If you’re keen to tell new kinds of stories – or old stories in new ways – consider these ten “visual” approaches to writing short-form memoir.
1. The Photo Essay
The art of the photo essay lies in the writer’s careful selection of images balanced with the inclusion of text. Will the photos drive the narrative, or will they fill in textual “gaps” to move the story forward? Vivek Shraya strikes an elegant balance of “showing” and “telling” in her compelling photo narrative, “Trisha.”
2. The Concrete Essay
This form is the next evolution of concrete poetry (A.K.A. shape or pattern poems), reincarnated as CNF. Jennifer Wortman’s “Worst-Case Scenario” presents the story of her husband’s 35-feet fall into a gap while rock climbing, visually – via text shaped like the rocks he fell through.
3. The Illustrated Essay
There’s something so charming about a notebook doodle – perhaps because sketches convey the character of the artist in such an immediate way. I love the narrator’s personality as it comes through Randon Billings’ Noble’s drawings in “Accidental Notes on the Syllabus.”
4. The Graphic Essay
Check out the masters of graphic memoir – Maggie McKnight, Riad Sattouf, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Kristen Radtke, Nicole Georges and Ellen Forney – and understand how powerful comics can be as a medium for personal storytelling.
5. The Paper Craft Essay
If you’re wondering what to do with your stockpile of scrapbooking supplies, look no further than Erica’s Trabold’s “Swedish Rye Bread”– an essay constructed as a collage of typed index cards, digital scans, the pages of a vintage cookbook, and scrapbooking paper.
6. The Quilted Essay
Quilting has a long history of embodying narrative in carefully chosen patterns, colours, and symbols. Learn more about textile-based narratives in Sarah Minor’s article “What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach Us about Narrative Form” and by reading her visual essay, “Log Cabin Quilt.”
7. The Schematic Essay
The Process of Becoming Informed is a found schematic essay published by The Diagram and credited to Michael K. Buckland ofLibrary Services in Theory and Context, Pergamon Press, 1983. Where might you find a visual essay just waiting to be discovered?
8. The Graphic Hermit Crab
The hermit crab essay appropriates a found text – also known as a “false document” – as a “shell” to protect the vulnerable story it contains. The textual form’s logical progression is visual, in which a found graphic is adopted as the essay’s structure. J. Robert Lennon’s “Turnabout: A Story Game” is a graphic hermit crab essay that can be read starting at any point, proceeding in any direction.
9. The Video Essay
Video is a natural medium for personal narrative, and John Breslund is known as a pioneer of the visual essay form. This article includes a Q and A with Bresland and his collaborator, poet and essayist, Eula Biss, with links to some of their groundbreaking work including “Ode to Every Thing.”
10. The Interactive Essay
“Hypertext is spatial in every direction, truly nonsequential—nothing follows by necessity anything else in the essay” write Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant. Exemplary interactive hypertext CNF include Dinty W. Moore’s “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Map Essay,” Christine Wilks’ “Fitting the Pattern” and the work of Eric LeMay.
I hope this survey of the visual essay, in all its weird and wonderfully varied forms, inspires you to try a new approach to telling your stories. No matter your level of skill, experience, or talent with the visual arts, you can start including visuals in your work easily – and to great effect – incorporating images or multi-media collage.
Which visual essay format appeals to you the most? I’d love to hear which visual essays inspire your next project!