“Metaphorically, my writing process looks like this: I’m hiding under a table with my eyes closed, trying to capture the emotion and intensity of what’s going in the room.”
I’m not a natural essayist. When I write nonfiction, which in my case usually means a personal essay, I don’t see connections or an arc for a long time. In the meantime, I gather scraps of memories, bits of dialogue and half-baked ideas in notebooks—and in files with random names. Most of my difficulty with finishing essays come from this flawed process. But at times, this meandering way into a narrative structure also gives room for unexpected epiphanies while I write.
Metaphorically, my writing process looks like this: I’m hiding under a table with my eyes closed, trying to capture the emotion and intensity of what’s going in the room. I have no idea where the scene will lead me or how it connects to other events. I’m completely caught up in the moment. When I out from under the table, brushing the dust off my knees and try to imagine where what I just wrote may fit, I’m frequently discouraged. I often abandon an idea for a long time before finally seeing a path through the material.
“Holding my Tongue” is a prime example of my imperfect method. I’ve been obsessed with languages for as far back as I can remember. I’ve wanted to use this obsession in an essay, ever since I did my first introductory course of nonfiction with Ayelet Tsabari. I had so many memories connected with language learning; I had experienced how language could unite and divide—how my second and third language allowed me a freedom I didn’t experience in my mother tongue. And all the adorable anecdotes from when my trilingual kids were growing up? There had to be a way to fit them into an essay!
The sheer volume of stories and observations made all my attempts to write essays about language collapse. This went on for years. I finally saw a path through, when I fell down the rabbit hole of research about Ayapa Zoque. What I at first thought was another one of my procrastination strategies, turned out to be a way into this theme—a way that connected the most disparate elements from my earlier attempts.
There may be a lesson here. Though the personal essay relies on the personal, it’s often through a story that isn’t your own you can shed light on the bits taken from your life. This has at least been my own experience the times I’ve felt an essay suddenly came together. But it takes time. From the first draft of a different essay covering some of the same themes, to the incarnation that was finally published, four years passed. The piece received helpful comments from several people, which helped me in the subsequent edits. When writing about a personal obsession, I believe it is especially important to have willing readers that can tell you what’s unclear, or worse: what’s overly pedantic.
Many of the cute anecdotes I wanted to use, were shed along the way. I’m not sure if there may be another essay hiding among them, or if shedding them from “Holding my Tongue” amounts to actually killing a few darlings.
Hege Jakobsen Lepri is a Norwegian-Canadian translator and writer. She had her first story published in English in 2013 and is still asking herself what her true voice is.