W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No 21. Writing an Essay

This issue is guest written by Susan Tiberghien of the Geneva Writers Group http://genevawritersgroup.org/ and http://www.susantiberghien.com/


When Robert Atwan published the first Best American Essays in 1986, it was a gamble in the world of letters. But not only has the series continued every year since, other anthologies are also flourishing. Once a "second class citizen" (E.B.White), the essay today finds a regular home in periodicals ranging from the New Yorker to Creative Nonfiction, from Newsweek to Esquire. And it has seeped into all other kinds of non-fiction writing, from travel pieces, to op-eds, journals, commentaries, and to memoirs. As Annie Dillard writes, "The essay is all over the map, there is nothing you cannot do with it, no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed."

A short history of the essay would start with Montaigne, in the 16th century, writing essais (attempts), letting the subjective and the objective intertwine into a new form of prose. Montaigne was a gentleman farmer, his essays were conversations with an unseen neighbor. If we skip up to the 20th century, Virginia Woolf speaks of the essay as a balance of subject and style, each component equally important. When writing an essay, says Philip Lopate, "It's not enough to render the experience. You also have to put it in perspective. It's not enough to show. You also have to tell."

So how do we do this? Let's look at four steps, each step a new draft, and then let's pretend we're following the four steps to write a story about going food shopping in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But remember, we have to have gone food shopping in Cambridge. We cannot imagine the whole experience. This is the litmus test of nonfiction. We can embellish description, include dialogue, write in scenes, but the experience has to have happened.

Here are the four steps.

1. Choose an experience, or rather let it choose you. What experience do you want to write about? Close your eyes, go within and let the experience find you. Focus and frame it in your mind, like a photo, not everything, but the important part of the experience. Montaigne wrote, "Everything has one hundred faces, I chose one of them…I jab into it as deep as I can." Depending upon the subject, do some research, go deeper. Then write a first draft. Free write, and perhaps let the essay meander to another subject.

2. Now show the experience in a second draft. Think about the elements of story telling - specific details of setting and characters, tension, dialogue, plotting, and revelation. The protagonist, the "I" of the essay, has to discover something. Philip Lopate (The Art of the Personal Essay) writes that an essay has a rise and fall, "that it appears to dig up something, to reach deeper understandings than it began with."

3. Slowly start to polish your words. In this third draft, think about the elements of poetry. Essays walk the border between story and poem. Imagery: look for the images, which images reveal the meaning of the experience, what images are symbolic? Rhythm: find repetitions (alliteration and assonance), meter (try scanning your lines, where are the stressed syllables, read it aloud, does it flow?) And compression. What is the core of the experience? What is its truth?

4. And now set it aside. Let it gestate, at least overnight, more happily over several days. Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet, "Everything is gestation, then bringing forth." If you have the good fortune to have a writers' group, share the essay. And then rewrite: look at length of sentences, paragraph structure, shape your essay, look at descriptions, prune adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, highlight the imagery, listen to the sounds. Then find a home for it. If in the writing, you have discovered deeper meaning in one life experience, the reader will share this discovery. In moving from the personal to the universal, the essay is the writer's gift to the reader.

Now let's write our essay. Or rather let me write the experience that I had food shopping in Cambridge, for my daughter and son-in-law and three-day old baby - food shopping in a country where I had not lived for thirty years, but in a country that looked like me and spoke like me. First draft (step one), it was a sad experience. I felt out of place. Misunderstood. Second draft (step two), I started to make it into a story. I added some dialogue, some humor. Some tension. I moved towards a revelation. Third draft, I polished the images (paper or plastic bags, pink fingernails, the pin-striped suit), the rhythm (plastic or paper…the young man stopped and waited, the people stood still and waited). And the core? The truth of the experience? Well, let me ask you. Here is the story, as it was published in The International Herald Tribune, Meanwhile Column.

EXAMPLE - Plastic or Paper

"Plastic or paper, lady?" asked the young man with a pony tail, as I was looking in my purse for enough cash to pay the groceries.

It was summer vacation, and I had returned to the States to become a new grandmother.

"May I pay with my American Express card?" I said to the woman at the register, not yet ready to tackle the option of plastic or paper.

"No, Ma'am, only Visa or Masters."

"And a check?"

"With two identification cards, Ma'am," she answered, handing me the stub. Her fingernails were longer than I remembered ever seeing and painted brilliant pink. "Do you have a driver's license?"

I started to fill out the check. "I have a driver's license but it's Swiss."

The young man who had asked me about plastic or paper eyed me with curiosity. He had three earrings of different lengths all on the same ear.

"What did you say dear?" asked the cashier.

The line behind me was getting longer, but it was also getting interested.

"I said my license is Swiss. I don't live here, I live in Switzerland."

Everyone turned toward me. If only I had a hint of a foreign accent, no one would have paid attention. This was Cambridge, Massachusetts, where in summertime one out of two people speak a foreign language. But my English sounded like their English. Where did I come from? I looked American, I spoke American, but I didn't perform American.

"Let me see dear. I don't want to make you trouble."

Again the young man asked, "Plastic or paper, lady?"

Lady? I thought I was a woman. What was this lady business? And ma'am? And dear?

"Honey, he just means how do you want it wrapped? In a plastic bag or in a paper bag."

I had such a large, attentive audience that I found the question difficult. Which was more ecological? I should give the right answer. Making paper bags destroyed the trees and forests. But was the plastic bio-whatever? I never had learned that word. I made a wish that the plastic be whatever it should be and said, "Plastic, please."

The young man snapped open a large bag and placed it on a frame at the end of the check out counter. The plastic bag sat suspended.

"Your license please, and another piece of identity."

All this hassle for $22.20. I thought about giving the groceries back, but my daughter and French son-in-law were waiting for them - one romaine lettuce (not iceberg, but French and leafy), three red apples (they were so polished I squished one just a little to see if it were real), sharp cheddar cheese (they didn't tell me there were a dozen varieties of sharp cheddar), and steak (ah, I thought, after thirty years in Europe I could easily choose steak, but no, there were meters - I mean yards - of packaged steaks, each with different names.) I couldn't give it all back, it was to be our dinner.

So out came my Swiss driver's license, written in French, with a photo of me about twenty years back, well, maybe thirty. The cashier looked at me and then back at the photo. Skepticism. Next came my American passport, recently renewed, like one month ago. Mistrust. Grandmothers do age.

She rang for the manager, her bright pink fingernail poised on the bell.

I waited. The young man packing my groceries stopped and waited. The people in line stood still and waited. No one murmured, no one was impatient. This too was different. I could hear the air conditioners.

When the manager, dressed in a grey pin-strip suit arrived, I was so confused I reached out to shake his hand. I was ready to apologize. I had only wanted to do the shopping for my daughter and son-in-law and their new baby, born three days earlier. I had flown from Geneva to be a grandmother. I was even trying to be an ecological grandmother.

"Is this all right?" I asked, pushing the check, the Swiss drivers' license, the American passport in his direction.

"Yes. Everything is fine." He smiled and wrote his signature on the back of my check. I could feel the wave of general relief. "You know," he said, "I always dreamed of going to Switzerland."

The core: The little grocery store in Cambridge welcomed me back home.


1. Susan M. Tiberghien, American-born writer living in Switzerland, has published two memoirs, LOOKING FOR GOLD (about dreams and Jungian analysis) and CIRCLING TO THE CENTER (about silent prayer) and many narrative essays in journals and anthologies on either side of the ocean. She will publish a collection of her essays, FOOTSTEPS, A EUROPEAN SCRAPBOOK. Tiberghien teaches writing workshops for the International Women's Writing Guild and C.G. Jung Centers in the USA, and for the Geneva Writers' Group and writers' conferences in Europe. And she is the editor of the literary review, OFFSHOOTS, WRITING FROM GENEVA.

Any wisdom she might wish to share would be patience! When asked how long it took to write her first book, she replies 60 years. And that included bringing up six children.

2. A few years ago I was showing a fellow writer Lowell, Massachusetts where I went to university. We were more interested in the textile museum and Lowell as Jack Kerouac's hometown than my alma mater. Peter picked up a stone and confessed he had a collection of stones from different writer's homes, graves, etc. For a time whenever I went anywhere near a writer's house I picked up a stone for him. On my own desk is a small white stone that was on the ground in front of the French writer Collette's grave in Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. I admit to fingering it whenever I'm blocked. There is something about visiting the home, hometown, grave of someone you've read. Looking at places they've seen is often an inspiration and can create a new way to look at the influences in our lives that affect our writing. I know we can't all travel, but here's some websites and/or locations of different writers that may have influenced us. If you know of any good museums about writers, please let us know.

3. Louisa May Alcott: Walking through this museum is like spending a day with Jo, Meg, etc. www.louisamayalcott.org

Writer's Museum, Edinburgh, Scotland located in a 1622 townhouse. Desks, pens, clothing of famous Scottish writers. I find is amazing that these items still exist in comparison to our current throw away society.

Dublin Writers Museum: www.writersmuseum.com/

James Joyce : James Joyce died in Zurich in 1941 but is considered on of Ireland's greatest writers. www.jamesjoyce.ie

D.H Lawrence: Photos of his childhood home which has been restored to reflect what it must have been like during his lifetime. website.lineone.net/~alan.rowley/dhlpm01.html

William Faulkner: A photo of his house now the home of the Pirate Alley Faulkner Society. They are sponsoring a writing contest. www.wordsandmusic.org

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of Seven Gables. It reeks of Puritan New England. www.7gables.org/

4. Each year the American Library in Geneva holds a used book sale. The library is located in the American Church. Its wood panelling and stained glass windows inside could as easily be in the UK or New England and reminds me of my childhood church fairs. At this year's fair I went in time for lunch: homemade egg salad sandwiches, apple juice (in New England it would have been cider) and chocolate cake. No longer hungry, I started going through the tables and tables of books all priced between 2 and 10 CHF. New books usually start at 20 CHF and paying up to 50 CHF because of additional shipping costs isn't unusual.

In the textbook session where I was browsing for a learn Arabic text, I spied a book, WRITING HANDBOOK. Its title was in silver lettering on a plain brown written by Michael P. Kammer, S.J. and Charles W. Mulligan, S.J. and published by Loyola University Press. Although it was written in 1953, it is the most logical and helpful grammar book I have ever seen. I've checked Amazon.com and the book is still for sale, for someone who wants a great grammar reference. No matter that it is 50 years old. I recommend it highly.


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