Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On writing essays

Last week on a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, writer Barry Lopez, who won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1986, explained why he wrote a particular essay about himself this way: “I’m just a writer. And the only thing I can do is…[to] say, This happened to me. I know many of you have experienced this. Here's what I've been thinking. What do you think?”

In those few short sentences, Barry Lopez has stated what writing personal essays is all about. It’s something that people ask me sometimes, both in the context of blogging and traditional print journalism, which are both channels of media in which I publish my own personal essays: Why do you, or why does anyone, write personal essays? What is the function of this particular form?
As Lopez said, we write essays to state what happened to us; in the hope that some note in our writing will strike a resonant chord with a reader who will then say “Yes, that’s how things happened for me, too.” But it’s more than just a search for common experience; it’s the wish to open a dialogue about how the experience felt and perhaps what it meant. Or, as Lopez puts it, “Here’s what I’ve been thinking [about this experience]. What do you think [about the similar experience you had]?”
Once in a while, I’m invited into classrooms to talk to students about writing. I always tell them to consider two opposite stances as they cast about for a topic for a personal essay. “First,” I always tell them, “readers are interested in reading about you doing something they too have done, so they can see how your experience was similar to or different from theirs. And second, readers are interested in reading about you doing something they haven’t done, so that they can find out what it was like.” When I visited my son’s fourth grade class several years ago for a day of personal writing, one child wrote about camping. “I used to go camping when I was your age too,” I told him. “I’m curious whether you feel about camping the same way I felt about it.” Another girl wrote an essay that started with a memorable pair of sentences: “Have you ever gone waterskiing in Mykonos? I have!” I most definitely have not, I told her, but I can’t wait to read what it’s like to go waterskiing in Mykonos.
Since I write essays both for our small-town community newspaper and for the Boston Globe, it’s not unusual for me to run into someone who says “You know what essay of yours I really loved, because I knew exactly what you meant?” I usually have a few seconds to try to guess what essay they’re thinking of – and I’m always wrong. Last weekend this happened twice. In one example, the woman was referring to an essay about why it’s fun if you live in the country to vacation in the city; the other reader mentioned an essay about getting bad news from far away while dealing with a hurricane at home. In neither case could I have possibly guessed which essay either woman was thinking of when she said she knew just what I meant.
There are long, complicated ways to describe the writing process, but what appeals to me about Barry Lopez’s words is their simplicity. “This is what happened to me. You might have experienced the same thing. Here’s how I feel about it. What about you?"
Exactly. That’s all we’re doing when we write essays. My experiences are a lot different from Barry Lopez’s – only starting with the fact that he has received a National Book Award and I have not. But both of us write in hopes of striking a resonant chord with a reader. Essay – the word comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” That’s just it: we’re trying. And sometime we succeed.


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