Making Room for Both the Reflective and the Narrative Essay
June 26, 2017 § 32 Comments
By 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.
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.