How to crack the reflective essay: Part 1
The reflective essay is one part of the assignments that generates a lot of discussion! Getting in touch with the creative part of ourselves and expressing that through engaging prose is a challenge of itself. But for the creative writer who is undertaking serious study though there is no getting away from cracking the reflective essay. It is pretty important to learn how to critically reflect on your writing, albeit in a rather formal essay. I wonder if the reason the essay can be a tricky component to engage with is because it requires us to employ a completely different mentality. If our creativity takes place in the swirling undercurrents of our subconscious then the effective reflective essay has to chart these movements dispassionately with some accuracy, and express for the reader these three main aspects.
I advise that a good reflective essay should cover-
- What the writer did and why
- What they think about what they did
- What they’ll do next time
For me the key part to these three bullet points is the first one. The reflective essay should cover how their creative work developed, and the crucial part of this is to remember that this must comprise a reflection on what the writer technically did.
For instance, if I look back at the embarrassing creative writing I first undertook as a teenager, I would say that my major influence was Jack Kerouac. At this point in my life I had read relatively little fiction and was reading all the stereotypical texts for my age! So let’s say I was going to submit as an assignment the writing I had done then (which is the ‘what’ I did) then the ‘why’ would need to take on board how this writer had influenced me technically.
So I would have asked myself what I had gained from Kerouac’s writing. Well, in this instance, ‘On The Road’ is a novel about characters leaving their staid lives behind to have wild, debauched travelling adventures throughout America. Therefore, his characters talk readily of their true desires, and they follow their ambitions with great energy, all of which explains the spirit I wanted to then convey in my own writing. Kerouac’s characters were so passionate about gaining experiences and making the most of each second of their life that some passages of writing had an intensity that was almost hallucinogenic. If I look at how he did this technically it is in long chapters where someone describes their thoughts, feelings and experience in an untamed, stream of consciousness. Kerouac actually wrote on long scrolls of stitched together paper to allow him to work uninterrupted without changing the typewriter roll. This unbroken prose style allowed the reflections of his characters to be deeply subjective. In writing in which an engaging narrative is not the priority, but the passion of each character is. Therefore this writer was influencing me by prioritising characterisation over narrative. So technically, how does Kerouac happen to ensure that occurs? Well, his novel described situations and instances where characters got to express themselves intimately to one another. Either at parties, or alone in cars together, or whilst drinking in bars. What he was trying to express was how people really felt. In a novel like his, which is more about characterisation, you don’t get huge amounts of drama. By contrast, in a novel which is more heavily about narrative (in which explosions are going off, there are murders and kidnappings and the reader is gripped at every turn) it is likely there is not so much room for characterisation.
So, in my reflective essay, when I was describing (point one) what I did, I would explain that I wanted to capture the energy and passion of my own characters in my writing as Kerouac did. Bringing in the ‘why’, and looking at the technical aspects of this, I would say that my own writing, like his, contained long chapters, not broken up, which allowed me as an author to immerse the reader in the world of my characters as they riffed about their own lives. Thereby focusing on characterisation more than narrative. If I look at this in even more technical detail I would say that the first-person (being more intimately involved in one persons subjective experience) would therefore allow me to look at that, and I would borrow that point of view for my own work. I have answered the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of point 1.
So in terms of point two (what I think about what I did) I would then briefly talk about my opinion of this process. What worked and what didn’t. This, to me, is the danger zone of reflective essays! It is easy for the writer to indulge at this point in their own trials and tribulations. Sometimes, I can sense students straying here a bit too much into autobiographical territory. It is important not to be tempted to use this aspect of the reflective essay to give possibly irrelevant details of personal life. Stick to analytically describing what you think about what you did. At all points in the reflective essay it can be helpful to remember to ‘analyse’ and never ‘describe’. So you can say, analytically, why a certain author helped shape your work, but you don’t need to describe what music was on in the background or the noise the children were making. Unless the music (or the children) played a big role in the artistic process.
Point three is- to discuss what you’ll do next time. This is where you can build upon the technical process you are going through as a writer. So let’s say I have submitted my Kerouac-influenced assignment which is character heavy, light on narrative and in the first-person. Here is where I can reflect on that and say ‘given that I emphasises these aspects in this assignment next time I will push myself by writing a more narrative-heavy story, maybe in the third person instead.’
In the second part of this blog I will look at other aspects that reflective essays need to consider, not least regarding the structure of the reflective essay, the writing style of them, and the level of detail you go into. Also, I will mention a little on how you describe the evolution of your work and how you mention the primary and secondary sources that were used (including a bibliography). But for now, I hope these three points perhaps offer an idea of what a tutor might look for in an essay.