This assignment comes after re-reading “A Few Words About Breasts,” a Nora Ephron essay that seemed to be included in every essay anthology, coming up in college and then as a teacher. While I thought the essay was good, I held it at some distance. I was male, first off, and didn’t think the essay would register with me, and then it seemed to be too obvious a choice to assign my students.
Then Ephron passed away, and I read “A Few Words About Breasts” again in what seemed to be 15 minutes. I was blown away by how great it was. It has everything I treasure about the personal essay. It’s provocative, for one–even 42 years after it’s first publication in Esquire magazine, the title pops off the page. It goes off on tangents: from the very first line, it up-ends reader’s expectations. It uses cultural touchstones, personal anecdote, and, most of all, it addresses how much weight we put on our formative experiences, no matter how illogical. Instead of just confessing an obsession, it honors them, sticks up for them, defends them.
It’s just so, so good.
I couldn’t help trying to write something like it, to look at the structure, and see if students could do the same.
First, select a term or specific object, preferably a body part.
Whatever you choose, you need to be obsessed by this subject, the more irrational the obsession the better. Eyebrows? Toilet paper? Biceps?
Use this term/object to fill in the blank for your title, which will be the following: A Few Words About _______.
Ephron’s title alone reflects at least two classic conventions that I can think of. It centers around a single word or idea: Breasts. It has, or purports to have, an explanatory title. There are many classic essay titling conventions: “In Defense of [Blank].” “On Being [Blank].” “I Was a Teenage [Blank].” And, the OG of them all, “On [Blank].” What all of these have in common is it introduces the essay’s subject, term, or object, right off the bat. For Ephron’s title, there’s another effect: modesty. Just a few words, Ephron promises. I won’t take too much of your time.
Also: incompleteness. This essay will not be the final word on breasts. It’s just, modestly, a few. So keep in mind, or take heart that, your essay won’t be the last word on your subject.
Cultural touchstones and shorthand work really well here. You’ll likely need to research to jog your memory and ours.
Ephron, being a master, accomplishes a lot with one sentence and two sentence fragments:
It was the 1950s, for God’s sake. Jane Russell. Cashmere sweaters.
She knows her audience will know who Jane Russell, she of the over-stuffed cashmere sweaters, ranks as a touchstone for her readers.
If your subject is “boys,” for example, what did “boys” mean in the personal anecdotes you are recounting from 2001? 2010?
Each time period sheds its own specific light, if you dig deep enough.
Write (at least) two personal anecdotes.
Keep them short, and don’t worry about relating them to your subject, at least at first. Ephron includes one girl and one boy. Well, two boys, or one boy’s crazy mother.
The girl is Diana Raskob, who develops breasts over the course of a summer. Preceding that, however, is a portrayal of how Ephron and Raskob would snack on munchies for hours on end. (I have this hunch that this pre-pubescent portrayal addresses androgyny, but I might be over-reading.)
Anyway, the details in that story offers more historical context: Seventeen magazine, Bar-B-Q potato chips, Sorry and Parchesi games, Beverly Hills.
The boy is Buster Klepper, and if he’s the subject of one of the greatest opening sentences of an essay section you’ll ever read: “Buster Klepper was the first boy who ever touched them.”
Here we have the reference to April Love, a Pat Boone movie–more opportunity for history and context, as well as humor. I mean, look at the poster.
Here are some things I did to help:
Bought a Mark Eden Bust Developer.
Slept on my back for four years.
Splashed cold water on them every ·night because some French actress said in Life magazine that that was what she did for her perfect bustline.
Notice how we know what “help” means by the time we get to the list. She means “help make her breasts bigger.”
The paragraphs that follow that list, related to the items, add to the idea that Ephron really worked on this problem, obsessed over it.
Give your list a specific purpose–don’t just have them be related to your object. If you truly are obsessed over your subject, you should have no problem with this.
At some point, you will need pick another subject to write about, one that is related to the one in your title, but, ideally, not obviously so. Start with that.
In Ephron’s essay it’s “androgyny.” In an essay that promises to be “about breasts,” for Ephron to start with
“I have to begin with a few words about androgyny”
That’s tantamount to writer suicide, at least in the context of a men’s magazine article.
I like to think of those readers, mostly male, in 1972, looking at the table of contents, interest piqued by the title, then turning to read about … androgyny?
In a way, Ephron has tricked her readers into reading a true essay, instead of a straightforward article about breasts, breasts, breasts.
Confess or explain how your irrational obsession with this subject continues.
Ephron’s phrase, “And even now,” begins this passage. It’s informal, it’s explicit, it presents many of the reasons why Ephron should let go of the obsession, and then says: not a chance.
You probably think I am crazy to go on like this: here I have set out to write confession that is meant to hit you with the shock of recognition and instead you are sitting there thinking I am thoroughly warped. Well, what can I tell you? If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.
What order should you have these sections or subjects? That’s up to you. One philosophy I have is to try to imitate as close as possible on the first draft. That might not work for you–you might think it’s too color by the numbers, which is fine. But if you want to try, here’s an outline I made for myself:
1. Androgyny/Grammar School
2. Breasts “for most girls”/50s’and Jane Russell/Cramps
3. The First Period
4. The First Bra (28AA)
5. Libby and “Intercourse”
6. Diana Raskob and Junk Food
7. The next September/Diana’s development
“A Few Words About Breasts”: An Outline
8. “Some things I did to help” list
9. Padded Bras
10. “And the bathing suits”
11. Buster Klepper
12. Necking with Buster
13. Breaking up with Buster/”April Love” Pat Boone/Coming back
14. The all-italics flashback scene with mother of boyfriend
15. Reflection on the scene (“This is a true story”)/segue into other women
16. “As for men”
17. “And even now”—
18. Therapy and friends
19. “I think they are full of shit”
I found reading “Why’s this so good?” No. 56: Nora Ephron and the thing about breasts” by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris really helpful and inspirational in trying to figure out Ephron’s genius.
Tracy Young’s “A Few More Words About Breasts,” [pdf]written in 1992, commemorates the essay’s influence twenty years on.