Kathleen Norris, Best American Essays (Storytelling)

Human storytelling was once all breath, the sacred act of telling family stories and tribal histories around a fire. Now a writer must attempt to breathe life into the words on a page, in the hope that the reader will discover something that resonates with his or her own experience. A genuine essay feels less like a monologue than a dialogue between writer and reader. This is a story I need, we conclude after reading the opening paragraph. It will tell me something about the world that I didn’t know before, something I sensed but could not articulate.

An essay that is doing its job feels right. And resonance is the key. To be resonant, the dictionary informs us, is to be “strong and deep in tone, resounding.” And to resound means to be filled to the depth with a sound that is sent back to its source. An essay that works is similar; it gives back to the reader a thought, a memory, an emotion made richer by the experience of another. Such an essay may confirm the reader’s sense of things, or it may contradict it. But always, and in glorious, mysterious ways that the author cannot control, it begins to belong to the reader.

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