Friday, May 6, 2011

Busted!—National Park caught flaunting excellent writing

We were making only one sightseeing detour on our cross- country trek, in a U-Haul van packed with my sister’s worldly possessions, and what I wanted was the map. So imagine how thrilled this writer and editor was, upon entering Arches National Park in Utah last summer, to have that map wrapped in one of the best essays I’ve ever read: “Rethinking Wall Arch.”

I remembered the piece when writing my recent post, “Writing that Matters.” Many of the fiction writers who lap up the advice here at BRP write other things as well, including personal essays that show up on our blogs and in other publications. How can we make them matter more?

When I read this essay last summer I immediately sensed its importance. How can you accomplish that same feat with your own writing?

1. Tie an important event to your own life experience.
This essay discussed the crumbling of Wall Arch, pictured above, which at 71-feet long and 33 feet high was a favorite attraction at Arches National Park. The author immediately establishes his unique perspective:
Sometimes I’m considered bad luck. Things tend to fall wherever I work.
After a brief laundry list of unfortunate events, we learn that Wall Arch collapsed the morning this writer took a new job at the park, which sets up a specific—and humorous—perspective. No one else could have written this piece quite this way.

2. The specific event is placed within a larger context, then tied back in to this author’s experience.
We learn that Wall Arch has stood since “time immemorial”:
It was already curving gracefully when the Egyptian pyramids were still under construction. It stood defiantly while the mighty Roman Empire was collapsing an ocean away. It was still holding strong when the Declaration of Independence was being signed in 1776. And, most notably, it was still there on August 4 when everybody went to bed.
3. Explore scientific perspective: How could this happen?
When faced with a calamity of epic proportions, the first thing we do is gather what facts we can.
One answer is fairly straightforward. Erosion and gravity reign supreme over sandstone. For countless eons, rain, ice, and groundwater slowly but relentlessly ate away at the natural calcium “cement” holding the arch’s sand grains together. Eventually there wasn’t enough of this cement left to withstand the pull of gravity, and so the whole structure finally came crashing down.

4. Explore philosophical perspective: Why?
Facts alone, however, rarely tell a compelling tale. People are drawn to writings that address life’s mysteries (doubt it?—check sales records for Deepak Chopra and Mary Higgins Clark). This author steps away from what is known and risks infusing the piece with perspective drawn from his personal belief system.
Beyond the sadness or sense of loss that the collapse might evoke, there is a realization that something will eventually fill the void were the arch once stood. Simply put, another answer to the question “Why?” is, “So nature can make room for something else.”
5. Conclusion: A reflection once intimate has now taken on greater proportions.
Reporting for a new job on the day the arch fell becomes a small part of the greater circle of life:
Though shrouded in memory and mystery, the arch’s fate stands as an invitation to reflect upon the eternal cycle of birth and death that characterizes not only our planet, but our entire universe.
Reading this essay while taking in the spectacular natural sculptures in this park, my sister and I learned more about how they were made. But this was by no means dry material. Couched as it was in this author’s specific experience (considering the essay is written in the first person, it's odd that no byline was given) and addressing life’s greater questions, we got so much more.

Through its movement from specific to universal, this essay seems relevant to someone recovering from Japan’s tsunami, or the tornadoes that decimated our country last week. Revisiting it helped me, as I stumbled back to work after the sudden loss of my father last week. We feel braver for having read it.

The hidden gift for those willing to dig into your material until your writing matters: you will feel braver for having written it.

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. So sorry to hear about the loss of your father ... glad you found some literature that provided some comfort.

  2. Great post Kathryn. Good to have these tips for folks writing personal essays and memoirs. So sorry about your father. You are stronger than I. It took more than a week for me to stumble back to work after my father's death last year.

  3. Great post and you did a wonderful breakdown of it. Thanks. Very sorry to hear about your father. Give yourself time to heal. It took quite a while for me after my sister died last year.

  4. Thanks for your kind words, everybody. Was otherwise occupied all day but now that I see this I'll go back and fix a few typos! Always editing...

  5. I'm so sorry to hear about your father, Kathryn. Go well.


  6. Thanks Elle. HIs spirit feels stronger to me every day.

  7. Wow, Kathryn, what a thought-provoking piece! Perspective is such a a unique arrow in the writer's quiver. The example you shared takes the reader out of Joe Friday's "just the facts, ma'am" (remember Dragnet?) to an almost poignant moment of reflection and accountability (whether in reality accountable or not). Such personal touches take our work from mundane to memorable.

    I'm so sorry about your father. I lost mine a few years ago, and my situation was such that I could not travel the 1800 miles to the funeral. It was a very difficult time.

  8. This is great post. Sometimes it can be difficult to capture the raw emotion of a memory, especially if it's many years after the fact. I'm so sorry about the loss of your father.

  9. I've printed this post out. Thanks for giving us lots to think about in our writing.

  10. Thanks, Linda. It's been a year and that essay really stuck with me. It's always worth analyzing memorable writing. And yes, I remember Dragnet!

    I can't imagine how hard it must have been to miss your father's funeral. Ritual is so powerful. I would have staged my own, in that instance.

  11. Girlseeksplace: Such a wonderfully relevant comment about raw emotion, and why we writers need time to process our perceptions. Using setting--like the crumbling of this arch--can indirectly and metaphorically carry the load of much wailing and keening.

    And thanks for stopping by, Kate!


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