May 25, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Josh Sippie
It’s hard to argue that the whole “you only get one chance to make a first impression” logic doesn’t also apply to writing. The first line of a narrative is the first foray into the voice of the author, the creativeness, the style, the everything. If that isn’t on par with what you, the reader, are looking for, then what’s leading you to believe that the rest of the narrative will change? For that matter, why should you give it the chance to change when there are so many other options out there to consume?
So what makes an interesting first line? Let’s take a look.
Take, for instance, the first line of The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Simple, but enticing, no? There is no throat clearing, no preamble, no walk-up, nothing hokey about it. The story begins in the very first sentence. If you plant their feet in the story in the first line then the only reason they will leave before the next sentence is if they just don’t like your voice, your style, your story. And you know what they say—don’t write for everyone. Because you’ll never please them all.
Give your reader the story immediately. If that means starting in the middle of action, like watching your mom root through a dumpster, great. Start there. The story is already in motion and the reader is now part of it. They’re asking themselves all kinds of questions: What was Jeanette doing that evening? Why was her mother in the dumpster? What was she looking for?
Or, if you don’t want to start in the middle of the action, try introducing conflict. Take Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for example.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
Why not? What grandmother? Why doesn’t she have a name?
Or try intrigue, like in I’m The One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell.
“Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s.”
Who is Susannah? How was she murdered? Why didn’t Andrea know?
What do all of these beginnings have in common? The reader is asking questions. If they are asking questions after the first line, they will be curious enough to try the second. If you force them to ask questions—good questions, mind you—they will seek out the answers.
That’s not the only method, though it’s a great place to start. You might also try poking their emotions. You only have one sentence, so don’t try to drop the weight of the world on their shoulders all in one fell swoop, but giving them a prod to make them smile or worry or feel empathy towards the protagonist is another way to ensure that the first line does its job.
One of the best examples comes from Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind Of Girl.
“When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.”
Are you smiling? Because I am, and this isn’t the first time I’ve read that line. If you can get a genuine smile from the reader with one line, they are going to trust you for more smiles in the lines and pages to come.
Maybe you’re not writing a smiley piece, though. Cory Taylor wasn’t in his Memoir (and the title should give the tone away) Dying: A Memoir. But his first line does the trick:
“About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China.”
Worried yet? (It also makes them ask questions, but we’re past that part.)
Both Dunham and Taylor accomplished the same thing in their first line with very different tactics. They poke the reader’s emotions. And since both stories are marketed to the right audience, that effective poke is what made their entire story so effective.
The tried and true method, no matter the approach, is to think like the reader. When you go to read an essay, or pick up a memoir, or a poem, or an article—what do you look for? You look for intrigue, emotion, adventure. You want to ask questions and have them answered. You want your emotions to be poked and prodded and taken for a ride.
Do the same for your readers. Get them to ask questions that they then seek the answer to, or get them to feel something that they want more of—that’s how to ensure they get to sentence No. 2.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
May 20, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Anna Rumin
For the past five years I have been designing and teaching memoir-based writing courses at our local university. Once a week, for a period of five weeks, participants arrive with a memoir based story that they have prepared to share with the group. During the week, they commit to writing for 15-20 minutes a day using prompts.
Writing is a lot like anything else – the more you do it, the stronger and more comfortable you become as a writer. In the final week, participants arrive with a story of up to 1000 words that they want to share with friends or family or a publication – it is the one and only class in which I ask them to think about giving and sharing their story as a gift, as a piece of writing that plays tribute to what we don’t want to forget.
My focus as a teacher is to give the participants enough prompts and enough writing exercises that they are never without a story to write. And let me assure you, that almost every single participant who has sat around that table has had a story that we have carried with us long after the class is over.
We write to taste life twice ~ Anais Nin
We’re cocooning now. If you have a quiet place to write, be it on paper or on a computer, you too can begin recording and collecting the stories from your life. To get you going here are some prompts – remember, write with abandon, don’t stop to edit and don’t overthink anything.
- Make a list of the things you have learned to do: tie your shoes, dive, break into a car, drive standard while smoking a cigarette and drinking a coffee, milk a cow, ski, bake a cake, play the violin, build an outhouse, ice-fish, make bread, make wine, make beer, speak a third language, sew, knot pearls, build a stair-case, sail, skin a fish, catch a fish, train a dog, train a toddler, pluck a chicken, get along with an in-law – now write the story.
- How about all the stuff in your house that has a story but nobody wants? Take photos of the teeth-marks on the dining room table, the Royal Doulton figurines your mother collected, the paintings your great Aunt Margaret gave you, the stamp collection left to you by your grandfather, the maroon velvet footstool found in the attic of your house, the collection of beer bottles, the old clock… What is the story of that table and who has sat around it, and what are its happiest memories? Write the story – and even if nobody wants that old table, tell the story of what you know from having kept it for so long.
- How about your clothes and jewelry? Tell us about your scarf collection and why you have so many shoes and why you insist on keeping that damn bathrobe? What are the stories hidden there?
- Put a photo of your mother in front of you. Make a list of the things your mother held in her hands – choose one thing each day from the list and write the story. Do the same for your father, for yourself.
- What animals have played a role in your life? What do you know from having had a pet that you didn’t know before? What do you know from having watched wild animals – write about that raccoon you found hiding under the kitchen sink, the fox that waited outside your door, the crows that wake you up every moving.
- Where and from whom did you hide when you were little? When were you most scared? Most excited? Most in love?
- Have a look at your library – the one you have and had – what are the books that have played a role in our life?
- Make a list of strangers you have encountered. Now write the story.
- Look out the window, go down memory lane and write about the first time your heart was broken.
- Look out another window, go down memory lane and write about the first time you experienced loss.
The key is to recognize that even the smallest of things can carry huge stories; things like the stuffed animal you still have, the letters from your first love, and the wooden spoon your grandmother used to stir the applesauce in the years before she forgot what applesauce was. If you’re cocooning and thinking about writing, just start and remember: keep everything, honour every single story you write. And remember to pay attention to the stories that you want to give as gifts – gifts that you created during that time Mother Nature demanded us all to cocoon.
Anna Rumin is a native Montrealer whose identity has been shaped by the political landscape of her home province, her Russian roots, a passion for life-long learning that has been woven both formally in academia and informally through travel, voracious reading and writing, and a love for the stories hidden in our natural world. Her interest in narrative inquiry stems from her belief that not only do we all have a story to tell, but that our stories help us to better understand who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. She has now designed twelve memoir-based writing courses that invite participants to think of themselves as the narrators of their life as seen and written through a particular lens. Regardless of who she is working with, Anna is committed to supporting those she leads, by providing them with opportunities to set and meet their goals. In her spare time Anna writes short fiction and has been the recipient of numerous awards.
May 7, 2020 § 2 Comments
In her craft essay, Jody Keisner illustrates how she applies the notion of “show, don’t tell” along with William Carlos Williams’s phrase, “No ideas but in things.” She provides remarkable examples of how writers use objects—a flower, a button, a ladle, and more—to conjure symbolism and abstract ideas in their essays:
The small happenings explored in [River Teeth magazine’s] Beautiful Things are often mundane and deceivingly simple, yet they become exceptional through the writer placing a unique focal point on an object or a thing—a relief for writers who worry that their lives are too ordinary to write about.
I eventually learned how to apply “show, don’t tell” purposefully to my essays. Both this maxim and “no ideas but in things” remind writers to meet readers halfway when illustrating our intended meaning, but not all the way, encouraging engagement with our prose. And so “no ideas but in (beautiful) things” is one method of many that we might use to effectively reveal truths about our own ordinary and beautiful lives.
Read the rest of Jody Keisner’s captivating craft essay in Brevity’s May 2020 issue.
May 6, 2020 § 3 Comments
In honor of a special birthday, Irish writer Nuala O’Connor decided to “pull back from the public side of writing” and refrain from working on a novel in 2020. The current imposed isolation has made it difficult for her to let go of ingrained habits, but she has found inspiration in Virginia Woolf’s books, cabin, and life to remain committed to her initial plan:
One of the happiest afternoons I’ve ever spent was at Monk’s House, Virginia Woolf’s country house in Rodmell, East Sussex. There, I exited our world and stepped into the place where all-is-well. The trees were heavy with pears and the pottery vases in the house heaved with purple salvias. The Woolfs’ painted furniture and lichened statuary seemed to hold pieces of them, and I wandered the property in a transcendent glow, knowing that Virginia had eaten at this table, she had written at that one.
Read all of Nuala’s brilliant craft essay and more in Brevity’s May 2020 issue.
April 27, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
I believe in keeping a journal. Daily, weekly, twice-monthly, whatever. I began to keep one regularly about seven years ago when my son was born, and I’ve mined the diary for material that made it into several essays published by well-known outlets. I also simply enjoy using it as a repository for resolutions, observations, ongoing concerns and funny comments from my second grader. It’s become an essential part of my life, and I suspect a key ingredient to my well-being.
So now that I teach writing, I always encourage my students to keep a journal – whether they are undergrads, graduate students or the kids I teach in summer camp. Write whenever you can, I say. Take your mental temperature, I tell them. The journal can be a place for observations from your daily life or a running log of ideas for future assignments, I say. The habit will reward you, I add, as they look at me with an air of disbelief. Yet I have not found a satisfactory way of checking if they are keeping the journal without invading their privacy, and I suspect many don’t bother with it beyond the first few weeks of class.
Until now that is. When my graduate memoir writing class went online because of the coronavirus epidemic, I decided I should explore some of the tools of our class’s cyberhome on Moodle. Tools that I probably would otherwise have ignored since live teaching provides so many normal points of connection. Plus, how many discrete assignments can students juggle? My course meets at night after the students have put in a full day of work.
Take the forum feature. If I want to create more work for them – more stuff to do between our weekly classes – I could post questions there about our readings. But why not just incorporate those questions into our discussions?
Yet on a whim, I wondered if using the forum tool to create a weekly diary might make sense so I inserted one during the first week of our confinement that was simply called ‘Coronavirus Journal.’ I told them they should not see it as a mandatory assignment but rather as a refuge.
I wasn’t sure how that would sound. I know when I tell students not to worry about their grade point averages but rather if they are learning, they mentally roll their eyes. Perhaps it would be the same with this new journal assignment.
I needn’t have worried. Judging by the voluminous entries some have posted, they are galvanized in this hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear. Forced suddenly to live in new ways – or in some cases, return to living in old ways, specifically with their parents! – they’ve received a jolt of inspiration paired with a desperate need to vent their frustrations. The first week, the students flooded the journal with thoughts, observations, routines, rants and intimate details of their new lives in confinement.
One student is a professional caregiver to the elderly who has remained on the job because it’s been deemed essential. She says she does not mind since working means earning a paycheck, noting wryly that it’s one of the few emergency situations whose very nature hasn’t screwed her over. She describes her work as being a well-paid granddaughter and a living life-alert button.
Another student tells us he’s keeping up his daily walks with his camera. One day, he writes about taking photos of a mobile coronavirus testing center in his town. The line of cars snakes around the corner, behind them a burst of flowering trees. The juxtaposition catches his eye.
One of his classmates writes that he is ashamed to say he initially welcomed the surplus of time quarantine would provide to tackle some projects. Instead he finds himself following his curiosity down Internet rabbit holes, and realizes the limited schedule afforded by the normal work week applies needed pressure to complete projects. He fears he is less productive.
The forum is peppered with moments of humor and abandon. One student who shares a house with a gaggle of roommates muses about the difficulty of rationing apocalypse snacks when you are staring at them all day. All. Day. Long. Maybe I am easily amused but I beamed when I saw the title of her entry on the forum: “Snacks, sweatpants and screens.” That sums up our lives right now, no? Another student muses that dogs have created this virus to squeeze more daily walks out of their owners. The humor feels necessary, almost a form of medicine.
So far, my students are capturing exactly what I imagined — the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).
I’ve tried to respond to every post, and other students are following suit, which is especially gratifying. Students are asking me shoot-the-breeze kind of questions like, ‘Is this the time to try to read a really long book I’ve been putting off or lots of short ones?” I relish a chance to talk about my reading life in a way that might actually sound helpful instead of pompous.
All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I’ve been trying to convey. Indeed, the journal-writing portion of this class will almost certainly be the highlight for me when I look back over the semester to see what went well and what needs some re-working. But I will be left with a question: how to stimulate this habit without an emergency the next time I teach? When the pandemic eases off, how will I show them the urgency of recording the little moments when we go back to our regular lives?
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers.
April 24, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Jan Priddy
Unlike a bird that finds safety perched while asleep, human beings have no physical locking tendons to hold us still.
In a recent Brevity blog post, Grace Segran describes “freezing up” the first time she was given an in-class writing prompt. The idea of such writing, Segran writes, “Makes total sense. Theoretically. In practice it appears that for many of us, nothing much comes out of it.”
As a public high school teacher and college adjunct I regularly gave writing assignments to all students. They wrote about their most peaceful places and reader-responses to essays set in front of them. They wrote to in-class prompts off the top of the heads and counted words written in ten minutes. They wrote complete stories of 225-275 words, one each week for most of a term. They wrote essays in MLA format and explored arbitrary revision strategies such as cutting the last lyric paragraph and moving it to the beginning, cutting five words from a paragraph, five more, and then half the total number of words. I insisted they do it. It’s the reason John Rember claims teaching is an act of aggression. I made them buy that dress.
No one likes to be forced to do anything, and even I hate being compelled to write, so I get that. On the other hand, nearly every piece of writing I have published came from an assignment or prompt. Each year, I completed the essays and stories I assigned to my students. Much of that writing started right in class with all of our heads bent over journals. Writing under pressure? Revising sometimes only because the instructor will check to be sure it’s done? Because I feel I must? Deadlines? That’s the way it goes. Writing responds to something, in conversation with experience or with ideas.
Early in the year we drafted a satirical “pet peeve” essay entirely in class, one paragraph in twenty minutes each day for a week. Strict guidelines, that is: prompts. Later we added sources, went to the lab and typed, peer edited, and revised. I did not read their early drafts unless they insisted. The completed humorous essays were twelve hundred to two thousand words and modeled a strategy for breaking down a complex task into manageable pieces. We did this assignment in October and even by June’s anonymous assessment, it remained one of their favorites.
My students wrote to assigned, boring prompts in order to get into college. They wrote essays and stories they would not have chosen merely because they wanted to pass a class. Sometimes they took the prompt home, but often they had to complete the first draft in front of me. They didn’t always like what I made them do. They complied because I pushed hard. And eventually most of them noticed how it helped. Moving their conclusion improved both beginning and ending. Cutting words made their essay stronger. The rules of MLA are predictable and allow ideas to shine. A few of them went on to gain MFAs in writing or tenured professorships. Most of them became better writers because I made them write more than they would have on their own and on topics and within structures they would not have chosen. They developed efficiency and confidence along the way.
I know my process is ugly and I don’t want anyone seeing that mess. Not having to share first drafts is reassuring—indeed, essential—but writing from prompts is absolutely the most effective way to get myself writing, whether the prompt is from someone else or myself, even when the prompt is addressed in public. And especially when it is difficult. No one writes their best in their first draft, but in a generative workshop, challenging writing prompts are kind of the point.
For five years, I attended The Flight of the Mind, a weeklong workshop for women writers intended to commence new work. Writing prompts given by the women I studied under—Gish Jen, Molly Gloss, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Janice Gould, and Charlotte Watson Sherman—allowed me to find the writer in myself. Sometimes I need that push. In reality, most of us do. Someone says go and then we do the work.
Don’t like prompts? Forced writing is “useless”? A waste of time? Pure laziness on the part of the instructor? Fine. Don’t attend that class if there is a choice. Go ahead and check out. But recognize that assignments and prompts were and remain critical to progress for many of us.
Perching birds must flap their wings to rise and unlock tendons that keep their toes wrapped around a branch. Sometimes writers are like that, our toes curled around safety. We may even need to be prompted to let go. Writing what I would not have thought of and in ways that are uncomfortable is useful, and makes me stronger, fueling both adrenaline high and undeniable terror. The courage to risk myself past fear pushes me toward the good stuff. It’s one way I take flight.
Jan Priddy‘s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and numerous publications. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, collects trash off the beach each day, and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com
April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Dinty W. Moore
I’ve been a fan of Sue William Silverman’s work for more than twenty years, and was looking happily forward to her latest collection How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, never expecting the book release would coincide with this frightening pandemic. But it did, and aside from the peculiar irony of the book’s title, Sue (like many authors right now) faces cancelled readings and book signings, and the general frustration of trying to let readers know about her latest book in a time when we have so much else on our minds.
So, I asked her some questions. It was easy to do that while still socially-distancing, and aside from being a greatly-talented writer, Sue is a powerful teacher and master of the craft.
So, here we are:
DINTY: Your book How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences was released just as the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks. It is frustrating for all authors publishing this season, I’m sure, to have book tours cancelled and book stores closing, but the irony with your book is that it speaks directly to our current fears, of death, of illness, of trauma, of what the final moment might feel like. How odd has it been, trying to talk about a book such as yours at a time such as this?
SUE: It’s oddly ironic, indeed. Many people have commented on the book in the context of our current pandemic. Of course I started writing it over six years ago, so had no factual knowledge this maelstrom was heading our way.
At the same time, given that I’m a hypochondriac terrified of death, the book underscores how I’ve always been on the lookout for Death—pandemic and otherwise. The book is structured, in part, around a metaphorical road trip, as the narrator tries to outrun and outdistance death.
So I’m also not the least surprised by the coronavirus; on some level I’ve been expecting it. I’ve been flying with a face mask, literally, for over 15 years! And in the book I list all the unguents and potions I use to survive death: for example, Thieves Oil. A different formula was developed during the Plague, but I use the modern version to stave off all sorts of new plagues and viruses.
In short, yes, my instructions on how to survive death are ironically relevant.
Pandemic aside, the book is relevant for anyone who generally fears death. However, thematically, it’s also about how to survive life—how to live an emotionally authentic life that will be transcendent.
DINTY: But your book, though focused on “death and other inconveniences,” is full of humor too, gallows humor on some pages, flat out funny moments on others. What are your thoughts on our need for humor right now, as the world faces this frightening and previously inconceivable challenge?
SUE: I’m pleased you see the humor in the book, which I was trying to convey by the title. Humor, gallows and otherwise, revels in the absurdities of life.
When you’re in the middle of a tragedy, the humor isn’t always obvious, of course. The power of creative nonfiction is that we implement a reflective voice to look back and better understand the past, which can involve seeing humor in a situation that didn’t seem funny when we were living it.
One of the essays in the book, “Flirting with the Butcher,” is about my first 12-step meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. This was during the time Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, and his whole nightmare was in the news. In my then-current state of emotional disarray—I was also struggling with an eating disorder—and I became obsessed with Dahmer. I mean, my anorexia seemed “small potatoes” when I considered there were people with the ultimate eating disorder—cannibalism—out roaming the streets!
Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that it didn’t seem absurd to me at the time.
DINTY: And of course, the ordeal we are living through now, COVID-19, includes undeniable tragedy – death to some, sickness to others, separation from loved ones for almost all of us. But even this moment will, as hard as it may be to fathom right now, eventually be fodder for humor, maybe even absurd humor. The Greek masks, comedy and tragedy: one comes off, the other comes on. You’ve made a career of writing with wit, grace, and honesty about difficult issues – abuse, incest, addiction, death. Do you have advice for other writers who want to strike that sort of balance in their own writing, the tipping point between too bleak and too lighthearted?
SUE: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to strike that balance. Mainly, it’s important to write in a way that’s emotionally authentic for any given narrative. For example, my first two books, one about incest, the other sex addiction, are darker than the two more recent books, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and now How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, even though they address a few of the same issues. The newer books are more ironic mainly because that’s how I now see those moments in my past. As my feelings toward my experiences change, so does my writing.
In order to discover your own particular viewpoint, it’s crucial to start from a small, specific detail and write outward from that. In other words, for me to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, I might begin my narrative, say, at the moment I told my partner I couldn’t kiss him goodnight because he’d been to the grocery store that day. Maybe a molecule of virus, lurking in the produce aisle, had adhered to him! I begin with the smallest personal detail in order to discover the universal. The universe, like the devil, is in the details.
Don’t get wedded to one voice. Don’t impose how you think an essay or memoir should sound. Listen to how the piece at hand wants to sound. Experiment. As an exercise, try writing a scene two different ways: one perhaps very serious, even melodramatic, the other, say, ironic, humorous, even absurd. Which voice helps you uncover some truth? Which makes you go, “Ah, ha!”
DINTY: When most people think about death and what lies beyond, they imagine either a sort of nothingness, or else some personal image of paradise. Both seem nebulous, which isn’t much help for a writer. How did you address that challenge? What strategies did you use to bring order to ill-defined territory?
SUE: The book is structured in three sections, each titled with the name of one of the Three Fates. There are also six brief sections written as if through the voice of these Fates. This structure is a reminder that death is ever-present, and we have to be creative, lucky, and tenacious in our ability to outwit it. So there’s both a memento mori (“remember you must die”), and a memento vivere (“remember you must live”).
As a writer, I focus on the creative option to live. My aforementioned road trip to survive death is also a vehicle to journey through my life collecting memories, as it were. I “drive” through all areas of my life, from youth to the present, not just amassing memories, but reflecting upon them, making metaphorical sense of them, making sense of my life.
In short, if all else fails—if I’m sadly not able to survive physical death—then I’ve preserved my memories to outlast me. They are now collected in my books after all. The art we leave behind transcends death. There are many reasons to write and create art. For me, cheating death is one of the most central.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog.
Sue William Silverman is author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, the memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, and a memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.