“Refuse to write your life and you have no life.” — Patricia Hampl
While seated in the departure area of the Edmonton airport a while back I noticed a woman madly scribbling in a notebook. Scattered by her feet were a leather computer bag and a pink suitcase. She possessed an enviable ability to appear as though she were ignoring what was going on around her while actually immersed in the creation of a mind-map. I was tempted to videotape her process. It was slick, deliberate, and resourceful. With a handful of coloured pencils, she captured in pictures and words the physical attributes and snippets of conversation of the individuals and families in the immediate vicinity: details she might later inject into stories.
My studio-office is heaped with such notebooks, binders stuffed with loose-leaf pages and moderately soiled napkins littered with strings of adjectives for future use. I always carry a red Moleskin with me. My writing benefits from soaking up minute details, particulars others would consider mundane. I spy and steal from ordinary folks, people like you and me.
Crafting a personal essay that dazzles fulfills me more than any other writing I do. I’ve heard many say this type of writing is effortless. After all, what could be easier to write than an essay about yourself? It’s a basic form perfected in elementary school, right? Wrong! What separates mediocre from brilliant is constructing text with burning appeal and relevance for the reader. Sharing the events of a summer vacation or some other personal experience can be dull or gleaming. It is through the injection of significant sensory details and vividly written scenes that genius is conceived.
An orderly whisked Kimiko off to insert a long, sterile needle deep into her abdomen to extract amniotic fluid. We were to have had this test and an ultrasound but for some reason not clear to us, we cancelled. I imagined how excruciating the abdominal test would be, how Kimiko would shove a hand to her mouth and bite down to suffocate the screams. (From “Ringo”, Volume 11, Tincture Journal, Australia.)
Creating the right amount of controlled space within and between scenes fascinates me as a writer. If every single detail is shared, little is left for the reader to interpret and consider, thus creating writing that is too predictable.
The writing of personal essays also offers me an opportunity to meld with earlier times and breathe fire into my version of things. As an only child of deceased parents, my recollections can no longer be fleshed out and validated by others. Through putting memories to paper, there’s a chance to revisit intimate times, events, impressions, and space. There’s power in being the one person remaining to come to terms with her narrative.
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