To write an essay, a writer begins to collect ideas, dreams, memories, scientific research, scenes, and images about a topic that is of utmost importance to them. I wrote about this in a post about obsessions, why it’s good to sit comfortably within your obsessions.
While sifting through your collection of material about a chosen subject, the question becomes, as Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us and many other fine books, first said to me,
“What is the story? What does it mean? Why is it important? What am I trying to say?”
Then you figure out the most appealing and artful way to say it.
Often you start writing before you figure out the “most appealing and artful way.” Don’t sit and wait. The best way to start can come to you during rewrites.
So, first, just get started. If you get stuck, do some flow-writes: What I’m trying to say is…or What I want to say about this is…
Order means the sequence in which we narrate the parts of an essay to create arrangement (structure.) Find an order. Reorder. Reorder again.
Many metaphors come to my mind with arrangement. I think of a train moving down a track—which car goes first and which goes next, how they get arranged, how the engine is so powerful and how we all love that mineral-red caboose signaling the end.
In terms of metaphor I think too of constructing a hiking trail in a wood—you flag a trailhead and think about landmarks a hiker would want to experience, and decide where to bring the hiker out of the woods, maybe on the opposite side of a parking lot. Essentially this means
- where you start,
- where you go,
- where you come out.
My favorite metaphor for order, however, involves a feed sack. When you live on a farm, you open lots of these unless you grow your own animal feed. Feed sacks are stitched together with thick cotton thread in an intricate weave, and the factory leaves the thread-ends dangling. If a farmer pulls most any of the loose thread-ends, it will tighten into a knot. However, one thread will not tighten but will unravel beautifully and open the bag. (Usually I don’t find it and I wind up hauling out a pocketknife and slicing open the bag, but if I am lucky enough to recognize and pull the magic thread, then with one quick zip a bag of golden grain lies waiting.)
That’s what happens with story. You work your way through your collection of ideas, dreams, memories, scientific research, scenes, and images. You begin to write, or to unzip the thread. If a knot begins to form, you try another thread. One of them is going to work.
You have to find the one magic thread.
I like to start an essay with an anecdote. That’s how my writing mentor, William Kittredge, taught me to do it. A scene right at the beginning makes your piece come alive, and hopefully inspires you to work more in scene (showing) and less in abstraction (telling.)
But that’s optional. Holly Haworth has a gorgeous essay in the recent anthology Solastalgia (University of Virginia Press, 2023, edited by Paul Bogard) that relies on a couple of very short scenes but that is mostly deep-time reflection on eco-grief. She begins with the idea of feeling, stirring around the multiple meanings of the word (physical, emotional). Finally she picks up the theme of hands, how useful our hands have been to us, and ends with her driving line: How we move forward through the climate crisis is by us feeling our way ahead. “I think we could feel our way forward like this, in the darkness, through the disappearances.” Hers is a beautiful and inspiring essay. I cite “A Return to Feeling” to give you an example of how one genius writer took a collection of material and turned it into a bag of golden grains.