Writing for No Readers
March 2, 2023 § 8 Comments
By Carroll Sandel
After watching the chaos at the Kabul airport in August 2021, my husband and I decided to host evacuees. In November, a young Afghan family moved into our home. The following morning, I felt pulled to the computer as though a huge magnet yanked me there. I needed to write about this life-changing experience my husband and I were sharing.
“I noticed her first,” I wrote. “She emerged from the airline passageway wearing a black hijab, a long dark skirt and a maroon hoodie. On her hip she carried a small boy. A slender man walked in front of her. ‘Abdullah?’ I asked. ‘I speak little English,’ he said.”
Later in the afternoon, through a combination of Google Translator and a CVS test, we learned his wife, Hadida, was pregnant.
At first, I emailed my stories about what had happened the previous day to my sisters, several friends, and my writing group. I then expanded my addressee list to more friends, cousins, and neighbors. What started out as fourteen readers mushroomed to forty-eight. Replies came: “I feel I’m right there with you,” “I can’t wait to read your email every morning,” “You are an amazing writer,” “I’m forwarding your daily installments to my cousin in Wisconsin.” I had become a modern-day Charles Dickens, for crying out loud.
Day eight, in the kitchen at Thanksgiving, my daughter-in-law, Siobhan, asked Hadida how she was feeling. Seeing Hadida’s blank look, I answered by shaking my head and imitated her vomiting. I then pointed to Siobhan and, holding up three fingers, said, “Her, three babies. Never…” and pantomimed vomiting. Siobhan threw her arms in the air and grinned. We all laughed, and I suddenly imagined Hadida in her kitchen compound, sharing fun moments with her female relatives. Writing the next day, I realized she must miss them so.
Each day I felt on the edge of being overwhelmed as our houseguests took over our lives. I lost track of when I last shampooed my hair. But my writing provided energy and solace. Writer-me focused on specificity, sentence length and structure, narrative arc, pumped-up verbs, transitions. By using my art to share what I was learning, I fed others as I was being fed. My writing never felt so important. In my emails, I said that though the couple only picked at my blueberry pancakes, Hadida had put blueberries in her naan batter one morning, making huge crepes for my husband and me. I shared that when he and I brushed our teeth at night, we wondered what mistakes we’d made that day.
Day eighteen after their arrival, a friend and I went for a much-needed walk. She quickly raised her concern about the wide network receiving my daily thoughts. Though I believed I was writing sensitively about our guests, she pointed out that I did not have their permission to share what was happening in their lives. Tears pooled in my eyes.
“Telling stories about our days together is time I have to myself, but also time to tell what is going on with them.” I said. “I’m helping people learn what it’s like for refugees. I can’t give that up.”
As I heard myself defend my emails to my bedazzled readers, I looked at my friend sideways. She was right. Our Afghan guests deserved my respect, their privacy.
I stopped sharing my stories.
For a few days, I grieved the loss of sending emails. Yet I never wavered. How devastated I would feel if one day I were to learn that our family had felt betrayed by me in similar circumstances.
But I made a promise to myself. I would still write every day. About Hadida, who, using my electric sewing machine for the first time, made a dress in one day. And about me, who took three months to discover the family liked goat cheese. As I noticed more about them, I became more in touch with me.
The family moved to an apartment in early April.
And I have 145 stories.
Why did I write for no readers, still paying attention to all the craft tools I learned over the years?
Hosting the Afghans was incredibly challenging and fulfilling. Writing transported me through the experience. It transformed me. Others’ praise may be intoxicating, but putting words on the page focused me, forced me to go deeper. It enticed me to explore what I believe, who I am. Our Afghan family gave me this opportunity. I didn’t need an audience after all.
*Names have been changed.
After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel began writing about growing up on a farm. Those stories morphed into a series of linked essays about her untrustworthy memories. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Pangyrus, Cleaver and other literary journals. She was a 2014 and 2017 finalist for the nonfiction prize in New Letters.
Don’t Start at the Very Beginning
August 2, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Allison K Williams
When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.
Our readers don’t need this information.
Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.
Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?
Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):
1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.
For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.
2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.
We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?
3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.
Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.
If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.
As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.