To my students, who are struggling with personal essays. . .
So, for me, the pleasure in writing comes from the careful choreography of words and phrases, the shaping of a dance that is the process of making a story. No piece is ever entirely free of ways to make it better, but through thoughtful revision, any writing can be rendered fit to perform.
I’ve been writing the same story for over two years. There have been many versions, some comprising around 3,000 words, one over 10,000. I struggle. How do I tell this story most effectively? How many substories– digressions — do I allow into the narrative? That’s the challenge. That’s the dance.
Is this dance a tango, a foxtrot? Could it be a three-act ballet?
Here’s the story. It’s about my mother. Specifically about my mother and her relationship to her cello. When she and her family were forced to leave Europe and leave behind everything and everyone they loved, she was told she could take only one thing with her. She chose, of all things, her cello. Imagine fleeing across Europe, being stopped at every border by guards who would kill you with little provocation, dragging a cumbersome cello. That cello must have symbolized the whole world she was abandoning. More than that. It contained her sister’s soul – her near-twin sister, her closest ally and dearest companion, who had died a few years earlier. That cello conveyed the music her own mother had lost the ability to sing.
I knew that instrument. I was an only child for nearly four years, and every night she would play as I lay awake wrestling my own fears trying to sleep. I had absorbed from her a sense of foreboding, a fear of dangers I could only intuit. Dangers I suspected she escaped but didn’t know how to name. She could not speak them. But in the dulcet voice of the cello, all her losses, all her pain, seemed to grow tolerable. I could hear her face relax, her smile broaden. All those memories of love and sorrow seemed to have found a place in her heart where she could love them without malice.
My father broke the cello. He didn’t mean to, but he ruined it. How does he fit into this tale? If I tell the whole tale, it becomes sadder.
Shall I write about the flight from Europe and the way the cello facilitated her adjustment to America? Do I write about the way the cello soothed our collective lives? Or do I write about my parents’ marriage and how the death of the cello killed it? That’s all contained within the scope of this project. Each iteration has more or less of every aspect. And then some.
Like the way I tried to emulate and heal that woman. How I wanted her to love me as much as she loved that cello. How much of that should I keep in . . . or edit out?
I wrestle with this the way you wrestle with perfecting your personal essays. You want to tell a story. But you are not sure which story will it be. How do you narrow it down?
A journal helps. You can make notes, write passages, tinker with time and place. Which story can you tell most openly, holding the least of your emotion back? Into which one do you feel most comfortable immersing yourself? Follow that one. . . even if it leads you into steps you never expected to learn. In the end, choose the story that chooses you. It will. At some point, while you’re searching for the right words, hoping for the best inspiration, it will tap you on the shoulder and ask you for your hand.
And that’s when the dance will begin in earnest.