA, a man I didn’t know asked me, “What did Mr. Cheever write?” I had no idea how this man knew I had any knowledge whatsoever of John Cheever. “I read the quote on the back of your shirt,” the man said. I realized, then, I was wearing a tee-shirt from the Young Writers Workshop we run at Ohio State University. On the back of this shirt is the quote: “It seems to me that writing is a marvelous way of making sense of one’s life, both for the writer and for the reader.”

It’s true of all creative writing of course—this desire to make sense of one’s life—but it’s particularly relevant this semester to the graduate creative nonfiction workshop I’m teaching. I’m talking quite a bit in this workshop about the line of inquiry that runs through a good essay, no matter the form it takes. Writers come to the page to puzzle over something, to try to answer something, to try to figure out something, to try to make sense of something. In other words, a question drives a good essay.

This isn’t to say that the drafting process begins with a question that the writer is fully able to articulate, but it is to say that somewhere between the time that the first word gets put on the page to the time the essay is ready for a reader the writer has a good sense of what the piece is chasing after. That’s really what we do as essayists. We chase after something not readily available, something that requires the essay for its examination. If we’re lucky, that examination takes us somewhere we couldn’t have predicted we’d go when the writing began. We arrive at something we didn’t know, or we arrive at another question we didn’t know we had to ask. In either case, there’s a deepening of the subject matter, and there’s a deepening of the writer’s sensibility as well.

The questions that drive a good essay shouldn’t be easy ones. They should require the essayists to look closely from all sorts of angles to try to corral the answers. It’s through that effort—that close attention to the particulars—that the essayist extends the essay to the reader even when the subject matter being explored is quite foreign to that reader’s experience.

A good essay invites readers to be the essayist’s fellow travelers through the material. By expressing an uncertainty early in the essay, the essayist forms this bond with the reader. This uncertainty can be expressed in a number of ways. The important thing is the reader gets the sense that the writer is feeling his or her way toward meaning and requires the reader’s company during the process.

We come to the page, as Mr. Cheever says, to make sense of our lives. This means we speak from a position of not knowing. Here’s a quick trick to help essayists articulate that lack of knowledge. Take the rough draft of an essay, or choose and essay you’ve been thinking about writing, or one that you’re in the middle of writing. When you consider the subject matter, how would you complete the following: “When I think of ______________, part of me wonders/believes/wants to believe_________________________, but another part of me_____________. Try to think it terms of opposites or contradictions. Opposing feelings, opposing thoughts, what it is that divides your sensibility and requires the essay to try to reconcile those oppositions. That’s what makes meaning. Living in the gray areas and letting the various parts of the self converse.

The essayist David Shields says, “I really love that idea of the essay as an investigation. That’s all anyone’s life is.” The man who asked me about Mr. Cheever at the Y this morning told me the reason he took note of the quote on the back of my shirt was because for a number of years he’d kept a diary. He said as soon as he got home he meant to Google Mr. Cheever to see what else he could learn. Ah, Google—that modern day means of investigation. Still, I like to think of the man from the Y finding that quote from Cheever during his Google search and maybe writing it down to be seen in whatever space he uses to write in his diary. I like to think of all of us writing to make sense of our lives.


  1. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 26, 2018 at 4:10 am

    I love personal essays, especially the questioning style. After I wrote my travel memoir Not Quite Lost, I brought that approach back to the novel I’m working on. Everything fell into place. So a novel can be like a personal essay for each character. Sharing this on the Tweetwaves.

  2. Lee Martin on September 26, 2018 at 11:09 am

    Thanks, Roz. All writing is an interrogation, yes?

  3. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 27, 2018 at 10:25 am

    It is indeed! For me it begins with interrogating an idea. What does this mean to me? Why is it resonant? How can I make a reader as curious about it as I am? If it’s to become a novel, I then have more levels of interrogation. What people should inhabit this idea? What will it mean to them? Have I taken it far enough, made it big and broad enough? Interrogation all the way.

  4. Lee Martin on September 28, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Great questions to ask during the creative process!

Leave a Comment