How writing the personal essay is like lying in a hammock

How writing the personal essay is like lying in a hammock.png

This photograph is at least five years old. I took it while lying in a hammock reading on a summer afternoon. I like to revisit this photograph not only because it reminds me of leisure and beauty and rest but also because it reminds me of something about writing the personal essay. It reminds me of what or who the subject is or isn't.

There’s a line in the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson in which one of the characters is describing two photographs of her father: "In one he is looking at my mother, who is speaking to Sylvie, whose back is to the camera. In the other he appears to be grooming the dents in the crown of his hat, while my grandmother, Helen, and Sylvie stand beside him in a row, looking at the camera." She makes a summary observation: "Clearly he does not consider himself the subject of either photograph."

That is what it is to write personal essay. To be in the picture but the picture isn’t of you.

Compare this hammock photograph to the headshot of me in this blog's sidebar. In the later, I'm clearly the subject. The camera is looking at me and I'm looking back. In the hammock photo, while my calves and feet are in the frame, the photo's subject is “lying in a hammock" or maybe even "looking out from a hammock" but not "Nancy in a hammock" or the "overhead trees" or the "distant lake view." It's personal - I'm there - but the focus is outward. That's what I aimed for in Finding Livelihood, and what I aim for in most of my writing.

If you're a writer, thinking of what you're writing in terms of a photograph can be helpful. Where is the lens pointing? If you're a reader, thinking of what you're reading in terms of a photograph can also be helpful in understanding the work's context and purpose. Where is the writer's camera pointing? Is the writer in the frame and if so, how much? Apart from writing or reading, this kind of mental exercise - where is my camera pointing? - is expansive and helps put things in perspective.

Next time you're looking through your digital or physical photo album, see if a photograph that has you in the frame but not as the subject jumps out at you. If it does, stick it on your refrigerator or a bulletin board above your desk. Let it remind you of the personal agency you have to choose your point of focus and the gift of living in a larger reality.


[Photo: taken from a hammock with a good book on a hot summer day.]