by Len Leatherwood
Any of my personal essay students will tell you that I often say, “It’s important to use writing as a form of discovery.” I contend that personal essays that set out to prove a point automatically have built-in constraints. The writer has a plan, an objective, a purpose, which is to convince the reader of something significant by the end of the essay. That’s fine in the editing process, but in the first draft stage, this kind of thinking has the capacity to hog-tie the writer. It also encourages averting one’s eyes from natural connections that might be more entertaining or edifying. In short, I believe that sometimes you have no idea what your essay is really about until you relax and let your mind do some serious wandering.
One might counter my argument with one that goes like this: “That’s all well and good for someone who has the time to fiddle around with this subject or that. However, I have a busy schedule and there are simply not enough hours in the day for me to be doing any casual dawdling during my writing time.”
I certainly do understand the limitations of time since I use that excuse a lot in my own life, particularly when it comes to writing. I too want to know where I’m going in my writing so I can get there as fast as possible and then hurry off to do whatever I have deemed more important, like resting, watching tv, taking a bath, going to bed, or eating something that I really want, like a piece of chocolate cake. However, the truth is that this discovery process is not all that time-consuming. It’s just a chance to allow one’s mind to wander here and there, trust associations and not get bogged down in the direct thinking of a + b = c and now, by golly, let’s go eat that piece of cake.
Speaking of cake, I sometimes think that I really ought to just write a food blog where I post recipes. I love to cook and particularly to bake. There is something so relaxing about puttering around the kitchen making cookies or a pie or a cake that will be satisfying and, hopefully, delicious to eat. Talk about a built-in reward system. This is nothing like writing an essay, which may or may not be satisfying or delectable, though it’s possible it could be both, depending on how much meandering I’ve been willing to do.
So, here we are at what should be the end of my essay and you might be raising an eyebrow and saying to yourself, “Hmmm, this little piece is going absolutely nowhere. So much for her point being illustrated.” And your remark admittedly will cause me to sigh and feel slightly inadequate since surely you are nothing but right about this loosey-goosey essay. However, there is a part of me that will muster up an internal protest and then narrow my eyes as I give you a hard look. Most people feel a bit uncomfortable when I give them that look. You might be the one exception.
My counter-argument to you would be: What have you learned about me here that you wouldn’t have learned if I had stuck with a straight-forward essay on how discovery is an essential part of writing?
Well, I dare say, that dry and boring essay would not for one minute have allowed the inclusion of my favorite ways to get out of writing (bed, bath and beyond) or the foray into the kitchen for a little aside about baking. That piece would also, no doubt, exclude internal dialogue and the description of me getting annoyed with you and giving you a death stare. The truth is that it wouldn’t matter what brilliant points I used to illustrate that boring premise because you would never have read this far. I would have most likely lost you in paragraph one.
So, my point? Play when you write. Entertain yourself. See where your mind takes you and don’t be afraid to stroll around a bit and perhaps even get really lost. Trust me. When you reread your piece and do a bit of adding or taking away here and there, you’ll see that you have something satisfying and maybe even delicious.
And after you’re done, you can still have chocolate cake. Though, by that point, you may not want it.
Len Leatherwood, Program Coordinator for Story Circle Network’s Online Classes, has been teaching writing privately to students for the past 20 years. She has received both state and national teaching awards for the past 10 years from the Scholastic Artists and Writers Awards, the oldest and most prestigious writing contest for youth in the US. She is a blogger at 20 Minutes a Day (http://lenleatherwood.wordpress.com/) as well as published author of flash fiction and nonfiction.