February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
As a teacher of memoir since before the invention of the lightbulb, one challenge I see writers struggle with consistently is how to make the “I” on the page a fully living, breathing, walking and talking character. And even more important, how to make that “I” someone the reader will want to spend time with, over ten or 250 pages.
Phillip Lopate aptly points out that the problem for writers is thinking that the ‘I’ we type onto the page “is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past…” Instead, Lopate warns, all readers will actually see in the letter ‘I’ is “a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.”
I know this problem well, because it remains an issue for me, in my own early drafts. It is maddeningly difficult to escape my own mind, one in which the mere thought of myself brings up this complex, swirling, tumbling wealth of memories and associations. What is needed, however, is to somehow enter the mindset of an anonymous reader, one who knows virtually nothing about me.
Yet it is not enough to merely tell the reader who I am. Why should a reader believe me, of all people? Why would you believe some stranger in a Starbucks who wandered up to your table and began explaining his positive traits, unjust obstacles, and charming little idiosyncrasies? The natural reaction to the fellow in the coffee shop is to think, “Sure buddy, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Readers aren’t that different.
On Wednesday of next week, Feb. 24th, from 1 to 2:15 pm, I’ll be exploring the various ways we can craft a compelling “I” onto the memoir page, and how that person becomes a rounded, engaging, and believable presence. The 75-minute Zoom webinar, hosted by the wonderful Jane Friedman, will focus on:
- Why characterization is critical
- How the ways in which we assess people in “real life” transfer to how readers assess us on the page
- What to reveal, and what to keep hidden
- The importance of compassion when writing about others, but also when writing about the self
- How to gain the reader’s trust through honesty and fairness about yourself and your adversaries (And the surprising way sharing your own faults affects the reader!)
The webinar is useful for writes at all levels,
- When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021
- Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
- Fee: $25
February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Heather Lanier
I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.
Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.
But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.
The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.
The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.
Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.
So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.
And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.
In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.
I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”
The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.
This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.
January 20, 2021 § Leave a comment
By David Perez
What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem?
Reading aloud engages the senses, makes us think of rhythm, narrative flow, and stillness; connects us with how our words truly sound. Reading aloud slows us down. When we read in our minds we tend to zoom along, the brain processing much faster than the mouth can speak.
Reading aloud allows us to slow down and pay attention, which makes the practice a powerful proofreading tool. We find common grammatical errors, omitted words, sections that don’t quite say what we intended or that just don’t feel right.
Read David Perez’s full craft essay in the newest issue of Brevity
January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers?
The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences.
But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed.
I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it.
What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well?
Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do.
The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning. We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm.
The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.
And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not?
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
It is easy in memoir – too easy – to just insert the word ‘mother’ and imagine your readers know exactly what you mean. You, the writer, have such a vivid set of associations with those six letters – m-o-t-h-e-r – that as you write, and as you revise, the woman who raised you (and perhaps vexed you) is alive and breathing, walking across the page.
But not for us.
If you are going to write about Mom, you need to treat her like a character, present her in all of her complexity. You need to paint us a picture of your mother vivid enough that she will intrigue us throughout, just as a novelist would when creating a person out of pure imagination. Though the people we write about in our memoirs are very real, they still must function as characters on the page, because we – your readers – have never met these people.
And by picture, I don’t mean a static description: hair, clothes, weight, age.
To better understand, think of what transpires when you meet someone, in real life. You may form an instant impression, based on clothing, physical characteristics, maybe even a “gut reaction,” but what you do next is watch and wait. “Let’s see how they act,” you think to yourself. “Give it a little while and we’ll see what sort of person they really are.”
This basic human instinct to form conclusions based on “what you see with your own eyes,” on your judgement of a person’s character, functions no differently in writing. When a reader encounters a new person on the page – and this is true whether this character is fictional or a real person captured in nonfiction – the reader (perhaps unconsciously) thinks. “Let’s see how this person acts. Then I’ll make up my mind what kind of person she is.”
Even your mother. Just because you love her, or are irked at her, or understand her, or find her endlessly puzzling, you can’t assume we as readers feel any of this. And you can’t just tell us what to feel or think about her. We’ll hear you, but we won’t be convinced.
You need to show us how she walks, how she talks, how her eyes squinch when she is confused, what she says, what she fails to say, how she folds and unfolds a tea towel when she is upset, and most importantly, how she treats others around her.
Then we will believe.
I’ll be teaching a webinar – They Walk! They Talk! Secrets to Writing Engaging Characters and Vivid Dialogue – next week for Creative Nonfiction, using examples from Cheryl Strayed, Kiese Laymon, and Kathryn Harrison, to further examine the nuts and bolts craft elements that allow “real people” to become living, breathing characters in a memoir or essay.
We will also explore the importance of compassion when writing about others, especially family members who may not always have acted well.
Finally, we’ll examine dialogue as a tool for creating lively and believable characters, and consider the challenges of capturing how “real people” talk.
This webinar is for writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process. Prompts and brief writing exercises will be included.
Here are the facts:
Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 / 2 pm – 3:15 pm ET
$15 / Advance registration required.
Hope to see you there.
November 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I have always been a doodler — in grade school, high school, hiding in the back row of large college classrooms, eventually in faculty meetings, and often just to pass the time while waiting in a doctor’s office. Having a pencil or pen in hand and some paper, or for that matter a little free space in the margins of a magazine, has always been calming for me, meditative, and amusing, all at the same time. So I was pretty darn excited to hear that Rebecca Fish Ewan had a new book out, Doodling for Writers. How do these little scribbles of ours improve our writing? In more ways than I imagined.
I was especially pleased by the book’s release because Rebecca wrote a stellar craft essay on the graphic form for Brevity and has been featured more than once — see here, and here — on the Brevity Blog .
I was so tickled that I decided to doodle a picture of her to celebrate:
And it was the most horrible doodle ever doodled. Worse even than the drawing I did of my friend Jackson’s Labradoodle:
But Doodling for Writers is nonetheless a clever, lively, funny little book, and the advice is sound. On pacing and voice, for instance:
“Voice and breath are inextricably linked. In poetry, line breaks indicate a breath. In prose, it’s, commas, that, signal, inhalations. When I draw, I become more aware of my breaths. The lines I lay down on the page keep pace with my breathing. If I want calm still lines, I slow my breaths, which in turn slows my heart rate, which then calms my hand so it can give me the line I need.”
Fish Ewan offers up a wonderful chart detailing the links between perspective in drawing and literary Point of View. She has excellent points and pointers as to how exploring our characters in ink can help us learn more about the folks we write about in our memoirs. The prompts throughout the book are brilliant!
I like also that she regularly advises tossing out the rules, like the one about how to draw heads, which never worked for me, unless I was trying to draw the head of a pig:
The real message of Doodling for Writers is that one corner of the creative brain can stimulate another corner, that drawing, or doodling, can happily stimulate the writer’s mind, and that, what the heck, writing can still be fun (like drawing.)
Dinty W. Moore is the editor-in-chief of Brevity and he drewed these pictures all by his self.
November 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
What happened to you was powerful—but will anyone else want to read it? And which events from your life go in the book, anyway? Do you need more backstory? Or more action? Is the reader going to get it?
The foul-mouthed creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon know the answer. You might not love their sense of humor, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker are story-structure geniuses. Every set-up pays off. Every scene is necessary to understand the whole story. Every action is motivated—often by hatred, selfishness, egotism or pettiness, but viewers never wonder “Huh, why’d he do that?”
A couple of years ago, Stone and Parker visited NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to speak to a Storytelling Strategies class.
(Here’s a great two-minute video of the below, including additional f-bombs)
They tell the students:
Trey Parker: We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.
We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
…And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see…
Matt Stone: …you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens—and you’re going what the fuck am I watching this movie for? This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Revisit your manuscript. (This is a particularly good exercise if you’re stuck on your middle or ending.) List the scenes. What happens in each one? Can you connect each scene to the next with But! or Therefore… ? Do any of them connect with And then… ?
If a scene isn’t a “but” or a “therefore,” that still doesn’t mean cut it right away. Take another look. What’s literally happening in the scene, that you’ve written in the text as Then-You experiencing action and dialogue in the moment? What’s emotionally happening in the scene that’s clear in the subtext, or that you’re adding in the reflective voice of Narrator-You writing the book? Are both of those things fully present in what you’ve written?
My mom pulled out my drawers and dumped my clothes on the floor because she said they weren’t folded right.
And then I folded them all and put them back.
And then I went out and lost my virginity in the back seat of Susie’s car.
My mom dumped all my clothes on the floor.
Because I was afraid to defy her, and I still wanted her to love me, I folded them all the way she wanted and put them back.
But I wanted to show her she didn’t own all of me, therefore I went out and told Susie I wanted to lose my virginity now, and could I borrow her car?
Stilted as this is, isn’t it more exciting already?
The actual “therefore,” of course, doesn’t belong in your narrative. But each scene should imply that connection to the next, causation showing this scene could not have happened without that scene, therefore that scene is necessary to my story. This scene is that scene’s But or Therefore.
Then try working backward. Is each scene a specific result of something that has happened earlier? Is the end of your book the biggest Therefore of all?
Your scenes may not be in the exact order of causation—your timeline may show that long-past events were the “Because” of a present action, or Chapter 3 establishes a set-up that pays off in Chapter 9. But your conscious awareness of these connections will help you determine both if a scene belongs—and what the reader needs from this scene to move forward in your story.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story as a live webinar December 16th, and the recording will be available to anyone registered.
October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:
DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?
LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.
The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.
As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.
One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.
DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again?
LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.
DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?
LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.
More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.