Essays are beautiful shapeshifting creatures that can refashion their form to fit a whim, or slide into a pre-existing shell, like hermit crabs. They’re diverse and transgressive, modern and traditional, surprising and soothing; they can make you laugh out loud, or weep like a child; they’re often hopeful, usually reflective, but always unexpectedly delightful (that is, if they’re done right).
Among such an unconventional, hodgepodge of a species — and one known for its nuance — I wonder: is there a “wrong way” to start a personal essay?
A professor of mine certainly thought so, or at least, he strongly discouraged us from ever beginning an essay in a certain way, which is: by withholding important information for the sake of creating suspense or being intentionally misleading.
I’ve come to agree with him on this best practice of transparency.
As a writer, it’s tempting to lead readers down the garden path, only to make a blind-siding revelation several pages in. There’s drama in this technique, and it’s used the opposite of sparingly in fiction. But it seems rather out of place in the realm of the essay. I’ve often felt tricked when an essayist withholds information; suspense in this context seems more like a gimmick.
And yet, I’ve seen this guideline bent, with pleasing effect. I came across it a few months ago while reading Max Beerbohm’s essay “Something Defeasible,” which begins this way:
“The cottage had a good trim garden in front of it, and another behind it. I might not have noticed it at all but for them and their emerald greenness. . . . I liked the look that [the cottage] had of honest solidity all over, nothing anywhere scamped in the workmanship of it. It looked as thought it had been built for all time. But this was not so. For it was built on sand, and of sand; and the tide was coming in.”
Until we read this almost biblical line about the cottage being built on sand, we are envisioning a completely different one.
Beerbohm spins the same kind of literary joke as Charles Lamb, who declares at the beginning of his essay, “A Chapter on Ears,” “I have no ear.”
This inspires a startling imagination of his physiognomy, yet he immediately implores us not to imagine (even as we are) “that I am by nature destitute of those exterior twin appendages, hanging ornaments, and (architecturally speaking) handsome volutes to the human capital.” Two full paragraphs later, he finally explains what he means: “When therefore I say that I have no ear, you will understand me to mean—for music.”
In both instances, the essayist intentionally withholds: Beerbohm that the cottage is made of sand; Lamb that he isn’t referring to the physical ear. But I do not begrudge Max or Charles these omissions.
Rather, I laugh, and congratulate their cleverness and the pleasing effect of these omissions, which then causes me to reflect that perhaps we all take ourselves too seriously.
But I’ve also seen the pleasing advice of my professor play out well on the big screen, in a movie that immediately impressed me as being essayistic. I recently re-watched Sully, a 2016 film staring Tom Hanks who plays the real-life pilot Captain Sullenberger who guides a commercial aircraft to safely on the Hudson River after birds strike both engines shortly after take-off at New York’s La Guardia Airport.
Instead of withholding, we know early on in the movie that the landing was a success, not a crash, but a deliberate, if unprecedented landing, in which everyone on board — all 155 people — survive. This movie doesn’t hang on the trope of suspense. Or at least, not the kind with the life-or-death dramatic effect it could easily have been. It’s not merely a recreation of the experience.
Granted, we are perhaps given a trick similar to Beerbohm’s and Lamb’s at the beginning when we see a commercial airplane roar through and crash among skyscrapers, only to be woken up from Tom Hank’s nightmare not three minutes into the film. So there’s a hook of suspense, but the briefness of the scene, with little build-up before, is not the same kind as it could have been. But, unlike Beerbohm’s and Lamb’s essays, we are not laughing.
This opening, rather, allows the drama of the event to ooze off the stage so that a different consideration can come into focus: the unfolding of a mind. The movie is filled with numerous replays of what happened or what could have happened, flashbacks triggered by a word, something Sully sees, nightmares, and simulations: it’s a movie concerned with memory, with time. It feels very real, and fittingly so, with a realistic portrayal of the mind which trauma leaves in its wake. Around this extraordinary event, we recognize the humanity of us all, beautifully, mimetically portrayed.
It’s not that there isn’t a plot to Sully; the film follows the personal investigation that he must afterwards endure. But the suspense in Sully is that of witnessing a mind unfold.
Question: How do you practice this unfolding in your own writing?