Thursday, July 1, 2010

Writing Essays

What is it about essays that keep people reading them? In some way, an essay almost always presents a universal truth. It may be hidden, only inferred, or it may be stated boldly in the opening paragraph or the concluding one. On occasion, it might sit innocently in the very middle of the essay. But it should be there.

An essay illustrates a point--that's another way to put the 'universal truth' idea. An essay often uses a personalized story to illustrate what the author is attempting to convey. In fact, the story part can take up a great deal of the entire piece. There are so many different types of essays--some are very formal and almost prohibitive as they appear to be pure textbook stuff. Then there are those that speak clearly using everyday examples that most readers can relate to.

There are many books that give tips on writing essays. One I like is Writing and Publishing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender.

One of the pieces I had published in The Best Times July issue is a personal essay which uses my dad in a  story to help illustrate the point I tried to make. You can read this short piece below. Try your hand at writing an essay. Make sure you aren't just describing something or relating an event without a reason for using it.

Past, Present and Future
By Nancy Julien Kopp

My dad told great stories. It took very little to trigger a family memory, and he’d relate a tale from long ago regarding an aunt or a grandparent or himself. As he told how afraid he’d been when something bumped on the outhouse door in his childhood, Dad’s face would light up, and his eyes would sparkle. He’d draw the story out, adding details as he went along, almost as though he didn’t want to reach the end. We heard how the bumping made his heart turn over and how he sat in the outhouse shaking. “What could it be?” he’d ask. The bump turned out to be a dairy cow that finally butted her head hard enough to open the door and meet our dad nose to nose. His frightened yowl scared her away.

One day he started to tell a story about his grandmother. I watched his gnarled hands work expressively and the way he leaned forward in his chair as he talked. I’d heard the story multiple times. I listened, although not very patiently, when a thought struck like thunder in a summer storm. Old people live in the past because they don’t like the present and they fear the future. Maybe the past wasn’t the best, but they know what happened then, and it’s a safe haven.

Perhaps the past provides a more secure spot because many older people aren’t especially happy with life right now, and they await a future that holds only mysteries and promotes anxiety. Why not retreat into the safety of days gone by?

As we age, our once-strong bodies begin to betray us. Why is it so difficult to get up from a chair after sitting for a long time? Why has our energy level dropped so many points? Why do knees ache so often? Now that I’m seventy, I don’t like that part of the present, and I’m willing to bet that few seniors do.

I’m definitely a tad fearful of the unknown future. I don’t want to be a burden to my spouse or my children or to consider the fact that I may need help in my home and perhaps even move to an assisted living facility—maybe even a skilled care center.

So what is a twenty-first century senior to do? I’m not about to give up my past. I’m a storyteller just like my dad. I find joy in reliving some of my experiences and thinking about people who are no longer in my life. But I try to keep it to a minimum. I know that what occurs today is more important, so I do all I can to cultivate a good present, weaving in only a little of the past. I accept some of my limitations and work hard to change others. I pursue an active social life because I love being around people, plus it’s good for me to have social stimulation.

There’s not a whole lot of control with the future, but I hope I’ve planned for it financially, spiritually, and emotionally. I’ll cross each bridge as it appears in the best way I can at the time. My family will support me, I’m sure, and together, we can probably handle it pretty well. And if I can no longer be in charge, I’ll try to accept help in whatever form it takes.

I believe it all comes down to having the right attitude. Preserve the past, enjoy the present and meet the future one day at a time.

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