First-person essays span space, time and subject: the city dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s–all subjects of essays I’ve published–are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. Mongrel lot or not, it’s never the subject of an essay that tells, but the style and stance of its author–what might seem the least likely of essay subjects can be made a piquant page-turner by a writer’s winning hand. We’ll look here at choosing the topic, slant and voice of your essay, constructing a lead, building an essay’s rhythm and packing a punch at essay’s end.
Tackling a Topic
Because one of the great appeals of the personal essay is the conversational tone essayists take, it seems a given that it’s best to be conversant with your subject. But “write what you know” can also be an inkless cage; some of the best essays are a voyage of discovery for both writer and reader. You might accidentally flip some breakfast cereal with your spoon and have an epiphany about the origins of catapults. That little leap might take you seven leagues into the history of siege engines and voila!–a piece for a history journal comparing ancient weapons to new.
Subjects sit, stand and float all around you: should you write about baseball, bacteria or bougainvilleas? The key is engagement with your topic so that the angle your writing takes is pointed and penetrating. You don’t write about cars, you write about the fearful symmetry of a 1961 T-Bird. The essayist should be, to paraphrase Henry James, one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Idly looking over at a fellow driver stopped at a traffic signal might be a moment to yawn, but it might also be a moment to consider how people amuse themselves in their vehicles. An essay here about new car technology, an essay there about boredom and its antidotes.
Essays are literally at your fingertips: consider a piece on how fingerprint technology evolved. Or at your nosetip: my most recently published essay was about a lurking smell in my house that led to a mad encounter with attic rats. Humble topics can spur sage tales: Annie Dillard’s recounting of seeing a moth consumed in a candle flame morphs into a elegy on an individual’s decision to live a passionate life. You don’t need glasses to find your topics, just a willingness to see them.
Slant and Voice
Which way should your essay tilt? Some essays wrap blunt opinions in layered language, ensnaring a reader with charm, not coercion. Louis Lapham’s essays often take a political angle, but any advocacy is cloaked in beguiling prose. A how-to essay might explain a process, but its steps wouldn’t be the mechanistic ones of a manual, but more the methods of throwing procedural doors open, lighting from within. Personal-experience or “confessional” essays done well deftly get away with impressionistic strokes: words evoking sensations, scents, and subtleties. Consistency in tone is compelling: leading your reader through your essay with sweet conceptual biscuits only to have them fall hip-deep in a polemical cesspool at essay’s end is counter-productive. Essays need elasticity-they can feint and jab at ideas, but shouldn’t sucker-punch.
Essays are personal–the best of them can seem like conversation with an intelligent, provocative friend, but one with remarkable discretion in editing out the extraneous. Whether the word “I” appears at all, you must be in your essay, and pungently. It can’t be simply “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”; it must be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation Tearfully Mourning My Dead Ferret.” Never hide in an essay. Essays aren’t formless dough, they are the baked bread, hot and crusty. Cranky, apprehensive or playful, your candid voice should be a constant: you don’t want your essays to roar like a lion in one paragraph and bleat like a mewling lamb in another (unless it’s done for effect).
Lead or Lose
Leads are big. If your first bite of a meal is bitter, you’re likely to put the fork down and call for take-out. You’ve got to grab readers from the get-go. One method is direct address. Here’s the lead from an article of mine about dictionaries:
Think of your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness. Delight is the fruit of that collision.
It tells the reader to do something, with a visual and sensual context. It’s hard for a reader not to read that lead and avoid doing what it requests, at least in the reader’s imagination. Here’s another lead of mine that takes a different tack, one of identification or empathy:
Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or maybe even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods can be all over the map.
Besides beginning with a memorable bit about Ms. Cartland, it invites the readers to consider their own pecadillos about favorite objects and fetishes, whether they are writers or not. You want the reader here to nod yes, agree that people are odd, and move forward into the piece. Sometimes a question that has a universal appeal can do the trick. Consider this:
Could listening to a barking dog actually drive you mad? I fear it could. Worse yet, I fear this not in theory, but in fact: barking dogs are making me a sweaty mess.
The statement shapes my own problem into one that might apply to many. You’ll drag a dog lover or hater (and that’s a broad audience) deep into the essay by this lead leash.
Structure and Rhythm
Most essays aren’t built on journalism’s inverted pyramid, stacking essential information up front and moving to leaner layers as factual momentum fades. Instead, essays often take elliptical paths that meander around in a subject’s fields, picking its flowers, discarding them, looking to metaphoric hills beyond, then up-close at the ground below. An accomplished essayist like Edward Hoagland wends his way through paragraphs, often taking a quick conceptual turn that might seem a misstep or a dead end, but he always re-establishes his rhythm, much like a jazzman vamping and then returning to the deeper theme.
Hoagland is a good study on the magic of cadence and the musicality of words; he makes the difficult art of weaving layered points of view with bright language seem easy. That’s not to say that a more straightforward path through your essay isn’t the best course. Mark Twain’s “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” essentially plots a chronological rendering of the hapless-and hilarious-exploits of a band of Civil War bumblers, Twain prominent among them. Determine if your material is the sort that should sneak up on readers to win their confidences or overwhelm them with the sustained march of topic vigor.
Wrapping It Up
Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, or agreement, or passion, or some other sense of completion. Speaking of the lead, circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give your readers that full-circle sense. Find a way to restate your thesis that reflects the journey the essay has taken. Or stand over the fallen body of your original conceit, if your essay’s body moved from first concept light to its setting sun.
Only if you have subtle skills can you leave your readers hanging on an ambiguity or wondering at your waffling–readers want customer satisfaction, and essays that have a “new fiction” inconclusiveness don’t scratch that itch. Unless of course you can construct the kind of conclusive inconclusiveness of the last paragraph of H. L. Mencken’s “Imperial Purple”:
Twenty million voters with IQs under 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician built like a tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.
Whether you annoy them or astound them, leave your readers with something of yourself. They’ll return to your writing hungry for more.