Tag Archives: Melissa Stephenson

An Interview with Melissa Stephenson

21 Apr
Melissa Stephenson wrote about running and single-parenting in her Washington Post essay, "As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me."

Melissa Stephenson wrote about running and single-parenting in her Washington Post essay, “As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me.”

Melissa Stephenson lives, runs, parents, and writes in Missoula, Montana. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have previously appeared in Cutbank, Other Voices, Thin Air, The Chattahoochee Review, New South, Memoir (and), The Mid American Review, and Passages North. She’s currently hard at work completing a collection of poems and revising her memoir.

To read an exercise about showing and telling, click here.

In this interview, Stephenson discusses finding the structure of her essay, why “less is more” can convey more emotion, and how her poetry informs her nonfiction.

Michael Noll

Structure is a problem for any personal essayist, I think, and so I’m interested in how you found the structure for this essay. It begins by laying out the conflict—you were going through a difficult period in your life but needed to keep it together for your kids—and the solution to the conflict, which was running. Then, you tell a story about your second marathon. Did you always use this structure–front loading context and finishing with the narrative? If not, what helped you find it?

Melissa Stephenson

Inspired by Ann Hood’s essay “Ten Things I Learned from Knitting,” I tried to write a piece about running and grief a couple of years ago. Hood writes about knitting her way through grief after her young daughter’s sudden death. After a attempting to use the Ten Things structure, I shelved the piece. It felt long, lofty, and unruly. A few months after running my second marathon, I came across a call for essay submissions about “badass moms.” I hadn’t written for any parenting publications, and I didn’t necessarily want to. But the prompt got me thinking about using the second marathon as the structure for the essay on running and grief. My goal in the first paragraph was to introduce the connection between grief and running in a concise and concrete way. Once I got that paragraph down, I simply had to write to and through the narrative of the marathon.

Michael Noll

This sentence really affected me:

“The next summer, I completed my first full marathon on my daughter’s fifth birthday, crossing the finish line to drive myself home.”

The emotion in it is clear, and so it makes sense to give the sentence its own paragraph—to make it stand out. But it’s also quite spare in terms of detail. We don’t learn anything else about the birthday, nothing about a party or a cake or celebration, nothing else about how you felt except your time. Were you ever tempted to write more? I ask because the question of how much detail to provide—and which details—is a difficult one. What was your guiding principle?

Melissa Stephenson

Haruki Murakami wrote about the connections between running and writing in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Haruki Murakami wrote about the connections between running and writing in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

There are a couple of reasons why this moment is so sparse.

  1. Once I had a draft of this essay, I realized the length and content would work well for an online publication, so compression was key. Most of the bigger online personal narrative publishers, like Washington Post or New York Times, prefer 800-1200 word pieces. I made many cuts in favor of economy.
  2. I also wanted to capture the anti-climactic feeling I had with the half marathon and the first full marathon. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami describes his first marathon finish this way, “The finish line. I finally reached the end. Strangely, I have no feeling of accomplishment. The only thing I feel is utter relief that I don’t have to run anymore.” I felt this, too. I lived in a town without family, raising two kids with almost sole custody, and I woke up most days stunned by this new, isolated life. I’d imagined the finish line as a giant party, full of familiar faces, hugs, and cheers. Truth is most of my friends were home with children. One friend did show up to the finish line, but I was too nauseous to talk to her. And I wore a t-shirt with the words, Happy Birthday Hadley on the back, which is something my daughter still talks about. But I finished with this deep, hollow feeling, like walking around with the Grand Canyon inside you. That single line seemed the simplest way to capture that.

Michael Noll

The story of the second marathon fills a number of paragraphs, and, as someone who’s run a marathon (just one, though!), I understand how this is possible. The race is so long that it has many stages and points along a narrative arc. On the other hand, the action is sort of the same throughout: running, more running, suffering, a bit of ecstasy, and more suffering. How did you approach finding the narrative within the race?

Melissa Stephenson

This is the one section I’m surprised the Washington Post editor did not trim. Since I’d set out wanting to tell the story of that marathon, I naturally went into it in detail. I knew this decision meant narrowing my target audience to runners (a 4:12 marathon finish doesn’t mean much to those who haven’t run a race of some sort).  I did tweak this section many times to make it concise and also as non-runner-friendly as possible.

The second marathon was so important because it’s the event that finally captured the ups and downs of the past few years all in the span of four hours. I didn’t truly know why I was running (and kept running) until that marathon. The only thing that got me through was the gut-deep feeling that I had something to prove to myself, though I wouldn’t know exactly what that was until I finished the essay.

Michael Noll

I really like how the essay ends, both the line of dialogue and the final paragraph. Endings are difficult in personal essays. There’s a desire to wrap it up–to put a kind of emotional exclamation mark at the end. But there’s also the need to not overdo it. How did you know when you’d found the right end for this essay?

Melissa Stephenson

Writing this ending was a pretty divine experience in that I’d planted the seeds for it as I drafted but had no idea what the ending would be until I got there (aside from finishing the marathon). I never intended to include my brother’s death in this piece. I’ve been working on a memoir about that for a few years now, and I try to keep it from leaking into my other work. But once grief was on the plate, I realized why grieving as sole caretaker of two young children left no room for self-pity or solitude, and how running helped me deal with that.

I also didn’t include the words I’d whispered to my children on first mention of that moment because I thought they weren’t important to the essay. Once I made it to the end and wrote the line about the things I’m ashamed they might remember, I saw the opening for what I’d told them. As soon as I wrote, “This is what not quitting looks like,” I saw the connections I’d made without knowing it: My brother quit, my life hadn’t turned out the way I’d expected, and running helped me not quit. That’s when I truly understood the essay, myself, and the running.

On a nuts-and-bolts note, I’m a poet as well, and I love writing endings. Once the content is there, endings become a mix of cadence, imagery, and releasing just enough insight without (as you wisely note) overdoing it. I’ll write them, tweak them, and read them out loud until each word resonates. Then I’ll go back and tweak the whole essay to make sure the information is released in a way that makes the ending feel as surprising and inevitable as possible.

April 2016

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

How to Use Showing and Telling in a Personal Essay

19 Apr
In this essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with being a single mom

In her essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with the stress of being a single mom.

The personal essay genre can be found across the Internet and in print magazines, and because of these many outlets, the form has given writers from many different backgrounds and experiences the chance to tell their stories. These many voices have led to a lot of innovation within the genre, yet when I teach structure in the personal essay, I try to show how almost every essay contains certain elements: a narrative, sure, but also passages revealing context (explaining how the reader should understand the narrative) and emotional importance (showing why the narrative matters to the people involved). The question becomes this: How does a writer weight each of these elements and arrange them? What is the focus of the essay?

A great place to find one answer to these questions is Melissa Stephenson’s essay, “As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me.” It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins by introducing two clear problems: 1) the writer is a newly single mom and in need of a way to manage the stress of the situation, and 2) her preferred coping mechanism, running, has become difficult due to knee pain. Then, the essay gives context for this situation. In the past, she dealt with problems in a particular way (“I drank too much, stayed up late listening to music, cried when I wanted and left the house for hours on a whim.”). Now, though, that approach isn’t possible because she has kids. She doesn’t have “the luxury of falling apart.”

We’re mostly not shown this information but, rather, told it. This runs counter to one of the basic workshop lessons: show, don’t tell. Yet this is impractical advice. Telling is essential to storytelling (see what I did there?). The opening of the essay grabs our attention through statements of fact—facts that that reveal the conflict faced by the writer.

The essay continues telling us things, most importantly that Stephenson continues running but also seeks medical care, eventually entering and finishing a half marathon. It’s a moment that reveals the emotional importance of the essay: “No one came to meet me at the finish line. Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.”

But this moment comes only a third of the way into the essay. Most of the attention is paid to Stephenson’s second marathon and the successes and challenges she encounters during it. Here’s why this is interesting from a craft standpoint: for the most part, we don’t learn anything in the course of the race that don’t already know. She needs to run, experiences pain, and fights through it, all of which we’ve already been told. What the race does, then, is show us Stephenson’s experience of these things. It’s one thing to tell a reader that you need to run and are willing to fight through pain and sorrow to do it, but it’s quite another to show it.

And what gets shown? Details of the pain and race but also details of Stephenson’s thoughts during the pain:

That familiar tightening seized my right knee — a pain I’d spent three years eradicating. For an entire mile I processed a single, circular thought: Is that my knee? No. It’s just a glitch. I’m just settling in. But wait. That is my knee. Is that my hip? And my knee?

Showing doesn’t only mean descriptions of setting and character. It can also mean simply slowing down, settling into a moment.

Stephenson uses telling to set up the conflict that she intends to show the reader. Without the telling, the reader might not care as much about the marathon, and without the showing, the essay would lose a great deal of emotional punch. Both are necessary.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use showing and telling to set up and dramatize a narrative:

  1. Introduce a problem and solution. Stephenson does this in both her title and first paragraph. Try using her title as a model: “As a ___, I couldn’t ____ (or needed to ____). ___ saved me.” While Stephenson was writing a personal essay, this exercise can work with fiction as well, even third-person stories.
  2. Introduce a problem with the solution. Stephenson’s solution is running, but her knee hurts. We don’t get a lot of details about it at the beginning, only that it involves arthritic pain. More detail—showing the reader this pain—wouldn’t really advance the essay at this point. The point is that the pain makes it difficult to run. So, introduce something that makes your solution difficult to pursue. Don’t worry about describing it in detail.
  3. Introduce emotional importance. Stephenson does this with a statement of fact—”No one came to meet me at the finish line”—and a direct statement of what that fact meant to her: “Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.” So, find a moment or fact that clearly conveys a clear emotion. Stephenson felt alone. The feeling was so profound that she was forced to grapple with it. How do you—or your character—grapple with the emotional fact?
  4. Use a narrative to show everything you’ve introduced. So far, we’ve been telling the reader things. Now it’s time to show the reader. Stephenson does this with a blow-by-blow account of her second marathon. It presents the problem and solution and obstacle (pain) in detail and also gives her thought process as she experienced each one. Earlier, she was telling the reader what the situation is, but now she is showing what the situation felt like. So, find a narrative (an extended story or an anecdote) that can be told with descriptions of exterior and interior details that will show your readers everything you just told them.

The goal is to use telling to establish a situation (problem, solution, obstacles) and then to use showing to reveal the what the situation felt like—the experience of it.

Good luck.

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