Motherhood & Words

struggling with structure

No luck on Thanksgiving not gorging myself. In fact, I ate excessively all weekend. And now I have a horrible cold. (Not that these two things are related. I only wanted to point out that I’ve been uncomfortable—in slightly different ways—for many days now. With Sudafed off limits I’d actually go so far to say I’m now miserable.)

But enough complaining. On to more important things:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how successful essays are structured. I’d like to cull a couple of essays from my manuscript, but it’s such a daunting task—cutting and rearranging in an attempt to boil down 300 pages into manageable essays. I know writers who do this regularly, but it seems to be a skill I lack. How does one do it? If I had begun with essays and turned them into a book would it be easier? Or would it simply be a different struggle?

Yesterday in class we talked about structure, and I had my students read two essays: “Moonrise” by Penny Wolfson, about which I’ve already posted, and “The Sound and the Worry” by Suzanne Kamata. One of the reasons I chose these two essays was because both have taken large events that covered years and condensed them into manageable essays. “The Sound and the Worry,” published in the Summer 2004 issue of Brain, Child, is about Kamata’s daughter’s deafness (due to being born 14 weeks premature) and Kamata’s desire for her to have sound and, ultimately, find happiness. Now I know some of Kamata’s story and have referenced other essays and stories she’s written about her twins’ birth at 26 weeks. I know it’s a huge story, so what impresses me so much about “The Sound and the Worry” is Kamata’s ability to focus in on one strand of the story—her daughter Lilia’s deafness—and follow that through without getting distracted by everything else that I know was going on at that time. So impressive.

Wolfson does a similar thing in “Moonrise,” an essay about trying to come to terms with the inevitable end of her son’s life due to Duchene, a form of muscular dystrophy. It’s an essay about her son growing up and deteriorating all at once, about the fragility of life and at the same time about finding the beauty in life, even when it is fragile and finite. She is able to contain sixteen years of her son’s life in mere pages, and it blows me away every time I read it. Wolfson also has a memoir by the same name, which of course I need (and want) to read. Maybe it would help me see how one pulls an essay from a book. (Of course I don’t know if she wrote the book first and then the essay or vice versa. Maybe it doesn’t matter.)

You can’t access either of these essays online, but if you go to Brain, Child’s archives, you can order the Summer 2004 issue for “The Sound and the Worry.” You can find “Moonrise” in Best American Essays of 2002. (I guess you can access “Moonrise” online here if you are an Atlantic Monthly subscriber.) I’m also going to order Wolfson’s memoir, because I obviously need some help.

Also know that Suzanne Kamata’s first novel, Losing Kei is forthcoming in January. I’ll post about it then.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Special Needs Mama on November 28, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Hey Kate,

    My two cents–and this is a fascinating topic to me, one I will definitely reference and share with my students–is that the best essays start as essays. I’ve been wanting to pull excerpts out of my own memoir, but they still feel like excerpts, and not complete. I’d love to hear what Suzanne has to say about The Sound and the Fury, and how that one came about (which is a beautiful essay, thanks for reminding me). Again, very provocative! You’ve got me thinking about writing at 7:52 in the morning. Bravo!

  2. ukrainemom on November 28, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Hi kate,

    I found your blog through pinwheels and I am so glad I clicked on. I have a pile of essays and I am trying to figure out how to put them together in a book. I will be checking back often. Please, continue to ponder and I will continue to glean.

  3. coarse gold girl on November 28, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Kate,

    I hate editing my own essays. It reminds me very much of the process of deboning a fish. Even days into it I continue to find little bones, sometimes even nearly invisible, see-through ones. . . and if I pull too roughly or in the wrong direction the whole shape of the fish is lost. It becomes a pile of mangled mushed of fish flesh.

    I never re-read an essay I have written without thinking how one word should be altered, dropped, replaced. . . I don’t like editing but it is a compulsion. I often find that what I thought was one essay is really two or three, waiting to be untangled.

    Thanks for the morning thoughts and I will definitely look up those essays that you mentioned.

    Have you read Amy Tan’s new collection of essays, “The Opposite of Fate”? Another blogger I read was recommending it today.


  4. *camerashymomma* on November 28, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    very fitting post for me today as i got a very helpful constructive criticism on some words i had submitted. “rambling” was like a sucker punch. but she was right. and i took the challenge instead of shying away from it. i’m learning.

    i often think of how it would be to write a book to write a book. not to write essays and then sew them together trying to match threads and similiar fabrics. i doubt that either way is easier.

    thanks for the links and titles!

  5. kate on November 30, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I’m so glad I’m not alone in this struggle. Vicki, I think you’re absolutely right that the best essays begin as essays. All my “essays” from the book feel like excerpts. I wish I had the time and focus to begin new essays, from scratch.

  6. Gaijin Mama on December 4, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    I agree with Vicki. Although it’s tempting to carve up longer works to make them marketable and go for that instant gratification, it’s pretty hard to do. Once, when I was trying to excerpt a friend’s novel for an anthology and having a hard time, the friend said that he was glad because a novel should be well-integrated and not easily picked apart. I think the same goes for memoirs.

    The reverse is true as well. I had some thoughts about stringing my essays together into a memoir – instant book! – but there would be too much repetition, and each essay would have to be imploded to make room for all the other stuff that I didn’t put in (stuff about cerebral palsy in the deaf essays,for instance).

    I’m good at focusing, but I’m not sure how I focus. Maybe that’s one of my strengths. I’m always pondering essays that sort of meander (in a good way) or have material that I wouldn’t have automatically included. I sometimes wish that I could write like that.

    A propos, I recently read Without a Map. I loved the book, but in my opinion, it’s a collection of linked essays, not a memoir.

  7. kate on December 7, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Suzanne, I absolutely agree about Without a Map. It was marketed as a memoir because a collection of essays is so much harder to sell. I know Hall put the essays in chronological order, but you can tell that each one was a stand-alone essay at one point. So I guess it is hard to go the other way, as well.

  8. jennifergg on December 7, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Did you order MOONRISE already? If not, I can share my copy with you. I’d love to, in fact. It’s a beautiful book and shouldn’t be sitting on my shelf!