Young writer Emily Reeves was recently awarded the top prize for her Personal Narrative entry, ‘Second Star to the Right.’ Her piece gave a stunning portrayal of a man struggling with a addiction as seen through the eyes of a curious little girl. In our Q&A with Emily, she discusses her choice to keep the details of her relationship to the man private and how she used peer reviews to improve her work.
In your note to readers, you shared your reason for not revealing the main character of your piece. Can you elaborate on that choice?
A nameless character creates a more ambiguous atmosphere, but the decision mostly came down to respect. While my true impressions of him are conveyed in the narrative, I’m conscious of the fact that my impression of him is incomplete and not representative of his entire person. As a person, he is entitled to dignity, and when I reduced him to a character, I knew I had to be careful about reducing his personhood. His struggles are a personal matter that affects not only him but also my entire family. Giving this character—this person—anonymity, allowed me to share the experience without infringing on personal boundaries.
Do you think you would have had the same reaction to the man in the story if you were older or do you think being so young made you more accepting?
My youth definitely made me more accepting but also more curious. Because I was so sheltered as a child, I desperately wanted to break out of my “safe cage” and explore the forbidden corners of the world. If I were older in the narrative, I don’t think I would have the same fascination with the unknown.
Has this experience had an effect on how you interact with people now that you're older?
I can’t be sure, but I think the experience humanized the “outcasts” of society. When I saw or heard about people who struggled with addiction, I could connect that problem to someone I knew—someone who was family—and I could see them as people, instead of addicts.
What was the process of writing this piece like?
With personal essays, I never write in a linear fashion. With this piece, I would write down certain phrases and metaphors, then expand them into paragraphs, then rearrange the paragraphs and create transitions. Once I finished writing the first draft, I read the piece aloud, checking for cohesiveness and clarity.
When it came time to edit, I was lucky to have two peer reviews and an expert review. (Thanks, David, Helen, and Gloria!) Getting a reader’s fresh perspective really put me in the right frame of mind to make edits for the benefit of the audience. I took all the critiques into consideration, but I paid special attention to the issues that more than one person mentioned.
Was is difficult to recall the details of this experience years later?
Yes, but I don’t think the exact details matter that much. My aim is to convey a certain message—not to record the minutia of an event. In the novel, The Things They Carried, the author, Tim O’Brien, draws a line between “happening-truth” and “story-truth.” You can tell a person exactly what happened but still fail to convey the truth hidden within the narrative. I aim to convey the meaning behind the event—the “story-truth.” For me, that means including what I remember but also adding details for effect. For example, I don’t remember what brand of cigarettes my character smoked, but I specified “Camel” in my narrative to anchor the story in reality.
How did you use Helen Grant's review to improve your work?Helen helped me understand the reader’s perspective of the man in my piece. I wanted this character to be a bit obscure, but I worried about causing confusion. I used her comments to strike the right balance. Helen also pointed out a few phrases that could use a rewrite. I really appreciated her feedback!