Form & Structure in the Personal Essay by Lori Tucker-Sullivan

Thanks to talented writers like Leslie Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Roxane Gay, the personal essay is having a day. A review of recent New York Times Bestseller lists, or lists of top books of 2016 or 2017, is very likely to include compilations by Sullivan, Gay, and other essayists like Sarah Gerard or Samantha Irby. It’s difficult to say why essays are becoming so popular, but I think it has to do with a few factors, including the rise of blogging as a way to express one’s thoughts or reactions to events, and an increased need to explore life’s questions in a communal way. That is, while I may think I know a thing or two about life, I also have a great curiosity to know what others—those like me and those unlike me—have to say as well. As a genre, the essay provides fertile ground for provoking exploration and new considerations.

Crafting such an essay isn’t easy. Forget what you learned in your sixth-grade Language Arts class. In addition to be longer than five paragraphs, the contemporary personal essay provides the reader with a moving lens through which she might consider a particular topic. Using vivid language, scene-setting, structure, dialogue, and other elements borrowed from fiction, the essay writer takes a subject and considers it from many angles, thereby crafting that lens for the reader. The best essays do so in such a way that the personal becomes, at least somewhat, universal; the writer’s experiences, though very personal, are relatable to readers but also nudge the reader toward new considerations. Rarely is there a tidy, simple answer at the end, as the best essays leave the questions edgy and jagged rather than smoothed down; a tidy package wrapped in a bow is rarely provocative. These are all things we will explore in my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.

Jamison, in writing about the “how-to” of essay, once said, “I write. . . because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?” This, I think, is one of the most important questions for the essay writer.  

When thinking about how to approach a topic for an essay in a way that allows the personal experience to become resonant, the writer pulls information from multiple sources: personal experience yes, but also perhaps reportage, scientific facts or figures, pop culture elements, and others’ experiences. A good essay, I feel, contains more questions than answers. It poses the “why” or the “what should I think?” or “what can we do?” of the particular situation.

The key to the successful essay is then figuring out how to braid or weave these various questions, viewpoints, and pieces of information into a coherent and compelling work that, returning to the lens metaphor, takes the reader from the very small and personal, focused perspective, to the broader, wide-angled consideration.

I recently became very interested in the plight of the mother orca who carried her dead calf on her forehead for 18 days, far longer than was normal. Several stories were published about the orca, with marine biologists, Native American tribal members (who follow the orcas off the coast of WA), and others debating why the whale would not drop her deceased calf into the ocean as is usually the case. Was it a symptom of the sick ocean waters, a byproduct of a lack of food sources, extreme grief, or a simple quirk of nature? I am a mother whose youngest child is entering adulthood. That child is studying environmental science and has a deep concern for the wellbeing of our planet. I am a widow with an understanding of all-consuming grief and the irrational need to hold both physical and ephemeral representations of a lost loved one. The whale was named Telequah by the Lummi Nation tribe. My grandmother was born in Tellico, TN, a town originally named Telequah by the Cherokees who first lived there. She was blinded as a child but went on to attend college, marry and have a family. When my grandmother’s infant son died of measles, she held him for most of a day, unaware that he had passed, or perhaps unwilling to accept that truth. My own mother, who witnessed this event as a four-year-old, didn’t understand and would never know the real answer.

I have been playing with an essay that weaves together all of these disparate elements: my own personal tragedy, the ancestral tragedy of my grandmother and her child (an old story connected to a current-day story through this coincidence of a name), the broader tragedies we are all bringing to bear on our planet and how they are shown to us through the actions of a mother whale, the grief of loss but also of letting go of a child who is now an adult, and finally, the terrible finality of saying goodbye one last time. What can we learn from each other’s grief? How can we better understand the distinctly individual timing of saying goodbye and moving on?

While I don’t know if this will ever result in publication, the pleasure is really in the work and the crafting. It is why I love the essay as a writing genre. Weaving these perspectives and stories together into a coherent piece that explores, questions, suggests, enlightens, and questions some more, is both the challenge and the joy of writing the personal essay.

Click on the button below to learn more about my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.