Overview and Rationale
When drafting the personal essay, one often focuses inward; it is a time of introspection, making sense of a personal event in the writer’s world. Other people are involved, but in early drafts, the nonfiction writer may fall into a trap of neglecting surroundings in lieu of articulating the meaning behind the event.
In my creative writing courses, I teach nonfiction last, after fiction, so the idea of a scene is still full and present in my students’ minds. I say, Don’t take off your fiction hat!, meaning, give me setting, give me inventory, give me character, give me dialogue. I come to the essay as a fiction writer, and while nonfiction allows for more telling, I am always urging my students to find ways to show through a scene, to build evidence by putting readers into the moment so they can see it to believe it, instead of explaining.
One of the ways we build evidence for character is through flashback. This is not the only way, of course. We also do this with action, with things, with gesture, with dialogue. However, sometimes the best way to create believable evidence for character motivation is to show, in a fully realized scene, a previous moment where a character has acted similarly.
For example, I may write, in the potential memoir I am drafting, that my Yia Yia (grandmother) is particular, the kind of woman who isn’t impressed by much, not a five-star dinner nor a beautiful view. No, she is the kind of woman who says, “I’ve had better,” who looks down her made-up nose at a plate of $40 scallops to ask if they were frozen, if there is any alcohol in this drink, if I didn’t have anything nicer to wear.
These are all fine descriptions of her: particular, unimpressed, bourgeoisie, and perhaps, you, my reader, are getting a nice image (people used to say she looked like Sophia Loren, but according to my Yia Yia, this compliment was useless because Loren was fat).
In a scene of us together at Christmas, I might write her in the recliner, wearing Chico’s from head to toe, still a kitten heel (because no woman wears flats). She has a glass of brandy—neat—but is not satisfied by the food, or the music, or the television show; she looks over her shoulder to the front door, to the window showing the street, watching the cars roll by, waiting for something to happen, rocking back and forth, lines in her face from a resting scowl.
And while this is a working image—it’s a California Christmas, and my mom is still playing that NOW CD from 1999, there’s no fire, my dad is watching YouTube videos about how to use a drone from his side of the couch, my brother is texting—I might break here, give a few lines of white space, and enter into a flashback of my Yia Yia that I remember from childhood.
It starts with her wedding photo. She is beautiful, she does look like Sophia Loren, fat or not, and beside her is my grandpop like a thickened Buddy Holly. At this point, my Yia Yia only speaks Greek, and her airforce husband has picked her out of many to marry and bring to America. My Yia Yia is the youngest of all her sisters, the one with the most potential, set up by her father in an Athenian bar without her consent. I can’t recall her dress—regal I assume—but I remember one thing lens clear: her frown. My mother often says, “She was a very unhappy bride.”
The juxtaposition of the memory of my Yia Yia’s wedding photo next to a scene of her at Christmas, then, would rationalize her saying, “I don’t eat those foods,” after my mother has been cooking all evening. Or, “I only shop designer at TJ Maxx,” after opening a pair of glittery Tom’s we bought to help her walk longer, farther, and with more ease. The reader would see Christmas evening unfold, the carpet now a mix of red and green wrapping paper, the dog with a shiny bow on her head, spiked coffee and nog and cheer among the tiny, warm home—”It’s small,” Yia Yia would say. “Cozy”—and without the image of that salty bride tricked into marriage against her will, a reader may not understand or empathize with this character, a reader may find the writer a bit—how do you say—harsh. The flashback evidence is necessary to solidify the scene and the writer’s clout.
- Ask students to choose one secondary character from their essay that needs more development, and give a list of three different words to describe them. Let’s say one picks her aunt Sally, who’s mentioned briefly in the essay but has a larger thematic role in the piece overall. So the writer chooses “Aunt Sally,” and then, perhaps, the writer chooses to describe her as someone who is clever, playful, and kind.
- Ask the student to think of another moment shared with Aunt Sally from the past, away from the essay in progress, in which Aunt Sally exhibited two or more of these characteristics. The best flashbacks work alongside the essay being drafted. There must be a trigger image or word in the essay that one can use to launch into the flashback. If the essay in progress mentions cooking, think of another moment shared with Aunt Sally in the kitchen to help transport readers into this flashback.
- Now ask the student to craft a short scene of about 500–1,000 words, rewriting the memory of Aunt Sally with as much detail to the best of their ability. Instead of relying on those descriptive words, prompt the student to try to find a way to show Aunt Sally in action. How might one give evidence of being clever, playful, and kind? Which kind of clever is Aunt Sally? Is she clever because she remembers to grab extra packets of mustard and mayo from the grocery deli bar before camping? Or is she the kind of clever that’s naturally good at trivia? Is she kind because she always remembers birthdays with a card and a five-dollar bill, or because she keeps one’s favorite cookies in the cupboard just in case one happens to stop by?
- Remind students to keep their fiction hat on, and write as full of a scene as they can—include setting details like inventory (What’s in the room? What’s outside? Where are we in time and space?), use action, gesture, reaction, and nonverbal communication as well as dialogue to transport readers into this other memory.
- Can’t remember much? Time to call Aunt Sally or any other people who might have been there for some research.
If the writer likes this exercise, the scene can be incorporated into the revision of the essay. By adding a scene of flashback, writers layer a character’s motive with more evidence, making a character more complicated, authentic, and believable, which promotes empathy for all people involved in the essay, not just the writer. By showing that Aunt Sally is “playful” in the kitchen, attacking with a frosting-coated spatula when one least expects it, the writer sets up those silly gifts from the magic shop she gave out to all the cousins one year—whoopi cushion, Chinese finger trap, wind-up jack-in-the-box, fake poop.
Example of the Exercise
From my student’s final reflective essay about this exercise:
“The final writing exercise in my portfolio is one of my favorites. It comes from the ‘Nonfiction Character Building’ assignment. During the workshop of my nonfiction manuscript, many people said they wanted to know more about my father and his place in my [mother’s coming-out story]. So I used this assignment to build his character and ended up putting it into my revised copy.”
—Lucy Callender, Chapman University, Orange, California
Dad: patient, distracted, loving.
I never cried in front of my father if I could help it. He didn’t know enough about the goings-on in my life to give out sound advice. When we speak on the phone now, he asks me the same questions each time, something I’ve gotten used to.
“So, is this the last math class you have to take?”
“No, Dad, remember, I have one more after this semester and then I’m done.”
“Oh, right. You get your math skills from me.” He chuckles at his own joke as if he hasn’t said it every time we have this math conversation.
One night, though, when I was 16, after my mom met Silvia, I lay in bed after everyone had fallen asleep. I let out a loud cry and meant to stifle it. I never meant for him to hear me but then there he was, standing in the doorway ever so politely, waiting for me to allow him into my room. He sat at the edge of my bed and tried to ask what was wrong. I didn’t really know, so I just kept crying. His body was half turned away from me, and he looked so small in the shadows. He was never big and strong, not like a dad who throws you up in the air and catches you. More like a dad who sits on the porch while you and your brother kick a ball and waves at you from his comfortable seat where he still gets cell reception. But especially now, he seemed almost like a child, and I felt for a second that I should be comforting him. I sat up a bit more, facing his back. His shoulders began to shake and I realized that he was crying. Rather than feeling sympathy, I felt a wave of anger. Now I had to be the adult, when all I wanted was someone to listen to me. We sat together and cried for a while, about as comfortable and familiar as two strangers sitting next to one another on a bus. We stayed like this, sad strangers in a dark room, until I lay back in bed and said I wanted to sleep. I needed him to leave. He didn’t even know why I was crying. To be fair, neither did I.
We never spoke about what happened. The next few mornings were the same as always: I poured hot water into my mug and he stirred his coffee and then he went to sit in the big armchair by the window. He always looks out the window and stares at the mountain. When I was little I would run out and wrap my arms around his legs and ask him what he was looking at.
“Just lookin, Luce,” he’d say.
I don’t ask anymore.
Katrina Prow lives and writes in Long Beach, California. Her writing has recently appeared in The Journal, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, Passages North, Nano Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, Juked, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in creative writing (fiction) from Texas Tech University and teaches creative writing courses at Chapman University. Outside of academia, she still finds freedom waiting tables and is working on a novel about the restaurant industry after many years in the biz. You can find her discussing pop culture (frequently) and literature (sometimes) on Twitter: @katprow.