Archive | January, 2016

An Interview with Debra Monroe

28 Jan
Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. She is a “fierce” writer who presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews), who writes prose that’s “rangy, thoughtful, ambitious, and widely, wildly knowledgeable” (The Washington Post), also “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality” (The Boston Globe). Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award, and she’s published stories in over 50 magazines. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and The American Scholar, and have been cited for Best American Essays. Her most recent book is the memoir My Unsentimental Education. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.

To read an exercise on using dialogue, inspired by an excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, click here.

In this interview, Monroe discusses juggling multiple story threads, the challenge of publishing excerpts from a book, and her approach to dialogue

Michael Noll

In “You’re in Trouble, Am I Right?“, the excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, there are several narrative arcs. On one hand, there is the story of your relationship with James, a drug dealer. There is also a narrative about trying to earn A’s and understanding your intelligence. Finally, there’s another narrative (related to the others) about becoming more independent and, for example, dressing for yourself, not others. Were all three of these arcs always present in this essay? Or, did you start with one, and as you followed the thread, the others appeared?

Debra Monroe

At this point—this is my 6th book—related ideas present themselves more or less simultaneously in early drafts. All three plot arcs were present as I began. Years of practice and years of teaching writing make me know I want several balls in the air at the same time because multiple dilemmas coalescing is good for tension and complexity. The second and third story arcs are synonymous, and the first one serves as a counterpoint. Learning to understand and refine my intelligence is not unlike learning to understand and refine my self-presentation, or what you call “dressing myself.” I was trying to be a good student with limited resources (my background made me unprepared), and I was trying to dress with panache with limited resources (no money). In both cases, I got a “D” before I started getting “A’s.” Learning to trust my gut instinct but to improve on it too, both in terms of my work as a student and in terms of how I dressed in cast-off clothing, combine to make a single arc toward self-betterment on my terms, even if it is a jagged arc full of mistakes and wrong turns before I gain a sense of direction. Being with James is the counterpoint to that. He distracts me from school; he urges me away from clothing I like and hopes I’ll dress like a rock and roll girlfriend, like arm candy. So there’s a narrative tension between self-betterment on my terms (becoming a scholar and writer with unique sensibilities) and bettering myself on his terms (becoming a standard party girl). Yet it’s not as if my version of self-improvement (a point) and James’ version (a counterpoint) don’t both make sense in the same situation. I was an outsider finding my way. One option was to go it alone. The other was to be accepted by another outsider. Stoners are more accepting than college students whose childhoods prepared them for higher education. So all three plot arcs are about finding a way to survive college, and two constitute the difficult, authentic way, and the other constitutes a retreat from the difficult, authentic way.

Michael Noll

Perhaps my favorite parts of the essay are the bits of dialogue. They’re not extended conversations, by and large. Instead, they drop us into a moment and seem to focus on revealing a character’s voice. I’m particularly taken with the voice of Kristine, the cafe owner. How do you know when to move from narration or scene to dialogue? Do you write more dialogue than you eventually need and cut the extraneous parts, or do you already have a sense for the best lines of dialogue when you begin writing?

Debra Monroe

A reviewer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote that “when Monroe highsteps through danger; it’s like watching Wonder Woman fend off attacks with her magic bracelets.”

This is memoir, of course, not fiction, but my fiction is pretty autobiographical, and my memoir is, as a reviewer noted, “novelish,” so I’ll generalize about how I do dialogue in both genres. Though I invented dialogue in fiction, I was always recalling a real person who inspired a character. And when I’m writing a memoir, a real person is generating ideas about the dialogue. To return to the dialogue with Kristine, this scene took place 30-some years ago. It’s not verbatim. I wasn’t walking around with a tape recorder on. But it’s the sort of thing she would say, and we had at least truly similar conversations. Writing good dialogue is a bit like having a knack for doing imitations, for channeling voices, for doing impressions. I think of the real person I’m depicting, or who’s informing the character I’m depicting, and I put in dialogue only the most distinctive, most unparaphraseable things they’d have said or in fact did say. I don’t give Kristine any lines of dialogue that can be paraphrased. I give her lines only Kristine would say in her singular Kristine-fashion. This isn’t so different from that tip you get in Freshman English about when to quote a source and when to paraphrase it. Paraphrase it whenever you can, and use a direct quote only when it’s so well-expressed that a paraphrase won’t do it justice. In this way, dialogue truly builds character, makes your characters distinctive.

Michael Noll

I love how you write about your drug experience. You describe the visuals of it (“I looked like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz”) but also the experience of trying to act normal while high: “The hardest part about doing drugs was the acting-upon-acting, I decided.” You go on to explain how the acting required by drug use was simply another layer added onto the acting you were already doing as you learned how to be in the world. I love this because it makes the drug use so much a part of your character as opposed to a weird, wacky tangent away from the real you. As you wrote this essay, did you have a clear sense of who you were at that time, the same as you’d need to have a clear sense of a character? Or did you discover this person named Debra as you wrote?

Debra Monroe

Did I have a clear sense of who I was at that time, or did I discover this Debra as I wrote? Both. Hindsight does give you a clear sense of who you used to be (distinct from who you are now), but once you start writing and keep the psychological register consistently deep, delving far below the surface into the perspective of your old self, that old self does become a construct, something created. To say “a construct” is not to say the old self is fake. As I dug deeper into what I’d done, I was discovering: I knew what I’d done, the ill-judged decisions I’d made, but I didn’t know the minutiae of why I’d done it, the nuances of what passed for logic then. My old self exists at a far remove from who I am today; she’s a stranger now. And you’re right that the drug use isn’t a merely ambient detail but a motif that amplifies the theme: that learning to make your way in the world is an act at first, a “fake it until you make it” act, and pretending not to be high when I was added to an already omnipresent pressure.

Michael Noll

This essay was published and then republished online, and both times it was different (mostly shorter) than the version in the book. What was your approach to adapting the essay for its online, stand-alone life? Obviously, you took out parts and moved some parts around, especially at the end. Was the biggest challenge finding a new opening and a new end?

Debra Monroe

I wrote it first as a chapter for the book. When the editor of Inside Higher Ed asked if I had a short piece about the unique anxieties of first-generation college students, I knew I wanted to include the most dramatic section of the chapter, and that was when I was doing LSD while also trying to be an A student. In the book chapter, the night of doing LSD, and the following day while coming down, occurs in the middle of the chapter. Then the chapter cuts away and depicts a condensed version of the next two years, and then, for the climax of the chapter, I flash back to the day after the LSD-taking, when I’m in the professor’s office still coming down. I’d saved that scene for the climax of the chapter, even if it was chronologically out-of-order (a flashback), because it contains the “message” about the entire chapter, that pressure about “acting-upon-acting.” For the short piece, I wanted just the LSD episode. Making an excerpt required cutting everything not pertinent to the LSD episode, so I started the excerpt as I met James, including the “first date,” then cut several more pages until I got to the week when I was writing the term paper and, afterward, doing LSD with James. Then I cut the pages that covered the next two years to move straight to the climax (a flashback in the chapter, but in chronological order in the excerpt). In the chapter, there’s an epilogue after the climax that transitions toward the chapter that follows, so I cut that too as not pertinent to the smaller story. Excerpting means deciding that inside the longer chapter is a shorter story, and chiseling away everything that isn’t germane to it. In this case, it was the LSD story. I’ve excerpted other chapters too. There’s an excerpt from the first chapter in Longreads, and that required cutting only secondary characters who didn’t pertain because it’s an excerpt from early in the book. There’s another book excerpt in Texas Monthly, a 6000-word chapter condensed to just 1500 words. There, I decided the kernel story would be “taming wildness” (in myself, my dog, on my land), and I deleted everything that didn’t pertain to that. So excerpting is finding a smaller story inside a larger story and deleting to isolate it, then finessing a few transitions. It’s tricky, but it’s easier than writing a whole new piece.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Challenge a Reader’s Sense of Reality

26 Jan
The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

One of the smartest things ever said about writing fiction comes from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” In it, he explains that suspense is built by manipulating the reader. He gives the example from Hamlet, when Hamlet and a friend go to a platform to meet his father’s ghost, but then Hamlet hears his uncle drunk in the streets. So Hamlet rants for a while about drunkenness, and we the readers are nodding along—and that’s when the ghost shows up. We’d forgotten all about it, and because we’d forgotten, we’re surprised at its arrival and eager to know what will happen next.

Here’s the takeaway: Shakespeare delivered exactly what was promised, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The thrill, as a reader/audience member, came from having it given to us in a way we didn’t expect.

Once you understand that such manipulation is possible—and necessary—you will see it at work in every type of narrative. A example of audience manipulation on a mind-boggling scale can be found in the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. If you haven’t yet seen it, you can watch the trailer here.

How the Show Works

[Spoiler Alert: This post discusses later episodes.]

The documentary tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and served 18 years in prison. After his release, he is soon arrested again, this time for murder. While many viewers are convinced that Avery is innocent again, the part of the show that has generated the most outrage among viewers is the treatment of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was arrested as an accomplice and interrogated alone with his attorney’s permission. Dassey was 16 at the time and a slow learner, meaning that his intellectual capacity to engage in a police interrogation may have been limited.

To illustrate Dassey’s limited ability to understand what was happening, the filmmakers show large parts of his interrogation by two detectives. The interrogation follows a basic pattern. The detectives ask Dassey what happened, he says he doesn’t know, and so the detectives suggest what they believe happened, punctuated with a line like, “Isn’t that right?” Then Dassey nods and repeats some version of what he’s been told. By the end of the interrogation, Dassey has confessed to awful things, but he’s done it after three hours of intense pressure and leading questions from the detectives.

The documentary also shows a phone call made to Dassey’s mother. In it, he tells her that the detectives have told him that his story is inconsistent, and he asks, “What does inconsistent mean?” She doesn’t know.

As a result, most viewers believe the confession to be worthless; they don’t believe that Dassey has told the truth. In short, when the interrogation comes up again in the show, viewers will have a strong point of view about it.

Of course, it does come up again. A judge has several opportunities to throw out the confession as evidence, but he never does, explaining that he sees nothing wrong with the confession. At this point, most viewers probably react with anger. They disagree with the judge, yes, but they’ve also been manipulated to react this way. This isn’t to say that the viewers are wrong—but this is what good storytelling does. It directs the audience’s attention. It gives the reader a sense of the basic reality of the story’s world—and then, sometimes, it introduces a character or fact that undermines or resists that reality.

When this happens, the audience reacts—and when it reacts, it becomes more deeply engaged in the story. This same strategy is used over and over in stories that hinge upon someone’s guilt or innocence: establish the nature and reality of the world and then introduce some element that calls it into question. Sometimes that element actually upends the world we’ve come to know, as happens in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In Making a Murderer, however, the audience’s mind is made up, and what gets upended is the expectation that the viewer’s sense of the world will be accepted by everyone.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s direct the reader’s attention, using the documentary series Making a Murderer as a model:

  1. Establish the reality of the situation. Show the reader the world. Readers, like all people, trust what they see. We rely upon direct experience to build our knowledge of how the world works. Of course, all works of art (including documentaries) frame that experience. Readers can’t see everything, only what the author chooses to show them. So, show your readers the world in a way that seems uncontroversial. Build this reality with details. Give the story texture: what the world feels and tastes and looks like. And, more importantly, don’t get to the point too soon. In Making a Murderer, we’re shown clips from the interrogation of Brendan Dassey, and it’s slow going at first. Eventually, Dassey will confess to everything, but at first, he’s sitting in a chair, not really answering questions, and claiming that he doesn’t know what the detectives are talking about. It’s not particularly gripping footage, not like when he begins to give lurid details. But, it’s the details that show his demeanor in the room that set the stage for what is to come. So, at first, show your character doing something unremarkable like reading the paper or eating breakfast or driving to work. Make us believe in the reality of their existence, and then rev up the story’s engine.
  2. Establish the nature of the character. If the character is slow-witted, create a mundane situation in which that trait will be revealed. If the character is hot-headed, sentimental, easily rattled, cool under pressure, funny, irreverent, or depressive, create an everyday situation to reveal that trait to the reader. Don’t wait until an important moment. If someone gets mad easily, then that person likely gets mad at the drop of a hat—so, find a hat to drop.
  3. Create a scene that must be believed. Love stories are full of such scenes: someone is suspected of cheating and must prove that he/she is innocent. For crime fiction, of course, disputed scenes are stock in trade. Family life is also full of moments like this: parents asking kids if they finished their homework, a spouse asking the other spouse if a bill got paid or if the trash has been taken out. These scenes are usually built on unremarkable moments: I put my purse down right here, I’m telling you. What basic action might your character take that could, later, be questioned?
  4. Challenge the accepted reality. Offer an alternate version of events. You’re lying. You never brought the purse into the house. Or, I know you weren’t doing your homework. I could hear you talking on the phone. Or, I saw you go into her apartment. These challenges make life difficult for the character, but more importantly they force readers to question their basic sense of the world. As the writer, you can use that challenge in two ways. One, you can actually upend and revise the readers’ sense of reality. Two, you can confirm the readers’ sense but refuse to let every character buy into that version of reality.

The goal is to make readers react to the narrative and hook them deeper into the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tom Hart

21 Jan
Tom Hart is a cartoonist best known for the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is creator of the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books and has been called “One of the great underrated cartoonists of our time” by Eddie Campbell and “One of my favorite cartoonists of the decade” by Scott McCloud. His strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.

To read an exercise about giving characters a frame of reference and an excerpt from Rosalie Lightning, click here.

In this interview, Hart discusses loosening structure to escape strict chronology, editing out details to create an intended effect, and finding an ending buried in the middle of a book.

Michael Noll

The book contains several storylines: your grieving, the sale of your apartment in Brooklyn, your move to Florida, moments with Rosalie. But it also contains moments that stand alone from these narratives—events or thoughts or images that exert a gravitational force on your memory beyond their place in the sequence of events. For example, there is a single frame with this text: “Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

You mention in the book and on your blog that you wrote and drew constantly after Rosalie’s death and the you had to piece those disconnected writings and drawings into a book. Was it difficult to find the right spot for moments like the one above? How did you find a structure that could contain both narrative and individual moments that stood out from whatever story they were apart of?

Tom Hart

At some point (when I drew a panel of me saying “This would be the only thing in my head when I entered the funeral home”) it occurred to me I could jump forward in time and never worry about revisiting the moment again. Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.

So in answer to the question, the structure is incredibly organic, and really I just followed my natural slow-moving thoughts. Since I’m telling a story, chronological became a sort of default, but I always welcomed digressions from the main story for thought. So, in the case you mentioned, I thought, “How am I going to get this atm/banana incident in there so it reacts against this moment I just drew out?” and then the answer was, “Put it in now.”

Michael Noll

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Throughout the book, you quote or paraphrase books, comic strips, songs, and films. Some, like the Beatles songs, are things that you encountered unexpectedly, and others are encountered intentionally, like the Herzog film. And then there are others, like the book about Louis, that are important from the beginning but whose emotional resonance changes over time. In these moments, your touch is so light. With the Beatles, for example, you give no explanation, only saying that you heard the song on the plane and didn’t recognize it. Then you give a snippet of the lyrics. But with the Louis book, you show Rosalie engaging with it. In other words, sometimes you let these other narratives and pieces of art speak for themselves, without explanation, and other times you engage with them. Did you have an approach in mind for each, or did you have to figure out for each one how much or little to explain?

Tom Hart

Thank you.

Each one was handled singly except for the ones that were stories that informed Rosalie’s imagination. I wanted to draw those out more fully, in time and faithfulness but also visually: most of the redrawn cartoons have a consistent, clean greyscale under the lines. Elsewhere in the book there is a larger attempt at visual expressionism—come what may.

But in the other instances, again, I just followed the thoughts and edited out anything that was too much.

(Side note—the Beatles line needed a light touch partially for legality sake! I think in my original draft I had a line or two more of the first song. The Tim Buckley song near the end was intentionally elided for the same reason, but I think it worked best this way.)

There were times when I had to edit down my real-time impressions and go for a literary rendition. For instance, the Titian painting is a painting of St. Christopher (I think) carrying the Baby Jesus. It’s all about Jesus, but I wanted to focus on the thought I had, which was about the heaviness. Removing some of the words from the myth. So I purposely never mention Jesus, which is quite a fib since it is very clearly a painting about Jesus.

Michael Noll

Because you’re writing about grief and shock, you’re inherently writing about things that defy an easy, simple portrayal. I really admire the way you capture this, especially how abruptly feelings can change or appear. For example, you spend several pages describing your trip to New Mexico to stay at a retreat for people who’ve experienced sudden loss. The weather is terrible, you’re filled with despair, the logistics seem overwhelmingly complicated. In one panel, there is only one word—“Malfunctioning”—and an image of a steering wheel within what appears to be a brick wall. And then, at the end, you and your wife Leela rush into the motel “and try to make a baby.” It’s a stunning, devastating switch. How do you carry the reader with you as you make decisions when the logic of them is so intensely personal and, perhaps, not fully understood even by you and your wife?

Tom Hart

Thanks for being such a rigorous reader.

That switch was just descriptive, I just described it exactly as it occurred. Or at least it felt that fast. Again, I edited out what was unnecessary (presumably we took our winter clothes off).

Like most writers, I thought only what would be the most effective language to me and assumed there would be readers like me to follow it.

It’s certainly true that scene was set up by the previous mention of a baby—as it was in life.

In this instance, though there also may be more specific answers. For instance, I think I wrote that minimalistic “malfunctioning” line in there much later, not really knowing what to do with the text in that panel. And the image in the final panel was increasingly abstracted over iterations as I realized no representation was needed. So, there was some intention there—the text becomes more short and abbreviated, and a wildly unreadable drawing is the climax of that whole scene.

Michael Noll

Since the book begins with the death of your daughter, it’s natural for the reader to assume that it will end with some kind of emotional resolution. Yet the resolutions that we often expect in books don’t always exist in life. So, I was interested in how you end on two difference scenes, one (the kiss) that is, in a way, more emotionally satisfying and one (the call from your friend) that resists resolution. How did you find these endings? Was it a matter of writing until you found them, or did you know, at some point in the process of writing the book, where you were headed?

Tom Hart

That kiss came in real life, exactly when I detailed, and at that moment I knew it was time to stop “collecting material”—to stop writing. I knew that was the end of the book. After that, I tried to put my more meditative, less shocked brain onto the larger problem of the book, which itself was a method of deepening my understanding of the event and events. So, presented with some short-term revelations and intellectual understandings, I took to the longer, slower task of internalizing them.

The second part of the ending—the phone call—was edited out of the darker (visually so), chapter early on (Chapter 5). It was too long, too different in tone and didn’t say anything about our state of mind. But it was a powerful moment I thought should be in the book. Eventually, far into the writing, I realized that the connection to the outside world it brought, the contrast to another way of grieving—and just the use of her name—made it the right springboard into the final pages.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give Characters a Frame of Reference

19 Jan
Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live on in her absence.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. When his daughter was almost two years old, she died without warning in her sleep. This book is the story of what happened afterward. You can read the first two chapters of the book at Hart’s website.

How the Memoir Works

Throughout the book, Hart show the reader key moments from his daughter’s life and death, his and his wife’s grief, and their attempts to know how to live without their daughter. Many of these moments are associated with art: a book that Hart read to his daughter and films, songs, and poems that have meant something to him—consciously or not. Anyone who has experienced intense grief understands this kind of association, the way, for example, that a song can gain meaning when it’s heard at a particular time or during a particular moment.

The challenge in a book is to make the reader understand and feel these associations. A good place to start is the beginning. Make the art, religion, or words of wisdom part of the character’s frame of reference before the story really begins. In Rosalie Lightning, Hart makes the frame of reference literally the first thing we encounter.

(Note: I’m going to quote the book, but because it’s a graphic memoir, it’s best understood in its complete form. You can find the opening pages of the book at Hart’s website and at Amazon.)

Here is how the book begins:

Her favorite image

In a single night the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.

In the next frame, we see a house with oak trees and learn the source of this magical image:

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro

What follows is a series of images of Hart’s daughter Rosalie picking up acorns and calling them “dideo atune” or “Totoro acorn” and also her death and its aftermath. Hart quotes his wife Leela saying, “My heart is a blast sight.”

This introduction is important because it presents both the tragedy and the mental framework that it enters. As Hart and his wife try to make sense of their loss, they fall back on that framework. Hart clearly shows us their attempts to make sense. For example, there is this scene early in the book:

I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain…

I read Roland Barthes

“The relation between thing signified and imagine signifying an analogical representation is not ‘arbitrary’ as it is in language…”

He is writing about an ad for Italian spaghetti.

What it signifies, what it semiotizes, and how the layers of semiconscious signations and intents correlate with the

Forget it—I pick up the vault of horror

Obviously, Roland Barthes is not to everyone’s reading taste. What matters is that Barthes matters to Hart and that Hart looks to Barthes’ words to help understand his grief. In Barthes matters to the story because his words fail. Hart eventually turns away from them. In some ways, the book repeats this sequence: Hart seeks out a book, film, poem, or song, and he finds something helps or he doesn’t. Sometimes the art arrives in his life unexpectedly—arrivals that are possible only because the memoir has created space for them.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a frame of reference, using Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart as a model:

  1. Give the character a general frame. In short, what kind of person is your character, generally? Hart reads Roland Barthes and the poet Ben Lerner (who is quoted in an epigraph to the book), watches films by Miyazaki and Kurosawa, and reads the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists. He’s not watching Transformers or reading Tuesdays with Morrie (at least not in the book). Make a list of the sort of books and films your character prefers. If the character is religious, what texts does she turn to? Be specific. If the character is a Christian, don’t say she turns to the Bible. Identify the books in the Bible or passages that she recalls. What stories does the character like to tell? Does she tend toward patriotic myth, like the story of George Washington and the apple tree? Toward the mystical, like the various stories that pop up on Facebook about people holding hands and praying around a lake and, in so doing, altering the chemical structure of the water molecules?
  2. Figure out why the character turns to the frame of reference. In Hart’s case, his daughter died, and he was trying to make sense of the personal devastation that remained. Tragedy often forces people to question the meaning and essence of things, and so they turn toward prayer or art. But a story doesn’t need tragedy to do this. Case in point: whoever won the Powerball last week has experienced something good and life-changing. That person will almost certainly fall back on their frame of reference in order to understand how to be rich and what to do with the money. Anything that significantly alters or redirects a character’s life will likely force them to develop a new or revised or refreshed understanding of the world and situation they find themselves in.
  3. Find the applicable parts of the frame of reference. Hart no doubt watches many films and reads many books, but in the wake of his daughter’s death, it was particular films and books that he recalled and sought out. Return to the general frame of reference that you created. Which parts apply to your character’s situation? Some parts may be easy to identify. For example, certain Bible passages are read at funerals and weddings over and over again. Other parts may be idiosyncratic. Not many people might think of Roland Barthes when grieving, but Hart did, and that fact reveals something particular about him. So, find the particular films, books, stories, passages, and words of wisdom that your character would turn to.
  4. Introduce the frame before the story. In Rosalie Lightning, we see acorns and Miyazaki before we’re introduced to Rosalie’s death. Consider when/how your character might think about or talk about the film or book. When would she talk about it? Often there are objects that, when seen or encountered, prompt us to think about certain things. Or when someone we know has experienced a particular situation, we tend to tell the same stories as comfort. Try putting your character in one of those situations before introducing the major conflict. Don’t worry about the situation’s proximity in time to the conflict. Prose, unlike film, has all time and memory at its disposal. Hart begins with acorns. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began with this sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” That’s the frame of reference that Nick Carraway carries with him when he meets Gatsby. It’s important to begin with the frame because if it appears only after the conflict, it can seem artificial, like something introduced to induce some emotional response in the reader. If it’s introduced before the conflict, then it seems simply like part of the character.

The goal is to give a character the chance to make sense of the world, and that sense-making cannot happen in a vacuum. The character needs some frame of reference, which is what you’re providing.

Good luck.

An Interview with Eli Saslow

14 Jan
Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered the 2008 presidential campaign and has chronicled the president’s life inside the White House. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. Previously a sportswriter for the Post, he has won multiple awards for news and feature writing. Two of his stories have also appeared in Best American Sports Writing. He is the co-founder of Press Pass Mentors, a program that pairs professional journalists with low-income high school juniors and seniors to help them become great writers.

To read an exercise about adding physical description to dialogue, inspired by Saslow’s article, “A Survivor’s Life,” click here.

In this interview, Saslow discusses finding the central source of tension in a story, the gray area of attributing feelings to people, and reading Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried as he reported on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

Michael Noll

The article is titled “A Survivor’s Life,” and yet it begins with a focus on that survivor’s mother struggling to interact with her daughter as she recuperates from the attack. It’s a subtle move, but it really shifted my perspective on the story. I guess it’s tempting to think purely in terms of shooter/victim, but this story makes clear that there are many people who are affected. Why did you choose to start with the mother instead of the survivor from the title?

Eli Saslow

I knew pretty early on that the mother was going to be a major character in the story. In some ways, she is the most active character—she is doing everything in her power to love her kid back to normal, and her efforts drive a lot of the action. Plus, there is so much tension between Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and I thought that tension could help drive the story forward. Also, I thought that Bonnie was also the most redeeming aspect of the story. She is trying so, so hard.

When I write, I always want to know exactly how a story ends. I find that I write toward that ending, like a destination on a map, and if I don’t know the ending of a story, I get lost along the way. I knew that this story was going to end in that moment of terror for Cheyeanne, with her calling out for her mom. That also reinforced that Bonnie needed to be a big part of the beginning of the piece as well.

Michael Noll

When the article shifts to the survivor, Cheyeanne, you write this:

By then, the college had reopened. What remained of her Writing 115 class had been moved across campus to an airy art building with windows that looked out on Douglas firs. They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger. That’s what the college dean had said.

I’m interested in this line: “They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger.” One of the things that I’ve heard journalists say in the past is that every line must be attributable and verifiable. Yet this line seems to fall into a gray area. It’s the words of the college dean and something that Cheyeanne might remember hearing with some bitterness—but it also seems like an inference you’re making about the distance between official statements and people’s reality. What is your approach to a line like this?

Eli Saslow

Very good question. You are right that this is more of a gray area line. It is Cheyeanne’s recollection, but I went back and checked her memory against what the college dean had actually said, which was not verbatim but pretty close. In this case, the most important thing was to give readers a feeling of how those words felt to Cheyeanne—and not necessarily tell readers the exact thing the college dean said. His exact words weren’t important or memorable—but the memory of them had stuck with Cheyeanne. I think that’s more important and also does more to put readers inside her head and honor her experience.

Michael Noll

Your physical descriptions are outstanding. For instance, when Cheyeanne is talking about the shooting, you describe her mother this way:

Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.

These are small details, especially the flicking of the dust. I would imagine that it’s difficult to notice such things when you’re first meeting people, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you’re hearing, seeing, and inferring. Had you spent a lot of time with Cheyeanne and Bonnie before this moment arrived? If not, how do you settle into a moment of time so that you can notice details like the ones above?

Eli Saslow

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a lengthy feature on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor's of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

In “A Survivor’s Life,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote  about Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Thanks for that. I think all narrative stories rise and fall on small, observed details. The goal with these stories is to make readers feel like they are in the room with Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and it is the details that make people feel real. I spend a lot of time with the subjects of my stories to get the details right. I might not notice something on the first day, or the third day, or the fifth, but maybe I will notice in the second or third week. I spent dozens of hours sitting in Bonnie and Cheyeanne’s living room with them. Some of those hours are quiet, and there is nothing to do but look around and pay attention to the details that bring scenes to life.

Michael Noll

When Cheyeanne tells the story of the shooting to her brother, he struggles to know what to say or how to act. He’s not the only one. Cheyeanne’s mom doesn’t want to hear the details, and her brother’s friend asks about it but then seems to forget that he asked. I was struck by the similarity of this situation with fictional stories like “Speaking of Courage” in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried and Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Soldier’s Home.” In both, soldiers come home from a war and find that they can’t talk to anyone about what they experienced and that people can’t understand the stories or don’t want to hear them. Did you research survivor’s experiences before talking with Cheyeanne so that you could anticipate certain behaviors or feelings? Or did you go in with a blank slate, so to speak, to avoid developing preconceptions of what you might find?

Eli Saslow

I actually reread The Things They Carried as I was writing this story. I think it is important to have a bigger context of a person’s experience. I always want to know as much as I can. I’d also written a good bit about trauma and isolation before (most recently in this piece), and I carried those reporting experiences into this piece as well.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Add Physical Description to Dialogue

12 Jan
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a lengthy feature on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor's of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a feature for The Washington Post, “A Survivor’s Life,” on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s recent article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Article Works

The article focuses on the relationship between the survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, and her mother and primary caregiver, Bonnie Schaan. In the opening paragraphs, Bonnie needs to run to the store to buy juice and ice, the first time she’s left her daughter alone since the shooting. Here is part of the dialogue from that scene:

“Do you want me to call someone to come sit with you?” Bonnie asked.

“No. Jesus. I can take care of myself.”

“Blinds opened or closed?”

“Damn it, Mom. Just go!”

Bonnie grabbed her coat and opened the door. She could see the market across the street.

“You’ll be okay?” she asked, but Cheyeanne didn’t answer.

This dialogue is effective for several reasons. First, attribution (identifying the speaker) is used only when necessary. Second, the attributions are kept simple: no screaming or whispering or begging, just “she asked.” Finally, physical details that we’re shown serve a clear purpose. Bonnie grabs her coat and sees the market across the street, making it clear how close the store is and how little time Bonnie’s daughter will spend alone. It’s a small detail, but it reveals so much about the situation. Bonnie is running literally across the street to buy two items, and yet she’s scared to leave her daughter for that long.

In another scene, Cheyeanne tells the story of  the shooting, something that Bonnie doesn’t want to hear. What results is dialogue with only one person speaking:

“The thing I keep thinking about is how that bastard stepped on me,” she said.

Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.

“Like I wasn’t even human,” Cheyeanne said. “Like I was nothing.”

Bonnie may not speak words, but she is still communicating. It’s not intentional communication, but nonetheless, she’s revealing her thoughts: she doesn’t want to hear this information, a fact that is shown by how she redirects her attention from what is being said.

Finally, there’s a long tradition in stories, particularly war stories like “Speaking of Courage” by Tim O’Brien and “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, in which characters speak but aren’t heard—at least not in a meaningful way. The same thing happens to Cheyeanne in a coffee shop with a sign posted that announces, “Ten percent of proceeds go to victims!”

“I actually was a victim,” Cheyeanne told the girl at the counter, after she’d ordered her drink.

“Of what?” the girl asked.

Cheyeanne pointed to the sign.

“Oh. No kidding?” the girl said. She smiled. She handed out the drink. “Straw?” she asked.

In this case, the physical description (she smiled, handed out the drink) tells the reader how to understand the dialogue. For example, if the description had instead said that the girl “trembled, her hand shaking as she handed out the drink,” the dialogue would be understood much differently.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s add physical description to dialogue, using “A Survivor’s Life” by Eli Saslow as a model:

  1. Use description to add context to dialogue. Saslow writes dialogue showing how nervous Bonnie is to leave her daughter alone, but that nervousness takes on a different meaning when we see the store across the street. So, find an exchange of dialogue that refers to something or someone (I know that’s a vague instruction, but it’s necessary.) In short, find a noun that one speaker references and feels something about (happiness, trepidation, anger). Then, show that noun to the reader. If there is some difference between how we see the noun and how it’s being discussed, that difference will provide context for what is being said.
  2. Use description to replace dialogue. It’s no secret that body language is a significant part of human communication, yet we tend to strip it out of dialogue. Or, we add meaningless details, the equivalent of someone clearing their throat. One strategy is to summarize what a character is communicating or thinking or feeling. This is different than a summary of what the character says, as anyone who has snapped, “And what is that supposed to mean?” knows well. Keep that summary in mind as you write the dialogue. If possible, delete one line of dialogue and replace it with a physical action. The goal is to communicate the same thing as the line of dialogue but without speaking. The result can be a more nuanced scene.
  3. Use dialogue to interpret dialogue. In the scene in the coffee shop, Saslow uses the description to help us understand the barista’s line, “No kidding?” The description shows her smile and a single action, but you could also describe a character’s clothing, posture, or what the character does immediately following the dialogue. The goal is to reveal the impact that the conversation has on the character.

The goal is to add nuance and depth to dialogue with physical description of the characters and the things around them.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

7 Jan
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

%d bloggers like this: