Writing the Urgent
January 17, 2023 § 9 Comments
How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?
By Beth Kephart
A word is a choice. A sentence is a story. Consonants and vowels are strike and extension, collision and hush. Every single letter we place upon a page, every mark of punctuation, says something about our writerly selves, about what sparks the urgent within us.
I think of urgency as the tale we must tell, the one that wakes us from our dreams and also permeates them. When we are urgent with a story, we do not have time to waste. Our tangents can’t dawdle. Our backstories can’t yawn. We sculpt the scenes that have something to say, then place them in the order that keeps the reader turning pages. We want clarity, of course. And we want pace.
We want our readers with us.
Even the kind of memoirs I call The Art of the Moment memoirs—works in which the moments themselves and the way they are arranged are of primary intrigue and importance—require clarity and pace. Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, for example, is a braided series of reflections on the natural world and human grief. It’s a quiet book, a poetic book, and yet it begs to be read in a single sitting. There is urgency in nearly every scene—eruptions of telling details, economical pace—and there is urgency, too, in the juxtaposition of the scenes, the ways in which the present day teases the past forward, just as the past opens a view toward the present.
Recently, when compiling A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class, a new book designed to honor the nine writers who joined us for a nine-month memoir master class, I found myself thinking, again, about urgency and the ways we might achieve it. As part of the program, I’d asked our memoirists to read out loud to one another at the beginning of each session—a mere 150 art-of-the-moment words inspired by prompts and readings I’d suggested. There, in our Zoom room, we all paused. We leaned into language, rinsed our souls, protested and prayed, declaimed and rejoiced, became ever more acquainted (and grateful) for the community that was of our own making.
Listening, watching, I began to see their work as a kind of choral poetry. And so, as I sat down to build the anthology (a book of many parts that also includes flash non-fiction, fully developed essays, and writing prompts), I wondered what might happen if I slid edges of one writer’s sentences up close to the edges of another’s. How would passages excised from their original context give rise to unforeseen shared stories? How might deconstructing and reconstituting our writers’ words yield a resounding resonance? How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?
The exercise proved remarkably instructive, even profound. In one choral poem, a father’s steadfast refusal to take an airplane adventure becomes amplified by a story about a silenced piano. In another, a mother’s obsession with building kites from supermarket bags is given new meaning when filtered through a story about the rocks a son turns into a garden wall. Three writers writing of very different possessions—a white straw purse, a grandmother’s advice, a piece of furniture—yield new insight into what it is to be alive. Beloveds are carried in a multiplication of hearts. Illusions prove essential. There are fish, and there’s a bathtub.
We write toward urgency by perfecting our scenes—shedding the pedantic, favoring evocation over reporting, making smart use of verbs and image. But urgency also lives in the sequencing choices we make—what goes first, what comes next, and what comes after that. If you’ve lost the pace on an in-progress piece, if you are no longer quite as eager to get to work or quite as certain that your work is alive and matters, perhaps you’ll consider crafting a choral poem using your own work as the raw material—taking your pieces apart, setting them down in new ways, and discovering, in the process, a brand new beating heart.
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a book artist. Her recent memoir is Wife | Daughter | Self, and the anthology A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class is now available. For more on literary obsession, urgency, and telling details, join Beth’s Craft Talks webinar, “The Art of the Moment,” January 25th. More info/register here.