The hallmark of an effective memoir or essay is the blend of scene and reflection, or the “show AND tell.” When I read draft essays or memoirs, I often see a lot of scene but the reflection is light or missing. This is natural; it’s easier to write scenes and descriptions because those are concrete. But the reflection on what has happened and what it all means occurs in the mind. It takes time to reflect thoughtfully on events. Impatient writers might be tempted to skimp on the reflection.
But even once you have the reflection on the page, it can be hard to determine where to put it. How much scene should you have, and how much reflection? There are no easy answers, but you don’t want the writing to be choppy and predictable (i.e. one paragraph of scene, a paragraph of reflection on that scene, another paragraph of scene, another paragraph of reflection, etc.).
I find that writers can start to stress out about this. They are in draft mode and trying, in that draft, to find the perfect balance of scene and reflection. This takes them out of the rhythm and can be a serious stumbling block.
But I have a solution!
Write two drafts.
One draft is purely scene. Put all your scenes in this draft.
Another draft, a separate document, is your reflection. Here you will try to capture the meaning of events and reflect upon them. How did they make you feel? How did these things change your life?
Writing two separate documents will take the pressure off. You can look at them separately and then decide what needs to go where. You can physically chop them up with scissors and play with where the sections go.
You can also use this approach if you are writing something that incorporates essay and research. Write the personal in one draft, and your research pieces in another draft.
Try it and let me know how it goes!
I’m currently working on some essays that combine research and personal experience and I did find it easier to write both sections separately, but I’m still struggling to combine them. It seems a bit forced and I would like to move seamlessly from one to the other. Do you have any further suggestions?
Pat Solstad said:
I still have this phrase on my desk: “How did you feel about that?” Thank you!!
That’s a great idea for a sign. I make one for myself.