Tag Archives: essay structure

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

22 Nov
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

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 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 Essay 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Good luck!

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How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze

15 Sep
Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.


 

If anything defines great writing, it’s the ability to control chronology and time. Inexperienced writers will start a chapter or story with an alarm clock and end the piece when the character goes to bed or passes out. In other words, their structure is driven by time and consciousness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about creating pockets of narrative as a way to avoid the chronology trap: the tendency to kill tension by narrating a story blow-by-blow, one thing after another. But that’s only one method for corralling time. Another great strategy is to step outside of chronology to point the reader toward what is important.

This strategy is put to excellent use in Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” which was published in Notre Dame Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins as a story about learning to hunt: “The greatest gift my father may have ever given me came as a byproduct of a wish — he wanted me to be a hunter.” The first paragraph ends with a condensed history of his education as a hunter:

I was fishing with him as early as age 3; at 7 carrying a BB gun as we skirted a cornfield for doves; by 9 crouching in a duck blind with my pint-sized 410 shotgun at the ready; and at 11 sitting next to him up high in a tree blind as we hunted deer.

The essay then elaborates on this brief chronology with several paragraphs of specific details:

  • “at 3 I could be quiet and still in a boat”
  • “By first grade I knew how to scan a trail for snakes, for copperheads and rattlers.”
  • “In the third grade I was carrying a firearm that could kill my father.”
  • “When I was 11 my father drove us from our home in Grand Prairie, one of the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, down to his lease in the Texas hill country.”
  • “A few years later he bought me a rifle small enough to manage, a Winchester lever-action 30-30.”

The chronology of how Adams learned to hunt is now firmly established in the reader’s mind. Now, watch what he does next:

But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider the hours I spent fishing in the boat with my father, walking beside him hunting doves, hunkered in the duck blind waiting for the birds to fly in. I sat beside him in the tree blind and never saw him shoot, or shoot at, a deer.

Story matters. As readers and viewers, we often demand an ending. I’ve heard many people say that once they start a book, they rarely quit before reaching the end. At movie theaters, you almost never see people walk out, even when them films turns out to be terrible. We are, it seems, genetically obligated to follow a story until the very end. Adams accounts for this, twice telling us the basic sequence of events that mark his becoming a hunter. But that chronology isn’t what he really wants to write about. And so, once he’s charted the story, he points us toward what he feels is truly important. He’s not subtle about it: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider…”

I often say this in classes, but subtlety isn’t always a virtue. In workshop, students often use the word authority, and for a long time, when I was a student, that term had a fuzzy meaning. How did one gain authority? What made prose confident? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is that stating things clearly when clarity is called for. Adams writes, essentially, “That’s the outline of the story, but, now, look here. Pay attention to this.” He steps outside of the forward momentum of chronology and focuses on a particular idea, a particular moment—the aboutness of the story, the reason he’s telling it in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s step outside of chronology and direct the reader’s attention using “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” by Steve Adams as a model:

  1. State what will happen in the story. Adams does this with his first line: his father wanted him to be a hunter. The suggestion is that this is exactly what happened. How can you state the chronological end of your story in the same way? You can use Adams’ template: “My ____ wanted me to _____.” The understanding behind such a statement is that you, the writer (or your character), either did or did not do what was desired. You can also cut the second party and make the statement personal: “I wanted to _____.” The word wanted can also be replaced with words like loved, feared, hated, or obsessed over.
  2. Give the basic chronology of the story. Adams’ father wanted him to become a hunter, and over the course of 14 years, that’s exactly what happened. Adams highlights moments along the way that stand out to him. Almost any narrative can be broken down this way: I was headed here, and along the way, this and this and this happened. You’re basically giving the short version of your story.
  3. Redirect the reader toward what’s important. Most stories are not, ultimately, about the ending of their plot. Instead, they’re about the meaning or unexpected consequences of that plot. Even The Lord of the Rings is not really a story about a hobbit tossing a ring into a mountain of fire; it’s about the passing of magic from the world, and Tolkien repeatedly directs our attention toward this consequence of the plot. So, consider a moment along your narrative arc that seems worth of considered attention. Put another way, what part of the story does your mind return to, over and over? What moment have you analyzed from every possible direction? Something is happening in that moment, and after you’ve laid out the basic chronology, you can go back and examine what it is. Try using Adams’ model: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to ____.”
  4. Dig into that moment. Adams doesn’t stop telling his story, he just slows down. What details can you give about the moment you’ve returned to? What did you think about at the time? What do you think about now, when remembering it? When I was a kid, there was a TV show in which a girl could touch two fingers together and stop time in its tracks. In going back, you’ve created a similar moment. Time has stopped, and in that pause, what do you see?

Good luck.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

12 Aug
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Good luck!

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