| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write In an Essay, Let Us Borrow Your Eyeballs—or Anyone Else’s, Really, Even a Bird’s
Meaning is an abstract concept. It needs a container. Concrete details are those vessels, the building blocks, the foundation of a good essay.
As an editor at Catapult magazine, the editorial notes I give most often are as follows: “Be more precise.” “What does this look like?” “This is summary. We need specificity.” “Let us borrow your eyeballs.” That last one is more figurative than the others, but they are all variations on my most favorite of all the old adages: Show. Don’t tell. Hot take, I know.
In nonfiction, which comprises ninety percent of my editing workload at this magazine, there are times and places for telling, of course. “Just say what you’re thinking” is also something I regularly write in the margins of my writers’ drafts; a hallmark of essayistic writing is to put the thinking on the page . (Yet another editorism I exhaust.) But if the entire piece is just a bunch of thinking and telling, feeling and gerunding, the prose reads as vague, in my opinion, untethered to any lived reality or specific time and place.
Anyone can lose their mother to cancer and feel sad about it ( hello! ), but the particularity of that experience, the details of the literal physical landscape as well as the personal emotional terrain, give further context and dimension to the story. Indeed, a narrator’s external environment can help describe and illuminate their internal condition. By the way, if this sounds terribly basic to you, then a) show me what you’ve got, if you’re so good at it , and b) you should know that the lesson bears repeating.
For example, I was stuck in Brooklyn, in self-isolation at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when my mother died in Manila. I couldn’t be with her at the end of her life, during the most significant disruption to mine (doubly so, given the way Covid upended all our worlds), yet it was a sunny day outside my apartment when my stepfather called with the news. To see the sky so unnervingly blue, the verdant trees brimming with chlorophyll, turning sunlight and air and water into life—that they dared yet live —was offensive and galvanizing to me in equal measure. Life, goddammit, goes on.
Besides the visual too, beyond what is “seen” or can be shown , other sensory details must come into play: the aural, the tactile, the gustatory, the olfactory. I smelled roses when there were none for weeks after my mother died. “It’s a sign,” she once said after her own mother passed away, when she smelled phantom flowers. “She’s here. Somewhere.” Moments of specificity, captured snapshots from an author’s life and rendered through a narrator, depicted through dialogue and scenes and anecdotes, provide deeper texture and particularity to a situation and, Muses willing, lead you to a story.
Here’s a short writing exercise. Take a paragraph or two from a personal essay you’re working on. The more “tell-y” it is, the more bogged down it is by pure emotion and descriptions of those feelings, the better. Recall the moment when those feelings arose: the goodbye at the train station, the reunion at the party, the phone call that changed everything.
The task: Rewrite that section of your essay and narrate the scene as if the narrator were a bird. Literally write from a bird’s eye view. Stick to concrete details only. Notice the time and place. Watch how the humans act and behave. What do they look like? What do they say? (Pretend the bird understands the local human language.) How do they react to each other when they speak or take action? How do those reactions manifest in the sounds of their voices, on their faces, in their strange human limbs? Refrain from imagining the bird’s interior life, at least for now; you can send that short story to Ploughshares . Just focus on everything observable to the naked eye. From there, pick and choose the most relevant elements and incorporate them into your essay by tying your emotions and feelings and reactions to the concrete details born from doing the above exercise.
Rewrite a section of your essay and narrate the scene as if the narrator were a bird. Literally write from a bird’s eye view.
Think of how films work: External details like dialogue and action provide cues that allow us insight into the interior conditions or motivations of the people on screen without the need for a disembodied narrator to explain the whats, whys, and hows of the narrative. In essays, we get the privilege of a narrator, so we kind of get the best of both worlds. Ultimately, you can, truly, just say the thing. But meaning—the analysis or the thesis (at best, in my view) or the thoughts that make up “a meditation on a subject” or the lesson (at worst, in my view!) that we as essayists purport to discover and put to paper—is an abstract concept. It needs a container. Concrete details are those vessels, the building blocks, the foundation of a good essay. Save the unmediated feelings for your bullet journal. (I don’t think I am against feeling, but that is something for me and my therapist to discuss.)
Certainly, it is difficult to take in the world with all senses available to you in the moment as you live it, especially in times of great stress or emotion—let alone remember them well enough to write about them truthfully, with a measured hand and a measured heart. (Conversely, some days we remember most vividly for how awful or joyous they were.) This is why I always consult secondary sources, even with regards to my own personal life.
Many times I called friends during the drafting of The Groom Will Keep His Name , asking them to confirm, correct, or corroborate details from parties and fights and relationships past. My mother herself factchecked the essays that dealt most significantly with the story of our family and our immigration from the Philippines to the United States. She explicitly appears in an essay saying as much: “No, anak. That wasn’t it. Not exactly.” ( Page 228 in the Apple Books version , sold everywhere where Apple Books are sold.) As authors of personal essays, we can—we must , I think—lean on perspectives and memories and expertise besides our own.
Here’s a secondary exercise. You know that section of your essay you picked for that first exercise? Talk to someone else who was there for that emotional moment and briefly interview them. (The conceptual bird who watched the whole thing is not an option.) How does that other person remember the same event? How closely does their account resemble yours? What things do they recall that you also recall? What did they notice that you didn’t? By comparing and contrasting different accounts of an event, you might find resonances that might affirm your takeaway from a situation—or dissonances that challenge your previously held notion of what a personal event meant to you and/or the other person/people.
Talk to someone else who was there for that emotional moment and briefly interview them.
From there, explicitly work that process of discovery into the essay—put the interviewing onto the page, as it were. It helps you think more critically about the feelings you experienced and the story you’re now telling. If nothing else, it proves your due diligence as a writer with a healthy skepticism about the fallibility of human memory and meaning-making. That was the one thing I took away from public school math class: Show your work.
I should say, there are many essayists out there who work purely in the realm of the conceptual abstract. A few of them do it well. But I share another gospel, brought up as I was in a different church (Nondenominational Journalistic). There is no one right way to write essays, but I’ve always been an advocate of the form’s accessibility and approachability, especially that of the personal essay. It’s a way to chronicle our lives as we live them, to make sense of its muck. By depicting a life in all its specificity and glorious particularity, a reader is invited to understand and see (and hear and touch and taste and, yeah, smell) the world as one unique writer understands and experiences it.
As I write this, the construction workers outside my window resume work on a new building across from mine. Noisy as they’ve been, they’re working quite fast. They’d barely broken ground when I left my apartment in May for a season of traveling; one of my trips was to the Philippines, to finally visit my family for the first time after my mother’s death. The building made lots of progress when I was away. I returned in September and it was already standing. It still needs walls, and I can see into its guts, but it seems a sturdy thing. Its foundations are concrete.