Over the years I’ve led workshops in writing the personal essay. Recently a participant asked me when I wrote my first essay and what it was like. I had fun recalling the experience and I’d enjoy sharing it.
It was in 1994. The great February ice storm devastated the Eastern Shore where I live. I wrote to make sense to myself of the troubled feelings and muddled thoughts I had about it. I was horrified by the storm’s devastation, but enthralled by its methods. Violence holds its own fascination. The sheer beauty of how ice, when it freezes on tree branches, sparkles and glistens. It’s fragile and exquisitely radiant. It’s amazing how deadly it can become.
I remember it was foggy during the storm. The temperature for several days remained slightly below freezing. Accumulated moisture began forming ice on everything including tree branches. The ice thickened. It glistened and sparkled festively even as it rent trees apart limb by limb while in their death throes, the trees groaned mournfully.
When the storm ended, I came upon a doe. She was dead by a stream near my house. She was crippled, somehow a victim of the storm. She died alone. My wife and I put her in the thicket where I believed she’d lived. We grieved for her. The first essay I ever wrote was about the experience.
The essay proved, by publishers’ standards, to be mawkish, appallingly sentimental and rejected by a magazine so swiftly that it seemed to me I received their notice in the return mail. My writing life began ingloriously.
Writing personal essays often leads to dead-ends. When it does, I’ll try a new path. The paths get strewn with excess verbiage. I sweep much of it away and tighten it up before more verbiage takes it place. I knew that writing was my new vocation in the same way junkies realizes they’re addicted; we can’t stop.
Personal essayists can claim no authority except their own thoughts and feelings. Shaky ground to be sure. I try speaking my heart as honestly as I can. I must write quickly before I obfuscate and render my thoughts unrecognizable by a host of anxious qualifications and addendums designed to impress. Ego is seductive and always a problem. There’s a lot of catch and release in the writing life.
I found that gathering my thoughts can be like snatching frogs before they hop away. Recalling thoughts is tricky, like attempting to remember last night’s dream. However, the personal essay, as its name implies, is at best an account of the writer’s experience and how she or he thinks about it.
Personal essays can be suspect. It’s because the “I,” appears a lot. Essays are almost always written in the first person. It begs the question; is the personal essay only a narcissist’s exercise? I’d say yes and no. E.B. White once wrote that he was “by nature self-absorbed and egoistical.” I know I have a strong streak of that. Personalities like mine fare better in print than in their marriages or parenthood.
My wife and children often tell me I’m too self-absorbed, preoccupied. My wife treats my astral excursions good-naturedly: she’ll say innocently, “And how are they today?” referring to my spacy demeanor. Her quip is all it takes and I’m right back in the room with her. I move fairly easily in and out of the real world. When I write, I alternate between both.
Craft can be taught. The necessary inspiration and fascination for writing are different from craft. They’re elusive, hard to quantify. Both live in our imaginations. Imagination is the locus of the soul. There, inspiration and fascination are born. And, what moves anyone’s soul is infinitely particular although at the deepest level is also universal. This is so because we all share a common humanity.
Lewis Thomas was fascinated by the lives of cells, E.O. Wilson with ants and termites and Emily Dickinson by certain slants of light. Andre Dubus was a gun nut. Writers do best when they write abut what fascinates them.
As a boy, an old Voightlander camera enchanted me. I believe fascination is the divine incitement to wonder, a holy invitation to look deeply into ourselves while also trying to see beyond the horizon.
Photography informed my writing. I’d been avid photographer since boyhood. I had a good eye. I learned later that I preserved my personal experiences as mental images, like cameras record pictures. Writing is not unlike darkroom work. In a camera’s dark chamber, light rays enter to leave their impressions on film like the images of my life are retained in my mind. Processing the film to develop the picture is like my scrutinizing my mental images to find meaning. And like darkroom work putting images into words is equally as uncertain. Both in writing and in classical photography I might spend hours in the dark before I can see anything clearly enough to make sense of it.
The process of writing the personal essay can be heavy. It’s emotionally demanding. There’s always the vulnerability in putting my thoughts on the line or the fear that I may have nothing worthwhile to say. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated with the process.
An intimate feeling of being connected to others occurs occasionally. I find out – typically long after some essay had been published – that in reading an essay, someone saw something new in it that was familiar to them, or recognized something familiar in what was new. When that happens, I feel useful.
I tell my workshop participants that when their first essay is published they’ll feel a little like scientists who’ve launched a rocket into space. They’re always hoping but never sure just where it will land or whether there’s anyone out there who will ever see it.
With all the uncertainties, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.