Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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4 Comments

Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, teaching, education

4 responses to “Undercurrents in narrative essays

  1. Hi, Richard. I thought this was packed with valuable stuff. I have to admit I have never gotten the E.M. Forster thing. I don’t see how the queen dying of grief is a plot! Now if she had driven the king to commit suicide…anyway!
    I appreciate all the vaulable advice in this post, and the links. Per usual, a thoughtful, helpful and informative piece!

    • Thanks, Paulette. I reread the applicable Forster and think I get his point: a mere event sequence—this happened, then this, then this—is a story, but a lowly one in form, at best episodic. It’s the kind of things kids make up when they are learning to tell stories, or at least I did: “We were camping out and an axe murderer tried to kill us through the canvas but we got away, and then a flying saucer came down and . . .” In a plot, he says, the events are linked by causality. So the queen’s death flowing from the king’s is a plot. A refinement in which there is a mystery and the plot points are more hidden is greater still, he says, giving this example which I will paraphrase: The queen died, and no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was from grief over the death of the king.

  2. I love this post, and I agree: In writing non-fiction narrative, the key challenge is to assemble the memoir facts within this strange and often subtle connection that forms the story’s narrative arc. Sometimes there’s a natural arc or “happy ever after.” But more often than not, we’re relying on the narrative voice and our own attention to language.
    Nice article. Enjoyed it.

    • Thanks so much, Aine. It is a subtle element and I am not sure I came close to explaining what I thought I meant! I like your “more often than not, we’re relying on the narrative voice and our own attention to language” within the narrative arc.