When writing stories, it’s important to use strong story structure. In the excellent article, Writing the Personal Essay, Adair Lara discusses the skeleton that supports all good stories. Most essays, short stories, novels and memories that we read are held together by this structure. So are most plays, movies and even musicals. This structure includes:
The main character in a personal essay is the author. You are the main character in your essays. Convey what makes you unique. Why does the reader care about you, relate to you and want to get to know you by reading your story?
What is your problem? Typically you want something that you don’t have and can’t just fire up the computer and order online. This is where the tension originates. It’s what engages the reader.
The struggle is what the character (i.e. you) does to solve the problem. The actions taken. Usually there are a series of actions and obstacles. This maintains the tension.
An epiphany is a moment of insight, often triggered by an experience. It often changes you because it shifts your perspective about yourself and your relationship to someone, something or the wider world.
The resolution resolves the initial problem in some way. The reader sees the character (i.e. you) change behavior and by witnessing this is convinced of the underlying change. The reader can often apply these insights and growth to her own life.
Evaluating Goddess Blooming
Now let’s illustrate these elements using my essay, Goddess Blooming, published in la Vie Sirene.
Before continuing, I suggest you read the article to identify the main character, the problem, the struggles, the epiphany and the resolution. Once you can identify these in other articles, you can apply this structure to your own storytelling.
Who is the main character?
Ding! Ding! Ding! If you said Lisa Faulkner, the author, me, moi. the Pole Dancing Professor, you are absolutely correct. Going forward I will call myself the narrator. Adair Lara encouraged us to use this terminology to create distance from our writing when critiquing. It also increases professionalism when discussing writing with other writers.
If you said Jodie Foster, Goldilocks, Sheila Kelley, or my Coronado retreat sisters you get points for reading the article and paying attention. None of them are the main character. Though Sheila and the unnamed retreat sisters are important supporting characters who would appear in a movie version of the story.
What is the problem?
The narrator (that’s me) felt “sucker punched” after reading yet another news report that placed blamed on a rape victim. She wants to live in a world that celebrates women and their sexuality, but doesn’t see how our culture will ever get there.
Your exact wording of the problem might differ. And would be affected by your own background and interpretation of the first section of the essay.
What are the struggles?
- The narrator is frustrated and exhuasted. She tries to sleep, but can’t.
- She tries to relax by listening to music, nothing works. She feels like “Goldilocks.”
- She finally finds a song—Glory Box by Portishead—that gives her hope and a vision. But still she doesn’t understand how to reach that vision.
- She asks her friend/mentor how? Her friend tells her the path to a partnership culture is by creating a culture that values women one woman at a time. Through play and fun at a retreat.
- The narrator rejects that notion because it’s not serious enough.
- She goes to the retreat longing to spend time immersed in the feminine.
- But just as she’s sinking in to bliss she is confronted by one of the most domineering symbols of masculinity and war in our culture: Navy seals.
- She goes along at first, then refuses to join, she plays by herself.
- She attracts a friend. They bond. She helps her friend begin to blossom.
What is the epiphany?
Her epiphany occurs while she is dancing with her classmates to live drumming by men. When she realizes that they aren’t competing for their attention, but rather cooperating with all the other women in a playful energy exchange with the men that was benefiting everyone.
What is the resolution?
She has another sleepless night but it’s different. She rests and restores connected to universal energy while awake. The next day she plays and dances more uninhibited than ever.
After the retreat, she sees that radiant women value each other and men more. And men value radiant women.
Outline the Essay
Adair suggests outlining the essay by answering prompts. Here are the prompts with my answers:
I wanted… to live in a world that celebrates women and their sexuality
I wanted it because… I didn’t want to endure living in a world where women are blamed when they are violently attacked
To get it, I… spent a day doing research to find a solution.
However… I couldn’t find any answers.
I had to try something different, so… I asked a friend what she thought.
All the time I was thinking that… we needed to find a way to shift from a dominating to partnership culture.
The turning point came when… I was dancing with a group of women to live drums played by a group of men. I almost let my inner critic convince me I was in competition for attention (and would lose) until I looked around and saw beauty in every women and appreciation from the men.
When that happened, I realized… women playing and supporting each other in cooperation while dancing while the men were drumming was a partnership arrangement. It illustrated how we could create this partnership culture in our world.
Resolution: After that I… became more uninhibited and committed to expressing my sensuality and sexuality to inspire other women to do the same.
Now, Write Your Story…