March 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
I started writing for a building and construction magazine recently. My first assignment was to interview a painting and drywall contracting company. I can feel you yawning right now! It’s okay, I yawned too. I also rolled my eyes—a lot—and considered backing out. But I had been wanting to turn many years of ghostwriting and publishing articles for architects who couldn’t write into publishing articles with my own byline. I had to start somewhere.
I took the job…and ultimately fell in love with the assignment. Not just because I had the privilege of getting to know a small, personable firm full of people who love what they do and have held on through many ups and downs in order to continue doing it (something writers know a lot about) but because it taught me two valuable lessons that I could use for my other byline aspiration: writing and publishing creative nonfiction. I will share these lessons with you now, and if you’re reading them here on the Brevity Blog, I guess they worked!
Lesson One: Find the nugget.
Lately, everything in my own life that I had been excited to write about—things that had truly seemed like fun and interesting stories—had started to sound boring and trite. How many more stories about cancer or a kooky aunt or the death of a relative could the world handle? Hadn’t we heard it all before? And yet, there those stories were every time I picked up a literary journal. Why? Because the writer found the nugget—the small speck of gold that instead made the cancer story about a mild-mannered person finding gumption after being diagnosed, or the aunt’s kooky habits as a way to avoid her deep fear of sadness. Because in the end, the cancer or the kookiness were just the catalysts for much more interesting stories.
Likewise, no one would have wanted to read my article about the painting and drywall company if I had written about painting and drywall. As I prepped to interview them, wise words from past CNF workshops fluttered around my brain like helpful fairies.
Why would anyone care about this story?
What is this story about?
What’s interesting about the characters?
I jotted down some questions to ask the owners at the interview, but more importantly I armed myself with the best tool of all: my ears. We all have ears and they’re free. Even if, as writers, we sometimes only have our own voices to listen to, the same rules apply.
Lesson Two: Listen. Listening is how you find the nugget in the first place.
I do actually have a kooky aunt, kooky in a good way and one of the funniest people I know. What I love most about her is her knack for brilliant storytelling. She can come home from the grocery store or the doctor’s office or my grandmother’s house with a story that will bring you to your knees laughing. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she wanted to, she could have had her own version of Prairie Home Companion or given David Sedaris a run for his money. She is able to do this because she listens. Intently. To everything around her. Then she latches onto the tiniest but most interesting detail and that becomes her story.
I took that lesson to the interview, and a common thread emerged about this tiny company’s ability to survive for the past 18 years. By remaining nimble and flexible, they’d kept the company afloat in changing times. I gathered up their best anecdotes and most interesting quotes and wrote “Small but Mighty.” The company was thrilled with the article and the editors were too. I quickly received three more assignments before the magazine finished out the season: a story about a road safety and traffic signage business, one about a construction company, and finally, one about an awning manufacturer that I titled, “The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings”—because when the owner told me his story, beaming with enthusiasm for the work he did, I discovered it truly was such a world.
We all have creative colorful stories to tell, despite the ruts we sometimes encounter. So, the next time you’re thinking that you’ve got nothing interesting to say, stop yawning and remember lessons one and two. When you listen, you find the nugget—and even painting, drywall and the awning guy become fascinating stories to tell.
Julie Flattery is a playwright, filmmaker, and author of creative nonfiction essays. Her story, “Mighty Mouse” was recently accepted for publication in Meat for Tea and six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM Theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design.
December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments
During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.
One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.
But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.
After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”
A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.
Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
At ten, I absorbed her lesson.
It took several decades to unlearn it.
Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.
A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
More COVID cases.
And yet, even now, I have desires.
I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.
I want to send it to agents.
I want to believe this story will help someone.
When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.
While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.
Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.
In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.
During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.
It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.
As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.
I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.
My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.
Here are the details for this week’s challenge:
- Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
- Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
- Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.
The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn.
This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class.
You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.
To participate in this challenge, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.
If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison.
July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments
Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.
It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.
Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.
Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.
Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.
When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.
A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.
Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”
The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.
Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.
January 23, 2018 § 21 Comments
Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.
Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”
I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.
But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.
Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.
Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).
If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.
If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:
Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…
And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.
It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.
Do it anyway.
Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.
Do it now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.
October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments
Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.
Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books
Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.
Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November
Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs
Questions to ask of a character:
What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?
May 16, 2017 § 12 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
December 12, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s time once again for the Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #3 features an interview with Rick Moody on form, function, life coaching and how to handle the part of depression that makes one want to walk in front of a bus, without losing access to one’s creative spirit. We also speak with Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief and founder of Linden Avenue Lit, about where and how to find new voices of color, and the evolution of her writing from R&B fan fic to establishing a strong new literary magazine.
Our episode sponsor is the recorded webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir – useful for authors and editors, and available at Editors Canada (note that the price is in CDN$).
Show Notes: Episode #3 People, Books and Places
Athena’s favorite poem, Euphoria by Major Jackson
Athena’s favorite Another Bad Creation song, Jealous Girl. (The band looks like they’re about 9 years old!)
Crossroads: the story of Robert Johnson and the Devil, on Radiolab
November 22, 2016 § 8 Comments
Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.
They don’t work.
Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.
We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.
In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”
In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”
For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”
Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.
The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).
On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.
Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,
The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.
As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.
With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).
August 3, 2016 § 12 Comments
Sitting down to write the Brevity blog today, I found myself at a loss for “inspiration.” Meaning, “that feeling when an idea shows up and you’re excited about it enough to get to work.” I felt sorry for myself and got kind of whiny, but then I remembered my writer friend Lindsay Price’s favorite saying whenever the work feels tough: “It’s not coal-mining.” No matter how hard my little fingers are typing, I’m above the ground in climate-controlled comfort and in a chair.
Lindsay’s an incredibly prolific playwright, and she’s been writing full-time for almost twenty years. Because she sits down every day. Because she keeps her eyes open on the world for what her readers/actors care about, stocks up on ideas, and makes conscious choices to start work instead of waiting for the work to start her.
As a writer, it’s not my job to be inspired–it’s my job to sit down and write. It’s my job to collect links to essays and articles I think might interest our readers, to note ideas on scraps of paper and in my phone, so I have something to write about whether I’m “inspired” or not. To fill up a well of ideas, so I can drink when it’s not raining inspiration.
In an interview with The Splendid Table, indie rap queen Dessa responds to the question, “Where do the lyrics come from?”
…I’m not completely sure. I think sometimes it feels as I grow older, and you’ve had more bouts of inspiration and more dry spells, it feels more like kinda catching a wave than it does going to a well. So when you feel that a good lyric day is happening to you, it’s like, OK, what can I get off my calendar today, ‘cause I don’t get these every day. So you’re standing at the place lightning struck last time, but it’s still a game of odds and chance…it’s something that I don’t understand completely.
One of the things I’ve learned from writing here is that I don’t have to wait for lightning to strike. I can go to the well, and going to the well every week starts to create its own wave, as if each bucket I throw into the reservoir makes a tiny ripple, and the more buckets I carry, the wider the ripples spread until I can start to surf them, flow with the ideas that form themselves into words and appear on the page like dirty magic.
But the first bucket sucks. It’s always got some shitty, splintery handle and a hole in the side and it’s exactly the right size to bang into my leg and leave bruises all over my knees. The first bucket is my so-called ‘writer buddy’ working a three-day weekend and then his biological mom comes into town for his birthday and WHERE’S MY FUCKING WRITING DATE YOU GODDAMN TRAITOR?
The first bucket is making too big a writing schedule and being pretty sure I’ll fail at it. Because making a schedule means I can trade the excuse of “I’m a great writer, I’m just lazy” for “I’m a great writer, I just take on too much.”
It’s the bucket of You Would Not Believe How Much I Can Cross Off My To-Do List Before I Sit Down to Write the First Word. Yeah, that one’s on sale this week, so I stocked up. My floors are spotless.
It’s hard to remember that the buckets get better. Lighter. Easier to fill, the path to the reservoir shortening once I know the landmarks. That I don’t have to be under pressure to make a deadline in order to write. That the most successful and published writers I know are not waiting around for the wave to lift them up, they’re carrying buckets every day. They are not praying for inspiration or agonizing about the meaning of creativity, they’re mining the goddamn coal.
We don’t all have the same amount of time, but we can all remember to use our time regardless of our level of inspiration. Stock up on water when we can. Pour it into the empty, cavernous reservoir, bucket by bucket. Trusting we’ll make some ripples, trusting they’ll make some waves.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published In Literary Magazines, comes out August 20th.