Last fall, I took a personal essay writing workshop with a teacher named Kalle Oskari Mattila, who wrote this Modern Love column. It was an online class, which was a first for me, so, I only knew my classmates as talking heads organized like The Brady Bunch credits on my computer screen, each framed by their living rooms.
Everyone was a strong writer and pretty dedicated, which was also a first. In my writing workshop experience, there are at least a couple of people who are trying this for the first time or, frankly, are just difficult to read.
We discussed story structure and elements. None of it was revelatory (okay, everyone, here’s the secret to writing!) but it was stuff I didn’t regularly employ and it was helpful to have it all articulated. The one element that tripped me up and the one comment that would inevitably come that I didn’t want was, “So, what’s the moment of change?”
The moment of change, the axis around which the personal essay supposedly spins. The moment of change has always been difficult for me. First, I don’t know if I change that much. I got the idea to write this recently when I was sitting at my desk working in the same field in which I’ve worked since the late nineties, listening to Smashing Pumpkins like I have since the mid nineties, realizing that I’m unmarried, child free, still in New York, and I thought, “Jesus, what year is it?” Second, I find interesting moments of change hard to come by and I don’t want to just tack on a phony one about self-acceptance.
When I did stand-up, I hated being asked by club owners, “So, what’s your character?” Well, I don’t have a “character.” I just want to write and tell jokes. It reminds me of the movie American Splendor. There’s a flashback of the main character Harvey Pekar trick or treating as a child without a costume. A well-meaning adult bends down and asks, “And who are you supposed to be?” Harvey resentfully replies, “I’m Harvey Pekar.” I always thought that I should be enough. I observe things, I write them down, I talk about them. The end.
The essay that I wrote for the class never really came together, though. I was writing about a break-up, running, and the injury I sustained while running. I was trying draw parallels between healing from the break-up and healing from the injury. I wrote it several different ways, including different events, filling it with all kinds of details. Good details, too, like really really poignant ones. But it never really came together. It never really had a strong enough spine or narrative. As much as I hate to admit it, it never had a moment of change.
Well, that’s not exactly true, I guess I could have come to the end and said, “And that’s when I learned that sometimes bad stuff happens and it sucks,” but I usually save gems like that for my journal.
I’ve been in a storytelling slump lately for this very reason. I’ll talk about some events that have significance for me and I’ll engage the audience and then I’ll come to the end and just sort of peter out and say, “thank you” to tepid applause. I might not be digging deep enough to figure out the true meaning or maybe I need to let things breathe for a while before I realize what the story is really about.
But, in the end, I guess my story is always unfolding and if I just push through this rough patch, I’ll discover what it was that I was looking for all along.
(You see what I mean, right? That ending was unearned, schlocky crap. Sometimes bad stuff happens and it sucks. Remember that.)