As I admired the early spring sunset last night, I watched out my front window as a neighborhood dog was unleashed to play for a bit, and began chasing a cottontail rabbit. The rabbit lay nestled under another neighbor’s shrubs, but the dog – not a well-trained Lab but a homely looking mutt – sniffed him out. The rabbit hopped across the yard, and the dog took chase, pursuing the rabbit around that yard, and the next. The rabbit hopped around trees, between bushes and under cars before the dog was called back home. The rabbit was safe, at least for the time being.
Scott Russell Sanders, prolific writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee, compared essay writing to “the pursuit of mental rabbits,” what Dinty W. Moore, author of Crafting the Personal Essay, calls a “hunt, a chase, a ramble through thickets of thought, in pursuit of some brief glimmer of fuzzy truth.” Moore retells a scene similar to mine, comparing chasing a rabbit to essay writing.
Often, when students are assigned a personal, or narrative essay, their first thoughts are what in the world am I going to write about? followed by how in the world am I going to make it interesting?
Beginning writers often think of their essays as a one-way road they must not divert from. But essayist Sanders, in his piece, “Beauty,” begins in one place (a church for his daughter’s wedding) and ends up as a meditation on memory:
In memory, I wait beside Eva in the vestibule of the church to play my bit part as father of the bride. She hooks a hand on my elbow while three bridesmaids fuss over her, fixing the gauzy veil, spreading the long ivory train of her gown, tucking into her bun a loose strand of hair, which glows the color of honey filled with sunlight. Clumsy in my rented patent leather shoes and stiff black tuxedo, I stand among these gorgeous women like a crow among doves. I realize they’re gorgeous not because they carry bouquets or wear silk dresses, but because the festival of marriage has slowed time down until any fool can see their glory.
In the following passage a few short paragraphs later, Sanders talks about the Big Bang, memory and beauty, but eventually comes back to where these “mental rabbits” began, his daughter’s wedding:
Pardon my cosmic metaphor, but I can’t help thinking of the physicists’ claim that, if we trace the universe back to its origins in the Big Bang, we find the multiplicity of things fusing into greater and greater simplicity, until at the moment of creation itself there is only pure undifferentiated energy. Without being able to check their equations, I think the physicists are right. I believe the energy they speak of is holy, by which I mean it is the closest we can come with our instruments to measuring the strength of God. I also believe this primal energy continues to feed us, directly through the goods of creation, and indirectly through the experience of beauty. The thrill of beauty is what entranced me as I stood with Eva’s hand hooked over my arm while the wedding march played, as it entrances me on these September nights when I walk over dewy grass among the songs of crickets and stare at the Milky Way.
How did Sanders go from a wedding to the Big Bang, to creation, to God, to the Milky Way? Chasing mental rabbits.
Have you ever tried to write a narrative essay and focus your attention on one specific event or story? How soon did you lose focus? I’ll guess pretty quick. Mental rabbits. But mental rabbits are worth pursuing. Mental rabbits are where connections to a larger purpose are realized, the “so what?” of the essay uncovered.
Sanders doesn’t leave us hanging; he takes the reader with him on his chase, finally connecting all the dots for us:
On these cool September mornings, I’ve been poring over two sets of photographs, those from deep space and those from Eva’s wedding, trying to figure out why such different images–of supernova and shining daughter, of spinning galaxies and trembling bouquets–set up in me the same hum of delight. The feeling is unusually intense for me just now, so soon after the nuptials, but it has never been rare. As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration.
Of course, Sanders is a master of the essay, and he knew if he took off chasing rabbits, he’d better have a good reason. You don’t want to go down a rabbit hole and never come up again.
Some may argue that chasing mental rabbits will create an unfocused essay. This might be true if the writer never comes back from the chase, getting lost in the rabbit hole. The idea is to chase the rabbit, but circle back. Connect the dots for the reader. Order will be found in chaos.
Think of a childhood memory, nothing dramatic, just a fun, simple memory. When I recall childhood memories, I think of my favorite backyard climbing tree, or swimming in the lake. Describe the event in detail, then, take chase. Pursue your own mental rabbits. Where are they taking you? Why are they important? What is the deeper meaning of this memory?
The structure of the personal essay often does not have a traditional narrative arc. It’s a meandering stream of thoughts and connections of an event or moment. If your instructor has assigned a narrative essay requiring a traditional narrative arc, a chronological retelling of events employing a suggested structure, you might have to limit your rabbit chase.
The personal essay gives the perception that it lacks a focused structure; however, adept essay writers have honed their craft to make order out of the chaos of their rabbits.
For more on the personal essay, read Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore.