Wash Your Lyric (Essays): A Writing Prompt for a Strange Time

March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

AML_Author_PhotoBy Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.

I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.

As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.

There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.

When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.

So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.

You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:

handwash 1


Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.

Now try this:

handwash 2

I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?

In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”

Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?

So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?

And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)

Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?

Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.

I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.

Author Photo by Greta Rybus



The Heart of a Story: Writing Toward Voice

March 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Photo of a white woman with long dark-blonde hair, wearing salmon tank top and statement necklace. She is smiling broadly.By Marilyn Bousquin


Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about an adolescent girl with anorexia. Lo and behold, my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)

Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. He said, “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been conditioned to silence her truth. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”

I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.



Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and voice. I also studied voice as intrinsic to female conditioning. I learned it’s not uncommon for an adolescent girl to internalize shame as her body develops, and that such shame can silence her voice.

My studies on women and voice led me to Gail Collins-Ranadive’s course Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.”

In Gail’s writing circle, I tapped into something within me that felt larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.

Do any of you hear a voice?



Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and began to lead women’s writing circles.

One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.”

Yes, oh, yes.



During a writing prompt in Kate Hopper’s course Motherhood & Words, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page. Uh-oh. There’s a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.

Kate said, “I want to hear more.” Then she said: “When you’re ready to write it.”



Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction. But guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to write that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.

Instead, I wrote stories that skirted the red medical book even as, unbeknownst to me, I wrote my way toward it.

I wrote my way toward my voice.



I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?

I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and experience as a writer and teacher to understand that, yes, everyone has a voice, and part of a writing teacher’s role is to create a safe space for that voice to emerge. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety,” Julia Cameron says.

Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.



Every turn in my writing journey readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.

The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.

Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.



Know this: A voice for any given story emerges from the subject at the heart of that story. If shame shrouds a story’s subject so, too, its voice may hover beneath shame. A memoirist whose subject has been silenced by shame must write past shame to the voice at the heart of her story.



What’s your red-medical-book story?

I want to hear it. When you’re ready.


Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to claim their voice and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her own memoir stories appear in River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow her on Facebook.

Post-AWP Bargain: Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, Low Price, Free Shipping

March 10, 2020 § 3 Comments

Flash-NonfictionFieldGuide-300x426Since so many writers and readers had to change their plans to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last week (#AWP2020), and miss the bookfair, Rose Metal Press is offering a we-couldn’t-go-to-AWP online sale, with all books nicely discounted and free shipping too (use the code AWPFREESHIP).

Actually a lot of presses that had to miss the conference are offering post-AWP discounts, and please support them all if you can, but Rose Metal is home to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book, frankly, toward which we feel a great fondness.

But, hey, listen to Phillip Lopate: “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction … is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Great for teaching, and perfect for the the individual writer in need of prompts and inspiration!

The sale only lasts through March 12th, so jump on it today!


Writing with Power(Point)

February 20, 2020 § 9 Comments

A vacuum on a beige carpet, picking up shiny confetti“Hey, let’s go make PowerPoint slides!” said nobody ever. We all became writers to escape the dreary corporate world, right? We’re not wearing ties or pantyhose, we show up on our own schedule, and we certainly don’t make “presentations.”

Unless part of our writing is…teaching. Or giving a TedTalk about our process or a PechaKucha about the topic of our book. Or leading a workshop. Or speaking at conferences. Yes, sadly, there are many opportunities for writers to embrace slides. But just as social media can make us better writers, creating slides lets us practice strong imagery, writing craft, and (of course!) brevity.

After five years of speaking, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for engaging, informative slides—and writing better prose, too.

Get a good template. Most pre-loaded slide themes are aggressively corporate, with blue gradient triangles and racing stripes galore. Free presentation templates on Canva, Graphic Mama and SlideCarnival include fun, creative themes that still look sleek and professional.

When you’re writing, make sure you’re reading. How are books and essays you admire structured? Can you experiment with someone else’s and your own content? Would a hermit crab or braided essay “template” suit the material you’re working with? Very often, the exercise of shaping our words into a fixed form illuminates connections and highlights important moments.

Show OR Tell. Memoirists can “tell” a bit more than novelists, because the writer’s retrospective voice can express deeper realizations from the actions the past self takes. As Sue Silverman teaches, the “voice of experience” tells the story, and the “voice of innocence” lives it in the past. We still need to show key scenes and allow the reader to experience what we felt at the time, but we can give context and share what it all means to us now.

With slides, avoid reading the text on a slide. Most of your audience can read faster than you can speak, so let them get the gist while you share the larger meaning of your key concepts, and “show” the application and purpose of what you’re teaching with vivid, specific stories. Likewise, go for a fun or unique photo over one that purely illustrates what you’re talking about. I can tell a roomful of writers “Clean up your manuscript with a good copy-edit because typos are distracting to the reader,” but the vacuum sucking up glitter shows that idea more than a marked-up page. We’d all be distracted by glitter on the carpet; we can imagine typos as confetti strewn over our manuscript. Ideas sink in better when the associated image conveys a feeling.

Which brings us back to showing in our writing: when expressing an abstract concept, or a state of being, or family history, or a relationship, use a concrete image:

My aunt used to sit on the blue velour couch and re-sew her underwear for her daughters.

—strong situation, right? But let me expand in an unexpected direction:

We weren’t poor.

Instead, the men in the family controlled the money, and the women made do. Now we have an image, plus the immediate pity, plus outrage at the next discovery. A memorable and emotion-evoking detail on which to build a scene. For great scenes, explore your memory; for great images, check out stock photo sites like Pixabay and Unsplash.

Keep it tight. Here at Brevity, we love your 750-words-or-less essays. But even a 120,000-word fantasy novel or historical fiction should have no wasted words.

In your slides, evaluate each one: do you need it to express a point? Does it follow logically from the previous slide, and lead us to the next one? Does more than one slide express this point? Trim text to the minimum number of words. Bullet points of six words or less; not more than six bullet points on a slide. No more than one slide per minute of total presentation time. Yes, you’ll go through slides faster than a minute each, but that gives time for questions at the end, or to spend more time on complex points.

If you’re trimming down your memoir, make a list of scenes. What “point” does each scene make?

  • This scene with my mom is how I learned my value was based on my appearance
  • This scene with my dad is how I thought alcoholic behavior was “normal”
  • This scene with my ex-boyfriend is about him valuing me only on my appearance…hold up, do I need this? Do I need all of it? Do I need it here?

I’m a weirdo who genuinely enjoys making slides. Even if you don’t join me in this folly, imagine your essay, memoir or novel as a series of static images. What are you watching? What do those images say? What key points should the reader take away? Smooth your transitions from one scene to the next. Weed out duplicates. Trim unnecessary words. And breathe a deep sigh of thankfulness that you’ll never have to try to make Quarter Two’s Sales Numbers memorable.

Like to see these techniques in action? I just added slides for “Beyond Spellcheck: Editing Your Brilliant Next Draft” to my Instagram highlights. It’s meant to be viewed on a phone (it’s sideways), but you can turn your laptop—that’ll be a memorable image, too.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats in Costa Rica, Pennsylvania and Tuscany.

World’s Best Writing Advice

February 19, 2020 § 8 Comments

Matthew Duffus Author PhotoBy Matthew Duffus

I was packing for an Easter Break trip when the phone rang. Without Caller ID—this was in 2001, the age of landlines—I had no time to prepare for the voice of my thesis advisor, Barry Hannah. Even after two-plus years, he scared the hell out of me, no less because he was then reading a draft of my entire thesis for the first time. He had cancer, and I’d hated to bother him earlier, so I waited to send him my draft, justifying procrastination as consideration for his illness.

As always, he cut to the heart of the matter. “Five of these stories need new endings,” he said, vaporizing my vacation with one sentence. The final draft was due in less than a week. I had no idea where to begin.

“Do you have any advice?” I said.

He sighed loudly enough I could almost smell cigarette smoke through the receiver. Finally, he said, “Endings are hard.” I waited for more, but that was it.

Days earlier, I’d had a dream that he’d approved my thesis. I’d awoken so relieved that thirty minutes went by before I realized the truth. Now, I went back to square one, with six days to correct mistakes that were years in the making.

Nevertheless, I wrote new endings, altering the entire trajectory of some stories, pushing others beyond the points I’d selected as conclusions in previous drafts. Barry still frowned at half the stories, while another member of the committee conveniently disapproved of the other half. Though it took me weeks to overcome the stress of my hour-long defense, I’ve discovered over the many years since then that endings are hard is exactly what I needed, and still need, to hear.

What I’ve taken away from this saying is that no silver bullet or incantation exists to help writers succeed. Similarly, bromides and prescriptive comments are of little use. Instead of searching for short cuts, we are better off putting in the work necessary to make each story, novel, poem, or essay as good as it can be.

For instance, when writing my novel, Swapping Purples for Yellows, I found the notion that a drafting writer should always be moving forward, without looking back, unhelpful. I’d done this in the past, only to end up with a draft so messy its problems overwhelmed me so much that I never found a way in for revision. This time, I wrote a chapter or two and then went back over them, even if only to line edit, before pushing on. This took longer, but when I completed the draft, I knew I had something I could work with, even if some of the line edits were for naught when scenes went by the wayside.

I internalized my take on Barry’s advice for my short-story collection as well. I wrote each of the stories in Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories using a process specific to the demands of that individual work. One story, “The Soprano at Midlife,” appeared to me so completely that I wrote all twenty-eight pages in one eight-hour sitting. Other stories, such as “Enjoy Your Stay,” lived in my mind for more than a year before I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. If I’d attempted to fit this story into the same drafting process I’d used for the earlier one, I’m sure the story would have come out half-baked, without the nuance and depth I hope it contains.

This pertains to my nonfiction writing as well. When an essay idea forms quickly, I try to keep up with it; when an idea needs to gestate, I try to be patient and not pin it down on paper too soon. A recent essay on a fallow period in my writing life hit me all at once, ironically, and it was all I could do to slow down long enough to complete the reading I wanted to do for background before I resumed typing. The idea for the piece you’re reading is almost twenty years in the making, but while I’ve often used the anecdote in conversation, it wasn’t until that fallow period that I was able to stop and reflect on what I’d taken from that off-hand comment.

Barry’s advice has illustrated what another mentor said about him. He told me Barry was among the most intuitive writers he’d ever met. Based on this advice alone, I see the truth in that comment. Barry didn’t believe in telling writers what to do. Even if his exacting line editing discouraged me at times, he never once declared that I should do X in revising a story. Instead, he told me what each story seemed to be about, taking on the role of engaged reader, exactly what I needed as a young, insecure writer. Nothing made me prouder than the day he announced, upon reading my latest work, “This is a story that needs to be told.” In the end, though, his vaguest piece of advice was worth the years I spent working with him. Not bad for three little words.

Matthew Duffus is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows. His poetry chapbook Problems of the Soul and Otherwise and story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories are both forthcoming. He lives in rural North Carolina, where he is an instructor of English and writing center director at Gardner-Webb University.

I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You

February 18, 2020 § 17 Comments

Selfie of a black woman with shoulder-length braids and a big smile against a background of greeneryBy Ramona M. Payne

My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with whatever other people decided was best. No point in arguing; she was a child. Even as an adult, some people thought they could treat her as if she were a child. And as a Black woman growing up in the forties and fifties, the best interests of other people did not always align with what was best for her.

Many times, I listened to her stories about one person or another who had underestimated her. She would chuckle, amused by their need to tell a grown woman about what she could and could not accomplish.

“That’s alright,” she said, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” She didn’t have to say it to them—it was enough that she knew what she was capable of achieving. Her determination to take control of her own life defined who my mother was to me. She was not going to waste time convincing others, begging for understanding, asking permission, or most importantly, giving them an entire backstory or explanation to obtain their consent.

I can show you better than I can tell you. It was simple advice—pay attention to what you see me doing, because I am not wasting words on you.

I remember my first writers’ workshop, many years ago in Virginia. I knew my piece required some work and I braced myself for constructive feedback. After a decade in corporate jobs, my business writing with its memos, annual plans, and recommendations required that I get to the point, and quickly. The life and color had been sucked out of my earlier writing and replaced with numbers and case studies.

That week, I sat in the room with other writers, some already years into writing careers, others like me, trying to make the shift from business to writing. There were elements of my piece the group liked—the story, description, and the main character. But my voice was not always consistent, and my story lacked any real conflict. I had not established a clear sense of what these characters wanted.

We sat in the windowless room, several women, all Black except for one, and two white men, one of whom led the workshop. We discussed the importance of telling our stories and using writing as a way to share them. The instructor, an award-winning novelist and literary journalist, dismissed the idea that everyone had a story.

A young emerging writer, who has gone on to a distinguished career in both print and digital media, disagreed. “I think everyone has a story to tell.”

The instructor arched a bushy white brow and peered through his glasses, perhaps considering his audience. “Well maybe everyone has a story, but I’m not sure everyone needs to write it.”

Thanks to my mother, I had not arrived to my late thirties assuming that everyone who sat at the head of a conference table was infallible, so I filed away the remark, but largely ignored that bit of advice.

But one writing tip proved useful. The workshop included an adage new to me at the time, but I have heard it in classes and read the advice in writing craft books many times since. Show don’t tell. Don’t spend time rehashing facts; instead, engage the reader’s emotion and imagination by inviting them to use their senses—feel what’s happening, hear it, see it. Exposition and summary are not enough. Regardless of how lovely the description or likable the characters, my writing had to make a reader feel or think something, and know something was at stake.

These days the advice has shifted somewhat, from show don’t tell to show and tell. Nonfiction both maps out the story and background for the reader, and uses reflection and the retrospective voice to share what I have made out of what happened. Nonfiction writers dig deeper than the facts as we see them; we try to discern what it has all meant.

Which is what my mother had done all along. She could have sat you down, given you the entire backstory, complete with a rationale for why she was going to take a certain action. She could have told you not only the expected outcome, but how she got there.

But she was wise enough to know that excess dialogue doesn’t always lead to better understanding. On the surface, it sounds more direct, but it pushes out room for discovery or letting you make your own conclusions. I take my mother’s advice with me when I sit down to work—I can show you better than I can tell you—and try to share a world and characters who reveal who they are.


Ramona M. Payne’s writing appears in essay collections and magazines. She completed the Creative Writing program at The University of Chicago Graham School, has a liberal arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from Duke University. She supports local theatre, practices Pilates, and leads her expressive writing workshop, Write.Pause.Reflect. Follow her on Twitter @RamonaPayne1 or Instagram @writepausereflect.

Developing a Time of Writing Voice in Memoir

February 5, 2020 § 5 Comments

schallerBy Jennifer Jordán Schaller

Even though self-compassion is not my strongest trait, I was able to figure out how to characterize myself in my memoir manuscript after reflecting on my writing using a few steps. My manuscript explores the effect of trauma on the ability of the protagonist, that’s me, to parent as an adult. My old dissertation director, Greg Martin, calls this the “time-of-writing” voice, the voice that struggles to make sense of the past. In one scene, I explore domestic violence from the point of view of an abuser.

By the way, I was the abuser.

Sibling abuse in my home occurred when I was given power I did not deserve. When I was nine years old, I *babysat* my brother. Here’s a sample scene:

My mom was a single mother who left for work each weekday morning while my brother and I finished our breakfast. As the oldest child, my mother told me it was my job to get us to school in the morning – me, a third grader; my brother, a first grader. I should not have been left in charge; I had no knowledge of child development. As a daughter, I was obedient because rules made sense, but as a leader, I was a dictator.

Mornings in our apartment followed the same pattern. Every morning we had to be to school by nine, and it took at least ten minutes to get to school. The trouble was, my brother never wanted to turn off his favorite show, Transformers, until it was over. The show ended at 8:56 a.m., which meant every day we were late to school.

Every morning, I would slink into Mrs. Ortega’s third grade class while kids recited the pledge of allegiance. I tried to disguise my tardiness by ducking behind my peers, who were busy holding their right hands over their hearts, but each morning, my teacher marked me tardy, made me stay inside for recess, and told me she would have to call my mom if I didn’t start coming to school on time.

While this cycle of truancy repeated itself, every morning before school, I tried, in what I believed was a valiant attempt, to get my brother and me to school on time. While my brother rooted for Optimus Prime, I would begin my supervisory duties with a pronouncement: “It’s time to go to school.” If he ignored me, I would shift into yelling: “It’s time to go to school!”  And when he did not listen again, I would clobber him.

I remember jumping on top of him and battering him using right and left hooks in quick, back-and-forth motions. I struck him in the gut, gut, gut, in his legs, legs, legs, wherever I could land a punch. I didn’t realize the tenuous nature of existence, how an abdominal organ could rupture. I was more concerned with short term consequences like getting in trouble. My critical thinking skills were not in full bloom. As an adult, my brother’s defiance makes sense to me: Why turn off the TV before the Autobots crushed the Decepticons?

I didn’t like being a bully. I felt ashamed and guilty. I knew violence contradicted the responsibilities I had of keeping my brother safe. And I felt terrible for beating him. I didn’t confess the morning beatings to my priest, where I gave my first confession during that third-grade year. I didn’t tell anyone. My brother didn’t tell anyone either, not even our mother.


Through writing and revising this scene, I could more accurately render my younger self. Here are some steps I took:

  1. Step One: I read my work as an objective outsider

I had to believe my point of view was worthy of understanding. I started by thinking of nine-year-old me as a character separate from who I am now. I would have sympathized with any other child in the same situation, so I applied that same sympathy to myself. Once I could entertain that the character was worthy of a rounded characterization, I was able to see that this was a precarious situation, and I was given far too much responsibility as a child.

  1. Step Two: I was fair to my persona

In the same way that I strive to be fair to all my characters, I had to be fair to my creative nonfiction protagonist. I had to consider all the reasons why my character abused her power and I explored them in the scene. Once I looked objectively at the material of my life as an outsider, I could honor the journey of that confused little girl. Pretending I was objective eventually turned into real compassion.

  1. Step Three: I cut out reflection that did not drive the narrative forward

This brings me to my last point, a part of me worried when writing this scene that if I did not address the topic of domestic violence, I was somehow condoning or justifying my behavior. As an adult, I strongly disagree with corporal punishment, and initially I wrote several paragraphs about this. I needed to write them, but I didn’t need to publish them in this story because they had no momentum.

I used my time-of-writing voice to illustrate compassion for the character of my child-self, who was growing and learning, just as I would any child who makes a mistake. I strove to show that I was aware of the injustice of hitting one’s brother, without having to apologize for it on the page, even though I have apologized both to myself and my brother for the way that I was. For me, the trick to developing a time-of-writing voice in memoir includes looking back and characterizing my protagonist with wisdom, not guilt, and directing my focus toward an audience larger than my family of origin.
Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; NPR’s This American LifeSonora ReviewBrain, ChildNew Mexico English JournalAscent (this essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize); and others. See more of her work at jenniferjordanschaller.com.

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