In the early nineties, a twenty-nine year old poet named Lucy Grealy published her first piece of nonfiction in Harper’s magazine. That slim essay, “Mirrorings” – just over 5500 words in all – went on to win a National Magazine Award and would serve as the blueprint for the best-selling book that followed a year and a half later.
For most writers, expanding an essay into a book involves a series of uncomfortable compromises. In his post, “The Barking Cat: Converting an Essay Collection to Memoir,” David McGlynn writes of all the hazards that come with “breaking apart a finished essay and scattering the pieces across a larger canvas.” Chief among them are the memoir’s insistence on narrative unity and its frequent adherence to a linear (and often moralistic) arc.
McGlynn’s initial reluctance to move from the digressive world of essayistic observations to a more unified narrative form will be familiar to most nonfiction writers. As Cynthia Ozick writes in her classic essay on the essay, “No one is freer than the essayist – free to leap out in any direction, to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew beginning and end and keep only a middle.” In contrast, book-length essays and memoirs too often seem to smooth out the edges and fill in the elisions that give short essays so much power.
If the most vivid essays manufacture meaning out of unexpected digressions and juxtapositions, then the most tedious book-length memoirs adhere to an overly linear arc that leaves little for the reader to discover on her own. But fortunately, expanding an essay into a book doesn’t always have to mean sacrificing the energy that’s native to the essay. As we can see through a study of “Mirrorings,” sometimes the book-length form opens up a whole range of possibilities for essaying.
Twenty years after its publication, Lucy Grealy’s bestselling memoir Autobiography of a Face has become a staple of composition and literature classrooms. The plot of the essay and the book will be familiar to most readers. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine, Lucy Grealy had a third of her jaw removed in a surgeon’s attempt to keep the cancer from spreading. In the years that followed, Grealy endured over a dozen operations, each of which failed to correct the damage done to her jawline.
In the first paragraph of “Mirrorings,” Grealy sets up the central conceit of the essay: the narrator’s inability to face herself in the mirror and the multitude of “tricks and wiles” she uses to avoid her reflected image. In the second paragraph, we find the narrator alone in Scotland, living on welfare while undergoing a painful procedure designed to “fix” her appearance once and for all.
At that point, beginning with the third paragraph, and stretching for nearly four thousand words (more than three-quarters of the essay), Grealy gives us a hurried history of her face. As she moves through her story, we see glimpses of the powerful, evocative images that will later make up whole chapters of Autobiography – Grealy’s father “going to get the car” so he doesn’t have to witness her injections, the much-loathed wigs that Hasidic women press on Grealy’s mother, and the way Halloween becomes a blessed annual respite from Grealy’s daily efforts to hide her face from the rest of the world.
Grealy’s stunning capacity for language and the raw power of her story make “Mirrorings” a powerful reflection on the difficulty of being able to truly know oneself after a lifetime of pain and shame over one’s appearance. And yet Grealy breezes through much of the most powerful material in “Mirrorings,” sketching her past with broad brushstrokes, as an artist might do when capturing a quick study that exists largely to serve as the template for a more expansive work. It’s only when she returns to the subject matter in book-length form that we see Grealy’s prose take off.
In the case of “Mirrorings,” it was the essay, rather than the memoir, that took on a narrower and more linear quality. Whereas “Mirrorings” revolves around one singular theme, Autobiography of a Face dips and pivots in efforts to build a fully realized narrative world. For example, in “Mirrorings,” Grealy breezes past her childhood love for horses, writing, “I also became interested in horses and got a job at a run-down local stable. Having those horses to go to each day after school saved my life; I spent all of my time either with them or thinking about them.”
But in writing Autobiography, Grealy takes full advantage of her time at Diamond D Stables, choosing to begin the book with the line, “My friend Stephen and I used to do pony parties together.” From there, Grealy goes on to capture the look and feel of the suburban landscape, “dotted with oversize Tudors,” each house containing carbon-copy patriarchs reclining in chairs and wives in coordinated outfits chatting on the phone. Grealy muses about the dogs that chase the horse trailer, the bliss of being lost with her friend Stephen, Diamond D's evolution into a “surreal, muddy, and orphaned state of anarchy,” and even the digestive habits of the ponies themselves. It’s only then, in the midst of the pony party, that Grealy reveals why she dreads the day’s events. “As soon as [the children] got over the thrill of being near the ponies, they’d notice me. Half of my jaw was missing, which gave my face a strange triangular shape, accentuated by the fact that I was unable to keep my mouth completely closed.”
Embedded in that brief ten-page prologue are all the themes that make Autobiography of a Face so powerful, even after twenty years of countless summary and response papers by college freshmen – Grealy’s heightened sense of shame over her appearance, her feeling of being an outsider, and her continual struggle to recognize herself. But unlike the essay, which led with Grealy’s disfigurement, the book builds a far more realized narrative world.
In the Harper’s essay, Grealy breezes by the origin of her lifelong battle, writing, “Twenty years ago, when I was nine and living in America, I came home from school one day with a toothache.” Those twenty-six words end up taking the entire first chapter of Autobiography, beginning with the lines, “Ker-pow! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” In the chapter, the reader not only confronts that supposed toothache in all of its deep, sonic pain, but also sees the lively tomboy that will later be struck down by chemotherapy. Along the way Grealy builds a world of lying dentists, uneasy parents, and mysterious operations, a world in which a random collision between the heads of two children serves as the haunting prelude to a lifetime of pain.
For all the strengths in that original essay, Grealy fell just short of creating a true “cosmogony” in “Mirrorings.” Her story is just too long and full of ellipses and tangents to be compressed in such a short frame, and with the exception of her final passage, the scenes contained in that original essay are more thresholds than fully rendered worlds. But when given a larger canvas, Grealy has the room to do the work that essaying requires. She can eschew transitions between chapters and allow herself all kinds of digressions, none of which made an appearance in the original essay. Without the pressure caused from the need to “get to the point” in the short form, Grealy is free to adopt an innovative structure that allows her to tell her story in pieces through a set of interlocking essays.
It’s fitting that Autobiography of a Face ends with a short chapter entitled “Mirrors,” an alternate version of the original Harper’s essay. It turned out that all the material so hurriedly summarized in the middle section of “Mirrorings” was the story – and Grealy succeeded in unpacking that material in the first eleven chapters of the book. In the last chapter, she’s free to focus at last on the experience of being alone in Scotland, where she’s forced to “live and move about in the outside world with a giant balloon” inside the tissue of her face. The book ends with the same devastating four-hundred word scene that closes the original Harper’s essay, in which Grealy sits with an attractive man in a café and finds herself wondering what he is seeing.
In the end, it was the book-length memoir that gave Grealy the freedom to tell a far fuller and more discursive story, and yet her original blueprint served her well. “Mirrorings” turned out to contain within its slim form the entire arc of her book, chapter by chapter, as well its ending, which Grealy pasted from the original essay virtually unchanged. By the time we encounter that material, we’ve been looking through Grealy’s eyes for two hundred and fifty pages. Since we firmly believe in the cosmogony she’s created for her readers, the final scene becomes all the more powerful as a meditation on Grealy’s lifelong efforts to come to terms with the image she presented to the world – and her tentative willingness to try to see herself for the woman she had become.
Jessica Wilbanks (@creativenonfic) received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston, where she served as nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ruminate and Ninth Letter, and she’s currently at work on her first book, a memoir entitled Bigger than Any Single One. Visit her online at http://jessicawilbanks.com.