Tag Archives: How to Write an Essay

An Interview with Kelly Davio

27 Nov
Kelly Davio is the author of the essay "Strong Is the New Sexy" and the poetry collection,

Kelly Davio is the author of the essay “Strong Is the New Sexy” and the poetry collection, Burn This House.

Kelly Davio is the American Editor of Eyewear Publishing, the Co-Publisher and Poetry Editor for Tahoma Literary Review, and the former Managing Editor for The Los Angeles Review. She writes the column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazine and regularly contributes to a variety of magazines, reviews, and journals, ranging from Ravishly to Women’s Review of Books. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, is now available from Red Hen Press. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published at The Rumpus.

In this interview, Davio discusses the cultural criteria for womanhood, the corporate interests in empowerment, and the lessons of writing poetry for essay writers.

To read Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” and an exercise on structure, click here.

Michael Noll

This is such a powerful essay, especially the line, “I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.” I’m curious how you worked up to this statement. Was it a realization that you’ve had for a while and so part of writing the essay was finding a way to say it? Or did this line only occur to you as you worked on the piece?

Kelly Davio

This idea, that I’m the antithesis of a “real woman,” is something I’ve been circling around for some time, often with amusement and other times with resignation or even bald aggravation. Our culture is strangely invested in telling women what makes them real: having curves, having health, having children, having beauty, having strength, having sexiness. I don’t feel that I meet any of the criteria for being a real woman, so it must stand to reason that I’m an unreal woman. I’ve been writing about this idea in my poetry for a little while, and have developed a character I call The Unreal Woman—she’s part comedic alter-ego and part antihero—whom I use to explore the idea of being left out and left over.

In writing “Strong is the New Sexy,” though, I wanted to take a more straightforward, serious approach to this topic. Cathartic as it is for me to write humorous or wry poems about The Unreal Woman, it was important to me to work up the courage to speak bluntly about body image and disability. I may be hyperaware of how few people write about the disabled body in the literary space, but it’s a topic that feels to me like one of the last literary taboos, and I wanted to, if not break it, at least chip artfully around its corners.

Michael Noll

In the first paragraph, you’re learning to swallow again and watching hang gliders through the window. This contrast between weakness and strength is carried through the entire essay. At one point in the essay, you juxtapose the statements, “Strong is the new sexy” and “grave weakness.” Did you start with this structure or discover it as you put images down on the page?

Kelly Davio

I did begin with the rough structure in mind. I find it amusing that we speak so much about strength as an essential attribute, especially with regard to living with illness, yet the name of the disease I live with–myasthenia gravis–quite literally means “grave weakness.” That seemed like a fruitful contrast to examine.

Beyond that fact, the form almost seemed to give itself to me on a platter with the unlikely scenario of daredevils hang gliding right in view of the hospital complex (I suppose they’re in the right place if anything goes amiss with their sport). I mean, you can’t make this stuff up! Here are these folks who presumably have health enough to spare, dangling themselves on nothing but air currents, and then you have this group of patients shuffling around in our sweatpants. The only things separating our groups were some large windows and a big gap in circumstance. I liked the idea that I could use this contrast between images of health and disability to work up to the view of acceptance that I put forth in the end of the essay.

Michael Noll

The essay is full of short paragraphs that make quick leaps of logic. For instance, you write this about the therapist: “The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.” The leap from giving up to looking at your chart is striking. I think I actually paused after I read it the first time. The leap happens without any mechanics. You don’t say that she looked at you worriedly or that she advised you to eat more. There are so many ways that this moment could have been expanded, so many other pieces of seemingly pertinent information that could have been added. Such brevity is often difficult for fiction writers, but you’re a poet. What effect do you think your experience with the distillation and density that happens in poems has on your approach to writing an essay?

Kelly Davio

Most of us have probably experienced the phenomenon of trying to get the spirit of an incident on the page, and adding, elaborating, and decorating that incident for fear we haven’t gotten it quite right or communicated it fully. The problem with that impulse to keep renovating the image is that, the more you add, the more you dilute.

Poetry has a wonderful way of teaching the importance of getting the image right rather than piling on additions; when a poem begins to over-explain by even a word or two, the entire piece falls apart. Poetry has taught me to think through everything I put on the page before I put it there, and to approach everything I write slowly and attentively so that I can avoid the impulse to over-elaborate out of fear that the reader won’t grasp my meaning.

I should also note that I think the positions of the body are often more revealing than dialogue tags, and I tend to use body language in lieu of tagging whenever I can. What we say verbally is only a fragment of what we communicate, and when you excise the “he saids” from your writing, you give yourself room enough to suggest many of those subtleties in a small amount of space.

Michael Noll

In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they’re not real women.

The essay ends with you watching the gliders. Unlike at the beginning of the essay, you write, “I don’t look away. I have to admit that they are beautiful.” This is a pretty interesting statement given the connections you’ve drawn between the gliders and the ideas of strength and “real” women, which means women with curves. We tend to think in terms of empowerment, the belief that whoever you are, however you look, is good and beautiful. This is especially true with women’s health issues. Cancer survivors compete in triathlons. But that’s not really how this essay ends, and it’s certainly not the advice that you’re given by your doctor. In your case, your body attacks strength and effort. How do you reconcile this paradox: we don’t really have a philosophical place for an illness and a “real” body like yours?

Kelly Davio

Empowerment is a tricky business. Culturally, we have been making some tiny strides toward greater body acceptance for women, but it’s usually a corporate money-maker like Dove’s questionable “Real Beauty” campaign that features nothing but visibly able-bodied women who still fit highly conventional standards of attractiveness. We still have supposedly health-focused television shows that revolve around the entire premise that fat people need to be shamed and monitored into losing weight. And yes, we love to see cancer survivors compete in triathlons! But we sure don’t do much for cancer patients when they’re not “raising awareness”; do we cover our coughs on the bus so that the chemo patient doesn’t catch our germs and become seriously ill? No, unless somebody’s looking inspiring, we have little time for her. We like it when the arc of someone else’s story bends toward us. We like people to look like us, act like us. We have a low tolerance for those people and those bodies that don’t reflect us and underwrite our opinions about the world.

But let me tiptoe off my soapbox and get back to the question at hand. Part of what I wanted to say in this essay is that, over time, I’ve realized that body acceptance is a whole lot more than adopting a sassy attitude as though I’m in a Special K commercial—that’s a cheap imitation of actual acceptance. To me, body acceptance is the choice to allow my body to be as it is and others’ bodies to be as they are. It’s not just about my getting over the embarrassment of walking with a cane when I need to be on my feet for a long time, or coming to terms with all the visible side effects of my medications (though those have been big steps for me). It’s also about stopping the train of envy and judgment; body acceptance means refusing to look at someone else and say “I wish I had your…” or “you’d be so pretty if…”. It’s the radical idea that you and I are both good in and of ourselves, and that no one’s goodness diminishes another’s.

That’s what I mean when I say that I admit the hang gliders are beautiful—I’ve come to a place where I no longer feel envious of their beauty or their health. Just as I can live in this body and call it good, I acknowledge and enjoy their goodness, too.

First Published in August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

22 Nov
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

For some writers, structure comes naturally. They have an innate compass that allows them to chart a course through the jumble of experiences and memories in their minds, forming a narrative arc from the chaos. Others of us, though, can spend all day writing and still find nothing but a mess on the page. No matter how interesting the individual paragraphs or sentences or story, until those things are placed within some structure, the essay won’t work. The question is this: How do we find that structure?

Kelly Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” offers a primer in giving structure to our experiences and ideas. It appeared in The Rumpus, where you can read it now. 

How the Essay Works

The essay plants several flags in the ground and moves back and forth between them. The first flag is found in the title, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” which clearly presents one idea that will recur within the essay: for a woman, being strong is desirable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that this statement suggests another, different idea: for a woman, being thin is sexy and desirable. Davio makes this connection explicitly:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

These two ideas alone are probably enough to fuel an essay. In fact, you’ve probably read an essay like that before. But Davio is interested in moving beyond binary positions of “strong vs skinny” because neither describes her, and she, of course, is a real woman. So she plants a third flag in the ground: “The name of my disease translates directly from the Greek and Latin to ‘grave weakness.'” Due to the nature of this disease, she’s lost the muscle memory required for eating and must relearn it with the help of a physical therapist:

The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.

Davio has shifted the conversation from “strong vs skinny” to “Strong is the new sexy vs grave weakness.” In other words, what if a woman is thin not because she wants to be but because she has no choice? These are the flags (strong/sexy and grave weakness) that Davio moves between. Each section of the essay is focused on one or the other or on the tension between the two:

  • The first section introduces the image of Davio relearning to eat while looking out the window at hang gliders.
  • The second section introduces a Pinterest image of a curvy woman in a swimsuit and the idea that “being healthy and fit is so much more important than being skinny.”
  • The third section returns to Davio learning how to eat and adds the dimension of unwanted weight loss.
  • The fourth section explains the consequences of losing weight and, as a result, the markers of femininity: Davio feels that is becoming “less and less of a real woman.”
  • The fifth section gives details about the physical effects of the “grave weakness.”
  • The sixth section shows Davio trying to cover up these effects.
  • The next two sections finally make explicit the juxtaposition between strong and weak.
  • The final section returns to the hang gliders, with Davio admitting “that they are beautiful.”

By planting the thematic flags of the essay so clearly, Davio gives her imagination and memory a structure to work within. Everyone has sat in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices; those scenes in this essay could have been generic. But because Davio knows (or her unconscious knows) that she’s writing about strength and grave weakness, she focuses the waiting-room scene on images that touches on those ideas: particular images on her phone, the hang gliders outside the window.

By knowing what the essay is about, Davio also knows which details to use and which to leave out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create structure with theme using “Strong Is The New Sexy” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Choose your topic. What are you going to write about? It might just be a story or memory that’s been running through your mind. You might not know what it’s about. That’s fine. The important thing is to have something definite in your mind, some concrete experience or detail.
  2. Identify what your essay seems to be about. If you told someone the story/memory/detail, what would they say it’s about? Or, to put it another way, what is the usual version of your essay? What would readers expect it to be about based on the title? Davio’s essay would seem, from the title, to be making a common argument about female body image: that strong/athletic/curvy is better than making oneself skinny through self-deprivation. Even though your essay might not be about this expected thing, it’s useful to know what is expected. It gives you something to react against.
  3. What is the essay really about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone you’re story/memory/detail and they say, “Well, here’s what’s going on with you.” If they’re right, it’s enlightening. If they’re wrong, it’s infuriating. The best essays often develop from the need to correct an idea or fill in a missing gap. Davio’s essay is adding necessary dimensions to the strong vs skinny debate. What does your essay want to add to the ideas that readers already have? How can you say to your imaginary reader, “No, no, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this?”
  4. Plant your flags. Identify the different positions/ideas present in your essay (perhaps conflicting in your essay). Do it in a word or two. Davio uses “strong/sexy” and “grave weakness.” How can you distill your argument to a couple of words like that?
  5. Write scenes/sections around each flag. One way to think about structure is as “theme and variation.” How many different perspectives can you offer on the flags that you’ve planted. For strength, Davio 1) shows images of female beauty from her phone, 2) shows people who are healthy and actively flying hang gliders, and 3) gives context (“the specter of anorexia”). She does the same thing with grave weakness, showing various aspects of what that means in physical terms and their mental effect. For each of the flags you’ve planted (the one or two-word phrases that explain what the essay is about), write a scene from a story or build a paragraph using an image or detail. To change metaphors, how can you filter your memories through these phrases to see what comes out?

At some point, you’ll find that you have enough scenes and sections, and your job will be to order them. That will be easier if they share a similar focus and direction.

Good luck!

How to Defy Readers’ Expectations for Characters

21 Jun
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” was one of the most-read essays of the year in 2014.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us as readers, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay as a whole suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. The essay could work at the level of the broad categories  and still make its point. Yet something would be lost. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. But that’s not what Watkins is interested in writing about. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that many of us are familiar with, which means it’s a language that carries with it certain expectations.

Now, watch how Watkins moves away from those expectations, from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Once the people in the essay are allowed to participate in the discussion, they show their wit and intelligence. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. The line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” not only reveals that the speaker knows about corporate bailouts but also reveals a sense of goofball, idiosyncratic sense of humor. It complicates the portrayal of someone who is “disenfranchised,” a term that can flatten the people it describes.

Once you honor the people’s or characters’ complexity, you can begin to describe the complexity of their world:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

This is a passage that does not fit into much of the political speech we’re hearing at the moment–because it’s complex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. Use Watkins’ headline as a model: “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” Fill in the blanks: Too ___ for ____. This won’t be difficult for essay writers, but it applies to fiction writers as well. Many love stories are about characters who believe they’re too ___ to be loved or, conversely, too ____ for the person who loves them. Most fiction is driven by a sense of a character’s dissatisfaction. What is it in your story?
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: “I call us disenfranchised” and “one of those spots where.” Fill in the blanks: So-and-so calls them _____ because ___” and “It was one of those places that ___.” You’re inherently working with categories, with types of characters or places, and these types carry expectations for readers.
  3. Let the characters or people speak for themselves. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. So, let your characters/people comment on the categories you’ve just made. Imagine that they’ve just read your line from Step 2. Or, someone in the room has said something similar. How would they respond?

The goal is to create categories that are both real and that seem familiar to readers and then let your characters/people surprise you and the reader by speaking for themselves.

Good luck.

An Interview with Joni Tevis

14 May
Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis' essay collection, The World Is On Fire, "fiercely, startlingly bright."

Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis’ essay collection, The World Is On Fire, “fiercely, startlingly bright.”

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection, and, most recently, The World Is On Fire. She has worked as a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, and her nonfiction has been published in Oxford American, Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

To read an exercise on writing with Keats’ negative capability Tevis’ essay, “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” click here.

For this interview, Tevis wrote about the inspiration behind her essay in what is perhaps the most detailed recollection of a writer’s zigzagging mental process that you’ll ever read.

Michael Noll

This is such a wide-ranging essay: Fairyland Caverns, the nuclear test in New Mexico, Rip Van Winkle, the preacher from your childhood, and a Civil War battle. The connections made complete sense as I read the essay, but I was also aware that these were connections that you made. They weren’t simply lying around, ready to be reported on. So, I’m curious about the origin of the essay. How did you begin making associations between these very different stories and events and places? How did you keep so many balls in the air without letting them drop? Was it difficult to keep the connections straight in your head as you worked?

Joni Tevis

I like to start research for an essay by going somewhere that intrigues me and just seeing what I can see. This essay began that way; I remembered Rock City from my childhood and went back for a visit as an adult, with the idea of writing about it. For me, this impulse isn’t primarily rational. I might not know why a place or idea or image appeals to me, but I try not to question that, at least initially. I’ll just go and see what’s there.

So I tried to approach the visit with a very porous mind and took notes on everything I noticed there, from the stuff in the gift shop, to the painted barns and handmade signs along the road up the mountain, to the recorded music and running water within Fairyland Caverns. And I’ll add that even though I like to start essays via this travel experience process, sometimes that impulse doesn’t lead anywhere—I have plenty of dead-end trip notes languishing in my notebooks. But you just never know what you might find.

The big surprise on that trip was the black light in the Caverns. I hadn’t remembered that at all, and I found it unsettling—the juxtaposition of childhood scenes with this very trippy light, light that we associate with drug culture. How to make sense of it? When I discovered that the sculptor who created those scenes did much of her work in the late 1940s, I made the connection to early atomic history, a period that had long fascinated me.

The Day The Sun Rose Twice has been called "definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left."

The Day the Sun Rose Twice has been called “definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left.”

And this is where the traditional research component came in. I was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time and had access to the terrific libraries there. One day I was browsing the stacks when I saw The Day The Sun Rose Twice, a great book about the Manhattan Project and the Trinity explosion. The book pulled me—in a not-fully-rational way, the same way that the impulse to revisit Rock City had been. I couldn’t put the book down. It hit me that when I had been a child, worrying about the end-times sermons on Sundays, I was also worrying about the reports I heard on the evening news, about nuclear tensions with the Soviets. So that led me to more research about the Trinity test—which led, in turn, to a visit to the Atomic History Museum, out in Albuquerque—and then to archival research about the woman who created the scenes at Fairyland Caverns.

I traced some of the other stories from the Caverns back—that’s where the Rip Van Winkle research came in, and by moving back in historical time, I read more about the Civil War battle that had taken place on Lookout Mountain sixty years before Rock City was created. Research about the material culture of the place led me to the See Rock City barns that had helped to advertise it. And what had many of those those barns held? Tobacco leaves, which were fascinating to research as well.

Someone painted the barns. Someone planned the scenes in the caverns, poured the plaster. Someone even now changes the black lightbulbs. Just like someone built the bomb. I’m satisfied with the essay now in part because it draws attention to the things we make, and the meaning we make with those things. And I think it evokes this sense of “living in a haunted world” with which the rest of the book also grapples—the reality that we’re not the first to step onto this patch of ground or handle this clay or stone, and that by examining the relics and words that our forebears left us, we can live in a more deep, enriched way.

May 2015

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

How to Write Complex Characters

17 Mar
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. See how quickly I’m able to sum up those first sentences? The essay could work at the level of the categories I just created and still make its point. Yet something would be lost, and that something would be the people at the heart of the essay. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. If the essay proceeded from the general categories I created, those lives would be reduced. But that’s not what Watkins does. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that plays into expectation, that assumes the reader knows something already about these people.

Now, here is how Watkins moves away from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Imagine how John Steinbeck might have written this scene, the kind of plodding march he would have made toward the thematic conclusion. You can’t miss the point in any of Steinbeck’s writing or in any number of political speeches. And you can’t miss the point here, either. But the essay also allows the people at its heart to participate in the discussion. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. Another writer might have left out the line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” because it reveals that the speaker, Dontay, a man drinking vodka in a tenement, knows about corporate bailouts. It complicates the characterization of someone who is disenfranchised. These are people with thoughts and opinions of their own—and they aren’t always predictable, as Watkins later reveals:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

Good writing should hit the mark it aims for. If it has a point, it should make it. But the writing shouldn’t make that point while honoring the complexity of the world it portrays.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. In a story, this point is usually dramatic: where should the drama/tension stand at the end of the scene? In an essay, this point can be dramatic or thematic. Either way, it’s important to know where you’re headed. Can you sum up the conclusion or how things stand in a phrase as easy to understand as “Too Poor for Pop Culture?”
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: I/they call us/them _____. One of those places that ______. You’re connecting the characters, and, by extension, the setting, with the knowledge or expectations that the readers bring with them.
  3. Let the characters or people speak. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. How can you let your characters or the people in your essay talk about the thing at the heart of your writing?

Good luck.

How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

11 Nov
Kerry Howley's "Cold Water in Texas" portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros' attempt to fight in spite of a broken hand.

Kerry Howley’s “Cold Water in Texas” portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros’ decision to enter a bout despite having a broken hand.

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only said? Screamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

A great model for how to handle these problems can be found in Kerry Howley’s essay, “Cold Water in Texas.” The essay is an extension of her new book Thrown, about the three years she spent with a series of mixed martial arts fighters. The essay was published at Vice Magazine‘s Fightland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay begins in the locker room with MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros and a roomful of others:

a reticent black 260-pound heavyweight champion wearing a hat that says “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” his extremely gregarious black 275-pound friend Chris in the same, a chubby Hispanic coach named Mando currently absorbed in the wrapping of Charlie’s hands, and lithe, lily-white 170-pound Charlie himself.

All of these men are trying to keep the mood light before the fight begins. Imagine the challenges of writing such a scene: at least three speakers, two with the same build and clothing, plus some cornermen and officials who haven’t even been named. If you’re writing this scene, how do you keep everyone straight? Watch how Howley does it:

The joke in the room is that when Derrick, the slow-to-speak 275-pound heavyweight who will tonight successfully defend his belt, has mounted you, the best way to get out of the situation is to come onto him.

“I just pinch his butt,” says Chris. “He jump right up and say, ‘Stop with that gay shit.’”

“I lick his ear,” someone offers.

“He talk so low you can’t hear him,” someone says of Derrick.

“He don’t talk low,” says Chris. “He talk sexy.”

“That’s some Barry White shit.”

“Some of us grew up eating animal crackers. Derrick grew up eating animals with crackers.”

Chris glides about the room as he speaks. “Do a split,” someone demands, and the 275-pound superheavyweight does a to-the-ground straddle worthy of a Texas cheerleader.

“I ain’t acting too colored,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I just watched Django before I came here is all.”

Charlie is laughing so hard he is crying, wiping tears from his cheeks.

So, how does Howley handle multiple speakers? Only one of them is named: Chris. Why? Because he’s more or less directing the banter. The other speakers are lumped into the tag someone, which puts the emphasis not on the speaker but on the subject of the dialogue: Derrick.

In other words, Chris is leading a rapid-fire conversation about Derrick, and so the focus is on Chris and Derrick. Notice how Howley, as the writer, stays out of the dialogue except to clarify things. The first sentence explains what the men are talking about. There is no other description until Chris does the splits—so, the action accompanying the dialogue has been stripped down to the most interesting moment. Howley steps in again in the next line—”I ain’t acting too colored”—in order to clarify since the conversation has jumped topics. Finally, she directs our gaze to the purpose of all this banter: Charlie and his reaction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue with more than two characters using “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley as a model:

  1. Summarize the dialogue. Think about the purpose and direction of the conversation as a whole. (If it’s an extended, even story-length piece of dialogue like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” summarize a section of dialogue.) Howley’s dialogue could be summarized this way: Chris tries to distract Charlie by leading a series of rapid-fire jokes about Derrick. Notice how the summary identifies a leader, a subject, a tone, and a purpose.
  2. Set up the subject of the dialogue with summary. A general rule for writing dialogue is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. One way to do that is to identify the good stuff and summarize what the reader needs to know in order to follow the dialogue. This is exactly what Howley does when she begins the dialogue by explaining the joke in the room—the thing that everyone is laughing about. So, tell the reader who is present and what they’re talking about. Then, write the dialogue.
  3. Identify only the character leading the dialogue. It’s almost never important to identify every speaker. If the readers understand the direction of the dialogue and who’s leading it, you can simply identify the leader’s words and use they or everyone for everything else that gets said. If you’re writing an argument, you can also divide the group into factions (men and women, kids and adults, etc) and identify the statements by faction rather than by individual.
  4. Describe only the most important or interesting action. If the only thing that a speaker does is look at the other speaker, then you probably don’t need any description; most people look at the person they’re talking to. If they’re not looking (if they’re driving, on the phone), then it can be useful to describe their actions more often. Usually, though, you can use one good description to describe the action in the scene as a whole. Howley does this by describing Chris generally (“glides about the room”) and then specifically (“does a to-the-ground straddle”). Compared to that moment, what else could be worth mentioning? The answer can be found in the final line: the reaction that the speaker is trying to get. In this case, Chris is trying to get Charlie to laugh, and the essay shows us that he succeeded. In your scene, what reaction is the speaker trying to get? Does he or she succeed? Give an answer with description.
  5. Clarify to help orient the reader. Dialogue doesn’t always move in a straight line; in fact, good dialogue often doesn’t move directly from Point A to Point B. When it switches subject or tone, it’s often necessary to cue the reader to the change by giving a brief description of what has changed. Howley does this when she writes that Chris has changed subject “apropos of nothing in particular.”

Once you summarize the dialogue and understand who is driving it forward and what their aim is, you may find it easier to identify who said what and how they said it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jess Stoner

9 Oct
Jess Stoner's essay, "Blues on Wheels," about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired hundreds of postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner’s essay, “Blues on Wheels,” about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired many postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Her work has been published in The Morning News, The Rumpus, Burnt Orange Report, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Colorado and previously lived in Austin, where she worked for the United States Postal Service. Stoner wrote about the illegal and abusive labor practices that she experienced as a postal carrier in the essay “Blues on Wheels.”

To read “Blues on Wheels” and an exercise on writing for a hostile audience, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay contains so many stories of abuse and working conditions that are not only unsafe but illegal. How did you know where to begin telling them? When there is so much to tell, how do you figure out what to put in the essay, what to leave out, and how to organize the stories and details that you choose to include?

Jess Stoner

The most important thing I did, for myself, was wait a few months after I quit to even think about putting anything coherent together. I needed some emotional distance, because I knew it had to be bigger than just “The Post Office is the worst! Feel bad for me!”

Once we moved from Texas to Colorado, I had even more breathing room, and I started researching the history of the USPS.  It wasn’t until after I had read hundreds of posts on postal worker forums and a few books, including Mailman, USA, written by a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, that I started to truly understand my experience as a part of a larger narrative.

One thing I knew for certain was that no one outside the USPS understands what the job is like—that’s such a lonely space to inhabit seven days a week. In addition, a fantastic editor I worked with at The Morning News, Rosecrans Baldwin, encouraged me to include not just the micro details (like what a typical morning looks like) but the macro (the historical and political) as well.

I was finally ready to finish the essay after telling a friend about the 40,000 words I had written. His response was: “That’s not an essay, that’s a book.” And that simple answer was so freeing. So maybe I wouldn’t talk about how letter carriers see and feel a city changing in unique ways (a house is torn down and three duplexes are built in its space—multiplying by six the amount of mail and packages you have to deliver); but it could still be a chapter in the book.

Michael Noll

The Dallas Morning News reported that "one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature."

The Dallas Morning News reported that “one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature.”

You mention that Texas, where you worked, is a right-to-work state, which means the power of unions is severely limited. Texas is not alone; it’s one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which is not surprising. Generally speaking, Americans are not particularly sympathetic to issues of worker safety or abuse. Perhaps it’s due to that old Protestant work ethic: work hard, don’t complain. Or perhaps it’s a result of the poor economy; when so many people are out of work or underemployed, they may have little interest in hearing complains from people with jobs. It seemed that you had these attitudes in mind as you wrote. For instance, you mention your work ethic, which was instilled by your lower middle class background. You remind readers that you could have quit if you wanted to; the job wasn’t a matter of avoiding destitution. I’m curious when these passages entered the essay. Where they always present? Did you have the readers’ skepticism in mind from the beginning? Or did you add them later after getting some initial feedback?

Jess Stoner

It wasn’t just the reader’s skepticism I was worried about; I was worried the entire time I worked at the Post Office that my colleagues would think I wasn’t cut out for the job. It meant everything to me to work hard and earn their respect.

And I was even more worried, from the very first day of training, that if my colleagues knew my background, they would think I accepted the position as an experiment, as fodder for something I’d write about later. In reality, I was proud to deliver the mail, and for the first two months or so, I naively hoped that it would be the last job I ever had.

You know, we hear a lot about the dignity of work. Politicians from the left and right, including President Obama, talk about how a job gives you dignity. I call bullshit. The people I worked with at the Post Office were good parents and grandparents; they were veterans; some of them talked about their strong faith—they all have an innate dignity that has nothing to do with how they earn a paycheck. From them, from my own experiences, and from the experiences of my friends who work at chain restaurants or are sales clerks at big box retailers, I have learned an incredibly important lesson: Work is just what millions of Americans do, despite the indignity.

The Texas Tribune's series "Hurting for Work" reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed "The Texas Miracle."

The Texas Tribune’s series “Hurting for Work” reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed “The Texas Miracle.”

I mean, for Christ’s sake, the Austin City Council had to pass an ordinance requiring employers to give construction workers rest breaks. According to The Dallas Morning News, one out of every three construction workers in Dallas isn’t allowed to take a water break—even when it’s 110 degrees outside. The Texas Tribune did an excellent, and, I think, award-deserving series called “Hurting for Work,” that details the terrible conditions workers face throughout the state. That more people aren’t horrified and publicly demanding change makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Michael Noll

At one point, you describe getting bit by a dog (unleashed, unfenced), and your supervisor’s reaction was, “You’re probably going to get fired.” I can only imagine how incensed and upset you must have been at this. How were you able to control those emotions to write about the incident? Was it a matter of letting some time pass? Or did you use some other strategy to direct your anger?

Jess Stoner

In the moment I was blown away—my vision and mind went white—I felt like I had Saramago’s blindness. I had known, mostly only theoretically, of workman’s comp laws, of OSHA rules—they don’t exactly come up in faculty meetings and I hadn’t worked outside of a university, the state government, or a non-profit in years. I assumed that these laws existed and they were respected. Beyond my initial bewilderment and subsequent anger, I felt, more than anything, beaten down and depressed.

For weeks and months after I quit, I felt a strangling guilt over the fact that I had given up, that I could give up, that I abandoned the carriers and CCAs I worked with who had been so kind and supportive. I had to shake that off though. I had the privilege of walking away. Now what was I going to do with it?

Michael Noll

This essay falls into the long tradition of muckraker journalism: from Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat packing industry to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, about the conditions faced by the working poor. As such, it’s making highly critical claims about not only the USPS as a whole but also individual employees who behaved badly. Did you have concerns about legal repercussions of publishing the essay—libel, for instance? I know that you changed the names of the people involved, but I’m curious what other steps you may have taken to protect yourself from lawsuits or other legal retribution.

Jess Stoner

I’m beyond flattered that you consider my essay in concert with Ehrenreich—whose book I, coincidentally, re-read when I was writing the essay—the margins are full of my notes (like that part about why many low-paid workers get real pleasure from their short cigarette breaks: “Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.”). Nickle and Dimed, in so many ways, is even more depressing to read now; since its publication in 2001, workers are barely making more per hour, and, as we approach a divisive midterm election and are heading into 2016, so few are talking about the burden of affordable housing—which is a huge part of the book.

I have heard from a number of supervisors since the essay was published, and I realize that in my book, I need to include their experiences—because they’re under terrible pressure as well. One thing I regret is cutting a few lines about my supervisor. While I couldn’t predict when the day would go bad, we started each day off with a hospitable “Good Morning,” and no matter what happened afterward, I appreciated that. On my last day, when I had to come back early from a route because my back was so messed up I couldn’t breathe, she happened to be in the office, visiting from her new station, and she was phenomenal—didn’t yell at me, recognized that I needed immediate medical attention. I was so grateful she was there and not the district supervisor.

As for libel, while I’m not thinking, “Come at me bro,” everything I wrote was true, and if I were threatened with legal action, I think the USPS might have to deal with the Streisand Effect. Since the article was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from carriers, clerks, maintenance workers, and even people who work in upper management, who wrote to thank me for sharing my story, because theirs are all too similar. Many have signed their emails, “Too afraid to give my name,” and while I understand why they would do so, it both breaks my heart and encourages me to continue my work.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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