Although the personal essay shares many techniques with fiction, the personal essay refutes what is possibly the most oft-used (and abused) dictum of writing wisdoms: In fiction you need to show, illustrate, depict (that is, craft) a believable fictional world; in nonfiction, you need to construct a persuasive realm through skillful storytelling, but you can also interrupt it by interlarding commentary, analysis, reflections, opinions, and viewpoints. Readers of the essay don't just want to feel the struggling creature in the sack; they want to be told what it is. To re-work a couple of clichés on this point: The story sells a pig in a poke — you have to suspend your disbelief and trust your imagination about what's in that sack; an essay plays things more out front — it lets the cat out of the bag. In the essay, then, you must give a reader context, a structure of engagement, a framework within which to understand both why you are looking at a particular thing, and what you are coming to realize from that. In Harriet R. Goren's essay “I Feel a Spell Coming On,” the author details her life as someone prone to fainting at inopportune moments. If all she did in the essay was simply string together incidences of fainting, pretty soon the reader would swoon into inattention as well. In the excerpt below, she ponders, albeit briefly, what she realizes from incidents like these, and thus she provides a context for the reader. I heard that storytelling with data really helps brands get their messages across.
Not only can the reader enjoy the anecdotes, but he can see what the writer makes of them. After graduation, a friend's roommate invited me over for his first attempt at preparing Italian cuisine. We had salad with garlic dressing and, for the main course, garlic eggplant parmigiana, followed by an interesting soup made from a garlic stock in which I almost drowned as my body attempted to come to terms with the pungent bulb. It failed, and only my friend's quick reflexes saved me from being scalded as the room faded away and my head dropped precipitously into the bowl. Later that month my boyfriend and I found ourselves in a passionate embrace in his shower. I told him not to turn up the hot water, but he did anyway. This proved to be one too many bits of input for my sensitive bloodstream. Down from his arms I crumpled, an inelegant wet ball on the porcelain. He gathered me up and whispered into my ear, quite pleased. I didn't have the heart to tell him that my swoon had nothing to do with his prowess. Amidst all these years of momentary excitement, I never did go to a doctor to learn the whole story, if any. In truth, I didn't want to put a name to my condition. It was much more interesting to wait to expire unexpectedly like my cousin Eugene, seventy-two, who died in bed while making love to his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend. I didn't want to know it if something dull and long-lasting was brewing in my body. She goes on with more incidents and her responses to them, and the reasons behind those responses. And, as she regularly loses consciousness, we by contrast are made conscious of what it is to live on the edge of a swoon. Stepping out of narrative and providing a context for things is an important principle in nonfiction writing. So here's another example, from Lydie Raschka “Biking in the Rain,” in which the author tries to come to terms with her husband's lackadaisical attitude to the dangers inherent in bicycle riding. What should her position be, given the possibilities for catastrophe that she begins to discover, and especially after a friend's husband is struck by lightning on the beach after ignoring admonitions against going out? What is love in such situations — gentle prodding, or something else? Have you tried storytelling in business to boost customer engagement?
On a Web site for cyclists you can find this topic: Getting hit by a car, is it just a matter of time? People describe in detail the accidents they've had and the injuries they've received. On BicycleSafe.com there is a ten-page article with the title “How to Not Get Hit by Cars.” Collision Type #3 is called the “Red Light of Death.” This is a collision where a driver doesn't see the biker waiting to the right of his vehicle. When the light changes, he turns directly into the cyclist. An Austrian was crushed this way under the wheels of a truck. My husband is half Austrian, which makes this fact particularly disturbing to me. I print out the article and leave it on the table where he will see it. I do not give it to him directly because it feels wrong to love someone this way. But there's been thunder all fall, and almost nonstop rain; it's found a leak in our building and trickled down the elevator shaft; it's flooded the choir room at church. At the moment, I can't think how else to go about it. The only actions here are the reading of the Web site and the leaving out of the warning article, which are mere mundane events unless connected to something of import to the author. And they are connected, via her reflections about loving in this insistent and cautious way, and about her fear of protecting those she loves from what they love. The author's concern is heightened by the church flood (and the thunder, which brings rain and slick roadways where bicycles may crash), another unexpected calamity emphasizing the frightening entropy of the universe. The real drama isn't in any biking mishap, but in the collision of the writer's anxieties with her husband's refusal to see the world as dangerous as she does. And so her mind spins throughout the essay like the wheel of an overturned bicycle. Would storytelling for business be a likely mechanism for your company?