Aha, I thought, as we discussed parallels in the writing process. Although I may start an essay with a notion of where I am headed, inevitably I veer away as I get new ideas or encounter dead ends. Sometimes I even seem to go backward, losing all direction.
Looking at my life a year ago and I have to say studying vocabulary words for anthropology or writing essays on the possible origins of World War I were not activities that I was motivated in participating in....
I also wish to strengthen my grammar and interpersonal skills.
First of all, endings are related to beginnings. That’s why many essays seem to circle back to where they began. Annie Dillard, in her widely anthologized piece “Living Like Weasels,” opens with a dried-out weasel skull that is attached, like a pendant, to the throat of a living eagle—macabre proof that the weasel was carried aloft to die and be torn apart. Then, at the end of the essay, Dillard alludes to the skull again, stating, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
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Narrative essays keep us engaged because we want answers to such questions. The tension begs for resolution. We keep on reading unless the writer stops stair-stepping upward toward the critical moment when change becomes necessary. If she flatlines on an emotional plateau, not raising the tension, then we are likely to lose interest and walk away. “Readers do not want to put their foot on the same step twice” is the way veteran essayist Bill Kittredge put it while swapping ideas at a writing conference. He had learned this principle from screenwriters in Hollywood and insisted, “Think what you want, those guys know how plots work.”
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One interesting side note: trauma, which is a common source for personal essays, can easily cause an author to get stuck on the sort of plateau Kittredge described. Jo Ann Beard, while clearly wrestling with the immobilizing impact of her own trauma, found a way to keep the reader moving both forward and upward, until the rising tension reached its inevitable climax: the graduate student firing his gun. I have seen less-experienced writers who, by contrast, seem almost to jog in place emotionally, clutching at a kind of post-traumatic scar tissue.