I recently read a quote that I am sure is widely known:
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
The quote, the second half especially, speaks to something I’m discovering more and more as I write personal essays.
The first part of the quote is true, of course. Many creative nonfiction writers I’ve known (including myself), especially in their early drafts, skirt over or around what they really want, or need, to say. They describe events, create scenes, craft effective descriptions of place. The language might be precise, experimental, or poetic, and the content might be interesting in a basic way. But when it comes to finding something truly meaningful beneath the basic observations or re-telling, many writers tend to back off. It’s not easy to face the emotional turmoil caused by re-living an event, examining it more honestly or deeply, facing what it really means. What does what we’re writing about say about the world? What does it say about ourselves? Do we really have anything new or interesting to say? If we don’t find a way, whether lyric or reflective, to answer these questions, the piece is not likely to have an effect on the reader.
If we give ourselves a pass, the reader will take a pass.
When I was a new MFA student, my teachers would sometimes look at my early drafts and say, “Ok, now that is the STORY here?” Often I had done a good job of depicting a character or event, but I hadn’t drawn any conclusions. I didn’t have a narrative arc that led to any particular revelation. I was jotting down vignettes, noticing things about the world that had an effect on me. Perhaps I was describing them well. But I didn’t know, really, what I was writing about.
And this is where the second part of Frost’s quote comes in. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I think, now, that there are actually two basic steps to writing an essay. The first is to figure out that a particular experience in the past or present has affected you (or is affecting you), and to set out to describe that experience. The second part is often much harder. It is examining that experience, once it’s down on paper, from every angle, looking for that surprise that Robert Frost was talking about, that moment when you discover what this thing truly meant. For me, sometimes this happens when I draw parallels to other events or experiences through flashbacks or by jumping, in a lyric way, from one thing to another. Suddenly I realize that they are connected, and why. Sometimes a narrative is more traditional, more vertical, so to speak, but a happy accident occurs — a metaphor jumps out at me from my own words, and suddenly the meaning of what I’m saying becomes clear, and I can run with it.
I guess I should add a third step to all this. Once that happens, you have to go back and revise and perfect. But I’d better not get into that — I’m not writing a book here.
What I’m trying to say is that in many cases, the meaning of an essay continues to surprise me every time I revise my draft. An essay that I was convinced was about one topic when I started, ends up being about something completely different once I’ve thought about, or re-read, what I’ve written. The trick is not to be married to any particular meaning for a while — to be open to letting it hit you at the right moment in the process.
Sometimes, I’ll have a draft almost completely done, but I’ll struggle with the ending. I’ll write ending after ending, and nothing will feel right. And then suddenly an idea will come to me, the sentences will follow, and I’ll realize that I wasn’t able to end the piece because I hadn’t figured out until that moment what the whole thing was really about.
Writing is like having a conversation with yourself. As with any conversation, you can talk for a while, but then you have to give the other side a chance to speak. Have your say in your early drafts. But then sit back, re-read, and listen.
You might surprise yourself.