Tag Archives: How to Write a Personal Essay

How to Use Sensory Details

26 Nov
Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught to use the five senses in descriptive writing. By the time we’re writing as adults, it ought to seem like second nature, right? Too often, though, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

A really good example of using sensory details can be found in Syed Ali Haider’s essay, “Porkistan.” The essay combines those essential aspects of the first Thanksgiving: food and religion. It was published at Roxane Gay’s new online magazine, The Butter, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Haider writes about bacon, a food that is impossible to ignore, even if you don’t eat it. Here is how he describes it:

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Haider doesn’t use all five senses, but he does return to one particular sense over and over. He describes the sound of bacon cooking three different ways:

  1. “sizzling in a pan”
  2. “The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease”
  3. “Fat popping in a hot pan.”

Two of those lines (sizzling, popping) are onomatopoeia: words whose sound imitates the thing they are describing. The other line simply states the actual sound (bacon cooking in its own grease). Haider also describes the sight of the bacon: “drying on paper towels” and “Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy.” Next, he describes the smell:

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

Notice that Haider doesn’t try to describe what the smell is like. The smell of bacon is not comparable to anything else. Instead, he describes the way it sticks to everything (which is not helpful if you’re a Muslim, as Haider was, and trying to conceal your bacon consumption).

In two paragraphs, Haider has not only described bacon but attached those descriptions to story: the things he describes make life difficult for him.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description with sensory details using “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider as a model:

  1. Identify the thing to describe. Keep it simple. It’s difficult to describe something that is diffuse or abstract. If possible, name the thing you want to describe.
  2. State what the thing does. Sometimes it’s not necessary to compare the smell or taste to something else. A clear statement of what the thing does (cooking in its own grease) can clearly evoke the thing—and sometimes it can suggest sensory details. So, explain in close detail what the thing does. When and where do you find it? How do you know it’s there? What is it doing? How do people react?
  3. Describe the thing with a few senses. Perhaps you can use more, or even all; if so, great. But, very often, it’s effective to choose one or two senses and explore the different ways to use them. Haider uses two different onomatopoeic words. He twice describes how the smell sticks to different parts of his body. He finds two different visual descriptions of bacon: color and texture. Try choosing a sense and finding different ways that the thing looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes.
  4. Connect the senses to story. You’re really just connecting the thing to story, which should be easy; why else would you be describing it in the first place? Think about the effect the thing has on you. How does it affect your behavior? As you consider this, remember the sensory details. The smell of bacon made it difficult for Haider to hide the fact that he’d eaten it. How does one of the sensory details you wrote make the thing difficult to ignore?

Good luck and have fun!

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An Interview with Domingo Martinez

17 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is in works to become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2013 Pushcart Prize and was a Gold Medal Winner for The Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s currently in development as a new series for HBO by Salma Hayek and Jerry Weintraub. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, The New Republic, This American Life, Huisache Literary Journal, All Things Considered, and Saveur Magazine.

In this interview, Martinez discusses building stories out of memories, his best-ever teaching moment, and taking the piss out of Rick Perry.

To read an excerpt from The Boy Kings of Texas, an essay Martinez wrote about the impact of the Affordable Care Act among immigrant communities in Texas, and exercises based on both, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with a call you made to your grandmother, and that section ends with the lines: “Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.” Those sentences are addressing such big issues–the way that poverty and cultural barriers shape people’s lives. When you write about them, how do you begin? Do you start with sentences like those and work backwards, searching for anecdotes or details? Or do you start with a story (“I phoned my 84-year-old grandmother”) and wait for the right moment to open the story up to its larger implications?

Domingo Martinez

This was an issue I had when I first started in this business, in that my particular métier in writing is in anecdotes and storytelling; I’m not a journalistic/researcher-type writer. So when I begin on a topic, I scour my memory for something in my personal past that is at once relevant and, if I’m particularly lucky, unusual or comical in the cultural collision I’ve come to symbolize. Meaning that, I suppose I start from the project and let my imagination and experience wander, and hopefully where I end up, or the memories that surface, are still framed in the original intent. That’s why I usually bend the borders a bit. Which again, I suppose is my designation as an author. Ha.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about a Mexican immigrant living in South Texas published in a Washington D.C.-based journal. In other words, most of your readers almost certainly do not share your subject’s background or geography, and so you necessarily explain things that your grandmother’s community takes for granted. And yet, I’m guessing, you probably also wanted to write something that makes sense to readers in South Texas. So, there are sentences that seem aimed at less knowledgeable readers (“Many families there lived a dual life, on both sides of the border”) and details that are more intimate (“My brother, Dan, knew a kid whose grandmother made him eat Vicks VapoRub when he had a fever.”) How do you strike that balance? How do you know how much basic background information to explain?

Domingo Martinez

There’s a certain “sweet spot” you navigate when you’re writing about a culture that is at once so familiar and intimate to you, as the author, and unknown to your reader. First of all, you have to trust your reader, and trust that they’re capable of following insinuation or inflection, enough so that when you pause and explain something, they unconsciously register that this was important enough data to
 stop the story telling and define. If you stop and define every level of foreign information, it dulls the story, and comes off as condescension in a way. The best description I’ve ever come up with was at Breadloaf, this one fantastic woman in particular who was writing her own memoir, but was stuck very much in the “macro” telling of her origins, her family, their lives in Iran. The first part of her story read like the Old Testament, and I don’t mean the good parts. I sat with her and came up with the idea of the “dual
 perspective,” for her to write in the “micro” and have a constant awareness of the “macro.” Sort of like writing in a depth, with two
 points of view. That keeps your reader submerged in the particular of a story, and brings along the larger themes and intention of your
 work. It was a breakthrough, and she actually cried and hugged me. I think it was the best moment teaching I’ve ever had, and I really don’t like teaching.

Michael Noll

You write about the Republican presidential candidates in the last election promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, about the cuts to medical services already made by Texas governor Rick Perry. And yet in South Texas, your grandmother is rubbing WD-40 on her arthritic joints. It would seem easy to become pretty angry while drafting this essay. How do you manage your emotions when writing about such a profound political disconnect?

Domingo Martinez

That was a depth I wasn’t really willing to tread in that piece, politically. Rick Perry is too easy a target to “take the piss out
 of” if you don’t mind the Britishism. So I wanted to stay away from him; he’s too cartoonish. (I do a great imitation of him, too, by the
 way.) It’s like when W was in the White House and every half-wit across the country felt he or she had the authority or superior
 to make fun of him, and that grew so tiresome so quickly. Anyhow, in this case, there is so much about Texas and its governance that I find absolutely appalling as a West Coaster from a nanny state, and probably in violation of several human rights. My younger brother lived in an apartment complex where, if he was two days late with rent, he’d be locked out of his apartment until he coughed up the full amount. I was astonished when this happened, while I was visiting. What if he was a diabetic? What if his kid lived with him? What if, like me, he had terrible asthma and his ventolin was in there? This would NEVER happen in Washington State. It just seemed so predatory. So I drove him to the Home Depot and figured out how to break in without the management knowing. That’s the sort of stuff that makes my blood boil, when it’s personal and immediate. Writing and witnessing the larger political objectives that are designed to cut support to impoverished (read: Mexican) communities in Texas, I’m overcome with more of a muted sense of defeat, especially because the Republicans in Texas are so good at getting Mexican American voters to vote for their pecuniary incentives as business owners because they hide their malicious political intentions behind a veil of religion and conservative “family values.” That disgusts me to no end, how easily Mexican Americans had been manipulated because “…Jesus wants it so. Jesus hates veterans and old people.” But that sense of defeat is as far as that goes, especially when it comes to Gramma and her weird choices in self-medication. I know her, and I know her people very well, and it wouldn’t really matter if she had access to healthcare at the Mayo Clinic: Gramma would augment her doctor’s prescriptions with WD-40 and anything else that would make sense to her, like chewing on rusty nails for the iron and sodium.

Michael Noll

Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Your memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is being adapted into a series for HBO. HBO (and cable TV in general) has a good track record of offering shows that portray communities that are often hidden from national view (Baltimore in The Wire and Albuquerque in Breaking Bad come to mind). In the past, though, attempts at portraying Mexican-American communities near the border didn’t fare so well. The writer Dagoberto Gilb has written about his frustration in writing for a series set in Juarez/El Paso a decade or so ago. Do you worry about your story making the leap to television?

Domingo Martinez

I didn’t know that about Dago; I’ll have to ask him about his experiences. He briefly mentioned he’d taken a run at a script once but he didn’t expand on it. Truth be told, I’ve just developed momentum again on this project with Salma Hayek and her producer, so I’m not feeling like I can write about it here. It’s one thing I’ve learned in this business is that things are much better left untyped, as lawyers can’t sue you on insinuation alone. (Well, they can, but a good judge would throw it out.) However, I will say this: it’s certainly proving to be a challenge from the outset, and oddly, I’m really excited about it. Also, I’m incredibly naive and unsophisticated in the ways of Los Angeles, so I’m looking forward to being used, profoundly disappointed, and thrown aside as a spiritually desiccated husk, while the likes of George Clooney step over me on the sidewalk. It’s every author’s dream. (Not the success, but getting that close to success and failing, so that you can have something to write about.)

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

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!

How to Let the Story Speak for Itself

30 Jan
Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

If you recall anything about your composition classes in high school or college, it may be the requirement that every example be explained or analyzed. As an instructor for these classes, I feel a professional obligation to say that, yes, this is mostly true. But, on the other hand, sometimes the example or story can speak for itself.

Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” illustrates not only that some stories do not need to be explained but also that some efforts to explain add a layer that can, at times, falsify the story itself. As Laymon writes, “I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.”

The essay is included in the new collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and was originally published at Gawker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The first paragraph of the essay lays out what will follow:

I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

The bulk of the essay is the stories about these four incidents with guns. There is almost no transition between them except a sentence like, “16 months later, I’m 18, three years older than Edward Evans will be when he is shot in the head behind an abandoned home in Jackson” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.”

This lack of transition and explanation/analysis accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets the stories pile up against one another. To some extent, the point is not that one of these stories happened but that they all happened. The references to similar stories that made the news make it clear that not only did all of these stories happen to one person, they happen to people like him all of the time.
  2. They keep the reader in the moment with the writer as he experiences these stories. Very often, we’re tempted to add a layer of distance, to write, “Long ago, when I was young, these things happened.” While it’s true that by the time we sit down to write about something, we’ve given it years of thought, it’s also the case that the act of reflection can distort or veil the thing we are reflecting upon. This reflection protects the writer against judgement or scorn (a way of saying to the reader, “Yeah, I was part of something that makes you and me uncomfortable, but see how much smarter I am now?). Sometimes it’s important to cut straight to the memory itself.

Instead of trying to write statements that show “supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation,” Laymon saves his moments of analysis and explanation for the points in the essay where his thoughts at the time might not be immediately clear. Here is one example:

I pick up my gun and think about my Grandma. I think not only about what she’d feel if I went back out there with a gun. I think about how if Grandma walked out of that room with a gun in hand, she’d use it. No question.

I am her grandson.

In this instance, Laymon is explaining a thought process that led to a decision. What follows—the effects of the decision—speak for themselves. At the end of the piece, Laymon does step away from the stories to reflect a bit, but his reflection actually points us back to the stories. Here’s a typical line:

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

In a way, Laymon is making the same point as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried: “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In this essay, by letting the story speak without added explanation, Laymon is aiming for the stomach as much as the head.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try structuring an essay so that no big explanations are needed, using “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others: A Remembrance” by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Let the stories pile up against one another. This kind of structure works best with an essay about a recurring event. Each successive version emphasizes both the similarities (here we go again) and the variations (this time, however, was different). In order to find your stories, it might be helpful to think of them as leaves on a stem. What is the single line of causation? In Laymon’s essay, it’s the experience of being black in Mississippi. This is vague and simplistic, of course, but it’s also a place to begin. One way to advance such a simple idea is to ask a basic question: “What does it mean to be ______?” Then, choose an image that resonates with you on an emotional level. Laymon chose the image of a gun. The successive stories become different perspectives of that image, filtered through the basic question of meaning. Choose the right stories and the right image, and the meaning will make itself clear.
  2. Keep the reader in the story as you, the writer, experience it again. In other words, tell the story straight, in present tense if necessary. Focus any explanation on moments of decision making. This might require leaving the moment and writing something like, “My whole life, I’d been ______, but now I ______.” The goal is to portray the complex processes that our minds quickly distill to a snap decision: “So, I ______.” The next paragraphs will show the reader the events or actions that proceed from that decision and the consequences of those actions. The consequences can be stated simply. Less is sometimes more, as Laymon writes here:

The young brother keeps looking back to the car, unsure what he’s supposed to do. Shonda and her friends are screaming when he takes the gun off my chest and trots goofily back to the car.

I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.

Sometimes, no explanation is needed. The image, the story, and the decision are enough.

Good luck!

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

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