Like so many days during COVID, I was out of ideas for what to make for dinner. That’s how I discovered that my cherished copy of a NYT Cooking special insert was missing from its usual place. It’s a collection of “no-fail” recipes from food contributor Sam Sifton. Breaking the mold, each is written tersely as non-recipes—a simple set of instructions with a dash of sardonic wit: “Layer with slices of American cheese. Sue me.” I had tried all but two, and they delivered as promised. Each was delicious.
Slinging open cupboards and slapping them closed, I moved through my kitchen with the sinking feeling that somehow the recipes might be gone, gathered up with other newspapers and recycled, or something like that. Few things are more disorienting than losing one’s go-tos.
The thing about a non-recipe is that it’s flexible and allows for a breezy, creative approach to making a dish, but has enough structure to make it a success. As I considered two iconic essays, “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard and “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard, I noodled the idea of a non-recipe. Could it apply to a great personal essay? A profound blog post? Can we combine a certain set of ingredients, add seasonings, and turn up the heat to bring out the elusive dimensions of flavor that makes something unforgettable?
To answer my questions, I did an autopsy on these essays. I discovered each essay shares a certain structure and propellant movement, with an interiority that is rendered uniquely and poignantly by each author.
I started with a framework to guide my sorting and grouping. I looked at what makes a good recipe turn into delicious food. Skimming the cream from cookbook author Samin Nosrat’s indelible quattro of salt, fat, acid, and heat, I developed a foursome of features that are foundational to the best personal narratives: spark, coil, inner life, and transcendence. Let’s look at why they matter and how they work.
Spark: The first unit of action, be it a paragraph or even a single sentence that opens the essay. It should spark the imagination and light a fire in the belly of the reader to keep reading. I base this element on something I learned when I visited the Muir Woods in northern California last year. One morning I climbed to the highest peak near my cabin and surveyed the blackened hills that lay beyond where last year’s forest fires left a sprawling devastation. When I asked my guide what started the fire, he said the favored theory was that a lost hub cap skittered across the pavement sending sparks into the brush. That’s all it took.
Coil: Good essays gather tension. They coil and uncoil. Story lines are stronger when the coil is wound tightly enough to reverberate—affecting the characters and roiling situations. Coils are the yeast. Without them the other ingredients fail to rise.
Inner life: The best personal essays possess an internal point of view from the narrator that guides the reader toward greater human understanding, or, as Nabokov believed, makes some meaning of this crazy world. Especially in an era when information abounds, people don’t hunger for more data points as much as they crave wisdom. What lights up an essay is how the situation of the narrator is personally affecting.
Transcendence: The momentum of the essay should move toward this endpoint, in which one state of existence ends and another begins. It can make the reader feel a sense of completion. Or there is the hovering state right before a fall, as writer Jo Ann Beard describes: “…the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun.” Or it can feel like wading into a mystical realm, where a profound totality is revealed, like the one Annie Dillard describes: “The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet.” Across all the transcendent moments I’ve encountered in books, from Walt Whitman to Alice Hoffman, they all share the sense of a radical awareness about the wide world and our connections to it and each other. That’s transcendent.
I guess I can live without the cherished non-recipes. They did their job, and more. They taught me a few things about the essence of something truly good. Sometimes, for me, good advice shows up in places I never thought to look.