For some writers, structure comes naturally. They have an innate compass that allows them to chart a course through the jumble of experiences and memories in their minds, forming a narrative arc from the chaos. Others of us, though, can spend all day writing and still find nothing but a mess on the page. No matter how interesting the individual paragraphs or sentences or story, until those things are placed within some structure, the essay won’t work. The question is this: How do we find that structure?
Kelly Davio’s recent essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” offers a primer in giving structure to our experiences and ideas. It appeared in The Rumpus, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The essay plants several flags in the ground and moves back and forth between them. The first flag is found in the title, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” which clearly presents one idea that will recur within the essay: for a woman, being strong is desirable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that this statement suggests another, different idea: for a woman, being thin is sexy and desirable. Davio makes this connection explicitly:
The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.
These two ideas alone are probably enough to fuel an essay. In fact, you’ve probably read an essay like that before. But Davio is interested in moving beyond binary positions of “strong vs skinny” because neither describes her, and she, of course, is a real woman. So she plants a third flag in the ground: “The name of my disease translates directly from the Greek and Latin to ‘grave weakness.'” Due to the nature of this disease, she’s lost the muscle memory required for eating and must relearn it with the help of a physical therapist:
The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.
Davio has shifted the conversation from “strong vs skinny” to “Strong is the new sexy vs grave weakness.” In other words, what if a woman is thin not because she wants to be but because she has no choice? These are the flags (strong/sexy and grave weakness) that Davio moves between. Each section of the essay is focused on one or the other or on the tension between the two:
- The first section introduces the image of Davio relearning to eat while looking out the window at hang gliders.
- The second section introduces a Pinterest image of a curvy woman in a swimsuit and the idea that “being healthy and fit is so much more important than being skinny.”
- The third section returns to Davio learning how to eat and adds the dimension of unwanted weight loss.
- The fourth section explains the consequences of losing weight and, as a result, the markers of femininity: Davio feels that is becoming “less and less of a real woman.”
- The fifth section gives details about the physical effects of the “grave weakness.”
- The sixth section shows Davio trying to cover up these effects.
- The next two sections finally make explicit the juxtaposition between strong and weak.
- The final section returns to the hang gliders, with Davio admitting “that they are beautiful.”
By planting the thematic flags of the essay so clearly, Davio gives her imagination and memory a structure to work within. Everyone has sat in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices; those scenes in this essay could have been generic. But because Davio knows (or her unconscious knows) that she’s writing about strength and grave weakness, she focuses the waiting-room scene on images that touches on those ideas: particular images on her phone, the hang gliders outside the window.
By knowing what the essay is about, Davio also knows which details to use and which to leave out.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create structure with theme using “Strong Is The New Sexy” by Kelly Davio as a model:
- Choose your topic. What are you going to write about? It might just be a story or memory that’s been running through your mind. You might not know what it’s about. That’s fine. The important thing is to have something definite in your mind, some concrete experience or detail.
- Identify what your essay seems to be about. If you told someone the story/memory/detail, what would they say it’s about? Or, to put it another way, what is the usual version of your essay? What would readers expect it to be about based on the title? Davio’s essay would seem, from the title, to be making a common argument about female body image: that strong/athletic/curvy is better than making oneself skinny through self-deprivation. Even though your essay might not be about this expected thing, it’s useful to know what is expected. It gives you something to react against.
- What is the essay really about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone you’re story/memory/detail and they say, “Well, here’s what’s going on with you.” If they’re right, it’s enlightening. If they’re wrong, it’s infuriating. The best essays often develop from the need to correct an idea or fill in a missing gap. Davio’s essay is adding necessary dimensions to the strong vs skinny debate. What does your essay want to add to the ideas that readers already have? How can you say to your imaginary reader, “No, no, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this?”
- Plant your flags. Identify the different positions/ideas present in your essay (perhaps conflicting in your essay). Do it in a word or two. Davio uses “strong/sexy” and “grave weakness.” How can you distill your argument to a couple of words like that?
- Write scenes/sections around each flag. One way to think about structure is as “theme and variation.” How many different perspectives can you offer on the flags that you’ve planted. For strength, Davio 1) shows images of female beauty from her phone, 2) shows people who are healthy and actively flying hang gliders, and 3) gives context (“the specter of anorexia”). She does the same thing with grave weakness, showing various aspects of what that means in physical terms and their mental effect. For each of the flags you’ve planted (the one or two-word phrases that explain what the essay is about), write a scene from a story or build a paragraph using an image or detail. To change metaphors, how can you filter your memories through these phrases to see what comes out?
At some point, you’ll find that you have enough scenes and sections, and your job will be to order them. That will be easier if they share a similar focus and direction.