Tag Archives: Caeli Widger

An Interview with Caeli Widger

20 Feb
Caeli Widger's essay, "X" appeared in the "Lives" section of The New York Times Magazine. Her first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March.

Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free,” appeared in the “Lives” section of The New York Times Magazine. Her first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March.

Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, and the Madison Review, as well as on NPR and CBS Radio. She currently teaches for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and has taught in the past for Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Workshop and at University College London.

In this interview, Widger discusses rage against digital culture, what The New York Times will fact check (text messages!), and moving from novel writing to working within an 800-word limit.

To read “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” and an exercise on using context to discover what a story or essay is about, click here.

Michael Noll

A lot has been written about the way social media and technology are impacting our lives, and I suspect that most of us feel as though our own behavior has been changed—I know mine has. However, I’m not sure that I could pinpoint a moment that illustrates that impact. But that’s precisely what you do in this essay. The simple act of not answering your phone becomes an opportunity to discuss the emotional consequences of how you use technology. How did you choose that moment to use as the basis of your essay? Was it immediately after the missed-call and subsequent follow-up occurred—a lightning strike of understanding? Or did you start with a general feeling about technology and then search for a moment to illustrate it?

Caeli Widger

The call with Stacey actually was not the trigger for the original essay. Her voicemail and our follow-up exchanges occurred a full month before I sat down to write the first draft. My initial motivation came from anger and resentment over how digital culture works against all the elements required to sustain a writing life: silence, contemplation, solitude. Unimpeded focus, minimal distraction, etc. As a writer with young children and a day job, I must stay vigilantly protective of my writing time. I was revising my first novel at the time, and had maybe an hour a day to work on it. And I found that unless I wrote at the crack of dawn, it was nearly impossible to “unplug” mentally and fully inhabit my writing mind in a short amount of time. As soon as I began to engage with the digital world, I always felt it breathing on me. I’d run Freedom (internet-crippling software) on my laptop and then cheat and check my phone for messages five minutes later. Or, even if I didn’t check, some little portion of my brain would still be attuned to the possibility of something happening on some technology platform. And every time I caved to the possibility and turned away from my work, I ended up feeling gross and disingenuous. Disgusted with myself. It felt like a low-grade addiction—and I’m a total social media lightweight compared to most people! I don’t use Facebook or Instagram. But the infringement of texting and email and Twitter on my writing life finally sent me into something of a rage one afternoon (after a lame revision session) and I wrote a spontaneous 2000+-word essay on how technology is anti-art and anti-relationship. The relationship part is where the Stacey situation worked itself into that first draft, but it was a minor part. The original essay was a high-level, “our culture’s going to hell” sort of rant-piece. Really, it was an act of catharsis and I didn’t have submitting to The New York Times or any particular publication in mind. I was just feeling disgusted and emotional about everyone being glued to their stupid smart phones, myself included, and needed to blow off steam.

I revised it over the next few days and decided to submit it to the NYT Mag’s “Riff” page. I hit send and forgot about it. A few weeks later Adam Sternbergh, the mag’s culture editor, wrote and said he liked the piece, but that it wasn’t right as a “Riff”. He asked if he could send it over to Jillian Dunham who ran the “Lives” page. Jillian liked it, but said I would need to 1) cut it down by two-thirds (Yikes!) 2) make the piece a personal essay instead of a cultural-criticism piece. She suggested starting over with the Stacey anecdote at the core, so that’s what I did. And I ended up getting to a deeper truth than I originally had in the long rant. It just took me a long time to get there.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with the story and then, in the fourth paragraph, provides context for that story by explaining your phone habits. This is a common structure in magazine essays (begin in scene or with an anecdote, then provide context), but it can also be difficult to get right. There are usually several ways to talk about the same incident, and so providing context means choosing one and, perhaps, disregarding the others. How did you approach this paragraph? Was it difficult to distill your phone/social media habits down to five sentences?

Caeli Widger

Some iteration of that graph was always in the piece. I don’t think I consciously chose to explain my phone habits that way, but one of my original inspirations for writing it—part of what fueled that first burst of culture-rage—was the viscera of digitial communciation. The swooshes and pings and tinkling glass and other nine million noises that can come from a little machine had become way too present—and desired—in my daily life. Even the way my fingers feel on the glass of iPhone, tapping out a text, or the particular swiping motion I make with my thumb to enter my home screen—these are noises and actions that never existed until recently, and here they were, the gateways to NOT writing my book and NOT talking to people I love! So those sensory details organically worked themselves into the “example” paragraph supporting the opening graph, and then in revision I distilled the language into a succinct portrait of my phone habits.

 Michael Noll

The essay moves through time with incredible efficiency. These lines are a perfect example:

“I’ll call you at 2!” I replied.

“You didn’t listen to my voice mail last week, did you?” she asked when we finally spoke.

Was that transition between conversations always so quick, or did you need to revise out some mechanical explanation?

Caeli Widger

The 800-word limit is incredibly restricting. No room whatsover for mechanical explanation! This felt totally unnatural to me. I’m longwinded by nature. Novel-writing suits me—no parameters! But I simply had no choice with this essay. The original graph you cite was originally MUCH longer. I had to pare down every single inessential word. The NYT’s incredibly diligent fact-checking system also helped impose limits. I had to supply screen shots of my text conversations with Stacey and use them verbatim in the essay—no paraphrasing allowed!

Michael Noll

In her debut novel, family drama leads to a public intervention on a TV reality show and in a seedy Reno motel room.

In Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, family drama leads to a public intervention on a TV reality show and in a seedy Reno motel room.

Your first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released next month. Outside of poetry or highly academic work, there’s probably not a form that is more different than a novel than a personal essay. One is long, digressive, and invented, and the other is short, narrowly-focused, and true. Was it difficult to move from novel-writing to essay-writing?

Caeli Widger

In ways yes, but in others, writing this essay felt like a reprieve from the open-endedness of my usual genre. I’d never really written a personal essay before, outside of one workshop back in grad school. I’d spent years writing short fiction, and when my stories began to creep beyond 10k words, I decided it was time to take the plunge and commit to a novel. And it was totally liberating. But also overwhelmingly free, if that makes sense. You can go anywhere in a novel: into any character’s head, anywhere in time. You can indulge in descriptive language, you can digress for chapters at a time. Of course, in the end, you must impose control and revise endlessly, but there is a Wild West feeling to the early drafts that was pleasantly minimal in the crafting of my essay. Even in that very first “rant draft,” I was fueled by specific subject matter and knew I couldn’t go on too long. This is not to say that I found the form easier—certainly not! Not only did the prose require strict discipline, but it took a long time to tease what I truly wanted to stay out of the piece while staying within 800 words. The piece must have had 30 different endings. Jillian kept sending it back to me saying, Try again. I kept trying to force a transformation on the end. I was avoiding (subconsciously) being honest and facing the fact that what I learned from the experience is that probably won’t change. And that was an uncomfortable, if painful, realization. In this respect, the two forms (novel and short essay) are similar: both require a great amount of patience and openness on the part of the author in order for the true subject to “reveal” itself.

February 2014

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

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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