On Essaying: Between Anticipation and Suspense

August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Geeta Kothari

Geeta Kothari

Kenyon Review‘s nonfiction editor Geeta Kothari offers an in-depth analysis of why a recent KR essay was chosen, including a fascinating look at how the author, Mara Naselli, switches from second-person to first-person early in the essay and how she incorporates research in a personal story.  Here is Kothari’s opening, followed by a link to the full discussion:

Essays that reveal their true nature as they progress have to strike a balance between misdirection and staying the course. The art lies in the writer’s ability to establish the reader’s trust as she feels her way towards the heart of her story. She must find a balance between anticipation and suspense, between questions and answers. Re-reading “On Being a Mother,” I’m struck again by Mara Naselli’s ability to create this balance and more.

Reading Kothari’s full discussion here.

Throwback Thursday: Structuring Comedy

August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Frasier and Niles CraneComedy writer Ken Levine has written scripts for Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, The Simpsons and many other shows as well as a fair number of movies. He’s also written a memoir: The Me Generation…By Me about growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s, and a book of travel essays, Where The Hell Am I? Trips I Have Survived.

In Mr. Levine’s blog, he dissects jokes, comedic characters, and sitcom scenes. Pretty much a master class in writing funny. His breakdowns of scenes to show why a certain punchline resolves the action, or how a character shows change, are terrific technical advice for anyone writing an episodic memoir, funny or not. Even when a writer approaches facts, figuring out goals and motivations and how they are thwarted or fulfilled in a classic set-up-pay-off structure can make a much more satisfying essay. Actively using a dramatic structure can help the writer organize material and figure out what elements of a true story are most important.

On farce, Mr. Levine writes:

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve.

…Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again.

Sounds like a gripping memoir.

Read his blog post here.

Listening For The Truth

August 6, 2014 § 13 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Oliver Typewriter, known as the "Iron Butterfly" for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

Oliver Typewriter, known as the “Iron Butterfly” for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

In my head, real writers wake up, head to the typewriter, and happily pound away until their word count for the day is complete. Then, emotionally depleted but happy, they retire to the lounging sofa for the afternoon.

There’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, there’s a typewriter in it.

It’s also (based on every writer I know) completely inaccurate in every other way, too. A big lie that I’ve told myself.

Everyone sweats. Everyone slogs. Everyone feels alone and sad, and like they must not be a “real writer” because “real writers” have a different/superior/classic process.

I finished a memoir and got an agent and spent a month at loose ends. There was a lot of lounging sofa, but not a lot of word count.

I felt like a loser. Like I’d probably never write anything again. That was it, my last good idea, spent. And of course from there I shame-spiraled into the book will never sell the agent just felt sorry for me and now she and her interns spend Casual Fridays hoisting Oreo-tinis and reading out choice bits of my manuscript in funny voices. (Michelle, please don’t tell me if that’s true. Let an intern tell me.)

So I screwed up my courage and asked a writer I respect a lot, “What do you do after you’ve written a book?”

“Mooch around the internet, work in my garden, look out the window, and think about how I’ll never write anything else ever again.”

Oh.

It’s not just me.

Know what?

It’s not just you, either.

There is no magic process that “real writers” do. You are a “real writer” when you write. You are still a “real writer” when you’re not writing, when you’re sitting and listening for words to come. Maybe your listening is taking long walks, or watching cat videos, or reading wonderful books you admire or reading trashy books that entertain you. For me, listening is hanging out on the lounging sofa and imagining a little room. I wait in the room, and my ideas are people coming to me with problems. I listen until someone shows up with a problem I want to solve.

I listen for the truth to show up, so I can tell it.

(P.S. I own the Oliver Typewriter above, and I sometimes turn it to the wall when I imagine it’s silently judging.)
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Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.

Resurrecting the Murky Past

August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

brokenphoto-1-212x300When Ann Churcher set out to write a memoir of her childhood in Malawi:

The first thing I discovered was how much, how very much, I’d forgotten. And how very much more I’d never known – things that I should have known – or understood. The problem was compounded by waiting to write it until both my parents were dead. There was no one to ask, ‘What kind of lavatory did we have in the bush?’ ‘Did we drink milk from African cows?’ ‘Did I never play with the local children?’ And if not, ‘Why not?’

I’ve had to rely on my scribbled notes, my disjointed ‘snapshot’ memories, old dog-eared black and white photographs and a great deal of research. Fortunately, I throw little away.

In a blog post at Women Writers Women’s Books, Ms. Churcher describes the process of painstakingly reconstructing her half-remembered life, and how she transformed her version of the truth into memoir.

Read the whole thing.

Throwback Thursday: Are Blogs the New Journals?

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

nichole-bernier-author-writerIn April 2013, Nichole Bernier’s novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D told the story of two women, one revealed entirely through her journals, found after her death. A reader asked her, with the current popularity of blogs, weren’t journals a bit dated?

In Writer’s Digest, Bernier responded:

Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep for themselves privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals what banks are to money that used to be hidden in mattresses?

In a thought-provoking article, she discusses blogs, journals, first-person essays and the public and private faces of self-expression.

Read it here.

The Malleable Genre

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

silent-dancing-coferAn interview with a contemporary creative nonfiction pioneer and Brevity contributor, Judith Ortiz Cofer.  Full link after this brief excerpt:

I began writing creative nonfiction before the term existed. In my first autobiographical collection of essays and poems, Silent Dancing, I gave myself permission to do what Virginia Woolf recommended to writers of nonfiction: follow the tracks of memory to one’s “moments of being.” I have been following my tracks ever since I discovered how satisfying it is to delve into this malleable genre. The creative nonfiction essay can take almost any form: you can weave it, braid it, make it into a collage. For me it is a vehicle for exploration, not only of myself, but of any subject that interests me.

Read the full interview at the Prairie Schooner blog.

The Grudge: On the Journey of Writing Memoir

July 29, 2014 § 44 Comments

By Allison K Williams

climber
Words on the page.

I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll up, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.

Now, I sort out themes and carefully choose incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—my temporal continuity notes in all-caps, places to fill in more details highlighted yellow, the color of cowardice. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward instead, discover what should be in the past, what is missing from the path, and put it there. Cut-and-paste, so much easier than living it, so much scarier to revisit in words that route that thrilled me when I didn’t know what lay ahead.

Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). And yet the writer must never lose the rope entirely—the ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.

The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not just how you felt, but what happened.

You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not a hero (If you are a hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.

My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.

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Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.

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