Writing a Personal Essay
Acclaimed novelist, Toni Morrison, likens memory to the way the Mississippi River, and other rivers like it, years after being straightened and pushed into levees by the Army Corps of Engineers, still strain at times to flood its banks and revisit the original, meandering route. “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was,” Morrison tells us, “Writers are like, that remember where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there, and the route back to our original place.”
I have worked with so many writers who worry their inconsistent memory is not sharp enough, exact enough, or reliable enough for them to capture childhood moments with any authority, and, of course, science had proven the fallibility of memory time and time again. [A] But what can we do, as writers?
It has been my experience that most of us remember more than we think that we do. [B] It just takes some time to stop, think, and take our minds back to the original riverbanks. Once we have latched onto one of them—the color of the tablecloth on Aunt Jean’s holiday table and the old fashioned centerpiece she inherited from her grandmother, perhaps—that tiny, small foothold of memory is often the impetus to memories that can help to unloosen yet another, and then another, small detail. [C] These past moments are in your mind still, Morrison is telling us, waiting for us to uncover the moments we have since forgotten. Bringing it to the front just takes time.
In the end, all we promise the reader is that we have done our absolute best to fact-check our memories, and that we have tried our hardest to be accurate. [D] Smart readers know that no other guarantee is necessary or possible.
So, go to the river of memory. [ ] Find one small detail, and start writing for just ten minutes, trying to remember one small detail at a time. See where it takes you today.
Adapted from Moore, D. W. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.