For several years I worked as a columnist for a regional newspaper. I was also a new mom and all that that implies (mostly, being cranky and in possession of few clothes that actually fastened). My column was titled “The View from the Sandbox,” and its subject was my own challenge of going from the competitive world of Wall Street to the competitive world of, well, the sandbox at the local park. Lacking sleep, as well as any true column-writing training, I stumbled upon the value of including in each piece a clear, straightforward sentence – usually at the end of the first paragraph – that explained my purpose. Summarizing my point in one sentence seemed to keep me from rambling, as well as its homely cousin, the rant.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the column would help me to get accepted into a graduate writing program. Armed with an MFA, I began a new career teaching writing at a local university. Now I wax endlessly about the importance of thesis statements, which is the formal name for the sentence whose utility I discovered more than ten years ago. I show my students how other writers use thesis statements in their essays, and that the sentences can be eloquent.

Here’s one from Joan Didion’s essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.” Another good one – although it is technically two sentences – is found in Lars Eighner’s essay “On Dumpster Diving.” It reads: “I have learned much as a scavenger. I mean to put some of what I have learned down here, beginning with the practical art of Dumpster diving and proceeding to the abstract.” And that is what Eighner does in his essay, explains how you, too, can become a scavenger of Dumpsters.

In a personal essay, the thesis statement summarizes the point. This can be helpful in the editing stage: before you add or delete, I remind my students, ask if your details – the sound of the pounding bass or the way the sunlight dapples through the trees – support the thesis statement. And when crafting a conclusion, something students often tell me they find challenging, I remind them to consider the ending in the context of their thesis statement. Endings, after all, need to stay true to the central ideas. Didion’s essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” closes with the image of a bride, a mention of the deceased, and a reference to “the golden land where every day the world is born anew,” all subjects that her thesis statement promised. A good ending lands the reader where the thesis statement promised to go.

And yet. My intractable rule – always have a thesis statement that spells out your point for the reader – immobilized me for longer than I care to admit as I struggled to write a personal essay about friends from college who married the wrong men, and how I nearly made the same monolithic mistake. The college bordered on idyllic, with small, intimate classes, sweeping vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains – even warm doughnuts at breakfast. But it was also all-women, and perched high off an isolated stretch of highway. To be around men, you had to travel over winding, treacherous roads. Often there were accidents, I wrote, and sometimes they were fatal.

And there it was, my thesis statement – in the form of a metaphor about dangerous roads and horrific accidents. Had I come right out and said, “Some of my college friends decided their own dreams weren’t all that important and instead married men from wealthy southern families, as if they’d checked off all the boxes on a punch list, which turned out to be a big mistake,” what would entice the reader to continue? But by crafting a thesis statement as metaphor, the writer defers to the reader’s intelligence; it allows the reader to experience her own moment of recognition. I’m also convinced that metaphor lights up a deep section in our brain that responds to writing that weaves images together with ideas. But I digress. The point is I began to understand that a thesis statement doesn’t need to serve as a billboard for the reader.

A question, for instance, can work well as a thesis statement in a personal essay, often arising naturally out of a detailed narrative opening. It seems to me that while a thesis statement posed as a question can often have a scholarly effect, it also gives the reader the sense that she is sitting right next to the writer, privy to the workings of the writer’s mind.

I still love thesis statements – after all, they saved me from many long hours staring bleary-eyed at the computer screen. And I do think a writer should be able to articulate verbally the thesis of any personal essay he or she considers nearly complete. My daughter is now eleven, and it’s been years since I stepped into a sandbox. Sometimes I turn on the television and see people who look as if they take themselves very, very seriously with the words “Wall Street” flashing across the screen; today I don’t think I could draw any relationship between the two. Personal essays convey to others what strikes our hearts, and my heart has attached itself to other stories, with other thesis statements.

Cynthia Pike Gaylord left a career on Wall Street to pursue a lifelong dream of writing. She received her MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she now teaches. Her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Independent Press, and New Jersey Monthly.