Making Room for Both the Reflective and the Narrative Essay

June 26, 2017 § 33 Comments


zz lynette bentonBy Lynette Benton

I often get excited about a call for submissions, especially if I have an essay in my files waiting, I feel, for just that opportunity—until I notice that only narrative personal essays will be accepted. It seems an increasing number of the personal essays published lately are narrative in form; some publications actually specify personal narratives, rather than simply personal essays.

What are we talking about when we describe a personal essay as narrative? It’s a first person essay that’s also a true story. Like a fictional story, a narrative personal essay can “recount a string of events,” as essayist and editor Joseph Epstein writes in his Forward to The Best American Essays 2014. As in a fictional story, a narrative personal essay includes an inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict, obstacles placed in the path of the main character (or, in the case of a personal essay, the narrator), a climax, and a resolution.

Oliver Sacks’ gripping personal essay, “Bull on the Mountain,” is narrative in form. Sacks describes his face-to-face encounter with an enormous white bull seated on a path in front of him when climbing a mountain alone in Norway. Sacks tried to flee “in blind, mad panic,” and in so doing, seriously injured himself. The essay contains an inciting incident (the meeting with the bull), obstacles confronted by the narrator (getting himself, despite his bum leg, back down the mountain before darkness and extreme cold set in), a climax (just as it seems Sacks will pass out and in all probability die, hunters catch sight of him), and the tale is resolved (Sacks is rescued).

On the other hand, a reflective personal essay is true first person writing that explores a topic or idea, without being required to follow a narrative arc, include a climax, or come to a conclusion. In fact, it is notably inconclusive. Essayist Phillip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, considers personal essays the “incomplete or tentative treatment of a topic.”

He goes on to point out the personal essay’s “digression and promiscuous meanderings,” which I consider the hallmark of reflective personal essays. Roaming in the wake of the writer’s seemingly disordered thoughts, even down blind alleys towards apparent dead ends, feels comfortably like my own mental journeying. In the narrative form the essayist tells what happened—instead of inviting readers to make of his mental journey what they will.

A major difference between narrative and reflective personal essays could be that the former appears incident driven, the latter, idea driven. That’s not to say that either form excludes the other; narrative personal essays explore ideas and reflective personal essays frequently contain anecdotes—stories, like small gems—nestled in the platinum of the wandering prose. In Zadie Smith’s “Joy,” originally published in New York Review of Books in 2013, Smith departs from her contemplation of the differences between pleasure and joy to tell a story about an evening she spent on drugs in a night club. She circles back to conclude that one has pleasure, while one enters joy.

In narrative personal essays, I often feel rushed to arrive at and over that pesky narrative arc that looms like a hurdle on an otherwise level path; There’s the unfolding of the plot and the determined trot towards the climax and resolution. An email from an editor made it clear where his interest lay. “I’m looking for stories where something happens,” he wrote. [Italics mine.] The writer of the narrative personal essay is discouraged from wondering, meandering, or doubling back to poke at inchoate thoughts, or to reconsider questions that refuse to be easily, even glibly, settled.

In “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery,” His introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, Epstein writes “Literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall, not in value of course, but in prestige.” Might the reflective personal essay be on its way out? Will there no longer exist room in our nonfiction universe for both narrative and reflective personal essays? Though I’ve enjoyed many narrative personal essays, such as the chilling “Angry Winter,” by Loren Eiseley, my deepest appreciation is reserved for the reflective personal essay. Am I to be deprived of this type of essay, which I not only enjoy reading, but write? I guess I’m also asking: Has the personal essay evolved beyond me? Is it time for me to pack up my pen and go home?

I cut my teeth on reflective personal essays written in the 1930s through the 1960s, decidedly less hurried times. Essays from that era feel relaxed and loosely structured, like the casual suits men wore in nineteen forties movies set in Hollywood or Havana.

Among my favorites is Natalia Ginzburg’s He and I, first published in 1962. In it, Ginzburg employs repetition, counterpoint, and hyperbole to describe the ways in which she is inferior to her almost preternaturally astute and accomplished, though rather imperious, husband, only inserting glimpses of his weaknesses after we’re just about convinced he possesses none.

A more recent reflective personal essay that I cherish is Daphne Merkin’s, My Kingdom for a Scarf, first published in The New York Times in 1991. In this essay, Merkin has left a favorite scarf in a New York City taxi she’s just alighted from. Her efforts to retrieve or replace the scarf are unsuccessful. Losing the scarf leads her to new insights. She writes, “[I]t should be clear …that we’re not talking scarves. We’re talking loss.” The scarf only symbolizes that idea. So does a glove she lost. The heart of the essay lies in her memories of and tallying up of losses in her life. Merkin offers no climax or resolution. She simply tells us at the end, “When I am dead …I suppose I shall not care about the red suede glove I dropped in Central Park 15 years ago.” Then, emphatically, “Meanwhile, I want everything back.”

I like the way reflective essays begin in one place, and we readers have no idea where they might take us, and I bet that sometimes the author might not know either. The text is a winding road, with unexpected detours and surprises around corners that once were hidden from view. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, …and what it means.”

And yet a writer and writing coach, who specializes in nonfiction informs me that some essayists confess that, “their essays mimic the randomness of thought, while they structure the essay during the revision process…deliberately to achieve this effect.” That may be true, but the reason I apply my pen to reflective personal essays is that, like Didion: I’m not sure what I think or what I mean until I write it out.

Why is the narrative personal essay in vogue right now? Is it because of a belief that readers (and perhaps editors) abhor a state of uncertainty, preferring to be led along a discernible path to a firm conclusion? If so, shame on the writer if she’s not at all sure of the answers to the questions she’s implicitly raising in her essay.

Is this preference, if it is a preference, for narrative personal essays a result of our shortened attention spans? We no longer have the leisure of previous centuries, as Dinty W. Moore notes in his Crafting the Personal Essay. Do readers want us writers to just get on with it? Or is it simply that we humans are “wired for story” as Lisa Cron writes in her book by that title?

Perhaps I have reason to be hopeful. Many fine publications remain open to either treatment—narrative or reflective. But I still wring my hands over my personal essay writing. Perhaps what I fear is not only the demise of the reflective essay. It’s possible my apprehension stems from the way I experience my own life. Like reflective essays, my life’s got enough doubt and doubling back to evade all my attempts to force it into anything remotely like orderly certainties.

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Lynette Benton’s essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” was awarded first place in the 2016 Magic of Memoir Contest and subsequently published in the Magic of Memoir anthology. Excerpts from her memoir, My Mother’s Money, earned finalist status in the 2014 memoir writing contest sponsored by She Writes Press and Serendipity Literary Agency. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous print and online publications.

§ 33 Responses to Making Room for Both the Reflective and the Narrative Essay

  • abigail thomas says:

    oh boy, I loved this. I want to read all your essays now. I don’t know what is happening either, to the meandering essay, but when I hear the words”narrative arc” I reach for my revolver. thank you for this. I was enlightened and encouraged.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    Thank you for your wonderful, insightful thoughts. After a handful of years studying both forms, this is the clearest explanation of both the personal narrative and the reflective essay I have ever come across in one place. Truly appreciated!

  • I became a lover of the essay-as-reflection, like Hazlitt’s “The Pleasure of Hating” and Cynthia Ozick’s “The Riddle of the Ordinary” in my undergraduate years, but in my life as an essayist I’ve struggled to find good critique of reflection other than “take it out and add narrative.” I’m glad to see this suggestion that our literary culture might be ready for more essays that “tell” rather than “show/dramatize”!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for clarity, and for “Joy.”

  • Dave C says:

    Thank you for the clarity. I am just starting my writing efforts. I love the perspective this piece brings. I am also just learning how I write. I have started with the reflective and will work my way to the narrative. I feel like my life is too accepting at the moment to have an arc. I prefer just to reflect. You piece helped me see that. May your day be filled with many little blessings…

  • Aine Greaney says:

    Love this and I, too, have been struggling to fathom why the narrative essay seems to have more literary currency than the personal or reflective. This beautifully written essay helps.

  • I love the line, “…shame on the writer if she is not at all sure of the answers…”

  • Joyce Frank says:

    Please don’t pack up your pen and go home! We need more essays like this and we’ll all need saving if current wisdom deprives us of the power to think in an open-ended way.

  • Pelican1 says:

    My external life is dull: I don’t go hiking in places like Norway or encounter feral bovines. Therefore, I do not write many narrative essays; however, my inner life is an adventure and my essays are all about following meandering roads through my interior cartography. Nevertheless, I will persist and keep writing my idea-laden personal essays. Maybe they will come back into fashion someday.

  • Lesley Peebles says:

    Thank you for your defense of the reflective essay: I, too, like to follow the contemplative path through, and around, an idea that cannot be expressed simply. When I read a good example of such an essay, I feel not just entertained, but stimulated to keep thinking.

    • Exactly, Lesley: stimulated to keep thinking about what we’ve read. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of reading reflective essays. The ideas and wandering paths make us continue to ponder the author’s words, sentences, images, conundrums and ideas.

  • I love this piece and I love reflective essays, and if they’re out of fashion now, they’ll be back. I think the “marketplace” is out there to piss writers off. We do what we do, and somehow we keep on going. Your lovely writing is a gift to me this evening. Thank you.

  • Iris Lowe says:

    Lots of food for thought here. I find the ‘we need something to happen’ criticism of reflective essays particularly interesting. Something does of course happen in the reflective essay – the author reaches a new point of view which I find infinitely valuable, but I think it’s currently undervalued.

  • Ed Cosgrove says:

    I think you’re onto something. I wouldn’t want to lose exciting, forward driven essays, but when everything has to be that way, it feels like everyone’s following the same recipe.

    Narrative Arc Chicken Curry

    Find an average chicken with a character flaw, such as blandness
    Decide to fix the flaw by adding curry
    Add Obstacles:
    Make it difficult by blending all the spices yourself
    Add to difficulty by trying to locally source them at 9:30pm
    Fail at that and decide to borrow curry, as long as borrowing addresses a flaw of yours
    Such as shyness
    Prepare denouement:
    Have bad sex with the stranger you borrowed curry from
    At home, disgusted, yet safely alone, realize shyness is not flaw
    Admit you didn’t want curry anyway, you just felt duty bound to narrative
    Maybe you didn’t want chicken, either
    Meditate on the nature of desire and society’s expectations

    Go wherever it leads you

  • patricia says:

    Thank you for this, Lynette!

    I’ve kept a blog for years now, and in more recent years my posts have often taken on a reflective and sometimes lyric essay form. And I’ve noticed that readers actually seem to respond more to the reflective form. There seems to be more space in a reflective piece for a reader to insert his or her own story and ideas. I really see this in the feedback I receive–readers tell me specifically how my ideas inspire something they’re thinking about. I’m not sure there’s space for the same thing to happen with in a story told with a tight narrative arc.

    So while narrative essays are often treated as “indulgent” on the part of the writer, they may be, counterintuitively, more generous to the reader and his or her own thoughts. They demand more of the reader, but that work allows the reader’s own ideas to insert themselves, tangle their way in and linger.

  • Maybe the reflective essay will be the next hipster thing to do. (Often happens when something seems completely out of fashion to the majority).

  • […] back to my own essay on Brevity. It’s called Making Room for Both the Narrative and Reflective Essay. Click on one of the stars at the top to indicate how useful (or well written) you feel the piece […]

  • Sue J says:

    I wonder what makes a non-fiction narrative essay an essay vs. being called Flash NON-Fiction vs. a non-fiction short story. Is there a determination made by length or by structure? I’ve recently been published a couple of times in Chicken Soup for the Soul books where they accept the telling of true, personal-life events, delivered in story form. From your post here, it sounds as though these 1200-words-or-less submissions could/would be considered narrative essay. Is that right? (Pardon my ignorance. I’m still relatively new to this kind of writing, late in life as well, and am still learning the ropes.)

  • Suansita says:

    Thank you for this. Your exploration of narrative vs reflective made me appreciate both even more ^_^

  • Linda Gartz says:

    Astute and instructive, your essay here, about the differences between narrative and reflective personal essays really helped me to think about these two forms. Perhaps in today’s harried age, people want to grasp a full story – and don’t have time to “ponder” or follow hither and yon in the meanderings of a reflective essay. “Get to the point” seems to be the directive of our times – preferably in 140 characters or less! 🙂

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