Telling a Story
For all its charm and sometimes apparent aimlessness, an essay has a skeleton, an underlying structure that makes it work. Often it’s the age-old structure of a story. By “story” I don’t mean “something that happened,” but a story in the formal sense of the term: somebody (in this case, you) wants what they can’t have and tries to get it. The end resolves the problem. Almost every movie, every novel, every short story, has this structure, and no wonder. A story is a world where every character, every action, has meaning and purpose. A story is why we read: it’s life arranged to fill the basic human need that life have purpose, that events lead somewhere, add up to something. A story takes random events and gives them meaning. It takes life and gives it meaning.
An essay that tells a story (called a narrative essay) has these elements:
The character is you—which is why we want to know and like you.
You have a problem: you are, say, stranded at home because you don’t have a car.
You struggle to solve your problem. This can be several actions: You take a part-time seamstress job to get the money for a car. You take driving lessons.
Epiphany: You realize something that changes you. For example, you realize you wanted a car so you can leave your husband.
Resolution: You do something that shows you really did change. You get the
In between these major story elements, we get image and detail, tone, fantasy, memory, style and language and the other elements that draw us into any pleasurable reading experience.
You are the “I” voice of the book. Cells snapped into something singular when you came along — and that’s what you want to get on the page. It’s not enough to tell us what happened — let us know who it happened to. This is where tone comes in, and images, both of which I deal with in future chapters.
In the rest of this book, by the way, you will find that I sometimes say “you” and sometimes “the narrator.” Once you hit the page, you are the narrator, the one telling the story, and the one to whom, in autobiographical writing, it is happening.
In an essay that appeared in the Chronicle, my student Marilyn Penland’s problem appears in the first paragraph: “I have hundreds of images of her from our nine years of life together, but the sound of my mother’s voice eludes me.” The middle of the story gives us the only four sentences she can remember her mother speaking. At the end, she realizes that she sounds just like her own mother, and her daughter sounds like her. “I hear my daughter’s voice and know my mother is speaking to me from across the years … I no longer wish I had more words from my mother.”
If the beginning (also called a lede, or lead) of your essay describes the problem, then the middle shows you trying to solve it: you try something, you react, and a new obstacle pops up. These two — action, reaction and new obstacle may be repeated several times, depending on the length of the essay and the complexity of the struggle. (If this process is long and complex, you have a memoir.)
Some obstacles will be external: you want a car, but don’t have the money, your husband doesn’t want you to have a car, or you can’t drive. If you stay with purely external obstacles, though, it won’t be as interesting (we can read a how-to article on how to buy a car). The interesting obstacles will be internal: you are afraid of driving because your parents died in an automobile accident. You hesitate because you sense that once you get the car, it will help you steer a course out of your marriage.
Here’s an example of an action and reaction in “Without Me, I’m Nothing,” an essay that San Francisco writer Bonnie Wach wrote about her post-partum depression. One of her many actions to make herself feel better is to join a baby support group. This is her reaction, which shows us that she will have to try something else:
Even in places where I should have felt some kind of kinship — new mom’s classes, support groups — I was an outsider. Happy new mothers made my flesh crawl. Trust me when I tell you that nothing can drive a depressed mom to the bottom of a shame spiral faster than a circle of blessed-out breast feeders happily comparing burping techniques, smug and satisfied in the certainty that they are exactly where they’re supposed to be, doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Saying that your infant feels like one of those animal leg traps, and that you’re contemplating chewing off your own foot to get away from it, isn’t exactly the stuff of baby chitchat.
Bonnie’s paragraph also shows how you get yourself across in an essay — become someone with such an interesting voice that we want to follow you around as you wrestle with your problem. In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate refers to this as “the need to assert a quite specific temperament.”
Outlining the Essay
Before we go on to epiphany and resolution, let’s look at outlining the essay. It’s a handy way to get a quick sense of where the piece is going, what to put in and what to leave out. (Later we’ll see that drawing an arc does the same for the memoir writer.) You can try to outline it like this:
I wanted _____
I wanted it because (back story) _____(this is where character comes in)
To get it, I _____ (action)
However, something got in my way: (there may be several actions/reactions sequences depending on length) _____
I had to try something different, so I _____
All the time I was thinking that _____
The turning point came when_____
When that happened, I realized _____
Resolution: After that I _____
My student Rita Hargrave, a psychiatrist by day who now carries dance shoes in the trunk of her car, used this exercise to plan an essay on how she got into salsa dancing:
I wanted to go salsa dancing
I wanted it because I was bored and alone and it seemed as good an idea as any.
To get it I headed for a salsa club recommended by a hotel maid.
But some things got in the way: The cab driver did not want to drive to a Latino neighborhood, and once I got there the bartender at the club was hostile, and there were no empty chairs or tables.
So I asked one of the women who was seated with friends if I could use the empty chair.
But I couldn’t dance.
So I told myself not to worry about it.
The turning point came when An elderly man embraced me, danced with me, and I passionately connected with him. When the older man clasped my hand and started dancing with me, I realized that what I really wanted was an emotional and physical connection with a man and to be seen as desirable and seductive, and that I could do that as a salsa dancer.
Resolution: I found the passion and caring that I was searching for in my life. I have been a salsa dancer ever since.
An outline will sketch the story in the order it happened, but an essay doesn’t necessarily have to be written in chronological order (in fact it’s often better to start at a point near the end). A story is a series of events recorded in the order they happened, but a plot is that same story rearranged for maximum effectiveness.
If you’re having trouble with one of your stories, it could be missing an ending. If your story is about buying a house in remote Mono Lake, for example, and you are still torn over whether moving there is a good idea, you can’t yet write an essay with a conclusion. You want to avoid such unresolved, ongoing stories — your conflict with your sister, your penchant for picking the wrong men, your patients with their same old stories.
Summarizing your story in 200 words or less will help you see if you have an ending or not.
My father was going to die. I knew that if I didn’t confront him with all these angry feelings I had that I would be stuck with them after he died. I confronted him at his house in Minneapolis, MN, told him how angry I was at him, and threw a Polaroid camera on the floor. He was amazed. Not mad — amazed that I felt that way. He had no idea. I felt much freer after that. AND THEN…he didn’t die. So we had around ten years after that in which we had a nice relationship with most of the baggage just dropped overboard…
The end of the essay must in some way resolve the problem brought up in the beginning. Since the problem will be internal — the narrator in conflict with herself or himself at least as much as with outside forces — the solution will be internal too. The solution won’t be getting the car. It will be deciding to get the car.
You can think of the essay in its simplest terms as problem-solution.
Problem: My husband makes unrealistic marital demands (clean house, sex four times a week, wife stay in shape) one month before the wedding.
Solution: I realize that his demands are the result of cold feet and marry him anyway.
Problem: I hate the large, ugly dining room furniture my mother insists on hauling from small apartment to small apartment.
Solution: One day while dusting the French sideboard I see how it forms a link to our family’s story.
In an essay, the solution is the moment of change that’s called an epiphany. This was James Joyce’s word for the moment where things change irrevocably in a flood of new understanding. Magazines, more prosaically, call it the payoff, or the take-home point. The epiphany is what turns a mere story —
or what might have remained an anecdote — into an essay.
You may have heard teachers stress that the point of an essay is to show, but showing is not enough. The reader knows you actually lived through the experience you’re describing — he expects you to understand what happened and have reflected on what it meant.
Let’s look at an epiphany April Martin wrote in The New York Times in a piece about taking up ice skating in her forties:
Skating has helped me to reclaim the body with which I spent too many years at war. I stop briefly to reflect on the apparent contradictions: I have deepened and matured as a woman in a sport geared to little girls. And I am now nourished and replenished by a sport whose standards of femininity were once a form of bondage. Though I bring to the ice the painful bunions and chronically stiff muscles of middle age, I also bring one of its benefits: the increased capacity for living comfortably with contradictions.
I’ve read that a hundred times, and am still moved every time I read it. That last phrase is even alliterative: “the increased capacity for living comfortably with contradictions.”
Admittedly, some epiphanies give the whole business a bad name, like the one a guy wrote in a New York Times piece about how he had his girlfriend’s smelly dog foisted on him, and then how he got to like the dog. He concluded: “Because their emotions are so pure, dogs can often touch the deepest part of us. And in so doing, they might in their own way prepare us to understand ourselves.”
That’s the kind of epiphany that makes a reader go, “Huh?” You can substitute anything as the subject of that sentence and it will make about as much sense: “Because their emotions are so pure, angry geese can often touch the deepest part of us. And in so doing, they might in their own way prepare us to understand ourselves.”
(It’s a good idea in fact to avoid the “we” sort of epiphany altogether, as it tends to make the reader growl, “Speak for yourself, buddy.”)
A good epiphany is surprising, not cloying or trite. It doesn’t condescend, or offer a predigested insight. My friend Wendy Lichtman had an awful thing happen to her: a doctor told her that she was dying of liver cancer. Days later, she learned that she wasn’t: the “cancer” the X-ray was seeing were harmless birthmarks on her liver. At the end of the essay she wrote about that scare, she said:
I know people might expect me to say that the experience taught me to better appreciate my life, to savor every moment. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. What I appreciate, in fact, is that I don’t have to feel as if each moment is a treasure. Now when I watch my children do their homework, it’s not a particularly touching experience; it feels, instead, like the normal business of a school night. That normality is what I’m most grateful for.
The epiphany transforms your story from a window into your life into a mirror where the reader sees himself. You can test this out: If you write a piece about your mother, and your reader starts talking about her mom, the piece works. I often wrote columns about my wreck of a dad living in a truck in the Mohave Desert. If someone came up to me at a party and started to talk to me about my father, I’d be embarrassed. Was I writing a soap opera? But if someone read the column and then told me about how he flew across the country to see his 87-year-old father, how the two of them sat up late, drinking scotch, and that he blurted out to his dad, “I think I came here to tell you I love you,” and then burst into tears — then I’d know the column worked.
Let’s return to April Martin’s piece about ice skating. You say, Fine. I’m so glad this Martin person found meaning in her new hobby. But I don’t live in New York, am not middle-aged, was not once a feminist, and don’t skate. What does Martin’s experience have to do with me?
Well, nothing maybe. But you might recognize a truth in what she says — a truth for yourself, as well as for her. Maybe you too have done something out of character that’s surprisingly satisfying, like a student of mine who was violently anti-gun until she discovered the local shooting range.
If there’s any justification for telling personal stories, it’s that every person, every selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, including you, including me, contains within himself the entire human condition (as Montaigne pointed out). If you can tell me you made sense of something in your life, it can give me a moment — a fleeting flash — where I get the distance necessary to understand my own struggles. That connection between Martin’s experience and your own? It’s what you get to keep when you put the article down. It’s the door prize, the booty bag.
By the way, not all pieces need epiphanies. Humor pieces don’t. I discovered this when I sent a piece on my son Patrick’s birth to Parenting magazine. They wanted me to put in the epiphany (you will find magazines are big on this: they want the reader to have that “take-home point”). I tried to put it in — magazines pay well — but it kept sounding stupid. You can’t write a piece in which you crack jokes (“I was going to give the doctor one more chance to give me drugs, and then I was going to try to get somebody with real connections, like a screenwriter”), and then suddenly stop and say in a completely different tone, “Until you have a second child, you don’t know how you can love another the way you do your first.”
Opinion pieces don’t have epiphanies either: opinion pieces are not about change. You start out in favor of the return of the martini and end up in favor of it. They’re rants, or arguments.
Writing the Epiphany
There are two kinds of epiphany. An implicit epiphany shows us the change wordlessly. This kind is what you see in fiction, and especially in movies, which can only show, not tell. In the scene at the end of “The Paper Chase,” Timothy Bottoms, after sweating through a year of Harvard law school, even taking a motel room to cram for finals, doesn’t even open his grades when they come, but throws the envelope into the waves: we get it that he no longer cares about his law-school grades.
An explicit epiphany, on the other hand, spells out the realization, as in this piece by a woman who lost her parents when as an infant she was thrown from the car that killed them both:
We were together for only a few months, I want to tell them, but I am grateful for what memories I can collect, even if they are secondhand. Looking at you now from across the years may not tell me what kind of family we might have been, but it reminds me to treasure the life I’ve made, even if I was not the fairy tale princess I once imagined myself to be.
an excerpt from Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara