“What ALL do we see then, when we look at the body anew? Particularly those parts that have been fetishized and plasticized, deified and desired, such as the female breast. For the literary essayist, a breast is rarely just a breast.”
Barrie Jean Borich
Recently, while preparing to lead a writing workshop for women with breast cancer, I pulled Nora Ephron’s memoir essay “A Few Words About Breasts” off the shelf.
“A Few Words About Breasts” is not about breast cancer. Ephron, who died of a blood disorder at the age 71 in 2012, never had breast cancer as far as I know.
But I wanted to provide the women in my workshop with a breast narrative that elevates breasts to a subject worthy of literature, a subject that is part of a larger narrative—both personal and cultural—and demonstrates a woman’s relationship to her breasts as integral to her relationship to herself and to her emotional truth.
In memoir, emotional truth is the substance of the story we are telling. It provides the emotional arc of the narrative—the deeper story—and makes visible the internal obstacles our narrator faces as well as the insights she gleans (or not) over the course of the story.
Plumbing the emotional truth of our own life experiences demands that we become vulnerable on the page so that our readers can connect with our narrator on an emotional level.
Developing our narrator’s character, however—rendering her as a complex, multifaceted human being with gifts and flaws, wounds and wisdom—is no easy task. Why not just ask a fish to describe water, right?
But as memoirists, we are obligated to see with clear vision the internal obstacles our narrator faces and to give shape and voice to this interior landscape on the page.
This challenge intensifies when writing about a subject such as breasts that is deeply personal and considered in the eyes of the culture a source of shame. You’re not supposed to talk about breasts! (Indeed, in my experience with breast cancer, society deems it more acceptable to talk about breast cancer, emphasis on cancer, than about the breasts that have the cancer.)
Ephron, of course, defies acceptable code of conduct.
“A Few Words About Breasts,” originally published in Esquire in 1972, conveys Ephron’s experience as a small-breasted woman who came of age during a time when small breasts were, well, not fashionable. (Funny to think of breasts as either “in” or “out” of fashion—like shoe style or skirt length—depending on their size and shape.) As Ephron puts it, “It was the 1950s for God’s sake. Jane Russell. Cashmere sweaters.”
By writing about her breasts without shame or apology, Ephron provides a window into her self-perception, which is shaped largely by a culture that judges her breasts inadequate. She crafts her narrator’s emotional truth with such precision that we feel her internal struggle in relationship to her breasts, and we become privy to the lifelong internal conflict this relationship poses.
The question for us as memoirists is, How does she do this?
By keeping her lens on key reactions to her breasts—both her own reactions and others’ reactions—Ephron invites us to experience blow-by-blow the unfolding of her emotional truth, which becomes the gripping internal arc of her narrative.
People’s reactions, after all, reveal what makes them tick.
By writing reaction into our memoir stories, we can reveal with a few strokes of our pen our narrator’s internal landscape, effectively bringing her character to life.
Ephron begins her internal arc at the point of her narrator’s desire for a bra at adolescence. All subsequent reactions that drive her internal arc forward stem from this initial desire.
First, there is her mother’s reaction to this desire:
“’I want to buy a bra,’ I said to my mother one night. ‘What for?’ she said. My mother was really hateful about bras, and by the time my third sister had gotten to the point where she was ready to want one, my mother had worked the whole business into a comedy routine. ‘Why not use a Band-Aid instead?’”
This paragraph, which goes on to include the aforementioned statement about Jane Russell and cashmere sweaters, closes on the narrator’s reaction to her mother’s sardonic reaction:
“’I am too old to wear an undershirt.’ Screaming. Weeping. Shouting. ‘Then don’t wear and undershirt,’ said my mother. ‘But I want to buy a bra.’ ‘What for?’”
Ending on the same note where it began, this paragraph establishes a loop-like pattern in the narrative—another person’s reaction to Ephron’s small breasts followed by her reaction to their reaction—that mimics Ephron’s life experience as she endures the scrutiny of other people’s reactions to the size of her breasts.
Ephron’s reactions change over time, mirroring her internal changes. When her future mother-in-law pulls her aside and offers unsolicited sexual advice on how to hide the fact of her small breasts from her husband in bed, Ephron says, “’Thank you.’” A reaction that brings to light the toll cultural judgment of her breasts has taken on her sense of self over the years: she’s lost some of her early fight.
That fight comes full circle when we witness Ephron as a young professional and budding writer at a cocktail party mingling with a woman who says to a man who’s just joined their conversation, “’The two of us together couldn’t fill an A cup.’”
Ephron’s reaction to this other woman’s behavior reveals an inner shift: she is beginning to see with clearer vision her fraught relationship with her own breasts as her internal arc reaches its emotional peak:
“Why does she say that? It isn’t even true, dammit, so why? Is she even more addled than I am on this subject? Does she honestly believe there is something wrong with her size breasts, which, it seems to me, now that I look hard at them, are just right?”
By crafting key reactions culled from the turning point moments of her own breast narrative, Ephron voices the deeper truth of her experience as a small-breasted woman in a society that belittles (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!) small breasts. The cumulative effect of these reactions is nothing short of a page-turner.
And a page-turner narrative driven by emotional truth is a gift for our readers. It shines light on what it means to be vulnerable and human.
* * *
Why not try you own hand at writing reaction as a way to craft your narrator’s emotional truth? Here’s a two-part writing prompt to get you started:
Writing Prompt: Put Your Narrator’s Reaction into Action
Part I: Create Your Breast Timeline
Create a timeline of the turning point moments of your breast narrative. Turning point moments are moments that leave you changed. The change can be internal or external or both. For example, developing breast buds, first bra, nursing for the first time, being teased for your breasts, breast cancer, and breasts as a source of sexual pleasure are all turning point moments that might appear on a Breast Timeline. Set your timer for ten minutes. Don’t worry about chronology. Just get the turning point moments in your breast narrative onto the page in whatever order they come to mind.
Part II: Write Your Narrator’s Reaction
Circle one of the turning point moments on your Breast Timeline. What was your reaction to this experience? Was someone else’s reaction to your breasts part of this experience? Write this experience by turning your lens on the reactions it contains. This will help you to develop your narrator’s character and craft the deeper emotional truth of her experience as a female. Set your timer for 10 minutes and write. You can do this for as many entries on your Breast Timeline as you wish.
And when you finish, leave a comment below. I would LOVE to hear your experience with this writing prompt. Did your writing of the timeline or of reactions bring you new insight about your relationship with your breasts?