Thoughts On A Page -- Like Life Stories, Essays Are Meant To Be Full Of Sights, Sounds - And Structure
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
A sudden snowstorm. A little girl is trapped in a one-room school house. Her father pushes open the door and scoops her into his arms, replacing terror with relief, an emotion she'll remember all her life.
It's a lovely memory, one that emerges from among the hundreds of life stories senior adults have written for teacher Pat Cochrane at the Lifetime Learning Center in Seattle.
But could it be written in a way that has universal meaning to readers? Could it lead to some enlightenment or a shared understanding of values?
Sure it could. And if it does, it'll take an important step toward becoming not just a life story but a successful personal essay.
Which brings us to our lesson for today.
The Seattle Times prints a personal essay written by readers nearly every Sunday in the Scene section. Aiming at that, many seniors have sent in nostalgic life stories that revisit important moments for them or early Seattle. The Times today will share their wisdom and memories, a feature that will run periodically if the response continues.
But a lot of the contributions are life stories and not truly essays. Some are very interesting, but they beg the question: What makes a successful essay?
We sought answers from a number of local teachers and writing workshops provided by colleges on the Internet. One message was clear: The writer has to make a point, some discovery, and that discovery needs to have meaning for the reader.
"Otherwise, it's only really interesting to the person's family," said Nicholas O'Connell, who teaches nonfiction writing for the University of Washington's extension program.
Wait! Wait! It's not as heavy as it sounds. Nobody has to sit up straight and write about "The Meaning of Democracy."
The goal is personal essays, not formal essays. Just like life stories, they're meant to be rich with sights and sounds and the sensation of the streetcar going up the Queen Anne counterbalance.
But to qualify as essays, they need to follow a few rules. So here are some suggestions from the pros.
For starters, essays have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not strictly in that order. The middle may be at the beginning - say, starting off with a strong scene and then switching back in time to the beginning - but there's a definite setup, development and satisfying conclusion.
O'Connell likes to write his essays around a scene in which he gives a feeling of place, tells who's involved and what's happening. But he also tells the meaning of the essay. It may be implicit in the first paragraph, but it's explicit by the second.
"The sense of the direction you're taking should be there early, even if it takes the rest of the essay to explain whatever truth it is that you end up believing," O'Connell said.
Cajoled into giving an example, he offered these two paragraphs, the start of an essay that will appear in The New York Times:
"It seemed like a good idea at the time. We'd fly to Paris, rent a car, and leisurely tour the villages, chateaux and cathedrals of rural France that would be difficult to visit by train. Little did we know that by doing so we'd enter a nationwide road rally we came to call Le Grand Prix.
"Our trip started innocently enough. We picked up a purple Opel Corsa near the Air France office of Les Invalides. The car had the acceleration of a golf cart and the structural integrity of an aluminum can, but we weren't worried. On previous train trips, we'd formed a favorable opinion of the French. Contrary to the popular perception of them as rude, we'd found them friendly if somewhat formal. We were about to learn, however, that if they seem like an older, wiser race, they drive like teenage boys."
Then off he goes, filling the middle of the essay with specific details and little scenes that show how he came to be known as "Imbecile!" on the race track known as Paris.
The original incident or idea should be there in spirit throughout an essay. Refer back to it to keep the essay grounded. Answer small questions you believe have been raised.
But save the big answers for the end. The ending should provide a definite completion, leaving the sense that nothing more need be said.
"You want a strong conclusion," O'Connell said. "Don't just let it dribble off the page."
Sure, that's easy if you're writing about "Mass Transit vs. Range Rovers," but what if all you want to do is write about the third grade? It might have been memorable for you, but if Madeleine Albright picks up the paper that day, is she going to find your essay profound?
Of course she will.
If you can believe teachers, here's why:
The odds are you're writing about a turning point, what Wordsworth called "spots of time," O'Connell said.
No lesser light than essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that "Every man has within himself the entire human condition," which means that when you write about yourself, you're writing about all of us, or so Phillip Lopate tells us in his introduction to "The Art of the Personal Essay."
Albright went to the third grade; so did Henry Kissinger. Maybe as you write, you'll discover something about the experience that will make them think, "So that's why I felt the way I did."
The voice of the personal essay is so intimate - almost always using the `I' pronoun - that it's as if the writer is "speaking directly into your ear," Lopate writes. A friendship develops.
No need to panic. You decide how much to let the world know.
O'Connell suggests that you describe traits about yourself as you would a fictional character, but tell only those parts that are important to a particular essay.
"If you're doing an essay about losing luggage, include that part of you that gets frustrated when things don't go right," O'Connell said.
Many of the seniors who fill Cochrane's "Writing Your Life Story" classes at the Lifetime Learning Center on Lower Queen Anne are reluctant to get too personal.
They remember getting their knuckles rapped in school for being "too proud" if they used first-person narrative, Cochrane said.
It is a difficult balance. You have to reveal your feelings for the reader to connect emotionally, but, gee, isn't it egotistical to assume readers are interested?
People get around that issue by softening their tone. Lopate writes that many successful essay writers have developed a self-deprecating tone, something close to "I'll share this with you but only because I've struggled so hard to figure it out."
You write first person to bring the reader along with you, the same reason you use vivid details. Let the reader smell the teacher's chalk, hear the desk squeak or feel your raw throat as you rooted for little Madeleine and Henry in the playground tug-of-war.
"If you can put it on the page so someone else can feel they're there, they're not reading, they're participating," said Sheila Bender, a local teacher and author of "Writing Personal Essays: How To Shape Your Life Experiences For The Page" (Reader's Digest Books, 1995).
If it takes all that and there's still a chance only your family will be interested, why bother?
Think of what you've gone through! Think of what you've observed. Write about it, but don't ever, ever expect it to be easy.
Personal essays have been described as a reflection or an exploration of a writer's values as told as a story.
Bender, for one, appreciates learning from people who've been there ahead of her. Seniors have particularly good lessons to teach, she said. They've worked through some of the complications and so they see life more precisely.
Here, at last, we come to some good news: You don't need to know where you're headed before you get there.
"People make the mistake of beginning an essay thinking that they know what they want to say and they're going to make that point no matter what," Bender said.
But did you know what it meant when it was happening? Probably not. Relive the experience through writing and look at it with new eyes, wiser eyes - or so you can hope.
Somewhere in your first draft or the second or the third, it'll dawn on you what it all means. Stay open to the lessons that emerge.
If it's not a discovery for the writer, Bender said, it's not a discovery for the reader.
What did losing your aunt mean to you? What about going off to war? A first flirtation? There's no need to waste all that on a therapist!
Writing's fascination is that it requires you to examine your life, O'Connell said. People don't want to confront these things so they let them slide by.
Write about it. Learn.
For the cost of the time it takes to read your essay, other people can learn, too.
Sherry Stripling's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
------------------ Send us your essay ------------------
When streetcars ran down Madison and ferries crisscrossed Lake Washington.
The day Lincoln High School closed.
The day the World's Fair opened.
You've been meaning to write about your memories, haven't you? Well, here's your chance.
The Scene section wants short essays for a nostalgia page that will run every few months, if the interest is high. The focus will be early Northwest or the young lives of people who live here now.
Seniors in particular are encouraged to submit essays, but they've got to be short, no more than 500 words.
Send them to Nostalgia/Sarah Lopez Williams, Assistant Scene Editor, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or by fax to 206-464-2239. Copies of photos or other memorabilia are welcome, but only if they don't need to be returned.
A more general essay of up to 700 words runs nearly every Sunday in the Scene section. To submit a piece for consideration, also send it to Williams but please address it Essay.
Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.