Melissa Stephenson lives, runs, parents, and writes in Missoula, Montana. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have previously appeared in Cutbank, Other Voices, Thin Air, The Chattahoochee Review, New South, Memoir (and), The Mid American Review, and Passages North. She’s currently hard at work completing a collection of poems and revising her memoir.
To read an exercise about showing and telling, click here.
In this interview, Stephenson discusses finding the structure of her essay, why “less is more” can convey more emotion, and how her poetry informs her nonfiction.
Structure is a problem for any personal essayist, I think, and so I’m interested in how you found the structure for this essay. It begins by laying out the conflict—you were going through a difficult period in your life but needed to keep it together for your kids—and the solution to the conflict, which was running. Then, you tell a story about your second marathon. Did you always use this structure–front loading context and finishing with the narrative? If not, what helped you find it?
Inspired by Ann Hood’s essay “Ten Things I Learned from Knitting,” I tried to write a piece about running and grief a couple of years ago. Hood writes about knitting her way through grief after her young daughter’s sudden death. After a attempting to use the Ten Things structure, I shelved the piece. It felt long, lofty, and unruly. A few months after running my second marathon, I came across a call for essay submissions about “badass moms.” I hadn’t written for any parenting publications, and I didn’t necessarily want to. But the prompt got me thinking about using the second marathon as the structure for the essay on running and grief. My goal in the first paragraph was to introduce the connection between grief and running in a concise and concrete way. Once I got that paragraph down, I simply had to write to and through the narrative of the marathon.
This sentence really affected me:
“The next summer, I completed my first full marathon on my daughter’s fifth birthday, crossing the finish line to drive myself home.”
The emotion in it is clear, and so it makes sense to give the sentence its own paragraph—to make it stand out. But it’s also quite spare in terms of detail. We don’t learn anything else about the birthday, nothing about a party or a cake or celebration, nothing else about how you felt except your time. Were you ever tempted to write more? I ask because the question of how much detail to provide—and which details—is a difficult one. What was your guiding principle?
There are a couple of reasons why this moment is so sparse.
- Once I had a draft of this essay, I realized the length and content would work well for an online publication, so compression was key. Most of the bigger online personal narrative publishers, like Washington Post or New York Times, prefer 800-1200 word pieces. I made many cuts in favor of economy.
- I also wanted to capture the anti-climactic feeling I had with the half marathon and the first full marathon. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami describes his first marathon finish this way, “The finish line. I finally reached the end. Strangely, I have no feeling of accomplishment. The only thing I feel is utter relief that I don’t have to run anymore.” I felt this, too. I lived in a town without family, raising two kids with almost sole custody, and I woke up most days stunned by this new, isolated life. I’d imagined the finish line as a giant party, full of familiar faces, hugs, and cheers. Truth is most of my friends were home with children. One friend did show up to the finish line, but I was too nauseous to talk to her. And I wore a t-shirt with the words, Happy Birthday Hadley on the back, which is something my daughter still talks about. But I finished with this deep, hollow feeling, like walking around with the Grand Canyon inside you. That single line seemed the simplest way to capture that.
The story of the second marathon fills a number of paragraphs, and, as someone who’s run a marathon (just one, though!), I understand how this is possible. The race is so long that it has many stages and points along a narrative arc. On the other hand, the action is sort of the same throughout: running, more running, suffering, a bit of ecstasy, and more suffering. How did you approach finding the narrative within the race?
This is the one section I’m surprised the Washington Post editor did not trim. Since I’d set out wanting to tell the story of that marathon, I naturally went into it in detail. I knew this decision meant narrowing my target audience to runners (a 4:12 marathon finish doesn’t mean much to those who haven’t run a race of some sort). I did tweak this section many times to make it concise and also as non-runner-friendly as possible.
The second marathon was so important because it’s the event that finally captured the ups and downs of the past few years all in the span of four hours. I didn’t truly know why I was running (and kept running) until that marathon. The only thing that got me through was the gut-deep feeling that I had something to prove to myself, though I wouldn’t know exactly what that was until I finished the essay.
I really like how the essay ends, both the line of dialogue and the final paragraph. Endings are difficult in personal essays. There’s a desire to wrap it up–to put a kind of emotional exclamation mark at the end. But there’s also the need to not overdo it. How did you know when you’d found the right end for this essay?
Writing this ending was a pretty divine experience in that I’d planted the seeds for it as I drafted but had no idea what the ending would be until I got there (aside from finishing the marathon). I never intended to include my brother’s death in this piece. I’ve been working on a memoir about that for a few years now, and I try to keep it from leaking into my other work. But once grief was on the plate, I realized why grieving as sole caretaker of two young children left no room for self-pity or solitude, and how running helped me deal with that.
I also didn’t include the words I’d whispered to my children on first mention of that moment because I thought they weren’t important to the essay. Once I made it to the end and wrote the line about the things I’m ashamed they might remember, I saw the opening for what I’d told them. As soon as I wrote, “This is what not quitting looks like,” I saw the connections I’d made without knowing it: My brother quit, my life hadn’t turned out the way I’d expected, and running helped me not quit. That’s when I truly understood the essay, myself, and the running.
On a nuts-and-bolts note, I’m a poet as well, and I love writing endings. Once the content is there, endings become a mix of cadence, imagery, and releasing just enough insight without (as you wisely note) overdoing it. I’ll write them, tweak them, and read them out loud until each word resonates. Then I’ll go back and tweak the whole essay to make sure the information is released in a way that makes the ending feel as surprising and inevitable as possible.