Each morning I carry my coffee and a beach chair out onto the rocks in front of the Maine cottage we’ve rented and stare at the sea crashing against the granite shoreline.
I’ve been struggling to write a few essays while I’ve been on vacation this week. I have the ideas. I have the images but I’m finding it difficult to string them together into something that flows. There needs to be a beginning, middle and end, of course. I’m fighting with the end. I always feel like there has to be a payoff, an aha, some insight that has arisen from this little essay journey.
The essays aren’t meant to be long, 700 to 1,000 words max. I’ve written several thousand words in my lavender Moleskine. But they’re not hanging together—they go into too much explanatory detail or head off onto tangents.
By the middle of the week, the passage of Tropical Storm Edouard, far out in the Atlantic, adds foamy, crashing drama to my mornings. Still, I sit. And ask myself: what was the learning of this essay? How am I now changed?
This is where I’m oh-so-tempted to run to my computer and look up some science. Certainly there’s some study on topic x or observation y. If I can’t give the reader a payoff of vicariously experiencing my own transformation or growth, no matter how minute, at least I can give them a few facts that they didn’t know before. It’s the emotional avoidance crutch of this science writer.
Of course, there’s room for science in a personal essay. But it must serve the whole—the supporting character not the protagonist.
I learnt this lesson years ago but I still need to remind myself about its truth. It was driven home during a month-long fellowship on narrative non-fiction. Eight of us, including three former scientists, were work shopping pieces that all flirted with memoir. As we shared our works in progress the point where the scientists grew uncomfortable with the personal details and retreated to the safe harbor of feeding the reader information became almost comically predictable. Choosing to catalogue cold facts about the destructive force of an avalanche, while omitting the messy way it crushed your soul as it buried a loved one.
As a writer, I fully understood the move. It’s safe. Easy. As a reader, I wanted the details. I didn’t care about volume of snow or snowpack conditions or speed of descent. I wanted entrée into the writer’s inner experience. What was that like? How did it change them? How did they choose to live, moment by moment, year by year after such searing loss?
We discussed it in our roundtable sessions: the broccoli effect. Scientists, it turns out, think that people want to be educated, and they do. But at least in a memoir or personal essay, what readers really want is to live inside the writer’s head and heart for just a few minutes.
That’s what I remind myself repeatedly as I sit on the rocks and watch the waves pound the coast.
The ahas don’t have to be big or even life changing. They can be small, charming, endearing, even irrelevant. But as a reader, I want to know that the writer has relentlessly beat against the fear of exposing their inner world and, when the tide retreats, has uncovered something worn clean, polished, perhaps even new. As the writer, propelling myself to do the work is as hard as putting the words on paper. Perhaps more so.
It’s going to take me a few more sessions of sitting on these rocks to sort that all out. In the meantime, I pulled another classic writer’s ploy to get me away from doing the hard, emotional grinding down needed for my essays: I wrote about my process.
Note: The avalanche-related piece eventually turned into this book.
Photo credits: Anne Sasso.