How to Use Context to Discover a Story’s Aboutness

18 Feb
Caeli Widger's essay, "Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I'm Free" appeared in the "Lives" section in The New York Times Magazine.

Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” appeared in the “Lives” section of the October 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you write a true story, one that’s been on your mind for a while, and then wonder, “What’s the point?” The answer often isn’t simple. A single story can be part of multiple arcs. The question is, which arc is the right one for this particular telling? One way to find out is with a short passage about context.

Caeli Widger illustrates how this kind of passage works in her essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free.” It appeared in the “Lives” section of the October 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay’s inciting event (to use film terminology) is one of the most common occurrences of daily life: a phone call. Widger didn’t answer and didn’t listen to the voicemail. She “fired off a text instead,” a decision that she would later regret—but not because something awful and life-changing happened as a result. At worst, Widger was guilty of a small lack of kindness that would have significant consequences, the sort of selfish act everyone commits on a more regular basis than we might like to admit. So where’s the story? What’s at stake? Why did this essay appear in the prestigious New York Times Magazine?

The answer is context. In this passage early in the essay, Widger explains why she sent a text rather than listening to the voicemail or even answering the call:

I had time to talk. I had the privacy and quietude I rarely have at my home full of little children and happy chaos. Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacey. But my reflex was to avoid her call.

These days, I hardly ever pick up. Most of my daily phone-based exchanges are conducted via text and messaging on social-media platforms. With those, I’m rapid-fire on the turnaround. Every ping signaling a text or swoosh alerting me to a Twitter direct message feels like a tiny gift in waiting. The trill of an unexpected incoming call, on the other hand, feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.

The context does three things:

  1. It turns a one-time act into a pattern of behavior: “These days, I hardly ever pick up.”
  2. It makes that pattern run counter to both logic (“I had time to talk”) and the author’s own sense of her best interest (“Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacy.”)
  3. It explains why this established pattern has overwhelmed everything else: texts and Twitter messages feel “like a tiny gift in waiting” but “an unexpected incoming call…feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.”

The anecdote about the missed call could have been about anything: enduring friendship despite faults, the healing passage of time, etc. But, as this context makes clear, the anecdote is about the way technology affects how we interact with the world, even people we love.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a passage of context about an anecdote/story in order to discover what it’s about. We’ll use the passage from Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free,” as a model:

  1. Choose a story. It can be something small like a missed phone call or huge like dropping a winning lottery ticket into the toilet. The important thing is that the story impacted you somehow. So, take a few minutes to sit and think. What stories have you written about in the past? Which stories are part of unfinished essays sitting in a drawer or in a buried folder on your computer? In other words, which stories have meaning that is unresolved?
  2. Turn the one-time act into a pattern of behavior. It’s true that there are essays about events that arise from nowhere and leave the participants stunned. But I’d guess the majority of essays are about patterns. It’s in our nature to view life as a series of patterns and recurring moments. We tend to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why didn’t I see this coming?” The question now is this: What pattern is your story part of? It could be a very specific pattern like Widger’s (not answering calls) or something more general (a tendency toward forgetfulness or selfishness, a habit of choosing the easy over the good).
  3. Make the pattern run counter to logic and your own best interest. In general, this is the story of modern literature, from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse” to the memoirs of Mary Karr. The behaviors that we return to in our thoughts have trumped our general sense of what was good for us or even what made sense—if not in the moment, then in the long run. For an essay, it’s useful to articulate the logic and best-interest that the action/behavior has veered away from.
  4. Explain why this established pattern has overwhelmed everything else. The reasons can be elements of behavioral psychology (like the effects of technology) or explained through religion, socioeconomics, geography, family history, or genetics. A common self-help trick is to ask yourself what attitudes you have inherited; in other words, what would your parents or the people you grew up have said about money, pleasure, fault, health, etc. The idea (in self-help and in this exercise) is to uncover the sometimes hidden rationales for our own behavior.

These steps may seem like they will require the bulk of an essay to explain, but your goal should be to condense them to a paragraph or two (or more, depending on the length of your essay). Once you have the context in hand, you can move on to the work of a storyteller: what happened, what happened next, the decisions you and others made, and what came of those decisions.

Good luck!

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5 Responses to “How to Use Context to Discover a Story’s Aboutness”

  1. Luanne February 18, 2014 at 8:02 p02 #

    Great idea here that I am going to try. Also, re the notion that you write something and wonder what’s the point: at first I think we see it in the writing of others. We attend a workshop and love the details in someone else’s piece, but are left feeling flat at the end. That what’s the point feeling. It’s a lot harder to see it in our own writing.

    • michaelnoll1 February 18, 2014 at 8:02 p02 #

      Very true, Luanne. In our own writing, we’re often reacting against what we’ve read elsewhere.

      • Luanne February 22, 2014 at 8:02 p02 #

        OK, I pulled out a story and tried this step by step. Then I discovered that in this case, it’s a story about someone else, not myself. Any advice in that case? In other words, can I use the pattern of behavior on someone else–a character outside myself? Or will that lead nowhere?

  2. michaelnoll1 February 22, 2014 at 8:02 p02 #

    Luanne,
    I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. The pattern is the important thing, not who it’s about. If you read any of the articles in The New Yorker–or, really, any magazine article–most will use a contextual passage like this. Often, they’re biographical with an eye toward establishing how the featured person got from point A to point B. But the context can be anything. You should definitely try it.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Caeli Widger | Read to Write Stories - February 20, 2014

    […] To read “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” and an exercise on X, click here. […]

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