Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking IX

In this week’s Modern Love column, the author provides an excellent lesson in choosing your moment.

“Giving Myself Consent to Let Go,” by Elizabeth Scarboro is an essay about a single thing: a woman’s decision-making process around the frozen sperm sample of her now-deceased husband. It is the parameters of this topic that make the essay so successful. The author has reined in what is obviously a long and complex story and told one slice of it.

Clearly, this is a much longer tale. The author met her first husband as a teenager – a man with an illness they knew would eventually kill him. The story of their life together has got to be rich with drama. It could fill a book. Probably it already does – the author has deftly used the cut line space to let us know there’s more where this comes from. “Elizabeth Scarboro, a writer in Berkeley, Calif., is working on a memoir.” But in the writing of this essay, the author chooses one element of the tale and sticks there. Her restraint allows the reader to become involved without being overwhelmed by details.

Finding focus is often a huge hurdle for essay writers. I encounter it myself in my work and I run into it all the time in the essay and memoir classes I teach. Writers have a tendency to want to tell the whole story. They feel compelled to fill you in on all the back story, everything that lead up to the moment. In doing so, we dilute what we came to say. The best essay is a slice of a great story – a moment in time, captured and presented as its own little island of truth.


  1. Well said, Ellen. You are right. The essay is very focused, which is not an easy feat. The author pulls us into a dilemma that few of us have ever had to face and makes it real. Thanks, as always, for your astute comments. I look forward to them, just as I look forward to the Modern Love essays.

  2. Thanks! Hopefully, I'm actually learning as I go.