August 19, 2021 § 25 Comments
By Laurie Easter
I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my forthcoming essay collection, All the Leavings, by author Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) for her YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café.” Being live interviewed was challenging because, like many people, I always think of a better answer after the fact.
The question Sonja asked that I later obsessed over was “How did you decide what to write about and what not to write about?” The first part of this question was fairly easy to answer, but the second part—how I decide what not to write about—was the part that bothered me for days. Perhaps this is because what we leave out of our writing is not something generally discussed.
Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.
Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.
While copyediting my book, I ended up cutting two brief scenes that, in fact, did enrich the narrative. One of the scenes depicted a circle of people at the local alternative community school the day after a teenage boy had taken his life. The scene described the mother of the boy—her grief-stricken staccato movements within the circle—and shared details like the smudging of sage and a parent singing a Native American chant. To avoid any misconstruing of cultural appropriation (the singer is of Native American descent and many in the community are practicing members of the Native American Church) and to protect the mother of the boy, I cut this scene. My reasons: to protect privacy and to avoid a potential misunderstanding without including an awkward sentence about how the singer of the chant was indeed of Native descent.
Eventually, I told Sonja that for me, the decision of what not to include is often intuitive. This answer might seem without real substance, but it is in fact a huge part of how I work as a writer. I trust my gut, go with my instincts.
After the interview, I realized I could have talked about how when my publisher sent my manuscript out for peer review, one reviewer said they wished to know more about my relationship with my husband and suggested I expand the manuscript to focus more on our marriage. In the peer review process for a university press, if the reviews come back positive, recommending publication, the author writes a response to the press, addressing the reviewers’ comments and detailing what changes will be made. This left me with a conundrum: do I heed this reviewer’s suggestions?
What I felt strong and clear, what my gut was telling me, was that the book was not about our marriage. Our relationship was threaded into the manuscript, but it was not the main theme, and I did not want to restructure the manuscript to focus on that. That was not my intention for the book.
If I could go back and revise my answer to Sonja, after having the time to
obsess think about it, Intuition + Intention is how I decide what to leave out. Is it my intention to expose a grieving mother at her most vulnerable? Is it my intention for readers to potentially misconstrue a situation and perceive it as cultural appropriation? Is it my intention to write a memoir about my marriage or is this essay collection about the rugged terrain of the human heart, what it means to experience love and loss or the potential of losing? When I ask, what is my intention? and I listen to my intuition, that’s how I know what to leave out.
Laurie Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2021 (and can be pre-ordered now). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others,and are forthcoming in Brevity and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. She lives and writes from an off-grid cabin in the woods of southern Oregon. For more, visit laurieeaster.com.
June 22, 2021 § 31 Comments
by Morgan Baker
“Oh my god,” I said. “Look at this.” I handed my laptop to my daughter, Ellie. We were in our TV room.
After many unsuccessful submissions, the Boston Globe Magazine had just published my essay and I was ecstatic. For their Connections vertical, I’d written about how stores and restaurants in my neighborhood were closing and what that meant to my family. Not only were we regular customers, my daughters had worked in these establishments. We had become friends with the store owners. I thought this was a piece about change and loss, something I’ve encountered a lot in my life.
Many readers, including the shop owners, liked and related to the piece, whether they lived in my neighborhood or another. They got the point—how we belong to our neighborhoods.
But there was a group of readers who didn’t like it—at all. My stomach clenched when I read their comments. I felt like the kid sent to sit at the doofus table at Thanksgiving. This was such a benign piece. Who can’t relate to loss? But these readers judged me, the person, on where I lived and what I did, instead of the words on the page.
One reader said he had lived in the same town his whole life and didn’t know who I was, so how could I write about this? He noted my kids went to private school (not in the essay), and made assumptions about my level of privilege.
Disintegrating in my rocking chair, I wanted to defend myself. My daughters, however, told me to stop reading the comments.
“I’ll read them for you,” Maggie said over the phone from California. She picked out some positive ones. “See,” she said, “they get it.”
When I teach creative nonfiction, readers can comment on each others’ writing, but not on the writer’s life. We are there to help writers tell their stories convincingly, honestly and emotionally, whether the topics are break-ups, sexual assault or drug use.
Knowing when to release your work into the world is hard. I revise and revise and revise again, but knowing when I’ve finished is based on my gut, experience, and asking my husband, a former journalist and editor, who reads and critiques all my writing. I write to process and understand my experiences, and I write to be heard, to share my stories and feelings, whether about my daughters leaving home, moving, life with and without our dogs, or writing and teaching. I want to connect with my readers and when that connection doesn’t work, it can be crushing.
Knowing when to let go of what other people think is hard, too. Who are these readers—the haters and the naysayers with the time and energy to write damning comments? Maybe they’re just angry and looking for a way to vent? Readers are intrigued by some writers and will never read others. Stephen King is a great writer, but I don’t do scary, so I don’t read him. I barely watch scary TV scenes. I usually throw a blanket over my head.
I want my voice to be read and commented on—but not everyone is going to like me, just like not everyone is going to like the orange dress I wore to a party (horror of horrors!) and that’s okay. Writing is a personal endeavor. Getting what you want to say right—in a way that conveys the meaning of your idea or experience—is challenging and fun. It’s like putting a puzzle together. When you’re happy with how the puzzle looks—the one on the table resembles the one on the box cover – you’ve done your best. Then let it go. Send it out, like you would your child on the first day of school. Some of the kids are going to like your daughter and some, believe it or not, won’t.
Take the praise, and either ignore the negative or learn from it. Are the less-than-flattering comments about you or the writing? It certainly stung when readers didn’t like me. But those same readers might not like me if we met at a party.
Sometimes negative comments are as important as the positive. As mad or disgusted the readers might be, I did engage them. Maybe not the way I intended, but they still read and reacted. I care more about connecting with readers than protecting myself—whether or not they like my orange dress.
Morgan Baker’s work has been published in the Brevity Blog, the Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, the New York Times Magazine, and The Bark, among other places. She teaches at Emerson College, where she was honored with The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching, and privately in person and on Zoom. She is the Managing Editor of thebucket.com and lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA.
June 8, 2021 § 9 Comments
Everyone hates on adverbs.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.William Zinsser, On Writing Well
But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.
When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?
Replace redundant adverbs.
She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.
But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.
She thumped her coffee on the counter.
Skip the “duh” adverbs.
If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.
Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:
Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)
Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.
Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:
“Tell me right now!” she said
Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.
As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:
RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?
SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.
Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)
Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.
“That’s him,” she said accusingly.
“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.
“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.
“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”
With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:
He turned angrily and raised his fist.
He whipped around, his fist raised.
He spun, his fist raised.
Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.
He smiled bitterly.
They ran haltingly.
She danced jerkily.
Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”
In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:
Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.
The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.
Plumb the adverbs in your own work:
1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?
2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.
3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.
Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.
May 4, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Morgan Baker
The world is slowly opening, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s safe to do. I’ve started seeing notices and ads announcing writing retreats coming up in different locales – Italy, Florida, Cuba and Newfoundland – and notices about residencies to which a writer can apply to work in solitude and join others for meals.
I, for one, am not going to a movie theater any time soon, let alone any residencies, retreats or workshops in far-off lands. I have always looked at those writing havens with envy. I live outside of Boston and fantasize about warmer climates where I could write and converse with other writers. But, I can’t afford them, nor could I really leave my teaching job to go write in Costa Rica. But while we were all locked in our houses and everyone took to the internet, this pandemic gave me a writing community – something I’ve never really had, and I’ve been at this work for a while. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m not particularly good at inserting myself in others’ lives.
Not only did I zoom with my stepfather and my coffee group in the past twelve months, I have taken more writing classes and gone to more workshops and seminars than ever before. I took classes with instructors I had only dreamed of working with. I signed on to the Writers’ Bridge “platform chat” and every two weeks listened to what Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard had to share with the writers there – more than 200 of us – about social media, getting blurbs for your book, how to be a good literary citizen, and how to write effective social posts. I am in a bi-monthly Zoom workshop with a teacher I’ve worked with in asynchronous classes, but I’d never seen her face. She’d had in-person workshops in the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, to which I could not go. Now I discuss my writing projects with her and a few other writers in kitchens and home offices. We have become friends and critical readers.
I have learned from a literary agent’s seminar to concentrate on one of my writing projects. I worked on a piece about my pandemic quilting with a teacher in New York City, and placed the essay later. I wrote yet another piece comparing quilting to writing that also found a home, here. In yet another workshop, I was encouraged to write with humor. So far I’ve failed at that.
I met more writers through Instagram and workshops. I don’t know any of them in “real” life, but I am connected to them through their writing, and their books have illuminated new stories and deepened my understanding of the world.
I joined Facebook groups, where I stalk and read, but rarely post. I created a mini writing group that meets every three weeks. We live in Massachusetts, Ohio and Montreal. I joined another group that meets most Fridays as a drop-in session. In January I closed the door to my home office keeping my husband, daughter and dog out so I could focus, committing myself to a virtual retreat all day for 5 days. It was so successful, I’ve signed up for another one. While we weren’t all lounging on a Costa Rican patio, we were in each others’ homes. One writer’s background was a pile of packing boxes, others sat in bedrooms and kitchens. Some had home offices that looked tidier than mine. These “visits” are probably the closest I’ll get to sitting in a warm climate, staring at a view of mountains or the sea.
Before the pandemic, I offered private writing workshops in my house, in addition to my college teaching. I engaged with the writers who drank tea and discussed their work at my dining room table where my dog came to say hi every meeting. Then the world stopped, and I moved my workshops from my table to my Zoom account. I’ve had participants from California, Rhode Island and Cambodia. I will continue these even when we’re all back to hugging one another.
While the world shrank and slowed down, I’ve been busier than ever with my writing. I’m in my sunny yellow home office all the time. I’m either teaching my college classes, writing, editing for the web magazine I work for, or connecting with other writers.
I hate the pandemic, don’t get me wrong. My father-in-law died from Covid, I don’t see my friends, and I haven’t seen my father in over a year. Recently, I was able to hug my stepfather. He and his partner have been holed up in their home, going for lots of walks, playing the recorder, and futzing on the computer, but isolated. Now all vaccinated, we sat at their dining room table for dinner and talked. It felt so right and so weird.
I’m glad the CDC has said I don’t have to wear a mask all the time, but I probably will until I can trust that those unvaccinated are still wearing theirs. But when writers start drifting away from their computers to fly to glamorous in-person retreats, I will wish them well – and wave them on from the ground.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket. Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.