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FRELECTION: The Transformative Power of Reflection in Nonfiction

By Rebecca McClanahan

Late one September afternoon I was sitting with my friends’ three-year-old daughter at the edge of a lake in Central Park. “Look!” she said. “At the frelection of the clouds. In the water.” Yes, I thought. Frelection. The perfect word to suggest what we were witnessing. Frelection, the word itself turning backwards, suggesting the nature of the reflective process—the action of energy bending, turning, curving reality back to us.

In discussions about writing, we usually speak of reflection in rhetorical terms, as a mode of thought or a tone of voice that we employ when we ruminate, meditate, contemplate, explain, survey—in brief, when we provide what Philip Gerard, in his book CREATIVE NONFICTION, calls “finished thought.” But what interests me more is the notion of reflection as a turning, convoluting, sometimes distorting but always transforming power. In this spirit, I will briefly list four qualities of reflection and suggest ways to encourage artistic transformations in our writing.

1) First, reflection is a process of change. In the language of physics, reflection is the phenomenon in which energy is returned after impinging upon a surface. Once our experience of “real life” encounters a different medium—our memories, for instance, or the writing process itself—that real life experience is changed. The clouds my friend’s daughter saw that day were not in the water. What we see, in reflection, is never the thing itself, but a reconfigured version. When we reflect, we in effect break an experience into pieces then reassemble the pieces into a new form. Even the word remember suggests that a breaking has occured. When we re-member, we put the broken pieces back, the broken members. This dis-membering and resultant re-membering occurs despite our bravest attempts at accuracy, and it begins long before we put pen to paper.

So one of the most helpful things we can do as writers is to relinquish early on the notion that we can capture reality. The words themselves—for once we put pen to paper, we are in cahoots with the words—reassemble the memory in new and surprising ways. One word calls to another, and the essay is off on its own journey. When a student comes to me, as students often do, complaining that she has failed to “capture” her mother on paper, I tell her that of course she hasn’t. Capturing is impossible. Your mother, I explain, is made of blood and flesh and hair; your writing is made of words. I mean this to be comforting, and I explain why. Once we release the notion that we can capture our mother on paper, we are free to do what we can do: describe the strapless gown she wore that summer night, narrate the tale of her birth, circle round and round the questions our mind is asking.

2) Reflections require a reflective surface, some other medium to bounce off of. And that surface affects the image that is formed. The clouds “frelected” in the Central Park lake create very different images depending on whether the lake is still, softly rippling, or turbulently roiling. As writers, our reflective surfaces are our words. But what kind of surface will we use? Lyric? Dramatic? Narrative? Segmented? Will we try to depict reality as smoothly and realistically as possible? Or will we consciously break up the reality, rough up the surface so that the reflection becomes distorted or diffuse?

3) Reflections begin at what physicists call the point of incidence, the place where the thing itself encounters the reflective surface. In literary circles, this point of incidence is sometimes called the “occasion of the telling” or simply the “entry point.” John Dewey, in ART AS EXPERIENCE, suggests that the occasion that induces reflection is almost always discord, and I tend to agree with him. I think of the point of incidence as the sand in the oyster, the rock in the shoe, the place where something rubs against something else, the point of tension. So a helpful question to ask while reflecting upon an experience is not only Why am I writing this, but also Why am I writing this at this particular time? What is the occasion of the telling? Why now? Why here? What is the point of incidence?

4) Finally, reflections require a viewer, a perceiver. The reflection is influenced by the positioning of this viewer in time and in space and also by the internal landscape of the viewer. Here are a few suggestions for encouraging fresh reflections in your viewfinder:

* Frame the experience differently. Cut the story into three sections, for instance, and frame it as a triptych. Crop the scene at a different place. Leave something out that you thought was essential.

*Try a different lens. If you’ve written all close-up scenes, snap on a wide-angle lens and pull back for the big view. If you’ve written all distanced summary, apply the close-up lens of scenic detail.

* Change the way you use time. Squeeze a lifetime into 60 seconds, or stretch 60 seconds into a day. Start your autobiography a year before you were born, or 2000 years before. But remember, reflection doesn’t always mean looking BACK. Try driving the time engine in a different direction. As the Queen in ALICE IN WONDERLAND said, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Employ flashforward as well as flashback.

* Change the distance at which you are standing, in actual or psychic space. If enough time has not yet elapsed to give you distance on your subject, take the winemaker’s advice and serve no story before its time. But if you’ve waited too long, if the experience has cooled so much that it no longer matters to you, find a way to bring it emotionally closer.

* Apply a different light, especially if you are a character in your own story. It’s hard to see all sides of yourself when looking in a mirror—and thank God for small favors. But try shining the same light on yourself as you have on the other characters. On the other hand, if you’ve been too hard on yourself, lighten up. We’re all just characters in this drama, this photograph, this memory. The one reflected on the water. The one that, try as we might, we can never recapture but we can nevertheless transform.

Rebecca McClanahan is the author of eight books, most recently The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Poetry, and in numerous journals and anthologies. Her newest work appears in Ms. Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and Short Takes: Brief Encounters in With Contemporary Nonfiction. McClanahan's craft text, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, has just gone into its fourth printing. She can be reached at


artwork by Ben Crouch