Since Message from a Blue Jay was published in May, I’ve been asked more than once about any particular chapter: “How did you write that essay?” In each case, it’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. For me, there’s no real “recipe” for how to write a personal essay; it works a little differently each time.
Some pieces, as is the case for many essayists and memoirists, were born out of my desire to write about memories from the past. When I started drafting personal essays, there were a few incidents in my life that I knew I wanted to record and explore through my writing. The first full essay in the collection, “The Deer,” describes one such incident (you can read “The Deer” for free in the “look inside” section online at Amazon here). It is about a childhood event that had haunted me all my life. By writing about it, I was finally able to look at it more objectively and try to figure out why it had stayed with me. Writing instructors often say that writing personal essays isn’t therapy — and they’re right. Unless you’re writing a diary or journal, the point isn’t to try to write about an experience just to get it out of your system or work through it for yourself. Instead, the point (for me anyway) is to try to determine what meaning I have assigned to an event and why it got stuck in my subconscious. Then I can explore what meaning I might assign to it now, as a writer, so I can relate it to more universal observations about life and make it more compelling for a reader.
Interestingly, however, since I wrote “The Deer” and saw it published — first in the literary journal Eleven Eleven and then in Message from a Blue Jay — I have found that the original incident haunts me much less. Writing isn’t therapy, but it can still set you free.
“The Deer” is just one essay in the book, however. “Up to Nothing,” which shows up later in the book, had its beginnings when I stepped outside of a hotel room in Sunapee, New Hampshire one morning with a pen and paper, sat on a chair just outside the door, and started recording the scene around me. Later that day, my husband and I hiked up Mount Sunapee. After I returned home to Boston and eventually to my desk, I pulled out what I had written on that porch and started adding to it. I added scenes from the drive north to New Hampshire, including reflections on what was going on in our lives at the time that made us feel as if we had to get away. Then I talked about what happened when we arrived at the hotel in the pouring rain. Finally, I added a description of our hike up the mountain. As I wrote, I added my reflections, looked for connections, and played with both the past and present tenses. Eventually it all made sense to me — I found meaning in the experiences I’d had that weekend. That’s when I knew how the piece had to end and, finally, what the title would be. But it didn’t happen right away; I re-wrote that essay quite a few times before everything fell into place in a way that worked.
With both “The Deer” and “Up to Nothing,” as well as with almost every essay in the book, it took many drafts and revisions before I felt that I’d really hit on what I was trying to say. Sometimes I worked on the same piece tirelessly for days or weeks. Sometimes I had to set a piece aside after working on it for a while and go back to it weeks or even months later with fresh eyes. Then, suddenly, I could see it differently and get it right.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. One of the essays I’m most proud of, “Forty-Six” (originally published in Ascent I’m honored to say) was written, from start to finish, in one sitting. It was the morning of my forty-sixth birthday (which is almost exactly the first line of the piece), and on that morning I knew – I just knew that the moment had hit me to write something special. All I had to do was sit down and write it. That feeling is rare, and when I get it I have to grab it. Of course there were minor revisions to “Forty-Six” after that first draft, but not many.
As you can see, even in the context of one memoir-in-essays by one author, the question “How did you write that essay?” has a variety of answers. That’s the beauty of writing in any genre, though — it’s different for everyone. The only rules are the ones you set for yourself.