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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.