In Need of Release: Finding The End of an Essay

January 7, 2020 § 20 Comments

sandra_millerby Sandra A. Miller

Half dozing on the train from New York to Boston with a snowstorm raging outside the window, I grabbed the Amtrak magazine from my seat pocket and mindlessly flipped to an interview with Patti Smith. I read along, engaged but not fully moved, until I came to this line in which Smith talks about performance:

You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.

I gasped and sat up so fast that my seatmate actually pulled her coat tighter, as if to shield herself from my sudden effusion. Yes! I thought. Yes!

Over the years, dozens of writing students have asked me, how do you know when an essay is finished, but I never quite had the language for it. I once tried to describe it as a click you feel inside, but it’s more than that. Yes, the writer, after years of practice, likely has an intuitive sense of an ending and knows when the piece locks into place, but I never accept that an essay is done until I’ve seen a reader get what I now know to call—thank you Patti Smith—“release.”

This is what release in an essay means to me: Did the reader not only connect with my words, but was he or she also a little loosened by them?

I grabbed my journal and started scribbling as the Acela zoomed me toward home, now going far too fast for all that I wanted to write. I began by brainstorming a list of essays that made me sit back and say “holy shit” because over the course of reading them, something changed in me. The kind of work that my friend Gary and I say we want to “throw across the room,” as in we are so moved/jealous/awestruck that we can’t bear to hold onto it for another second.

I thought about “Chimera,” an essay in which Gerald Callahan examines the workings of memories and immune systems to explain why his children’s mother, who committed suicide ten years earlier, still regularly appears in his physical world. Every time I read it the piece weakens me a little. Is that release? I think so.

Ditto for some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays—“In Bed” comes to mind—where her complex syntax and content hold me in thrall. Sometimes, after being so profoundly tugged along by Didion’s intellect, so yoked by her language, I find myself almost adrift when the piece ends. Release? Yes, a version of it.

I keep scribbling: Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” Andre Aciman’s “Lavender.” Essays that when you look up from the page, you are in a different place than when you began. And with so much to read and so little time, I don’t want to settle for anything that doesn’t, if only in some small way, move me.

My husband, Mark, a clinical psychologist who helps people with their feelings, is always my first reader. I will hand him an essay and watch—his face infuriatingly placid—as he pores over each line, making faint gray marks with his pencil. Pretending not to be looking, I’ll glimpse over as he nears the end, and I’ll watch, hoping, for that catch in his eyes. A tightening. Not necessarily a tear, but sometimes. Or maybe just a pause, an outbreath. When he hands me back my pages, I know, even before he says anything, if it worked or not.

When I arrived back home in Boston, I couldn’t stop thinking about release and wanted to hole up in my office and start reading essays. But my husband had done several rounds of shoveling while I was galivanting around New York, so I went out for one final scrape.

Just then, my friend Amara walked by with her hyper miniature poodle, Oscar, and stopped to say hello. Amara’s husband died suddenly two years ago, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. She adopted the dog to help with the healing, but he had turned out to be far too much. “We need to re-home him” she said. I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded as Oscar, fluffy and strong-willed, tried to yank Amara away from our conversation.

“Maybe you needed him when he appeared,” I suggested. “Maybe he brought something into your life in that moment of crisis and transition that you could not have gotten in another way.”

“That’s it,” she said. “He was my release.”


“He released me from the idea that I could do this parenting thing perfectly. I thought I could power through anything, but I had to let that go.” Her eyes glistened with tears, and I wanted to hug her, but a high snowbank loomed between us. So I held her gaze and nodded, briefly, feeling that click of connection. When Oscar started dragging her down the street, we wiped our cold tears and shouted out good-byes.

I kept shoveling, thinking about the way we share our stories. Some are passed, friend to friend, in the hush of a December night. Others are crafted carefully, with the hope that they might affect people we will never meet.

Once I had finally removed the light, top layer, I struck ice, intractable with the freezing temperature. But I knew in the morning the sun, warm and persistent, would reach the pavement, eventually releasing what, in that moment, wouldn’t move.

Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, is available through Indiebound, Amazon, and Brown Paper Press. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is a regular correspondent for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. 

Author Photo by Holloway McCandless

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