Tag Archives: personal essay

How to Use Showing and Telling in a Personal Essay

19 Apr
In this essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with being a single mom

In her essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with the stress of being a single mom.

The personal essay genre can be found across the Internet and in print magazines, and because of these many outlets, the form has given writers from many different backgrounds and experiences the chance to tell their stories. These many voices have led to a lot of innovation within the genre, yet when I teach structure in the personal essay, I try to show how almost every essay contains certain elements: a narrative, sure, but also passages revealing context (explaining how the reader should understand the narrative) and emotional importance (showing why the narrative matters to the people involved). The question becomes this: How does a writer weight each of these elements and arrange them? What is the focus of the essay?

A great place to find one answer to these questions is Melissa Stephenson’s essay, “As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me.” It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins by introducing two clear problems: 1) the writer is a newly single mom and in need of a way to manage the stress of the situation, and 2) her preferred coping mechanism, running, has become difficult due to knee pain. Then, the essay gives context for this situation. In the past, she dealt with problems in a particular way (“I drank too much, stayed up late listening to music, cried when I wanted and left the house for hours on a whim.”). Now, though, that approach isn’t possible because she has kids. She doesn’t have “the luxury of falling apart.”

We’re mostly not shown this information but, rather, told it. This runs counter to one of the basic workshop lessons: show, don’t tell. Yet this is impractical advice. Telling is essential to storytelling (see what I did there?). The opening of the essay grabs our attention through statements of fact—facts that that reveal the conflict faced by the writer.

The essay continues telling us things, most importantly that Stephenson continues running but also seeks medical care, eventually entering and finishing a half marathon. It’s a moment that reveals the emotional importance of the essay: “No one came to meet me at the finish line. Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.”

But this moment comes only a third of the way into the essay. Most of the attention is paid to Stephenson’s second marathon and the successes and challenges she encounters during it. Here’s why this is interesting from a craft standpoint: for the most part, we don’t learn anything in the course of the race that don’t already know. She needs to run, experiences pain, and fights through it, all of which we’ve already been told. What the race does, then, is show us Stephenson’s experience of these things. It’s one thing to tell a reader that you need to run and are willing to fight through pain and sorrow to do it, but it’s quite another to show it.

And what gets shown? Details of the pain and race but also details of Stephenson’s thoughts during the pain:

That familiar tightening seized my right knee — a pain I’d spent three years eradicating. For an entire mile I processed a single, circular thought: Is that my knee? No. It’s just a glitch. I’m just settling in. But wait. That is my knee. Is that my hip? And my knee?

Showing doesn’t only mean descriptions of setting and character. It can also mean simply slowing down, settling into a moment.

Stephenson uses telling to set up the conflict that she intends to show the reader. Without the telling, the reader might not care as much about the marathon, and without the showing, the essay would lose a great deal of emotional punch. Both are necessary.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use showing and telling to set up and dramatize a narrative:

  1. Introduce a problem and solution. Stephenson does this in both her title and first paragraph. Try using her title as a model: “As a ___, I couldn’t ____ (or needed to ____). ___ saved me.” While Stephenson was writing a personal essay, this exercise can work with fiction as well, even third-person stories.
  2. Introduce a problem with the solution. Stephenson’s solution is running, but her knee hurts. We don’t get a lot of details about it at the beginning, only that it involves arthritic pain. More detail—showing the reader this pain—wouldn’t really advance the essay at this point. The point is that the pain makes it difficult to run. So, introduce something that makes your solution difficult to pursue. Don’t worry about describing it in detail.
  3. Introduce emotional importance. Stephenson does this with a statement of fact—”No one came to meet me at the finish line”—and a direct statement of what that fact meant to her: “Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.” So, find a moment or fact that clearly conveys a clear emotion. Stephenson felt alone. The feeling was so profound that she was forced to grapple with it. How do you—or your character—grapple with the emotional fact?
  4. Use a narrative to show everything you’ve introduced. So far, we’ve been telling the reader things. Now it’s time to show the reader. Stephenson does this with a blow-by-blow account of her second marathon. It presents the problem and solution and obstacle (pain) in detail and also gives her thought process as she experienced each one. Earlier, she was telling the reader what the situation is, but now she is showing what the situation felt like. So, find a narrative (an extended story or an anecdote) that can be told with descriptions of exterior and interior details that will show your readers everything you just told them.

The goal is to use telling to establish a situation (problem, solution, obstacles) and then to use showing to reveal the what the situation felt like—the experience of it.

Good luck.

How to Develop a Character amid Large-Scale Conflict

16 Feb
Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, "Under the Aegean Moon." The essay was published at the Tin House blog "The Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” The essay was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Stories about large-scale conflicts like war can reduce the characters involved to the level of those faceless henchman found in action movies, characters whose only purpose in the film is to get shot and die. Did they have friends? Family? Personalities? Who knows? It’s not important. Yet if a story is to be dramatic and engaging, its characters must have lives and personalities that do more than reflect the conflict around them.

A great example of such characterization can be found in Selin Gökçesu’s essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” It was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar,” where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about the author’s honeymoon in Turkey, where her family lives. The trip came amid the Syrian refugee crisis that continues to captivate the world’s attention. If you’ve heard any stories of refugees or seen photos, you’ve probably responded in a very human way: you felt sad, angry, and overwhelmed. As a writer, though, these reactions, though honest and real, don’t make for particularly compelling storytelling. An essay can’t say, “Like you, Reader, I, too, felt sad.” It must do more. (This is not just true of narratives about geopolitical conflict. Any story can exert a seemingly inescapable force of gravity on its characters. You can often identify such stories by the shorthand used for their characters: superheroes, spies, aliens, cops, drug dealers, etc. All of these characters can benefit from more idiosyncratic personality traits.)

For Gökçesu, that more is found by building up herself as a primary actor in the essay—despite not playing an active role in the refugee crisis. She didn’t help anyone enter Turkey or get a visa. She was like most of us, a witness, with the difference that she was witnessing the crisis from Turkey. It may seem odd to write about oneself in the midst of such overwhelming tragedy, but it’s actually a key to the essay’s power.

Here is the beginning of a passage in which Gökçesu describes herself:

In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon. Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable. We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze.

This may not strike you as particularly idiosyncratic. Anyone who’s taken a beach honeymoon has probably found something similar. This is important. Gökçesu is part of multiple stories at once. Yes, she’s witness to the refugee crisis, but she’s also a newlywed, a role that exerts its own gravity.

She does have interests beyond her honeymoon:

Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise lounge in pursuit of it.

This desire to pick up litter leads to the discovery of a particular kind of item washing up on the shore, typified by this one:

A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.

That wallet, and the many other items like it, introduce a conflict. On one hand, Gökçesu knows very well what is going on around her and understands what she is finding. On the other hand, she’s on her honeymoon and very understandably wants to savor this time with her new husband. It’s a conflict she states directly:

The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent. Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild. My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.

This conflict is never really resolved, though it does come to a head at the end of the essay with two powerful images. The images by themselves are arresting, but their power is accentuated because we see them with fresh eyes; like the writer, we’ve been looking elsewhere.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create character amid conflict, using “Under the Aegean Moon” by Selin Gökçesu as a model:

  1. Identify the major conflict and the gravitational force it exertsAs readers, we are immersed in information, narrative, and news, and we learn to recognize patterns. In a tragedy (earthquake, tsunami, war), the participants will be portrayed in a handful of usual ways. The same is true of all stories. In politics, you can almost predict what the candidates will say before they open their mouths. No story can escape these patterns completely. Instead, it’s important to understand that they exist and identify the ways they inform our own stories. So, what conflict are you writing about? How is it usually portrayed?
  2. Identify the character’s role within that conflict. Within almost every conflict, there is a predictable cast: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, heroes, villains, the innocent, and the guilty. For each character, there is also a predictable emotional response for the readers. We weep for the victims and feel anger toward those responsible. For your characters (or, for an essay, for yourself or whoever you’re profiling), what roles do they play? If their faces were shown on the nightly news, how would you expect the audience to respond? In “Under the Aegean Moon,” Gökçesu plays the role of witness.
  3. Give the character another role or story. It’s not a matter of destroying the character’s role within the conflict (victim, perpetrator, etc). Instead, you’re adding another role. No one is only a victim or only a perpetrator. In the Aegean, after the smugglers make good on their promises, they go home—and then what? For refugees, victimhood often temporarily flattens their hopes and dreams; it’s hard to think about a future career when you’re sitting in a dinghy in rough waves. But the dinghy trip is only a small part of the refugees’ lives, just as the worst or most dangerous moments of anyone’s life are often fleeting. Then comes the rest of their life. What happens then? What does your character hope for, dream about, fear, love, and detest? What does your character seek out during a free moment? If the conflict had never occurred, what path would your character be following? In Turkey, Gökçesu is following the path of a newlywed.
  4. Make that secondary role challenge the first one. In other words, put the major conflict into the background. If you know that readers will respond in a predictable way, there’s little need to dwell on the conflict. As soon as it appears, the readers will respond in the expected way. Instead, focus on the secondary role, the role that is more personal to your character. When this role collides with the conflict, when the character is forced to forget for a moment this personal role, that’s when tension is created. So, how can you summarize your story in terms of this secondary role. Gökçesu might do it this way: I was honeymooning on a beach in Turkey, picking up trash to save the sea turtles—and then I noticed something else.

The goal is to develop character and drama by giving your characters roles that exist independently of the conflict that surrounds them.

Good luck.

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