We no longer have the leisure of previous centuries, as Dinty W. Or is it simply that we humans are “wired for story” as Lisa Cron writes in her book by that title? Many fine publications remain open to either treatment—narrative or reflective.
But I still wring my hands over my personal essay writing.
Among my favorites is Natalia Ginzburg’s first published in 1962.
In it, Ginzburg employs repetition, counterpoint, and hyperbole to describe the ways in which she is inferior to her almost preternaturally astute and accomplished, though rather imperious, husband, only inserting glimpses of his weaknesses after we’re just about convinced he possesses none.
Oliver Sacks’ gripping personal essay, “Bull on the Mountain,” is narrative in form.
Sacks describes his face-to-face encounter with an enormous white bull seated on a path in front of him when climbing a mountain alone in Norway.
On the other hand, a reflective personal essay is true first person writing that explores a topic or idea, without being required to follow a narrative arc, include a climax, or come to a conclusion. Essayist Phillip Lopate, editor of , considers personal essays the “incomplete or tentative treatment of a topic.” He goes on to point out the personal essay’s “digression and promiscuous meanderings,” which I consider the hallmark of reflective personal essays.
Roaming in the wake of the writer’s seemingly disordered thoughts, even down blind alleys towards apparent dead ends, feels comfortably like my own mental journeying.
Like a fictional story, a narrative personal essay can “recount a string of events,” as essayist and editor Joseph Epstein writes in his Forward to .
As in a fictional story, a narrative personal essay includes an inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict, obstacles placed in the path of the main character (or, in the case of a personal essay, the narrator), a climax, and a resolution.