Tag Archives: How to Write an Essay

How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

19 Aug
Janet Stickmon's book, Midnight Peaches, Two O'Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

Janet Stickmon’s book, Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.

How the Essay Works

In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”

That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.

This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.

She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:

Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”

The second is a form of English:

Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.

With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:

My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.

The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).

The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:

I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.

Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:

  1. Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
  2. Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
  3. Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
  4. Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.

This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Kelly Davio

14 Aug
Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor for Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collection, Burn This House, and the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling. She is also the associate poetry editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal and a former managing editor at Los Angeles Review. She lives in Seattle and works as an instructor of English as a Second Language. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published recently 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.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

12 Aug
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 recent 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 Story 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 Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

An Interview with Victor Giannini

9 Jan
Vic G Bio Pic 07

Victor Giannini is the author of Scott Too, which has been compared to “the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick, and the magical realism of Jose Saramago” by novelist Kaylie Jones.

Victor Giannini is the author of the novella Scott Too and the forthcoming novel Counselor. His writing has appeared at Carrier Pigeon, The Southampton Review, Narratively, (a)Bonac, and Silverthought Press’ IPPY winning anthologies: Silverthought: Ignition and Thank You Death Robot. His art has been featured by various magazines, clothing companies, and skateboard shops.

In this interview, Giannini talks about finding the right frame for a story, the role of pain in writing a personal essay, and why not all facts are necessary to convey the truth.

To read “His Living Room’s a Jungle” and an exercise on using transitions to move through time, click here.

Michael Noll

“His Living Room’s a Jungle” tells a story that spans your entire lifetime and, really, reaches back before you were born. A story that like presents certain challenges, such as how do you, in terms of pure mechanics, move between and link events that occurred in very different time periods. What was your approach to this problem?

Victor Giannini

My first and only idea was this: My father is the center of the story, and I wanted to approach him through my subjective experience. This allowed me an honesty and self-deprecation that balanced out factual errors or emotional wounds.

So I needed to nail the mechanics before I fleshed out the narrative, and it took a few days of writing in my head to find the right flow, like a song with the verses and chorus in the correct places. Memory was the greatest advantage, because at their core, memories are stories. I could slip in and out of memory to find the thematic thread for this story, but that took a few revisions.

The biggest challenge was how to get to the end, which was already set from the moment I pitched the article. The end became the beginning, so it framed the story as a circular piece with nearly linear sequences broken up by flashes to ‘now’ as transitions. The storms and rain were key, and once I moved that idea up front, it allowed me to continue in a more or less linear fashion with the memories.

Handpicking the most dense and condensed memories, with appropriate transitions, became the final puzzle to solve. My memory is highly evocative, if not perfect, meaning I can remember a moment, relive it, even who I was and how I perceived life at the time.

It’s a funny map in my head…start with a scene that sets theme, jump to a scene establishing my narrative reliability (emotionally honest at best), and then, since I was the lens to see my father, jump to the earliest moment I could remember regarding his time in Vietnam, and then work my way back to the opening scene, revealing far more along the way. Throughout the many revisions, which were based on my editor’s questions and suggestions, the framing remained intact as I wrote, rewrote, rewrote, revised, and then cut, cut, cut, all the while keeping that vital key: the framing device, which I view as the frame of a house. When that is confidently set, then it came time to sit down and fill the rooms, so to speak.

Michael Noll

How did you find this framing device (you and your father watching a storm that happened recently, which reminds you of another storm that happened when you were thirteen years old and discovered something about your father)? On one hand, it works the way that our memories really do work, sliding back and forth between past and present. On the other hand, there were probably other intimate, in-scene moments that you could started with–including the scene that you remember when you learn that storms always bring your father vivid reminders of his time in Vietnam. How did you figure out which opening would work best?

Victor Giannini

From the start, I always knew I’d start “today”, me 30 years old and my father at 70.

The theme of rain and storms, making my father slip back in time, and my knowledge of that, gave me the structure I needed to leap back and forth in time as needed. It was an intuitive thing, one of those ideas that wake you up in the night and you just feel confident in it. That was my initial pitch to Narratively.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini, a relationship that is the subject of “His Living Room’s a Jungle”

Starting “today”, with the storms as a device to link memories across time to “today”, allowed me to hook the reader in with just a bit of mystery and drama, and then slip into that night of interaction and revelation, and back to “today’s storm”, where there is no overt interaction. Now the reader knew that the main subject, my father, would be seen from a lens that can be factually shaky, but emotionally true.

The transitions between these scenes, past to present, memory to now, back again, are the most vital technical aspect. They needed to work on three levels: Functional to the frame as a whole, factual regarding what needs to be known at that narrative moment, and most importantly, emotionally: the transitions making sense that I would take you from “here” to “today” without breaking the flow. If I couldn’t nail the transitions in a very natural way, one that engaged the reader to continue without becoming a road bump, it’d all fall apart. I began to think of them as the last sentence of each chapter. One that gives closure to the section, and a hook to the next.

The only way to figure those out was revision. Thankfully I had a great editor to look at three of the eight versions I wrote. It took constant revision, keeping the focus on my father while still going back into my own mind, finding the most honest way to weave our lives together in service to the main theme, while maintaining emotional honesty.

 Michael Noll

How long have you been thinking about this essay—either working on it or just thinking about how you’d approach it? It seems like a story you might have been shaping and thinking about for a long time, and I wonder what finally clicked and allowed you to write it.

Victor Giannini

What finally clicked … fear. And pain.

Pain for every “character” in the article became the shared theme in which to view every event: Myself as naïve, selfish, expressive, the aftermath for my father and my family … I knew that I was on the right path when I became afraid to publish it. When I became truly afraid, not for portraying myself as imperfect, but for my father, who I treasure deeply, I knew I’d nailed it. Becoming afraid to accidentally misrepresent us was when I knew this story NEEDED to be told, rather than just me wanting to impress people. I was terrified right up until publication. But it was the right kind of fear. It meant I was honest with my reader, myself … and my father.

Victor Giannini's novella, Scott, Too, "echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago."

Victor Giannini’s novella, Scott Too, from Silverthoght Press, “echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago.”

As for how long it took…ever since I started writing at 15, I knew someday some aspect of his story must be told. So this particular essay was written for Narratively, and the editor wanted a “veteran story” that was unlike any he’d seen before. Given the non-fiction genre (I write fiction primarily), the greatest challenge was not what to put in, but rather what content to cut out. So I forgot about word count, took off all the restraints, off and wrote a version that was three times as long.

That allowed me to cut, cut, move, revise, which I believe are the key aspects to writing. Well, at least for me. Just let it all out. Be human. Then become an author, go back and revise everything to embrace the narrative. So the initial idea was always there for over a decade, the structural one was immediate, something from my subconscious, and the task of writing actually writing it took over a month. Actually, the context of it being a public article with a set word count was a great constraint during the entire process, even though I initially broke that constraint. Thankfully, my editor provided helpful questions and comments which led me down the path of what to cut, and what tiny parts to put in that weren’t there.

Michael Noll

Your father is publishing a memoir that will, presumably, cover some of this same material. How did that affect your writing of this essay. You’re using your perspective on your father as the lens for understanding him, and sometimes when writers do this, they worry that the lens is too strong–that they’re, in fact, writing more about themselves than about the other person. Did you ever find yourself checking to see if your memories were accurate? Or did the fact that your father was writing his own story free you up to write yours?

Victor Giannini

Bit of a mixture. Knowing my father was writing his own memoir allowed me to leave many facts, many amazing stories, for him to tell. That memoir is his life, his story. That was a huge burden taken off my shoulders, so I could focus on a subjective view of a veteran rather than a historical view.

I allowed myself to write about myself because, in a way, as long as my thoughts were focused on him, he is the main character, and I remain the narrator. This article is still about him but from my perspective. His own writing fills in all of the things I merely list. In a way they compliment each other, so a massive amount of information about his time in Vietnam was “allowed” to be truncated for me. I knew he’d reveal it all, in his own words. At times I did feel I was writing more about myself, but I waited for the revision process, when I had a break and a clear set of eyes to steer my way back towards him. That often meant cutting any ponderings or flowery prose, however pleased I was, that were merely my reactions to my own memories. Then focus the lens back on him.

As for fact checking … I was afraid to do so until the very final draft. To find out what I was right or wrong about outside my experience would skew my memories and emotions. Much of what I learned from my mother was at the last minute. Things that aren’t in the article, regarding my half-brother, my mother, and so on. But it’d be dishonest to force them into the final draft.

My father knew of the project, but I never showed him it. I was afraid it would taint the embarrassing, brutal, honesty that I’d finally cut the piece down to. New information about the past didn’t enhance the narrative at all. It castrated it, because from my point of view…those things didn’t happen. Knowing my father is writing his own memoir absolutely freed me to write honestly, “right or wrong”. Looking back…I’d say that’s actually the most important aspect. I could never write this article, showing him as both a veteran and a man, without the real life assurance that he’d be showing himself through his own memoirs. A strange case of life impacting art, and art reflecting life. This was a true challenge to write, and I’m happy and grateful that I was given the chance.

January 2014

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

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