Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide
A design professor from Denmark once drew for me a picture of the creative process, which had been the subject of his doctoral dissertation. “Here,” he said. “This is what it looks like”:
Aha, I thought, as we discussed parallels in the writing process. Although I may start an essay with a notion of where I am headed, inevitably I veer away as I get new ideas or encounter dead ends. Sometimes I even seem to go backward, losing all direction.
Nothing is wasted though, said the design professor, because every bend in the process is helping you to arrive at your necessary structure. By trying a different angle or creating a composite of past approaches, you get closer and closer to what you intend. You begin to delineate the organic form that will match your content.
The remarkable thing about personal essays, which openly mimic this exploratory process, is that they can be so quirky in their “shape.” No diagram matches the exact form that evolves, and that is because the best essayists resist predictable approaches. They refuse to limit themselves to generic forms, which, like mannequins, can be tricked out in personal clothing. Nevertheless, recognizing a few basic underlying structures may help an essay writer invent a more personal, more unique form. Here, then, are several main options.
Narrative with a lift
Narrative is the natural starting place since narrative is a natural structure for telling others about personal events. We instinctively turn to chronology as a way to recreate the past, putting our lives into a neat moment-by-moment order. Beware, though. The march of time can be methodical—first this, then this, then this. If unrelieved, it becomes the ticking clock in the jail or, worse, the flat line of death. Savvy essayists, as a result, twist their chronology, beginning at the end or breaking to a moment in the past, even weaving together several timelines. More crucial, though, is their use of tension, which changes the flat line of chronology into a rising line—a plot. Such tension forces the reader into a climb, muscles contracting. It raises anticipation. Will we reach the top? And what will we see from there?
Take, for example, Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” The narrator, abandoned by her husband, is caring for a dying dog and going to work at a university office to which an angry graduate student has brought a gun. The sequence of scenes matches roughly the unfolding of real events, but there is suspense to pull us along, represented by questions we want answered. In fact, within Beard’s narrative, two sets of questions, correlating to parallel subplots, create a kind of double tension. When the setting is Beard’s house, we wonder, “Will she find a way to let go of the dying dog, not to mention her failing marriage?” And when she’s at work, we find ourselves asking, “What about the guy with the gun? How will he impact her one ‘safe place’?”
Narrative essays keep us engaged because we want answers to such questions. The tension begs for resolution. We keep on reading unless the writer stops stair-stepping upward toward the critical moment when change becomes necessary. If she flatlines on an emotional plateau, not raising the tension, then we are likely to lose interest and walk away. “Readers do not want to put their foot on the same step twice” is the way veteran essayist Bill Kittredge put it while swapping ideas at a writing conference. He had learned this principle from screenwriters in Hollywood and insisted, “Think what you want, those guys know how plots work.”
One interesting side note: trauma, which is a common source for personal essays, can easily cause an author to get stuck on the sort of plateau Kittredge described. Jo Ann Beard, while clearly wrestling with the immobilizing impact of her own trauma, found a way to keep the reader moving both forward and upward, until the rising tension reached its inevitable climax: the graduate student firing his gun. I have seen less-experienced writers who, by contrast, seem almost to jog in place emotionally, clutching at a kind of post-traumatic scar tissue.
The whorl of reflection
Let’s set aside narrative, though, since it is not the only mode for a personal essay. In fact, most essays are more topical or reflective, which means they don’t move through time in a linear fashion as short stories do.
Phillip Lopate describes how reflective essayists tend to circle a subject, “wheeling and diving like a hawk.” Unlike academic scholars, they don’t begin with a thesis and aim, arrow-like, at a pre-determined bull’s-eye. Instead, they meander around their subject until arriving, often to the side of what was expected.
One of the benefits of such a circling approach is that it seems more organic, just like the mind’s creative process. It also allows for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles. A classic example would be “Under the Influence,” Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his alcoholic father. Instead of luring us up the chronological slope of plot, Sanders spirals around his father’s drinking, leading us to a wide range of realizations about alcoholism: how it gets portrayed in films, how it compares to demon-possession in the Bible, how it results in violence in other families, how it raises the author’s need for control, and even how it influences the next generation through his workaholic over-compensation. We don’t read an essay like this out of plot-driven suspense so much as for the pleasure of being surprised, again and again, by new perspective and new insight.
The formal limits of focus
My own theory is that most personal essayists, because of a natural ability to extrapolate, do not struggle to find subjects to write about. Writer’s block is not their problem since their minds overflow with remembered experiences and related ideas. While a fiction writer may need to invent from scratch, adding and adding, the essayist usually needs to do the opposite, deleting and deleting. As a result, nonfiction creativity is best demonstrated by what has been left out. The essay is a figure locked in a too-large-lump of personal experience, and the good essayist chisels away all unnecessary material.
One helpful way to understand this principle of deletion is to think of the essayist looking through a viewfinder to limit the reader’s focus. The act of framing a selected portion of raw experience from the chronological mess we call “life” fundamentally limits the reader’s attention to a manageable time and place, excluding all events that are not integrally related. What appears in the written “picture,” like any good painting, has wholeness because the essayist was disciplined enough to remove everything else.
Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting” is an odd but useful model. She limits that essay to a single evening walk in London, ostensibly taken to buy a pencil. I suspect Woolf gave herself permission to combine incidents from several walks in London, but no matter. The essay feels “brought together” by the imposed limits of time and place.
As it happens, “Street Haunting” is also an interesting prototype for a kind of essay quite popular today: the segmented essay. Although the work is unified by the frame of a single evening stroll, it can also be seen as a combination of many individual framed moments. If we remove the purpose of the journey—to find a pencil—the essay falls neatly into a set of discrete scenes with related reveries: a daydreaming lady witnessed through a window, a dwarfish woman trying on shoes, an imagined gathering of royalty on the other side of a palace wall, and eventually the arguing of a married couple in the shop where Woolf finally gets her pencil.
Today, many essayists are comfortable simply letting go of the overarching story line (such as Woolf’s journey to buy a pencil) so they can organize disparate scenes in a more segmented fashion, separated by bits of white space. All that remains to unify the parts is an almost imperceptible thread of theme, not narrative. Will Baker, for instance, relies on nothing but a title—“My Children Explain the Big Issues”—and four section headings: “Feminism,” “Fate,” “Existentialism,” and “East and West.” Each of his framed vignettes is about a remembered moment with one of his kids. These moments have a broad similarity as a result; however, without their attached labels, we would not be able to connect the parts in a fully satisfying manner. The titles allow us to string together a kind of thematic necklace.
Dipping into the well
Our attention to thematic unity brings up one more important dynamic in most personal essays. Not only do we have a horizontal movement through time, but there is also a vertical descent into meaning. As a result, essayists will often pause the forward motion to dip into a thematic well.
Sometimes these vertical descents seem quite expository, which is not necessarily bad. Contrary to the high school teacher’s oft-repeated maxim—“Show, don’t tell!”—the essayist is free both to show and tell. In fact, I once heard the nonfiction writer Adam Hochschild scold a group of MFA students for being so subtle in their writing that they left out critical signposts that readers needed. “Don’t be so afraid to say what you mean,” he counseled.
Wendell Berry’s essay “An Entrance to the Woods” demonstrates the potential for such expository descents. In the middle of a quiet description of an overnight camping trip, Berry notices the distant roar of cars on a highway, and the “out-of-place” sound leads him on a long tangent. He describes how the “great ocean of silence” has been replaced by an ocean of engine noise, in which silence occurs only sporadically and at wide intervals. He imagines the “machine of human history—a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it.” And the reader realizes that what appeared to be an odd tangent is actually an essential descent into the well of meaning. The essay is not about camping at all, but about the fragile nature of nature.
In fact, Berry uses several of these loops of reflective commentary, and though they seem to be digressions, temporarily pulling the reader away from the forward flow of the plot, they develop an essential second layer to the essay.
Braided and layered structures
So far we have looked at narrative, reflective, and segmented essays, but we have not exhausted our structural possibilities. Far from it. Many essays, for instance, are braided, weaving together two or more strands of story line in an interactive fashion. Judith Ortiz Cofer, in her personal meditation “Silent Dancing,” creates a particularly revelatory braid from two strands: a home movie juxtaposed against her own memories of childhood as a Puerto Rican in New Jersey. To help the reader with transitions, she brackets the home movie with white space, putting the text into italics. We look at the italicized home movie for a while, then her memories, then the movie, and so on, letting one strand surface while the other is momentarily submerged.
Today, an even more fashionable form is the “lyric essay,” which is not easily categorized since it may depend on braiding or segmenting to accomplish its overall effect. However, like the lyric poem, the lyric essay is devoted more to image than idea, more to mood than concept. It is there to be experienced, not simply thought about. And like many poems, it accomplishes this effect by layering images without regard to narrative order. A lyric essay is a series of waves on the shore, cresting one after the other. It is one impression after another, unified by tone. And it seems to move in its own peculiar direction, neither vertical nor horizontal. More slant.
Want an example? Look at Judith Kitchen’s three-page essay “Culloden,” which manages to leap back and forth quite rapidly, from a rain-pelted moor in 18th-century Scotland to 19th-century farms in America to the blasted ruins of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the author’s birthday. The sentences themselves suggest the impressionistic effect that Kitchen is after, being compressed to fragments, rid of the excess verbiage we expect in formal discourse: “Late afternoon. The sky hunkers down, presses, like a lover, against the land. Small sounds. A far sheep, faint barking. . . .” And as the images accumulate, layer upon layer, we begin to feel the author’s fundamental mood, a painful awareness of her own inescapable mortality. We begin to encounter the piece on a visceral level that is more intuitive than rational. Like a poem, in prose.
Coming Full Circle
Regardless of form, all essays must end, which raises a final worthwhile question: how to bring closure?
First of all, endings are related to beginnings. That’s why many essays seem to circle back to where they began. Annie Dillard, in her widely anthologized piece “Living Like Weasels,” opens with a dried-out weasel skull that is attached, like a pendant, to the throat of a living eagle—macabre proof that the weasel was carried aloft to die and be torn apart. Then, at the end of the essay, Dillard alludes to the skull again, stating, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
Of course, the effect of returning to her initial image, transforming it into a symbol, is a sense of completion. For Dillard’s weasel-skull conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete. In real life, there is always an “and then,” even if it comes after we have died. So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.
See how deftly Dillard accomplishes this effect simply by positing one last imagined or theoretical possibility—a way of life she hopes to master, that we ourselves might master: “Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.” Yes, the essay has come full circle, echoing the opening image of the weasel’s skull, but it also points away, beyond itself, to something yet to be realized. The ending both closes and opens at the same time.
All diagrams rendered by Claire Bascom. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Volume I, issue 1 of The Essay Review.
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How to Write a Visual Analysis Essay
A visual analysis essay is quite different from a normal essay. Essays in general are descriptive, reflective, argumentative, etc. But a visual analysis essay is different from these as in the visual analysis essay there is no given topic or research statement. Students are supposed to think on the topic and content of the essay by interpreting and analyzing the visual stimulus which might be in the form of a photograph, a portrait, a painting, a sculpture or any kind of artistic object that has some amount of graphical element in it. However, quite often students find it difficult to write such essays as they are not aware of the steps and methods involved in writing a visual analysis essay and as such, the common query they make is: how to write a visual analysis essay? This article is aimed at such students who find writing a visual analysis essay a challenging and daunting task.
Steps in Writing a Visual Analysis Essay
Before starting to write a visual analysis essay, you should carefully study the artwork for a good amount of time. This is the first and foremost step before writing a visual analysis essay. The study should be at first a causal one looking at the overall tone, settings and moods of the character(s) or object(s) in the painting or picture/image. By doing so, some thoughts will naturally come to the mind, like the overall theme or message that the artist is trying to portray through his or her artwork, the background, the underlying themes, motifs or symbols, etc. When all the initial thoughts and ideas have been carefully noted down, you should now try to give more focus to the artwork as this time the aim of the scan will be to look into little and finer aspects of the artwork like texture, composition, hue, emotions, background, colours, borders, etc. By taking a second detailed look at the finer elements of the sample artwork, you will find it easier to join the missing gaps and other clues for making the overall essay. Some of the questions that you should ask yourself while looking at the artwork could be:
- What is the object that the artwork is referring to? Is it animate or inanimate or a mixture of both?
- What is the material used in making the artwork? Is it stone, wood, canvas, paper, etc.?
- What is the form or structure of the artwork? Is it a sculpture, painting, image, portrait, etc.?
- What was the approximate era or period when it was made?
- What is the approximate era or time it refers to?
- Is it representational in nature? If it is, then what exactly is being represented by the image, painting, drawing or sculpture?
- What might be the reasons for the artist, painter to portray the artwork in that particular fashion?
- What emotion does the artwork convey to the mind: colour, texture, tone, shape, space of the sculpture/painting?
- What are the initial feelings that come to the mind after looking at the artwork?
- What are the secondary thoughts that come to the mind on a second look at the artwork?
- Do the initial and secondary feelings and thoughts correlate with each other or are they different from each other?
- What is the overall theme, motif or symbol that the artwork is trying to convey to the reader?
- Does the title of the artwork have any seemingly resemblance with the artwork or is it quite vague and abstract from the artwork?
Structuring a Visual Analysis Essay
After the artwork has been studied thoroughly and all the ideas have been exhausted, the next step is to write all these thoughts that have been accumulated in the mind in the previous steps. This is a basic outline that you should follow while trying to attempt to write a visual analysis essay.
While structuring the essay, it is important that an appropriate thesis is chosen. The thesis is the first and foremost thing that should be kept in the mind while writing the essay, as it relates to the main idea(s) of the visual analysis essay. Another important thing that should be kept in mind while writing the essay is that the paragraphs should both be assertive as well as creative in nature. You should think and reflect on the artwork in a creative way in the initial few paragraphs of the essay. But the later paragraphs should solidify into a concrete statement, by becoming assertive and authoritative in nature. In the end a concluding paragraph should be made so that a proper conclusion is reached and a restatement of the thesis/essay title is clearly achieved.
By following the above-mentioned steps, you will find writing a visual analysis essay an easier task to do.
Most Frequently Asked Questions About Visual Analysis Paper Writing
How to start a visual analysis paper
The first step in writing a visual analysis paper is to review the piece of visual art carefully for a long period of time, ensuring you make note of all notable aspects such as the tone, characters, objects and setting. Record all your thoughts as this will be your guide to creating your visual analysis essay, as they will be the main points discussed. Next, you will want to write your essay starting with an introduction that explains your thesis statement for the art piece. This will be followed by the body of the essay, which explains your main points. The visual analysis paper can be concluded by summarizing the main points and giving your final opinion on the piece.
How to write a visual analysis thesis statement
The thesis statement explains what the visual means to you. This involves explaining aspects such as:
- What the visual meant to the artist compared to what it means to you.
- What the visual meant in the time it was done compared to what it may mean now in the present day.
- Any changes to the meaning of the visual that may have occurred over time.
- Possible reaction of audiences and also your reactions and feelings towards the piece.
How to write a visual argument analysis essay
When writing a visual argument analysis essay, follow these steps:
- Examine the visual carefully and thoroughly.
- Document details such as the artist, when it was created, any characters or objects in the visual, background setting, colors used, type of materials used, etc.
- Use the information you documented to form your visual analysis piece. These can be used throughout the introduction and body of the essay.
- Be sure to include your interpretation of the piece and give reasons for your opinion. Before you conclude, ensure that you have properly evaluated the piece and given sufficient arguments on what was seen and interpreted.
- End the visual analysis paper with a summary of the main points and your final thoughts on the evaluation of the piece.
How to write a visual analysis of an artwork
When writing a visual analysis of an artwork, you will need to describe elements such as the lines, shapes, colors and forms in the piece. Next, you will want to evaluate how they are put together, ensuring a comment on the symmetry, balance, proportion, scale and rhythm of the piece.
How to write a visual analysis of a painting
In order to analyze a painting, you must record the artists name, title of the piece, date the painting was created, medium used, size and the stylistic period. Following this you will need to describe the subject, theme, content, background and ideas ascertained from the piece. Other points that you will need to review and comment on are the focal points, geometric shapes, symmetry and depths of the piece.
How to write a visual analysis of a sculpture
When analyzing a sculpture, you will need to review and document the following:
- Sculpture details artists name, title of the piece, where it was made, when it was made, dimensions of the piece, ensuring that you state the height of it first and the material used to make it.
- Subject matter determine whether the piece is abstract or representational, explaining reasons of your opinion, and give details on the characterization of the piece.
- Other observations to include content, lighting, color, lines/contouring, space and depth.
How to write a visual analysis of a photograph
Analyzing a photograph is similar to analyzing many types of visual images. You will need to look at and comment on the age, dimensions, lighting, color, lines and texture of the picture. In addition, you should make note of any emotions the photograph evokes and any opinions you have on what is in the picture.
How to write a visual analysis of a political cartoon
Cartoonists are expressive persons who use visuals to send their messages. When evaluating a political cartoon, you need to assess the following points:
- Symbols may be used to represent a main point, issue or idea and it is your responsibility to decipher what the artist means.
- Exaggeration is done when they emphasize a physical feature of a character or thing to make a point.
- Labelling is done to ensure that their point is clearly made.
- An analogy is used to compare a complex issue with a more familiar one to help explain it to the audience or help them see it from a different viewpoint.
- Irony is often used to explain their view on a subject matter.
When you have assessed these points, you will need to determine what the issue is and the opinion of the cartoonist. You can then determine whether or not it was a persuasive cartoon and express your thoughts and opinions on it.
How to write a visual analysis paper on an advertisement
Analyzing an advertisement requires you to do the following:
- Introduce the ad by stating the product or service being advertised.
- Give background information on the ad, and maybe a competing ad, making sure to state the medium (TV, radio or press).
- State the target audience it is aimed at, the reaction of the persons to the ad and end with your own thoughts on it.