When I teach personal essay writing, many students are surprised to learn that essays needn’t make a point or answer a question.  An essay may ask a question, explore it, and arrive at a better way to ask the question.  What makes an essay work is movement.  Readers need to arrive at a different place from where we were launched.

I’ve come to understand movement as fundamental to all good literature.  In an essay, movement may happen in the realm of ideas; in fiction or memoir, movement happens in character and plot; in poetry, movement occurs in an aesthetic or in the poet’s relationship to the topic.  Movement is the reason we read.  We want to be transported from one way of being into another, and to emerge from the book changed, however slightly.

For this reason, much of revision’s work is identifying and amplifying transformation within the text.  What real changes occur?  Where?  Usually the external changes are easy to identify—the events that impact character and move the plot forward.  These touchstones in the physical world are essential to good stories because they ground readers, meaning they help us embody the action and therefore stay engaged.  The internal changes are often harder to identify.  What are the subtle shifts in thought and emotion that influence characters’ actions?  This internal story is essential.  Without it, the plot has no inner life.  Finally, the narrator or the author experiences a transformation, however small, during the writing.  This shift may or may not appear in the text, but it is essential to giving the story vitality.

All three layers—the outer story, the inner story, and the narrator’s story—need sharpening in revision.  Usually a draft is strong in one arena and weak in others.  A narrative comprised entirely of outer story reads like an action movie, all plot and no character.  Readers may long for depth of meaning or the complexity of human relationships.  Too much outer story frequently leaves readers asking, “So what?”  A narrative comprised entirely of the inner story is also difficult to read.  We’re whole human beings, with senses and bodies and sexual drive and conversations and relational dynamics…Too much living in our heads begins to feel removed from reality.  We need moments of action and interaction to support the interior dialogue.  Finally, too much emphasis on the author’s transformation reads like a journal entry, self-absorbed and inaccessible to the reader.

A good revision exercise to help you identify movement is this:  On a large piece of blank paper, draw a timeline of your story’s external changes.  Then articulate the internal shifts that take place during this action.  How has your character (in the case of memoir, your younger self) changed in his or her thinking, feeling, and relationships?  If you cannot identify internal changes, consider whether the external action is necessary to your story.  If internal changes occur without accompanying external events, brainstorm ways to show in scenes (dialogue, body language, action, physical environment, etc) the internal life.

Finally, spend time journaling about your relationship to this project.  What’s in it for you?  Why are you writing?  What have you learned from the writing?  What might this project yet teach you?  This self-awareness about intention and motivation can inform your story.  My partner recently asked me, “In what ways do you wish you could grow up to be like your novel’s narrator?”  By exploring those humble, unformed parts of myself that are manifest in my book, I get a better understanding of my characters and the arc of my story.  Our stake in a project may appear overtly in the text or it may appear between the lines, but regardless we must know what it is for its movement to hook the reader.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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