Welcome to week two on Writing the Personal Essay. Now that we've spoken a little bit about how to begin and how to continue, let's talk about something that's hard to talk about, which is, when things go wrong. What to do when you stall, what to do when you hit a roadblock, what to do when you cannot see your way clear to the essay. Sometimes the problem lies in how you began. Did you have an outline? Are you the kind of person who would find an outline useful? Did you have an end point insight? Was there a point that you particularly wished to make in this essay, but you haven't been able to get there? Or were you just starting to write about an experience that you had and now, three pages in, three paragraphs in, six pages in, you've run out of track. One of the things that you can try to do it's like diagnosing what's wrong with you, whether it's the cold, or the flu, or a headache or maybe if you're lucky you're just hungry and you need a snack. That's the same thing with the writing problems. You'll want to do a little bit of self-diagnosis. Is it really true that you have nothing more to say? That you have said everything anybody could possibly say on the subject? Or is it the case that you've gotten a little uncomfortable. That maybe you've gotten a little too close to something that was difficult to write about. The first personal essay I ever wrote was about making lasagna, which is a very popular American dish adapted from the Italian. There were two things I want to write about. I want to write about making lasagna because I like to cook, and because it gave me a really nice both concrete and metaphorical framework which I would encourage you to look at when you are running into trouble. Would it be useful, for example, to begin to go through the steps of an activity; Making lasagna, playing baseball, planting something in a garden, fixing a car, rowing a rowboat, paddling in a canoe, finding a parking space, whatever it is, is there some way in which, going through the details of an event that you bring up, would be useful to you in getting out of the little ditch that you find yourself in? So in this essay, I begin with lasagna and end with love. Also something that I think can really help in doing a personal essay when you feel stuck, is to write in the present tense rather than always looking back at the experience which personal essays so often do. Put yourself in the moment of the experience, once more, in the present tense. I am looking for the perfect lasagna making my way through cookbooks at midnight, ready for heartbreak but hopeful, like Dante seeking bay-tree. I've been making lasagna for 30 years, I am middle aged and in love and I am counting on lasagna. Marcela Hazan strongly recommends passion, clarity, and sincerity when cooking. And I will say those three words; passion, clarity, and sincerity are words that you might want to pin up over your laptop when you are working on your personal essay. I am considering a lasagna, six layers of pasta, bechamel sauce, thinly sliced wild and cultivated mushrooms, prosciutto and freshly grated Parmesan. I've made it before. It is handsomely reliable. It is a good black dress with pearls, and when I read the recipe at half past midnight, I think, no one, not even a man whose mother is a very fine Italian cook and actually an Italian, could say that you had not made an effort when you take this out of the oven. My life with lasagna began when I was cutting classes at Boston University. And then I allow myself in the essay, the way I have structured it, is to look at every recipe I have ever made for lasagna. Not everything I have ever cooked, because that would be, not an essay but a cookbook, and how each of them represent the different points in my life, all of which then bring me to the great romance. At 4:00 AM, I take the big yellow gourmet cookbook to bed with me, my hand on page 234's beef and sausage lasagna recipe which follows the unappealing, mushroom radicchio and smoked mozzarella lasagna and the elegant vegetarian butternut squash and hazelnut lasagna, which sounds perfect if I'm entertaining an elegant vegetarian, which this man is not. I wake up at 5:00 AM as if someone has stuck a fork in my cerebral cortex. Six Advil and 20 minutes later, I am in the supermarket with the other people who shop at dawn. We are people coming off the night shift in crumpled uniforms and spattered scrubs. This is the point at which the thing that helped me move forward with the essay, was detail. Just taking a moment to think about what does that supermarket look like early early in the morning, who was there, who have I observed? Not because I know that it's going to wind up in the essay, but it allows me to move forward to remind myself who the narrator is and where they are located in time and circumstance. There are a few young mothers with their crumb-covered babies, old people self-sufficient and unable to sleep, the cashiers are kinder at this time of day, they're like old-fashioned nurses, their brisk firm manner discourages the weepy fatigue and the self-pity that people like us are prone to. But we are not a bad group of shoppers. No one brandishes a fist full of coupons, no one bangs on the butcher's door demanding exactly four fresh chicken livers, no one screws up on the self checkout line. We aren't dogged. In love and moon struck, I can hear the boxes of no boil noodles calling to me and the 28 ounce cans of whole tomatoes. I go to the small Italian grocery store. The old lady wrestling with the giant pan of eggplant Parmesan nods. We see each other a couple of times of year and she nods and I nod and that's all there is, and suddenly this seems terrible to me, and I see what she sees, a woman in faded track pants and a dirty t-shirt wearing a bright orange hoodie borrowed from someone much younger, and my hair is blowing around like a dark and green cloud. And it seems possible that word could just get back from this old lady to Augusto, my beloved's mother, and that the word on the Italian madre circuit will not be that I am a lady in the living room, a genius in the kitchen, and exactly what I should be in the bedroom. But then I am a near-sighted and short-tempered writer with so many bad habits you wouldn't wish me on anyone's son. And I am dabbing at my eyes and putting my things on the counter and I seemed to have bought enormous purple figs, moaning rightly in their green box, and prosciutto to drape over them like a silk slip, and a wedge of Gorgonzola already crumbling moistly in its wax paper. And the old lady suddenly elbows her son out of the way to wring me up, and looks me in the eye and says very kindly, "Making a nice dinner?" and I say, "Yes, I am making a nice dinner." I say that I hope it will be nice. I am almost bent over with hoping that it will be nice and that I am not making a small insignificant error in judgment today, which will turn out to be just one of a galaxy of errors in judgment, including my two previous marriages and divorces. And in the middle of the galaxy, very large with a dozen rings around it, is the terrible idea that I might ever marry again. Your reader wants to know you, and one of the things that tends to stall us is our wish not to be known and our struggle with whether or not the material is interesting, and also whether or not the material is flattering. I would encourage you when you find yourself stuck, to try to stop worrying about whether or not you appear in the best possible light, because honestly, no one, including you as a reader, really wants the best possible light on the subject. We want the truest light. And to keep going back to what is true, to what makes you feel vulnerable, to the piece that you would prefer not to present but which you know must be presented, is always the best path out of the ditch.