A dear friend I’ve known since seventh grade visited me recently, her very painful divorce having just been finalized. We spent an entire weekend on the couch in my front room as she detailed the dissolution of her marriage, all the betrayal and dysfunction—on a scale that was truly astounding. At the risk of sounding insensitive, her experience, in all its gruesome heartbreak, was fascinating. I was riveted. And then what? And what did you say? What happened after that?
Later, I couldn’t help but imagine what form this might take as an essay. If I read her experience as it was told to me, though—in its this, then this, then this sequence, even with scenes, dialogue, and poignant details—it probably would not make a good essay. It’s one thing to have an interesting story, or perhaps we should say experience. But that’s not the same thing as having an interesting essay. I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.
If asked to reduce the narrative of their essay down to one sentence, to its very kernel, this is what a few of Colorado Review’s writers might say:
My friendship with a woman took a really bad turn, and a lot of very unpleasant things happened after that. (Regina Drexler’s “Landslide,” Spring 2012)
My father is difficult to connect with. (Carole Firstman’s “Liminal Scorpions,” Summer 2012)
I never liked my name, so I changed it. (Silas Hansen’s “Blank Slate,” Spring 2013)
I have no sense of direction. (Jessica McCaughey’s “Aligning the Internal Compass,” Spring 2010)
So how did these experiences become essays? Generally, the writers took on parallel narratives. I tend to think of these narrative lines as the story on the ground and the story in the sky. Sometimes the story in the sky is closely related to the story on the ground, other times it may seem unrelated, almost random. A seemingly natural tendency has been for the parallel narrative to be research-oriented: astronomy, arachnology, historical events, etc., for example. But throughout the essay, the two narratives riff on each other, speak to each other (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly), creating resonance, and in the end come together in such a way that is greater than merely their sum—and we will have moved from a personal to a universal experience.
I’ll elaborate on just one of the examples above. In Regina Drexler’s “Landslide,” the relationship between the parallel narratives is a close one (a giveaway by the title), though their connection is not immediately clear. She opens the essay with the story in the sky:
Of all natural disasters, landslides are more devastating than most people realize. Worse, they are often triggered by other natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Scientists refer to this as the multi-hazard effect. In one of the deadliest landslides of the last century, in the Ancash region of Peru in 1970, the multi-hazard effect was responsible for the burial and death of over fifty thousand people. Of course, death usually comes before burial. Where there are multiple hazards occurring nearly simultaneously, however, it is likely that even if you survive the first disaster, there is another on its way to bury you alive.
And then, following a section break, she begins the story on the ground: “Ten years ago, as I was in my new-motherhood panic with an infant baby boy, I met her.” The essay moves between the two narratives—the science and history of landslides, and the relationship between Drexler and her friend—with the landslide sections presaging the disaster that befalls Drexler when the relationship sours. In the end, we aren’t left with simply a story about a falling out between two friends, colossal as it was, but an insight into the way disastrous events (both natural and personal) don’t just happen, and certainly don’t happen for one reason.
At a Nonfiction Now conference several years ago, Eileen Pollack articulated this form in a different way (which I have found enormously useful). She talked about the narrative—the here is what happened to me—as being like an album on a turntable. She then suggested that the central question, the reason for writing the essay, was the needle. Music, she said, is created in the friction between the question and the narrative. I really love this metaphor, and it’s easy to spin it out further: when you apply the needle to the album too timidly, it doesn’t catch and you get no music; apply it too aggressively, and you get that awful scratchy sound. We’ve all read essays that fall into these categories: Great story, but why are you telling me this? or Yes, I understand the Lesson that you Never Forgot.
In Drexler’s essay, the landslide narrative suggests a question—how did this happen?—that is never overtly posed, an artful placement of needle against album.
This ground/sky, album/needle multiple-narrative structure is just one form of essay, a form that I’m personally drawn to, and I don’t mean to suggest it as an all-purpose template. Some essays just won’t work this way. And I have published several in Colorado Review that succeed in moving beyond experience to essay by playing, for example, with form/format or by going the lyric essay route. All of which is to say, I love hearing about people’s experiences, but I love reading about them—and publishing them in the magazine—when the writer has found a unique way to tell the story so that we ultimately transcend it.