Occasions for Informal Essays

A long, thoughtful letter to an old friend, a reflection on your education or ethnic heritage, a childhood reminiscence--these could all be occasions for informal essays. In writing, informality depends less on subject or structure than on the overall writing context. Informal essays assume a personal stance. They suggest close connections among the writer, the reader, and the subject.

Whatever the subject, and it could be almost anything, the writer is part of it, perhaps the central figure exploring a personal ritual or an Arctic island, maybe a background figure attending a Grateful Dead concert or watching an elephant die. In any case, we enter the writer's mind. We experience the writer's emotions. It's a kind of writing that helps us learn who we are as people, helps us define our values and clarify our vision.

Like fiction and poetry, informal essays are imaginative excursions, and so, are sometimes called "creative nonfiction." Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Barry Lopez are some writers of informal essays whose work you might know already or enjoy discovering.

Writing a Story

A Strategy of Disclosure Foreshadowing and
Withholding Information
People and Places
Compression and Expansion Thickening the Plot Telling and Showing
Beginning in the Middle
and Flashing Back
Using Tension and Opposition Summary

Informal essays are often written as stories that trace a sequence of events from beginning to end with occasional intervals of description or analysis.

The fundamental movement is forward in time, but with chances along the way to pause at points of interest. Remembering this, you won't feel you're getting sidetracked when folding in some description or explanation. Once you've finished a passage of analysis or description, you can come back to the time line and continue moving forward to the conclusion.

Sticking to a straightforward time order can also help you grasp your paper's overall shape. This is especially true in the early and middle stages of writing when you're more concerned with expanding and exploring possibilities than with shaping and rearranging what you've written. Later, however, as you get a feel for your essay's possibilities you may find that other organizational strategies can make your story more interesting and effective.


6.1 Spend twenty minutes sketching out a draft of a story. Write quickly and try to get down the overall flow of events. Follow events through from beginning to end in a time order. Avoid mentioning concepts and emotions. Concentrate on people, places, and unfolding events. Write on one of the following topics, or pick one of your own: a time you took a risk, a time your plans backfired, a time you learned something important about your home town, a time you made a major change in lifestyle, a time you acquired a new skill, a time you gave a gift.

A Strategy of Disclosure

Whenever you write, you're presenting or disclosing information to your readers, and just as it's essential to ask how much information the reader wants or needs to know, it's also vital to consider the order in which you'll give that information. These, then, are two major considerations:

These two questions combine to produce a third:

By the end, the reader will understand that the doctor said my injury was not serious and I would recover quickly, but at the beginning I'll only describe the blood running over my lips. Then I'll tell about the slow, throbbing pain as I sat in the hospital emergency room. That way the reader will wonder, as I did, whether my nose was broken.

The point is to shape and control the flow of information to your readers. While the straight time line is a good starting point, most stories can be improved by experimenting with disclosure strategies like those that follow.

Compression and Expansion

Compression and expansion will help you control the pacing and tempo of your essay. Actually, they aren't separate techniques so much as parts of a single technique for controlling the time flow. Even in real life, where the clock moves with strict regularity, minutes can seem to drag on for hours while whole weeks vanish in an instant. This inner-time--fluid, variable, personal--can be simulated in writing by intentionally focusing on key scenes and developing them in great detail, while other, perhaps much longer periods can be passed over in a few words:

When I stood to leave, my father continued looking down at his desk, as though lost in memory. He shuffled a few sheets of paper and then rearranged them carefully in an order that seemed more satisfying. When he finally looked up, I saw deep sadness in his eyes, as though they were trying to tell me something he couldn't speak of. The following spring, I came home again.

Here, a brief but important moment is expanded in the first three sentences, while the last sentence compresses several months into a few words.

Beginning in the Middle and Flashing Back

This time-tested technique goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, where Aristotle praised it as a way of opening stories up fast and getting readers involved. We've seen that the actual time in which events occurred need not correspond exactly to the time devoted to them in the writing. Besides compressing and expanding time, however, writers can move time around from one place to another. 1945 can come before 1939. Christmas morning can come before Christmas Eve. Spring break can even arrive before midterm exams. Of course, too much disruption of normal time order, or disruptions that are pointless or hard to follow, can only weaken your organization and confuse your readers.

The key to success lies in knowing what you're doing and why you're doing it. Imagine the effect of taking an incident from one part of your story and placing it somewhere else:

Now we move the middle.

Beginning in the middle can allow you to hook your readers' interest by bringing them into the story at a crucial point. Then, once you have them hooked, you can flash back to the beginning and fill in background information before moving forward again to the ending. When using this technique, be sure to signal your readers clearly when you move forward or backward in time.

Foreshadowing and Withholding Information

Experienced storytellers,whether professional writers or old-timers around a pot-bellied stove, understand that suspense keeps the attention level high. Creating and controlling suspense, while never simple, becomes easier if you remember a few basic concepts. As a writer, you intentionally create certain expectations in your reader. Then you can either satisfy those expectations, in which case the suspense disappears, or delay satisfaction until the last possible moment, thereby intensifying and prolonging the suspense.

It's like what children go through in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Television, newspapers, schools, friends, and relatives all create an atmosphere of expectation that something important is about to happen--a holiday, presents, festivities, celebration. Along with the expectation comes uncertainty. Will I get everything I want? Will grandma like the present I bought her? Will it snow?

This sense of expectation colored with uncertainty is the essence of suspense. To create suspense in your readers, you hint at but do not reveal exactly what is to come. Foreshadowing refers to the hinting. Withholding Information refers to the hiding.

Who hasn't seen this scene or some variation on television?

The Simpson family is about to go on a camping trip to the mountains, but at the last minute Homer finds he can't fit all the equipment and the dog into the family station wagon. While he goes inside to tell Marge, Bart decides to experiment with a new packing arrangement, in the process removing the spare tire and leaning it against the garage wall. When Marge comes out a few minutes later, she sees that there is indeed some space left and slips in the few remaining items. "Just needed a mother's knowhow,"' she says as they hop in and take off, the dog playfully hanging its head out the window. Then, as the car pulls away, we get a quick shot of the spare tire leaning against the garage wall.

Fortunately, not all foreshadowing is as obvious and corny as this, but even when it's this obvious, it often works. Every time the car goes around a curve or over a rocky road, the camera can zoom in on a tire.

So much for the foreshadowing. Where's the withholding? Don't we know that the family will get a flat tire at some crucial point? Probably so, although more sophisticated writers sometimes set up false leads along with good ones, making readers guess which hints are important. Even in a situation like the one above, several unanswered questions remain. How will it happen? When and where will it happen?

Thickening the Plot

Imagine, if you can, that while Homer is outside trying to load the car, Marge is inside talking with Lisa, who doesn't want to go camping at all because she has a saxophone concert scheduled for Sunday afternoon. "Don't worry," Marge assures her, "we'll be back in plenty of time." Now we have two stories, which are in a sense separate, yet are intertwined like braided strands of rope.

And while this is a fictional example, real life works that way, too. Every individual story is made up of other stories that overlap and interconnect in interesting ways. If you can identify these strands and see how they interrelate, you can use them to add texture to your essay, shifting like a movie camera from one story to another, yet making sure the reader sees how the stories entwine.

Using Tension and Opposition

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. Who needs tension? Isn't that what causes headaches and ulcers? Why create more of that? These are good questions and deserve answers.

Writers use tension and opposition to discover and explore the texture of experience. Most experience contains opposition, which often produces tension, and not all tension is bad, and not all opposition is conflict. In fact, the poet William Blake went so far as to say, "Opposition is true Friendship." He meant that opposition produces energy and excitement, sometimes even harmony.

What would a tennis match or a horse race be without opposition? An election? A romance? Even a guitar string isn't good for much until it is put under tension by being pulled in two opposite directions, but when it's taut, the slightest touch can produce the most marvelous sounds. Likewise, using opposition to control your essay's dynamic tension can add energy and vigor to your writing.

Tension in writing takes many forms and serves many purposes. It can grow out of opposition between people, between people and their surroundings, between hopes and realities, between tradition and change. A single piece of writing can use several kinds of tension, exploring their interrelationships. As a writer, you should learn to recognize tension, to build it, to control and release it according to your purposes.

You might begin by looking at some of your own writing to see where you've used oppositions or where you could have created more dynamic tension by developing oppositions more fully. Ask questions like the following:

Example: Forrest is terrible in math, but he's getting an 'A' in algebra.

Example: I noticed that the beautician kept scratching her scalp.

Example: In order to find yourself you have to lose yourself.

Example: The grapefruit juice was bitterly sour after the platter of syrupy pancakes.

Example: My father announced that he would catch the pig bare-handed.

Example: Jordan and Barkley glared at each other across the centerline.

Example: Do you mean to suggest that the honorable senator from the great state of Texas is a filthy crook?

Example: After January 15th, all of us who couldn't do twenty-five pushups would have to wear yellow gym shorts.

This is just a partial list of possible kinds of oppositions, but it should help get you going on your own.

Once you develop the knack of spotting oppositions, you'll have acquired a valuable technique for adding energy and force to your writing. The more experienced you get at exploring, extending, and interrelating oppositions, the more lively and engaging your writing will become.


6.2 Read back over the story draft you wrote for Activity 6.1. Look for ways to experiment with the information flow to your readers. Some techniques you can use are Compression and Expansion, Beginning in the Middle and Flashing Back, Foreshadowing and Withholding Information, Thickening the Plot, Using Tension and Opposition. Use them alone or in combination to shape your narrative so that it achieves your purposes and satisfies your readers. Write yourself a note describing at least two changes, you could make in your first draft. Tell how you could incorporate these changes and how they might alter the story's overall effect.

People and Places

A good story is made of more than events. Stories introduce us to people we've never met, take us to places we've never been. They show us how events change people and how people change events. They lift us, however briefly, out of our own world and let us experience another, the world of the story, complete with uncles, cats, blizzards, draperies, bananas--whatever the writer chooses to include.

If you have a sense of your story's overall flow of events, you may be able to spot places where you can pause to fold in some details about the people involved and the place where the story happening. If you're not sure what to write, use The Journalist's Questions or Dramatism to spark ideas.


6.3 Freewrite for 10 minutes on one of the people and for 10 minutes on one of the places involved in the story you drafted you for Activity 6.1. When you finish writing, look back over the draft for spots where you could fold in some of this freewriting.

Telling and Showing

As a writer, you can tell your reader that your uncle was a careful and methodical person, or you can show your uncle at his mitre saw in coveralls, goggles, and work gloves. You can tell your reader that your new apartment looked cold and sterile, or you can show the bare white walls and recently shampooed carpet, the uncurtained windows that looked out over an empty, snow-covered parking lot.

"The action speaks for itself," we sometimes say, implying that no explanation is needed. We know explanations can be useful sometimes, but we know, too, that events themselves are often more dramatic and revealing than any explanation. When you show the people, places, and happenings in your story, you're allowing your reader to enter into the actual texture of events themselves, to feel, see, hear, hear, taste, and smell what it was like to be present.

Often a single, well-chosen detail--close-bitten fingernails or a half-buttoned, black silk shirt--will show your reader more about your subject that a full paragraph of explanation and will be more convincing and memorable as well.


6.4 Look back over the story draft you wrote for Activity 6.1 and note any places you've used telling rather than showing to get your point across. In each case, try to recall the concrete details of the scene itself. Write them down, paying special attention to any details that caused you to think or feel as you did about the situation.


Most narrative writing is organized along some variation of a time order. Understanding this, you have a good sense of direction during the early stages of your writing process. This sense of a story line along which you're moving also serves as a point of reference when you fold in passages of description or explanation.

For a variety of reasons, writers often depart from this strict chronological sequence and adopt another strategy of organization. In doing this, writers make decisions about the kinds and amounts of information that they want readers to have at various points in the story.

As you make decisions about the final form of your story, then, you should remember that one important difference between your story about an event and the event itself is that you control the flow of information your readers receive.


6.5 Write a second draft of the story you began for Activity 6.1. Again, write quickly, but this time include any changes you've been considering. When you finish, get some response to your draft and write another.

Assembling a Montage

A quiltmaker looks at scraps of cast-off fabric strewn about the attic floor and sees a design. Something--some juxtaposition of red next to lavender, some connection of past and present--triggers an impulse, starts an intuitive process. In the end, the quilt is both many and one--many individual pieces and one single object. An artist looks at a shoelace, a matchbook, a speeding ticket, and sees a collage, connections that ask to be made, a statement that wants to emerge.

In writing, a similar process can happen. Seemingly disconnected thoughts and images, facts and memories, can be juxtaposed, lifted out of their original contexts and reassembled into a new whole, a single statement. Ezra Pound wrote poetry this way. He referred to his Cantos as a "ragbag" stuffed with bits and scraps of whatever he encountered that seemed to belong there. The final effect is a sort of verbal montage like you've seen in the movies--slow fade, voiceover, wide pan, jump cut, close up.

To experiment with this approach to writing, you might begin with a series of quick freewrites, collect notes and quotations at random. You could save them under different filenames, print them out, scatter them around the floor, cut them up and tape them back together. You could look for tension and contrast in language, recurring themes, emerging patterns of meaning. Then you could merge it all back into a single document and continue to cut, paste, and move. There's no "right" way to do it, no list of steps to follow.

If you're looking for a way to push your essays beyond rational, linear thinking, you may want to try assembling a montage. The process is intuitive and holistic. It requires imagination, improvisation, and a willingness to experiment.


6.6 Assemble a one-page montage containing at least four of the following:  

Experiment with different sequences and juxtapositions until you see a pattern emerging. Then work with the pattern, cutting and pasting, adding and deleting, until you're satisfied with the result.

Following a Metaphor

A metaphor makes a comparison, and in doing so shapes our perception of the subject. If we say, "Time is a river," we're noting certain points of similarity between the two. Yet we know they aren't identical. We may mean that time is fluid, has currents and eddies, empties into some vast ocean, but not that it's composed of water. If we say, "Time is a stone," we may mean that it's silent, still, indifferent, but not that it's a mineral.

A metaphor has two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor ("time" in the example above) is the subject of the comparison, and the vehicle ("a river," "a stone") is the image to which the subject is being compared. And even though we know the metaphor's two parts aren't identical, so close is their association that something of the vehicle rubs off and influences our perception of the tenor. For instance, instead of merely starting a new computer program, we can now click a mouse on a hotspot and open a window.

Because of this power to shape perception, metaphors are important to writers. While novice writers tend to see metaphors as ornamental or decorative, more experienced writers use them structurally, sometimes extending and exploring a single metaphor throughout an entire work. Occasionally such an extended metaphor will be submerged. That is, the vehicle will be only partially visible beneath the surface of the writing. For instance, notice how, in the two previous sentences, writing (the tenor) is compared to a lake or pool (the submerged vehicle).

You might experiment by using metaphor to clarify central concepts or to connect parts of an entire essay. You might also find it useful to think metaphorically about the overall planning and design of an informal essay. For instance:

This essay will be a thunderstorm: first a sunny sky with a few light clouds and some stirring of leaves, then a sudden drop in air pressure as the clouds join and build into thunderheads (driving rain, thunderclaps, lightning), brief but intense and frightening until the storm blows off east and leaves behind a few broken tree limbs, water flowing down the streets, the grass green and vibrant, the air moist and cool.


6.7 Write up an extended metaphor like the example above, describing an essay you'd like to write or are currently working on. Try submerging the extended metaphor in the essay itself by incorporating specific images and details whenever appropriate.

Creative Rambling

As writers, we're often advised to "stick to the topic" and "get to the point." This is usually good advice, but not always. Sometimes it leads to writing that's shallow and one-dimensional, as though the writer had prematurely closed down the process of inquiry, just to produce something neat and tidy with no madwoman in the attic.

One antidote to this obsession with order and purpose is Freewriting, which is almost by definition chaotic and open-ended. When freewriting, you follow your language and thinking wherever they lead without regard for the consequences.

If you've had good results with freewriting, you may want to carry the process even further by freewriting around the subject, or by forgetting about a subject entirely until one emerges from your writing. You may get so lost in the act of writing that you're almost in a trance, a meditative state, a place where the words write you. Sound mystical? Maybe so, but poets, for centuries, have spoken of "the muse," the voice of poetic inspiration that speaks to and through them in their work.

Follow the stream of your consciousness, tap into your internal language. If a voice leaps up and says, "No!" engage that voice. Challenge it. Enter it. Let the subject find you.

Will you revise this later? Almost certainly. You'll move or expand some parts, cut others. Almost all writing needs revision, and this free-ranging approach may need more than other, more formulaic and pragmatic approaches, but it can also yield richer, more satisfying results.


6.8 Freewrite for ten minutes, allowing yourself to range freely over whatever images and subjects offer themselves. When you finish, go back over your freewrite and highlight four key words or images. Now do four more ten-minute freewrites, using the highlighted words and images as springboards. Again, let the writing go where it will. When you finish, read back over all five drafts. Try cutting and pasting them together into a single short essay.

Openings and Closings

Beginnings serve two important purposes. The first is to get you started writing. The second is to get your readers started reading. Early in your writing you're concerned more with the first purpose: getting off to a good start, maybe with enough push to carry you into the heart of the essay. Yet the beginning that gets you going won't always be best for getting your reader involved. That's okay. You can take care of that later, after you've seen how the essay is taking shape.

The important thing at the start is to get going. If you remember that those first few words you write may never be seen by anyone but you, you'll be able to see that starting point as an entry into your writing process.

Just like entering a cool, clear lake for a swim, there's no single right way to begin. Some people test the water and wade in slowly. Others just plunge right in and start splashing away. Either way, you get wet.

Sometimes a particular word or phrase--"sheepeater" or "dead as a fritter"--may give you the nudge you need to get going, serving as a center of exploration. Maybe a powerful image--your cousin bursting with pride after winning the high jump in the Special Olympics--will spur you to start. You may sense a design or organizational pattern that you are being drawn into completing. Whatever gets you going generally turns out to be just what you needed.

When you're trying to get started, don't be too critical of whatever beginning offers itself. Later, when you're revising, however, you should look critically and suspiciously at your opening. It isn't unusual to find that the first paragraph of the first draft of an informal essay can be lopped off completely with nothing much lost. Cruel and unfeeling as it may seem, the best way to a good opening is often to take one last long look at your original beginning and chop it.

Such radical surgery isn't always the answer, however. The essential requirement is to open smoothly and quickly, to draw your readers into the essay itself, not into an explanation of why you're writing or of what the essay might prove.

If you still don't feel sure about your paper's opening, one final suggestion may help. The seed of a good beginning is often contained in the ending. Think of your ending as a goal, a destination, a place you're working toward. Ask what it is about this point that makes you want to end here rather than somewhere else. Now read back over the essay as a whole and look for a possible starting point, some word, image, or incident that connects with the ending.

Sooner or later, you need to ask: what is it that makes all these ideas and images belong in a single essay? You won't know the answer when you begin writing. But as the essay takes shape, you should start to see what you're working toward, what it is about this subject that makes you want to write about it, what point you have to get across before the essay's promise is fulfilled.

Having reached that point, you should be able to look back over your writing and find the beginning. If you can do that, your readers, when they reach the end of your paper, should feel a sense of satisfaction and closure. The point should be clear, the cycle complete. Nothing should remain to be said.


6.9 Read the opening and closing of your most recent draft of an informal essay. Does your opening contain unnecessary explanation that could be deleted or replaced by vivid, concrete imagery? Does your ending introduce a new topic or try too hard to drive home a point that you've already made? What reader expectations does your opening set up? Have these expectations been satisfied by the closing? Rework the opening and closing of your essay and then write a draft that's ready for final editing.