I have to apologize for my absence from this blog the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, Cathy and I were in New Orleans celebrating the wedding of our friends, Kristen and George, and then last Sunday an unexpected hospital stay prevented me from posting. So, a chosen vacation and then one chosen for me. Such is life. The trip to New Orleans was a good one, even though the weather wasn’t quite as warm as we’d hoped, but soon after returning I came down with a nasty cold, and somehow in the week that followed my sodium level got too low, making a three-day hospital stay necessary. I won’t go into the details of how the sodium level came to drop. All is fine now, and I’m looking forward to getting back into my regular routine.
I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop this semester, and as the first essays begin to come in, I’m noticing what I’ll call a lack of texture to the pieces. By this, I mean the essays, whether narrative or lyric in nature, succeed at the level of reportage and documentation. The writers do well at rendering experience with vivid details and images. Missing, though, is a certain depth of meaning that comes from a writer’s interpretation of incident and/or fragmentation. The former comes from a writer’s willingness to think about the story being told. The latter occurs when a writer is skilled with the artful arrangement of fragments in order to invite the reader into the gaps where meaning is made.
Whether we’re talking about an essay whose impulse is narrative or one that speaks from a more lyric intention, here are some ways that writers can give their pieces more dimension and heft:
- Reflection: Often, an essayist needs to be our guide through the material. It’s one thing to say this or that happened, but it’s quite another to say this is what I make of that experience. It’s really a matter of examination. The essayist takes the time to think about what’s being presented in a way that begins to add up to something.
- Interrogation: Meaning-making can begin with questioning. An essayist is often well-served by the appropriately placed question. Let’s say you remember the time your father accidentally closed the car door on your finger. It’s one thing to present that in a vividly rendered scene. It’s quite another to wonder how that incident might represent something about your father, his attitudes toward parenting, your relationship with him, etc. Let the incident suggest the question.
- Speculation: We like to see essayists wrestle with their own questions. What are some possible answers. This isn’t to say we expect the essayist to hit upon a definitive answer. The process of speculating, though, will take us more fully into the essayist’s mind and will also invite us to be co-investigators. Seeking answers, then, becomes a way of thinking out loud on the page. Any such thinking adds texture to the essay.
- Metaphor: The construction of metaphor becomes a way to deepen thinking. This is particularly important in the lyric essay. We begin with details—the scent of cedar in your childhood home, perhaps, or the sound of lids popping on canning jars when they sealed on your mother’s kitchen counter, or the cat-eye glasses she wore. Such details, skillfully handled, can turn into metaphors for the abstractions at the heart of an essay. If the essayist knows how the detail expresses a certain emotion, or an attitude, or a thought, then that essayist can erase any visible announcement of the metaphor and trust the readers to build it themselves. If I know, for example, that the sound of those canning lids popping represents a certain guardedness within my family, I can arrange other details around it in order to make that way of thinking clear.
- Juxtaposition: Particularly in the lyric essay, what one puts next to something speaks loudly. This can be equally true, of course, for the narrative essay. The way one scene follows another can take the essay further in its thinking. The image of the canning lids popping, for example, when placed next to the sound of my father latching a gate to keep livestock penned and his words to me—“If you open a gate, you close a gate.”—begins to speak to how he viewed his life as one that required him to always be on guard against loss.
An essay should be an intimate journey through a writer’s sensibility. I offer these five tips to help us think about how to make that journey more significant.