This will be short.
Some seven years ago now, I published a story in the Raleigh News & Observer which garnered the attention of an editor. This editor, on the basis of that lone story, had asked to meet me. By the end of the meeting he offered me a job to write a monthly column.
“Just make sure it is true,” he said.
Timidly, I informed this editor that the story I published in his paper was fiction. He was somewhat dumbstruck, claiming it sounded so real. To be fair, the paper called for fiction and nonfiction, so the published piece was relevant if not opportunistic.
“The story was based upon a real-life event,” I said.
I expected him to take back the offer.
He looked at me hesitantly. “Well, for this column, it must be all true,” he said. “I need the first one in two weeks. One thousand words; not one more.”
The short narrative personal essay, like any flash nonfiction and flash fiction, should begin immediately. Chekhov talked about beginning in the middle. Samuel Beckett’s elusive narrator in The Unnamable says “… you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But in order to make it short, one can’t go on too much. Perhaps what Beckett meant is what Carver had to say about the short story: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” In other words there is very little plot in a short narrative personal essay, exposition must be kept at a minimum, and prefacing preferably eliminated. So in that sense, describing what a short personal essay isn’t, to some extent, might be easier. The most obvious is it isn’t a long, braided, meandering piece of narrative. The short narrative personal essay, by its very nature, covers a manageable period of time and place. And it should be established quickly, according to Dinty Moore. What did he mean by that? He meant to get to the story’s core as soon as possible. You’re not telling your entire autobiography. It’s not a memoir. You’re really telling about one event in your life.
Therefore, the story must move forward almost immediately. Here are the first two sentences of Amy Tan’s short narrative personal essay “Confessions”:
My mother’s thoughts reach back like the winter tide, exposing the wreckage of a former shore.
Often she’s mired in 1967, 1968, the years my older brother and my father died.
Note how Tan puts the reader in time. From here she goes on to quickly establish place. Language here, the reader comes to understand, has multiple meanings. Memory is invoked through the natural tides of the sea, it comes in and it goes out, whereas, later, in the story’s final scene, the reader extrapolates that the tide has gone permanently out to sea, as Tan learns her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Note, also, Tan’s choice of “winter tide,” which, as opposed to a different season’s tide, metaphorically invokes loss and death, and, perhaps a foreshadowing.
By the third paragraph, the narration has turned dramatic, and the single event for which the entire essay establishes its power is described in theatrical style, much of it propelled by dialogue. After the death of the father and older son, Tan’s mother has moved the family to Switzerland. One night she confronts the sixteen-year-old Tan about a relationship she has with a boyfriend, demanding she stop seeing him. The mother turns violent, slapping Tan “about the head.” The mother makes ever more demonstrative claims, while Tan carries on this remarkable dialogue inside her head, but without saying anything out loud. Finally the mother says, “I wish you the one die! Not Peter, not Daddy,” something which Tan had always suspected. And then the mother leaves but only briefly for “suddenly” she is back and, this time, she has a cleaver. Remarkably Tan continues her internal dialogue, at times bordering on melodrama, but she, remember, is only sixteen, and as her mother rambles on, threatening to kill her, Tan finally breaks down. “I want to live. I want to live.” She confesses.
Let’s pause for a second. But only for a second. Have you noticed what I have tried to do? I haven’t talked in broad strokes about writing, or sweeping generalizations about essay writing. Immediately I’ve started talking about getting in, getting out, going on. I haven’t even talked about character because the primary character in a personal essay is the writer. And when you’re talking about writing from personal experience, you follow the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself.”
If the drama occurs in the middle, the end often has some final authorial comment. Tan’s comes twenty-five years later, when at a writers’ conference the memory of the event with her mother unexpectedly surfaces. She wonders if her mother would have actually killed her if she hadn’t begged for her life. So she confronts her despite evidence of her mother’s deteriorating memory. Tan’s mother denies the event ever occurred. She says, “You always good girl, never even need to spank, not even one time.”
Tan doesn’t verbally respond to her mother, but the personal essay ends with this final authorial judgment: “How wonderful to hear her say what was never true, yet now would be forever so.”
The short narrative personal essay is much like poetry, a prose poem, and especially flash fiction in that every word must be vital, adding depth one essential sentence at a time, so that despite its length one is building, at least in terms of constructions, maybe not a full house, but a finely built room. In the short narrative personal essay there really is no room for tangents. Amy Tan manages to tell an event in her life, which has the feel of something rich and multilayered in just 660 words.
Parts of our life are hidden away. They rise up in short, sometimes traumatic ways. Find them.
by Robert Wallace
Amy Tan’s essay “Confessions” appears in her collection of essays, The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, about her life, family, and influences.
About the Author
Robert Wallace has published over fifty essays, many of them short personal essays in the Raleigh News & Observer. He is also the author of over 35 fiction stories in journals such as North Carolina Literary Review, Bryant Literary Review, The Long Story, International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, and others. He is the author of the novel A Hold on Time. Wallace has received a Writer’s Fellowship from the NC Arts Council.
Read Robert Wallace’s essay “Storytelling, the Pungo River, and the Search for Hemingway in North Carolina” also in Cagibi Issue 4.