Advice on Writing Through a Book’s Mushy Middle

August 25, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

A eulogy I wrote for my father expanded into journal entries and eventually my book, ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets. I long dreamt that those loose collection of journal entries might become a book, but for many years they were arc-less and therefore not coalescing. There was no discernible beginning, middle, and end. But those entries, the impetus to start a writing project — I wouldn’t dare call it a book at the time — formed my literary North Star. 

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “I am out with lanterns looking for myself.” I searched for myself in every corner of my memory, soul, in every rare photo I had, in every journal entry I wrote, and in notes I jotted down. In that process, I found profound, surprising things about myself and the other protagonists in my life story. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a friend was this: Find people who knew your father back in the day. I won’t give away the secret at ASYLUM’s core but researching my father’s life blew my memoir open. My nascent book was no longer all situational — I had a story to tell. 

So, I threw away many pages of false starts and bruised prose. Then, armed with knowledge from my research, I began to write again. A word about research. In my case, there was little or no paper trail about my father so, I learned about him in his university library. There I read his alumni magazine class notes beginning in 1940. I sussed out facts casually mentioned, which led to an astonishing connection. But mostly, I talked to people. Many of them claimed to remember nothing. However, their foggy memories did not deter me. I gently asked questions and found gold to mine in those conversations. 

And research — don’t be daunted by it. For me, it was the skeleton key that opened submerged parts of my family history. Research takes many forms. It can be as accessible as reading someone’s favorite book or rereading your favorite book. The bottom line is we are the experts on our stories. Only we can tell a particular story. Bearing that in mind sustained me in slogging through my book’s “mushy middle.” And when I reached the other side, I found my research had buoyed my story. 

The importance of ongoing note-taking sparked memories and ideas. Again, this doesn’t have to be daunting. For my next project — notice superstitious me is hesitant to call it a book— I’m keeping an ongoing hodgepodge of notes on my Notes app. I did that to some extent while writing ASYLUM, particularly when I needed to keep track of who I had to talk to, where I had to go to find my father. Write everything that pops into mind. Those words, those lines will beckon again and enable you to go deeper into your book. 

In the mushy middle, all kinds of characters will be vying for attention to include them. Invite them into the book — it doesn’t mean they will stay. But getting to know a crowd of characters enabled me to know myself better. I love this Joan Didion quote: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Didion’s observation is a manifesto for the memoir writer. 

A character, usually not the writer, constantly lurks and then threatens to take over the narrative. My mother is necessarily a major character in ASYLUM. But, my goodness, she threatened to hijack the book at so many points. And maybe she did occasionally. In the mushy middle, give the characters and yourself permission to roam around the narrative. That’s what revision is for. And speaking of revision — do not go down the revision rabbit hole in this tender middle. Instead, generate, generate, generate material with which to sculpt. Nothing is wasted – think of it as literary compost to enrich the writing, the story, yourself. 

A few words about the last part of the book: the ending is embedded in the narrative, it’s embedded in you, the writer; it always has been. You will realize it was hiding in plain sight. I wrote my ending at what felt like the last moment. But it wasn’t the last moment; it was a cumulative moment for me and my book. 

I’ll be more specific — I end with returning to where my parents were married and say the Kaddish for my father there. This worked in that my parents’ marriage is front and center in the book and saying the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer of mourning — was central to the stages of grief I went through. It was also a significant strand in the book. 

And last words of advice — no matter how tempting, and I know the temptation well — do not abandon your book. It needs you and you need it. This is your story, your moment. You’re important, and so is your story. Keep taking notes even if it is on the back of a restaurant menu while your dinner companion is in the loo. Those bits will happily surprise you as you come upon them again and welcome them into your writing.  

And journal your way out of conundrums. Free write, and if possible, handwrite in a notebook. It makes a keen impression on the mind, on memory. Truths and images and insights will inevitably emerge. And remember, you did not write to bury anyone but to bring them to life. 

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Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press (2021). Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers, essay anthologies and literary magazines She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Find more of her work at: www.judyboltonfasman.com 

How to Write a Personal Essay With Facts

August 22, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Dian Parker

To write an essay, an engaging, attention-holding essay, is to write with focus coupled with the ability to meander, consider other terrain, remember other times, appreciate small details, follow your intuition and curiosity ‒ in other words, be creative.

Women can have babies and therefore are usually good caretakers of other people, along with an uncanny ability to multitask. Men like my husband tend to be more singularly focused and are less adept at doing two things at once. Ask any woman who does most of the cooking in a household. She can hold the baby, talk on the phone, and make stir fry. Ask a man what he did that day while he chops the carrots, and he’ll either stop chopping or stop talking. I’ve asked many women if this is their experience, and they all roll their eyes and say yes. You, the reader, may rile at these generalities but in my 70 years on this planet, I’ve found this to be the case. 

In the Atacama Desert of Argentina, the driest place on earth, with temperatures reaching 104 during the day and down to 40 at night, long distance runners test their endurance. The grueling race takes seven days, with an ascent and descent of 11,500 feet. My husband, if he chose, would be up for this task. It would feed his uncanny ability to hold his focus on one task for as long as it takes, like opening our vacuum cleaner to figure out why it’s not working (it is 20 years old, but that is not a consideration for him).

If, on the other hand, I ran that race, I’d want to examine the particles of sand beneath my feet, stop to sift the tiny stones through my fingers, revel in the colors of ochre, sienna, and umber. I’d want to feel the heat under my body as I lay stretched out at night, taking in the brilliant high-altitude sky. As I was running, I might think about the high school play I was in where the bench flipped over and knocked me out. Or maybe about the frigid night I spent lying on the frozen ground without a sleeping bag because my brother said we wouldn’t need one.

Whereas my husband, running the desert race, would focus so completely on keeping his feet moving and his breathing regular that he’d never consider memories of other times to interfere with his goal – to finish, and maybe even to win.

In one Atacama Desert race, the fastest runner took 24 hours, shy 11 minutes. He is Vicente Garcia Beneito from Spain, a firefighter. Being from a hot country as well as fighting fires must have helped him run in the desert. Lest the reader be concerned, women have also won races in the women’s division of high-intensity races in the Mongolian, Namibian, Antarctica, Lapland, and Georgian deserts. 

But when writing an essay, it’s best not to run, let alone be too hot and thirsty. It’s best to take your time. Sweep the floor, give the kid a bath, cook dinner, and read lots. To write an essay takes time and endurance, a single-minded focus along with a willingness to riff in the imagination without trying to win.

Now, a man can do this too and plenty of great writers have been men. We all are alike in so many ways. It’s only that some of us would want to run in the driest place on earth for 155 miles, whereas others of us would want to write an essay, sitting down with a cup of coffee, while a soft breeze plays across our typing fingertips. 

If I could only be more like my husband, I might know when my essay is finished. If he were more like me, our vacuum would still be broken.

*

Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Epiphany, Tiny Molecules, Burningword, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She has traveled extensively in the desert and can be reached at www.dianparker.com. She tweets @dian9parker.

How to Make a Strawberry Cheesecake Pie in Three Days (While Writing a Book Review at the Same Time)

August 10, 2022 § 42 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Photo of Victoria Lynn Smith sitting at a desk, with her laptop. The desk is at a window, with the curtains open and Victoria is looking at the camera.

Friday

Decide to make strawberry cheesecake pie. Announce this to your husband. Dig out the recipe and read the list of ingredients. You need strawberries. After he leaves for work, go paddle boarding. Walk the dogs. Finish reading the nonfiction book you’re reviewing. Start a rough draft of the review. Take a nap. Buy strawberries. Finish the rough draft.

Your husband returns home and asks about the pie, tell him, “Tomorrow.”

Saturday

Announce you’re making the pie today. After your husband leaves to golf eighteen holes, talk to a writing friend for twenty-four minutes. Walk the dogs because it’s a cool morning with a charming breeze.

Think about making the pie.

Read the book review draft. It’s too long—start revising. Wander around the house completing small chores. Work on the draft. Read a novel. Take a nap. After the nap think about making pie.

Ditch the book review. Start a blog about walking your dogs on a midsummer morning that felt like fall.

Your husband returns from golf and asks about the pie. Tell him you’ll make it this evening so it will be ready tomorrow. Offer to ride with him to the meat market because he wants to grill something.

After supper revise, edit, and post the blog about walking the dogs. Give up on the book review and pie for the day.

Your husband asks about the pie before he goes to bed. Tell him you’ll make it in the morning while he’s at the driving range.

Sunday

Your husband leaves for the driving range. Take the dogs for a walk. Keep revising your book review. Be amazed, and not in a good way, at how long it takes you to write something so short.

Read the recipe for the pie crust. You forgot to have butter at room temperature. Remove a stick from the freezer. Decide to make the pie after grocery shopping.

Return to the book review.

Your husband returns from the range and asks about the pie. Suggest you go grocery shopping first. Don’t offer up that you forgot to take butter out of the freezer.

Blend 1 cup heaping flour with ⅓ cup powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Use your fingers to mix in the butter until the ingredients bind together. Press dough into a 9-inch pie or tart pan.

Double check the recipe and realize you forgot to add the salt to the crust, which is now pressed into the tart pan. Consider taking the crust out of the pan, putting it back in the bowl, and adding the salt. This might overwork the crust, which might be worse than forgetting the salt. Use your chemistry knowledge (baking is chemistry). There’s no yeast or baking soda in the crust, so salt isn’t needed to counteract a rising agent. Skip the salt because your husband is on a low-salt diet. Give yourself kudos for being a good wife. Don’t tell him you forgot the salt. You can hear him say, “This is good, but the crust could’ve used a bit of salt.” Then he’ll laugh because he’s funny. And you’ll laugh because he is funny.

Prick the crust all over with a fork then refrigerate pie crust for 30 minutes.

Return to editing the book review. Think about words and sentences that, like the salt in the crust, are expendable.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Read the book review out loud. Continue revisions.

Bake the pie crust for 20 minutes.

You loved the nonfiction book and want to make sure that comes across without sounding cliché or sappy. Hit an editing stride. The review is leaner, more concise, nearly matching the version in your head.

It’s 2:30. You’ll be lucky to finish the pie by 3:30. It needs to chill for at least four hours.

Slink into the kitchen. Stay out of the family room because your husband will ask about the pie. But he isn’t in the family room. He comes up from the basement, into the kitchen and says, “I thought you fell asleep in there and forgot about the pie.” Because you’re laughing so hard, don’t remind him that you don’t sleep in your office. Finish laughing and tell him you hoped to avoid him because you’re embarrassed the pie isn’t done yet. Start laughing again. You’re punch drunk from writing.

Begin the pie filling. Realize the cream cheese needs to be room temperature, but it isn’t because when reading recipes, you’ve become a pantser instead of a plotter. Open the cream cheese, put it in a bowl, and smush it with a spatula to soften it.

Beat 8 oz. cream cheese with ½ cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spread the cream cheese filling on the bottom of the cooled crust.

Later while drafting this blog, realize you forgot to add the vanilla to the cream cheese filling because you were writing in your head. Don’t admit this to anyone.

Clean, hull, and dry 1½ quarts of strawberries.

While cleaning the strawberries, dash between the kitchen and your office. Write down ideas for this blog. Be thankful your husband can’t see you. He knows you’re a bit looney. He needs no more evidence.

Slice half of the strawberries and spread them on top of the cream cheese filling.

Jot down more ideas for this blog.

Mash the other half of the strawberries. Place them in a saucepan with 1 cup granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Boil until clear and thick. Don’t leave unattended. Let it cool a bit.

You get this part right. Go ahead, brag.

Keep blogging.

Pour the sauce over the strawberries in the pie. Refrigerate for at least four hours.

Go to the store and buy whipped cream for your husband because you feel sorry for him. It’s not easy being married to a writer. Not because you’re temperamental, but because you can’t keep track of time when you write. He’s a good sport. And after three days, his reward is whipped cream on strawberry cheesecake pie.

To change the point of view of this recipe, use raspberries instead of strawberries.

*

Victoria Lynn Smith writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives by Lake Superior, a source of inspiration, happiness, and mystery. Her work has been published by Wisconsin Public RadioTwin Cities Public Television’s Moving LivesBrevity BlogBetter Than Starbucks, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and several regional journals. To read more: https://writingnearthelake.org/.

The Auxiliary Verb of Guilt

January 12, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Deborah Williams

The holidays are behind us and with them go the season of “should”: should send holiday cards, should bake festive treats, should go to worship services. Even though the pandemic may have altered some of our plans, I would imagine that for most of us, there were still “shoulds” ringing loud and clear in our minds.

And it continues to ring, that “should,” as we move into the new year and the onset of what I like to think of as flagellation season: all those resolutions, all those vows about what we’re going to do differently and better this year. “Should” governs all those resolutions; it’s the reason why (in the Before Time) gyms always get so crowded in early January.

Writers have their own fitness dreams, also governed—unless we’re careful—by “should.” We look at the gleaming blank page of the new year and we’re sure that we should do 1000 words a day (Famous Writer On Twitter does that) or we should get this new software program (our writing group buddy swears by it) or we should be doing a mind-map of the memoir (saw that on the internet)…

Should. It’s the auxiliary verb of guilt.

It’s great to be inspired by the writing buddy or the Famous Writer or the internet, but what if your writing goals for this new year were simply…whatever it is that you think you can do? Maybe even what you want to do?

Yoda had it wrong. “Do. Or do not. There is no should,” is way more helpful than telling us “there is no try.” Let’s face it, sometimes “try” is all we’ve got. We try to hit our daily word count or page count; we try to find the right words. There’s a reason that “essay” comes from the French essayer, an attempt. A try.

An essay is an attempt to capture something—but trying to capture anything with “should” is going to be tricky. I had a student once conclude an essay about The Great Gatsby by saying that Gatsby and Daisy should just have given up drinking and then everything would have been fine. Let’s disregard the fact that neither Daisy nor Gatsby drink and move to the idea that Gatsby becoming a teetotaler is irrelevant: the novel doesn’t offer us that possibility. But what that “should” suggests about the student’s own life? That’s an essay.

“Should” gets deployed in the scripts we think others have written for us: I should be this sort of parent, that sort of child, this type of partner, that type of writer. Should is not the verb of honest self-reflection—or rather, it’s not the “should” that matters, but whatever motivates the should.

The stories we need to tell lurk around that “should.” Maybe we shouldn’t have gone home with that person, or maybe we should have taken that job, or gotten a second opinion…but is the “should” the story? Or is the story that matters actually embedded in should-based regret? “Should” keeps us at arm’s length from ourselves; it prevents us from finding ways to unlock what matters.

We might think of “should” as the language of first drafts: we think we know what a memoir “should” look like and so we write towards whatever that “should” tells us to do. Sometimes that directive can help us move forward, act as a path through the unmarked territory of memory. But sticking to the path that someone else established may prevent us from striking out in the direction that we need to take. The obvious joke here: “We should write without should,” but I won’t make that joke. I’ll say only that when we start “should-ing” ourselves, we might think about why we’re chastising ourselves: maybe that’s where to start the story.

Instead of thinking about what we “should” do this new year, let’s find the stories that we want (or need) to tell and try to tell them—essay them—as best we can.

_________________________________
Deborah Williams is a writer and literature professor based in Abu Dhabi. Her work has appeared in The Common, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, Brevity Blog, The Rumpus and others. She is finishing a novel based on the life of Lady Hester Stanhope, who defied convention (and Napoleon) to wander the Mediterranean and the Levant with her much-younger lover. Follow Deb on Twitter and Instagram @mannahattamamma.

Waiting and Bleeding

May 21, 2020 § 4 Comments

author headshot of a white woman with dark curly hair and tortoiseshell glasses. A lock of hair is across her face.By Lea Grover

Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.

I am sitting in a hospital waiting room. I have washed my hands more than twenty times today, almost four hours into my husband’s brain surgery. I haven’t yet heard from my grandfather, who is 86 and has almost successfully beaten Trump’s European travel ban, but will return to O’Hare where lines to go through customs are six hours long. My sister is at an Airbnb not far from this hospital, watching my children, who are not allowed into the hospital at all. Quarantine restrictions are tight. There’s a chance I will not be allowed to return to them, having had to make a choice between advocating for my husband or caring for my young kids during a pandemic.

None of this has anything to do with my essay in “Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era,” and yet it does. My story, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” is about the horrific cross-section of vulnerabilities in my life both created and exacerbated by the Trump administration. Just as I am sitting to write this message in an atmosphere of justified fear, heightened risk, and borderline desperation, that is how I sat down to write my essay about gun violence and antisemitism, as a Jewish native of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and mother of three girls attending a Hebrew School that receives threats from strangers that Trump will “finish Hitler’s work.”

It feels like I am on the verge of burning into flames, and the Trump administration is throwing matches at me everywhere I step. Dismantling disability access, disbanding the pandemic response team, appointing white supremacists to the national security council, bending over backwards to the gun lobby, cozying up to genocidal dictators, assaulting and attacking the free press. As a woman, a Jew, a writer, a mother, a wife, a person living with mental illness, a rape survivor, and somebody with a family deeply vulnerable when it comes to access to healthcare, it never stops for me. Not a week has gone by of this administration when I haven’t felt the weight of some existential threat, when those threats have mostly existed in the background of my life. There is no background noise, now. There is only waiting for the next horror.

The light on the board listing my husband as a number instead of a name (a convention designed for his privacy but with the unintended side effect of terrorizing anyone with family who were lost in the Holocaust) has changed from green to pink- the surgery is ending. Also ending, the hospital’s policy of letting more than one family member stay in the hospital with their loved one. I am facing the reality of having to choose—stay with my husband in the aftermath of his brain surgery, or be with my children during a pandemic?

I am constantly making these choices, and an astounding number of them come down to the disastrous presidency of a single person.

In my essay I ask myself, is it better to be safe and silent, or to make yourself heard and empowered? Today I ask myself, whose safety is my primary duty? How am I supposed to justify any choice in these conditions? When asked, “Your husband or your children,” who am I supposed to choose?

There is no right answer, of course, aside from to have never put the reins of a fractured and divided global superpower into the hands of… well… we’ll let history decide what to call him.

There is an oft-misattributed quote I live by, which goes, “Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed.” As somebody who has been living in the shadow of brain cancer my entire adult life, I am used to bleeding. I am comfortable sitting in front of my keyboard and spilling out everything I have, ugly or beautiful. In the last three-and-a-half years, I have permitted myself to bleed into Google Docs, Scrivener, WordPress, and a constantly rotating stack of paper journals. But bleeding doesn’t always equate death. We also bleed when we bring new life into the world.

The future, the newness of things, the constant shifts in the stories we are all telling as we sit alone in our homes, these are things I cannot bring myself to speculate about. All I can do today is tell my story, scream into the void, and wait for a better moment to be born.

*

From “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump”

I realized I had spent the weekend teaching my children the two things they have to know to survive a Trump presidency. The first, to stand up and be seen, to demand to be treated with dignity and respect; and the second, that they must learn to hide, to be safe when the white nationalist tide Trump attempted to ride comes flooding toward our doors.

______________________________

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker in Chicagoland. She freelances for a variety of parenting, women’s, and social issue magazines. She is the winner of numerous awards in writing and is a vocal activist for healthcare rights. She is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, devoted wife and mother, and de-facto caretaker of two cats. Her essay, “How I’m Teaching My Jewish Daughters About Donald Trump,” appears in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era, now available from Regal House.

 

10 Ways I Show My Love to You, My Husband, on Our 10th Anniversary 

February 21, 2019 § 10 Comments

By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

  1. I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
  2. I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
  3. I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
  4. At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
  5. When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
  6. I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
  7. I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
  8. I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
  9. I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
  10. I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.

I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!

_________________________________________________

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.

Reading Like a Writer: On Uncertainty

November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”

The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.

[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]

Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.

In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.

Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:

Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?

To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.

Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.

This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.

This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”

Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Slow Flash

May 1, 2018 § 15 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

“When will you write something about me?”

“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”

End of conversation.

But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.

As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.

In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.

Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.

*

This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.

*

In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.

At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.

*

In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.

In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.

I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.

After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.

*

I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.

In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.

*

Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.

A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.

Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.

The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:

I am writing.

Mostly flash.

Very slowly.

I am writing.

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Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.

Reading Like a Writer: Payoff in the Personal Essay

April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments

Detail of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck: a couple, viewed from behind, are reflected in a round mirrorA guest post from Jennifer Berney, first in our new series Reading Like a Writer.

One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.

[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]

This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.

In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:

J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.

This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.

The revelation arrives in section eight:

I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.

J. fuit hic.

I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.

If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.

This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.

I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:

Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.

I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.

Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.

Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 14 Comments

I think my mother knows more than she’s telling…

Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”

But should you?

One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.

As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?

By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.

For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.

Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:

In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.

Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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