Sometimes, on this blog, I talk about the length of time it takes me to produce a solid, polished essay that I consider “complete.” This amount of time — sometimes a year or even longer — took me completely by surprise at first. When I first started writing personal essays I thought the process would be work like the journalism I’d done — grind out a first draft, go over it once or twice to smooth out the language, fix any typos, and you’re done.
One of the most important lessons I learned during my MFA Program was that an essay (or memoir, short story, novel, or even poem) is a work in progress long after the first draft is done. It can take a long time to fashion a piece into exactly what you want it to be, although I imagine there are writers who have mastered the art of making the process go more quickly.
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of writing an essay is the way the actual meaning behind the piece can change over time. You might initially draft the “situation,” or the events that took place, without necessarily understanding the “story” you want to tell (these terms in this context were coined by Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, a watershed text for me). A number of people can witness the same events and interpret them very differently, and the art of writing the personal essay, I believe, lies in how the writer chooses to interpret the events being described and then expresses that interpretation in their own way.
I have noticed that the meaning I attach to observations or events can vary widely on different days, and can even change based on my mood or if something new has happened since I started the piece. Sometimes I write a first draft based on one interpretation of events and then, after time has passed, I find myself deleting the sections that led to that interpretation and steering the piece toward a completely different meaning. Sometimes the hardest part about writing an essay is figuring out what I really am trying to say — is the piece a contemplation about the passage of time, about the phenomenon of being distracted by unimportant things, or about humankind’s interaction with nature? I had once essay that was about each of those things at different times during the drafting process. Every time I returned to it I saw something different in the moments I’d recorded and the things I’d observed on one October day in a particular place.
Over-arching themes or topics tend to be somewhat universal; we have all read novels, poems, stories, memoirs and essays that are essentially about the meaning of love, rejection, recovery or victory in the face of failure, triumph over tragedy, adversity, or abuse, illness, mourning, and the pain of loss, for example. But that doesn’t mean these topics are “worn out” in the literary world. Each writer’s goal, when approaching these common themes and human experiences, is to bring something unique to the work, even if what is unique is simply the writer’s voice. No two people have gone through exactly the same experiences, and no two people see the world in exactly the same way. And no two people have exactly the same message to share with the world. We filter our lives through a personal lens, and we bring our own unique backgrounds and senses to situations. Writers choose different approaches to diction and syntax and structure. They might “hear” words differently, or have a different sense of rhythm. We each interpret the world in our own way and choose the stories we decide to tell. Picasso and Rembrandt both painted portraits in an effort to record the human face and form, but I doubt anyone would ever confuse the two.
If you’re struggling with what you want to say in a text you’ve been working on, I suggest that you set it aside. Let the ideas percolate for a while, whether you’re conscious of them or not. Work on another piece. Let more days and more life come and go. When you sit down to look at the piece some time later, you might be surprised to see meaning leap off the page where you didn’t see it before.
You’ll know when you’ve figured out what you want to say and have found just the right way to say it. Something inside you will cry out: “That’s it!”
And then you can finally let it go and move on.