By Caren CheslerEssayist and poet Hillery Stone lost her 4-year-old dog not long ago. A door was opened. The dog ran out. Several people who tried to steer the dog away from the road inadvertently pushed him toward it. Stone can still hear the screeching of the brakes. And she can smell his scent, but that’s by design. When she picked Wilder up from the middle of the road, she wrapped him in her scarf and rushed him to the hospital, where he died. When the scarf was returned, she wrapped it around her neck and wore it for days.
That was the launch to Stone’s session on “Crafting the Personal Essay” at this year’s Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. Her story of losing Wilder contained all the pain, passion and pathos that makes for a great essay. But that was the important limitation to note, she said: It only makes for a great essay. It’s not an essay in and of itself.
Stone’s talk dove into a challenging reality for aspiring essay writers: Putting an experience on paper, no matter how scary or sad or unique, is a journal entry or a story to tell friends. To become an essay, the experience must be placed in context and build to some universal point. If an essay were a necklace laid out on a table in a line, the death of her dog might be a ruby dangling from it — important and noteworthy but just a component of the whole. That’s because the experience happened only to her, the writer. To merit an essay, the event has to reach people outside of the singular experience. Someone beyond the self must be intersected with for the essay to work, Stone said: “It’s not just the experience itself but its connection to others. A subject beyond the self must be intersected with.” She cited late British novelist and literary critic V.S. Pritchett, who said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”
Stone, who taught essay writing at New York University for 10 years, has work in several publications, including Guernica Mag, the American Literary Review and The New York Times. In her talk at the narrative conference, Stone told attendees that she’s not ready yet to wade fully into an essay about the death of her dog. That’s because she knows what it takes: She immerses herself in the experience, journals about it, jots down details and feelings surrounding it. There are the tangential thoughts and memories that arise and the dreams one has as the mind tries to grapple with the experience itself.
This is the evidence one must collect it when they write an essay, she said. It’s an investigation, and it’s in that pile of evidence — and sometimes the interaction between the items in that pile — that the writer determines the greater meaning of an experience. The writer must go on a quest to uncover that meaning. E.L. Doctorow used to liken this process to driving in a car, where he would focus on just the three feet in front of him that were illuminated by the car’s headlights. Even though it was a short distance, so long as the car kept moving forward he would reach his destination.
The seeds and gestation of an essay
Stone did just that with her essay published in Guernica in May of 2021 called, “Wolf Peach.” In order to show how small or seemingly insignificant the seeds of an essay can be, Stone formulated “Wolf Peach” out of an unsuccessful attempt to grow tomatoes during the pandemic. She had taken her family to the country to better protect one of her children, who has asthma. Once there, she decided to grow tomatoes from seeds. She bought them from a nearby farmer and put a lot of time and effort into their care, watering and feeding them, even moving them if they didn’t get enough sun. Yet by early summer, while they were bushy with leaves, they had not borne a single fruit. She returned to the farmer for advice, confessing that her plants were barren. The farmer and his wife suggested she stop watering them so much and just leave them be. “Plants need stress,” the farmer said.
That’s when Stone says she knew she had the kernel of an essay.
She went on long walks and jotted notes about the experience (although she told attendees they should always take notes in full sentences lest they forget what they meant at the time). She journaled and thought about how hard it was for her to give these tomatoes life, and what that meant to her. She thought about her grandfather, who died by hanging when her mother was young. “What makes something want to live?” she thought. She began free writing, without censoring or editing herself, trying to answer some central questions of what it means to nurture a life, and what it means to want to live. She ruminated about her divorce and her children, who spent periods of time with their father, and about her sister who came to visit, simply handing her daughter to Stone to care for while holing herself up in a room for several days to work on her poetry.
Free writing can lead to connections between seemingly disparate ideas and experiences, Stone said.
After a time, she had a repository of evidence: a sister’s aggravating visit, a dead tomato, a dead grandfather, her grandmother’s subsequent boat trip to America with Stone’s mother and sisters, and some research into biology. These were the pieces of her evidence, which she then tried to fit together or let challenge one another. As she laid it out, some of the evidence was kept and expanded on while other pieces were discarded.
An essay as an inquiry
Stone explained that an essay is built around a central inquiry. The writer often doesn’t know where it’s going to lead when they start. But it’s what they have to figure out as they write to the end of a piece.
The reader should have a similar experience, she said. She likened it to scaffolding, suggesting that people just write and write, extensive and imperfect sentences and paragraphs, in order to get to the best sentences and the most meaningful ideas, which, when all the excess material is removed, will be revealed underneath.
At the end of her own process writing “Wolf Peach,” Stone said she realized it was about how to nurture something so that it thrives, whether it’s a tomato, a child or a sibling, and how much we should intervene to make sure it does. It was as much about a single plant as it was about a family tree, where one generation’s trauma is spread to another, as one branch sometimes shades another, limiting its light and proximity to other branches. As she wrote in “Wolf Peach:”
“I carried the new tomato plant I’d been instructed to ignore and positioned it close to the others in the backyard, for company. I resisted the desire to encourage it. I didn’t trim the dead leaves or pluck the suckers. That summer, I hadn’t remembered how I left my daughter alone when she first discovered books, their nitrogen words, their phosphorus pages—I’m remembering now. By September, a green tomato had swelled, then shaded slowly to gold, then red. Then loosened itself free.”
A final and counterintuitive takeaway from Stone’s talk: While she learned that she needed to exercise restraint to let a person or plant thrive, an essay needs the opposite. It requires an embarrassment of vines and shoots of all kinds. Only then can it be cut back and pruned to its essence.
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Caren Chesler is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Slate, Salon and Popular Mechanics.