Tag Archives: memoir

An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll


Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

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

An Interview with Paige Schilt

27 Feb


Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Dr. Paige Schilt is a writer, mother, teacher, activist and band wife. Her stories have appeared on The Bilerico Project, Offbeat Families, Mutha Magazine and Brain, Child. She is a frequent speaker and facilitator at conferences, including Gender Odyssey, Contemporary Relationships, Creating Change and Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. Schist is married to Katy Koonce, frontman for the band Butch County. They live in Austin, Texas, with their son.

To read an excerpt from Queer Rock Love and an exercise on structuring a character’s internal conflict around action, click here.

Michael Noll

Queer Rock Love covers a lot of years, starting literally at the births of you and Katy and moving far beyond the falling-in-love and getting-married part of your story together. How did you approach the book’s structure? Or, to put it another way, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the book?

Paige Schilt

I wish I had a smart answer to this question. The truth is, many of the chapters in Queer Rock Love originated as blog posts for The Bilerico Project. In fact, the last few chapters were among the first stories that I wrote. As a result, I struggled for a long time to find the plot. I knew that I wanted to write against the typical transgender partner narrative, which tends to portray coming out as the crisis and surgery or transition as the resolution. That led me to begin with the moment I first saw my wife in a full beard and prosthetic man chest—not because it was love at first sight (which it was), but because there would be no secrets to reveal about her trans status.

I also knew that I wanted to write about the imbrication of life and death, and that Katy’s struggle with hepatitis C would unfold in the context of our son’s infancy. Writing about hepatitis C was a challenge, because chronic illness doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable crisis. It’s more like a miasma, which is what makes it so oppressive. I had to think a lot about how much sickness I thought my readers could handle. I ended up leaving out certain medical events, which continues to be a bone of contention in my marriage! That’s something you rarely hear memoirists talk about—the possibility that the people you wrote about will dwell on the details you didn’t tell.

Michael Noll

In her review of the book, Marion Winik points out that you don’t do “a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues.” On one hand, this seems like a natural choice since the story you’re telling isn’t exactly theoretical: it’s about love and marriage and the challenges that married people face all over the world. On the other hand, it’s a love story that is new to a lot of people—and you’re an academic who name drops Lacan, so the language of theory is one you’re intimately familiar and comfortable with. How difficult was it to find your voice in this memoir?

Paige Schilt

Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

I started writing these stories in 2008, and I didn’t finish the book until 2015, so I had a lot of time to transform my voice. I was teaching LGBT film studies for a large part of those years, and the book is informed by my readings of Jack Halberstam, Eve Sedgwick, José Munoz, and many others. At first, I was tempted to plunk down a quotation from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in my chapter on breast feeding. Now that I’ve read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I feel like I could have indulged that impulse a bit more. At the same time, the fellow writers in my writing workshop tended to feel like I was losing the thread of the story when I made theoretical asides. In the end, I think I found a kind of compromise position. I’m proud of the section in the prologue where I write about my aversion to gender essentialism through the story of my 1970s childhood dolls, the Sunshine family. I think the key is helping the reader feel what’s at stake, in a personal way, with theoretical ideas.

Michael Noll

Going along with the lack of theoretical heavy lifting, I love the way that you mix action with interiority. So, for example, you start a chapter with buying a duplex rather than thoughts about your relationship. Did these scenes and moments come together naturally in your writing, or did you have to realize, oh yeah, that happened and it’s a good opportunity to write about what I was thinking at the time?

Paige Schilt

I didn’t think specifically about mixing action with interiority, but I did think a lot about pacing and economy. And I do experience my inner life as a dynamic dialogue with ideas and people and things. For instance, the moment when I realize that Katy has thrush because I’ve read about the symptoms in AIDS memoirs—I literally did have that sense of recognition. Was I really rummaging through the linen closet when it came to me? I’m not sure—but I needed to place that realization in a context of collecting extra toiletries for Katrina survivors, because I wanted our personal tragedy to be contextualized by the epic tragedy in New Orleans.

Michael Noll

I was recently at the AWP conference, moderating a panel on writing about class, and I asked the panelists how they handle perceived or real exoticism in their work—details that seem shocking or weird to some readers but are just part of the fabric of life for the characters or narrator. As a writer, how do you use those details to maximum effect and hook the reader but also portray them as they seem to the people involved with them. I thought of this again with your book. In an interview in OutSmart, you write about pitching the book to editors and agents, who wanted a more “tragic, sensational story.” The title of the memoir seems to accomplish two things. It’s probably pretty eye-catching to some readers, but it’s also an accurate, unembellished description of the book. Was it difficult to pull off both at once?

Paige Schilt

I think this connects back to the question of plot. A lot of transgender partner or family narratives focus on surgery or physical modifications to the body. I wanted to write matter-of-factly and informatively about Katy’s chest surgery and other potentially sensational matters, including how we conceived our son. In those chapters, my imagined readers are other gender nonconforming families like ourselves, those who might need some roadmaps for this unorthodox journey. At the same time, I didn’t want our family life to be reduced to just that one thing, because I wanted to portray the complexity of our life. In the end, I think that’s what compels most readers. They find some other aspect of our lives that they identify with. A lot of readers write to me because they have also nursed someone through a long illness and they’re glad that I wrote about how hard it is to be a caregiver.

Some of my mentors cautioned me not to put the word “queer” in the title. For a long time, I thought Queer Rock Love was just my working title, but then it stuck. The phrase comes from the song “Dyke Hag” by the band Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, who also appear in the book. The song is a celebration of queer creative community and the non-nuclear-family ties that bind. When I was writing the book, the title was like a string around my finger, reminding me to always keep the big picture of queer community in mind, even as I was writing about marriage and parenting. In other words, this iteration of “queer” is less about the (possibly sensational) subject of who you have sex with. It’s about community.

February 2017

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

An Interview with Angela Palm

1 Dec
Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine.

Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here.

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She is the editor of a book featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove. She has taught creative writing at Champlain College, New England Young Writers’ Conference, The Writers’ Barn, and The Renegade Writers’ Collective and is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship in nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Creative NonfictionEcotoneAt Length MagazineBrevity, DIAGRAM, Essay DailyPaper Dartsapt, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hippocampus MagazineMidwestern Gothic, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and Sundog Lit. She was raised in the rural Midwest and lives in Vermont.

To read an excerpt from Riverine and an exercise on writing expansively, click here.

In this interview, Palm discusses finding the thread in connected essays, moving beyond the self in memoir, and what it means to be a Midwestern writer.

Michael Noll

Early in Riverine, you write about visiting your riverside home years after leaving it:

“The road had  anew name, the one-way arrow of time expanding here as it was anywhere else on Earth, but the defining entropy of the place was the same. There was no aftermath through which I could proceed as story, as I’d hoped for—no obvious tale waiting to be told.”

This passage encapsulates what I think a lot of people feel as they begin to write their own stories, whether it’s through essay or memoir. What was the moment that happened—in a draft or in your head—that showed you the way into the story?

Angela Palm

I had written four standalone essays in which the landscape of my home featured prominently as metaphor and as setting. I knew the river would be one of the main threads that stitched the different pieces together. I also knew that Corey’s crime was the central narrative hook. But I needed more. Those pieces alone didn’t make a book, didn’t organize a book, so I began doing some research and found different maps of the Kankakee Marsh from different time periods. Mapping—my obsession with its accuracies and inaccuracies, with its erasure, history, and inherent limitations—became the book’s organizing principle. I would use mapping as a way to chart story, I decided, and everything began to take shape from there. It was then that I wrote the opening essays, “Map of Home,” which begins with the epigraph “Every map is a fiction,” by DJ Waldie. That essay and epigraph are a guide to the whole book.

Michael Noll

In the early scenes with your father and friends playing cards, it’s hard not to think about Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. That was a book that inspired a lot of memoirists, but it’s also 21 years old. A lot of great memoirs have been published since. Was that a book that shaped your thinking about memoir? What other memoirs were important to you in terms of craft?

Angela Palm

It’s interesting—everyone assumes my book was informed by Karr’s work. But I didn’t start reading her work until after I’d sold Riverine and in some ways I think that was for the best. I fancy myself an essayist at heart, or a writer of books that can’t commit to a subgenre. But the books most influential in writing Riverine were Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard which informed my voice in some way, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston which informed my female psyche, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson which gave me permission to mix narrative with research and science and philosophy and lyricism.

Michael Noll

Angela Palm's memoir "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir “Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

The central relationship in the book is between you and Corey, and so, naturally, there are moments when you write about him outside of the frame of your friendship. For example, at one point you write, “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when he got in trouble for taking a gun to school and stashing it in his locker.” The passage goes on to explain what happened, ending up in an intimate moment shared by both of you. But I wonder, though, about the authority in that first sentence: “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when…” Did you worry at all about stepping into a more journalistic space, writing about others, rather than the personal space of memoir/essay?

Angela Palm

Limiting myself to those personal spaces—those memories shared directly with Corey—would have resulted in an overly sympathetic and possibly sentimental rendering of story. And I didn’t want that. In order to tell the whole story, I had to move beyond myself in some places—this place in particular. No, it didn’t worry me. I was committed to tracking his transition from innocent kid to traumatized kid to juvenile delinquent to adult criminal. The event of the gun at school was part of that sequence. I spoke with him to clarify my memories of those events and to pin down the timeline. The phrasing of that paragraph combines information and my perception of that information.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how the literary geography that you place yourself within. If this book had been set in, say, rural Georgia, the word Southern would almost certainly be used in descriptions of both the book and you, its writer. Of course, it’s set in Indiana. Yet I can’t find the word Midwest used in reviews or descriptions of the book—which seems to suggest something about the Midwest as a literary place. I suppose one could say, truthfully, that it’s large and varied, but so is the South. Do you think of yourself as a Midwestern writer? Does that adjective have any meaning for you?

Angela Palm

In some sense, I do consider myself a Midwestern writer. I’ve also called myself an anti-pastoral writer. My writing sensibilities about place come almost directly from the Midwest’s landscape, its people, its history, and its specific challenges. Despite often being considered unremarkable, I find there’s plenty to say and consider and unpack, still, in the region. The connotations of anything labeled “Midwestern” are typically negative, but I reject that. It’s a place full of contradiction, full of rich identity like anywhere else. There are too many boxes to put writers in and too much time spent doing so. Midwestern writer, anti-pastoral, place-based writer? Memoirist or essayist? Advocacy journalist, true crime writer, or prose lyricist? My work has been called all of these things by different people, and still I write without thinking of how a piece might be construed or constricted by its organizational terminology.

December 2016

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

An Interview with Debra Monroe

28 Jan
Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. She is a “fierce” writer who presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews), who writes prose that’s “rangy, thoughtful, ambitious, and widely, wildly knowledgeable” (The Washington Post), also “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality” (The Boston Globe). Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award, and she’s published stories in over 50 magazines. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and The American Scholar, and have been cited for Best American Essays. Her most recent book is the memoir My Unsentimental Education. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.

To read an exercise on using dialogue, inspired by an excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, click here.

In this interview, Monroe discusses juggling multiple story threads, the challenge of publishing excerpts from a book, and her approach to dialogue

Michael Noll

In “You’re in Trouble, Am I Right?“, the excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, there are several narrative arcs. On one hand, there is the story of your relationship with James, a drug dealer. There is also a narrative about trying to earn A’s and understanding your intelligence. Finally, there’s another narrative (related to the others) about becoming more independent and, for example, dressing for yourself, not others. Were all three of these arcs always present in this essay? Or, did you start with one, and as you followed the thread, the others appeared?

Debra Monroe

At this point—this is my 6th book—related ideas present themselves more or less simultaneously in early drafts. All three plot arcs were present as I began. Years of practice and years of teaching writing make me know I want several balls in the air at the same time because multiple dilemmas coalescing is good for tension and complexity. The second and third story arcs are synonymous, and the first one serves as a counterpoint. Learning to understand and refine my intelligence is not unlike learning to understand and refine my self-presentation, or what you call “dressing myself.” I was trying to be a good student with limited resources (my background made me unprepared), and I was trying to dress with panache with limited resources (no money). In both cases, I got a “D” before I started getting “A’s.” Learning to trust my gut instinct but to improve on it too, both in terms of my work as a student and in terms of how I dressed in cast-off clothing, combine to make a single arc toward self-betterment on my terms, even if it is a jagged arc full of mistakes and wrong turns before I gain a sense of direction. Being with James is the counterpoint to that. He distracts me from school; he urges me away from clothing I like and hopes I’ll dress like a rock and roll girlfriend, like arm candy. So there’s a narrative tension between self-betterment on my terms (becoming a scholar and writer with unique sensibilities) and bettering myself on his terms (becoming a standard party girl). Yet it’s not as if my version of self-improvement (a point) and James’ version (a counterpoint) don’t both make sense in the same situation. I was an outsider finding my way. One option was to go it alone. The other was to be accepted by another outsider. Stoners are more accepting than college students whose childhoods prepared them for higher education. So all three plot arcs are about finding a way to survive college, and two constitute the difficult, authentic way, and the other constitutes a retreat from the difficult, authentic way.

Michael Noll

Perhaps my favorite parts of the essay are the bits of dialogue. They’re not extended conversations, by and large. Instead, they drop us into a moment and seem to focus on revealing a character’s voice. I’m particularly taken with the voice of Kristine, the cafe owner. How do you know when to move from narration or scene to dialogue? Do you write more dialogue than you eventually need and cut the extraneous parts, or do you already have a sense for the best lines of dialogue when you begin writing?

Debra Monroe

A reviewer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote that “when Monroe highsteps through danger; it’s like watching Wonder Woman fend off attacks with her magic bracelets.”

This is memoir, of course, not fiction, but my fiction is pretty autobiographical, and my memoir is, as a reviewer noted, “novelish,” so I’ll generalize about how I do dialogue in both genres. Though I invented dialogue in fiction, I was always recalling a real person who inspired a character. And when I’m writing a memoir, a real person is generating ideas about the dialogue. To return to the dialogue with Kristine, this scene took place 30-some years ago. It’s not verbatim. I wasn’t walking around with a tape recorder on. But it’s the sort of thing she would say, and we had at least truly similar conversations. Writing good dialogue is a bit like having a knack for doing imitations, for channeling voices, for doing impressions. I think of the real person I’m depicting, or who’s informing the character I’m depicting, and I put in dialogue only the most distinctive, most unparaphraseable things they’d have said or in fact did say. I don’t give Kristine any lines of dialogue that can be paraphrased. I give her lines only Kristine would say in her singular Kristine-fashion. This isn’t so different from that tip you get in Freshman English about when to quote a source and when to paraphrase it. Paraphrase it whenever you can, and use a direct quote only when it’s so well-expressed that a paraphrase won’t do it justice. In this way, dialogue truly builds character, makes your characters distinctive.

Michael Noll

I love how you write about your drug experience. You describe the visuals of it (“I looked like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz”) but also the experience of trying to act normal while high: “The hardest part about doing drugs was the acting-upon-acting, I decided.” You go on to explain how the acting required by drug use was simply another layer added onto the acting you were already doing as you learned how to be in the world. I love this because it makes the drug use so much a part of your character as opposed to a weird, wacky tangent away from the real you. As you wrote this essay, did you have a clear sense of who you were at that time, the same as you’d need to have a clear sense of a character? Or did you discover this person named Debra as you wrote?

Debra Monroe

Did I have a clear sense of who I was at that time, or did I discover this Debra as I wrote? Both. Hindsight does give you a clear sense of who you used to be (distinct from who you are now), but once you start writing and keep the psychological register consistently deep, delving far below the surface into the perspective of your old self, that old self does become a construct, something created. To say “a construct” is not to say the old self is fake. As I dug deeper into what I’d done, I was discovering: I knew what I’d done, the ill-judged decisions I’d made, but I didn’t know the minutiae of why I’d done it, the nuances of what passed for logic then. My old self exists at a far remove from who I am today; she’s a stranger now. And you’re right that the drug use isn’t a merely ambient detail but a motif that amplifies the theme: that learning to make your way in the world is an act at first, a “fake it until you make it” act, and pretending not to be high when I was added to an already omnipresent pressure.

Michael Noll

This essay was published and then republished online, and both times it was different (mostly shorter) than the version in the book. What was your approach to adapting the essay for its online, stand-alone life? Obviously, you took out parts and moved some parts around, especially at the end. Was the biggest challenge finding a new opening and a new end?

Debra Monroe

I wrote it first as a chapter for the book. When the editor of Inside Higher Ed asked if I had a short piece about the unique anxieties of first-generation college students, I knew I wanted to include the most dramatic section of the chapter, and that was when I was doing LSD while also trying to be an A student. In the book chapter, the night of doing LSD, and the following day while coming down, occurs in the middle of the chapter. Then the chapter cuts away and depicts a condensed version of the next two years, and then, for the climax of the chapter, I flash back to the day after the LSD-taking, when I’m in the professor’s office still coming down. I’d saved that scene for the climax of the chapter, even if it was chronologically out-of-order (a flashback), because it contains the “message” about the entire chapter, that pressure about “acting-upon-acting.” For the short piece, I wanted just the LSD episode. Making an excerpt required cutting everything not pertinent to the LSD episode, so I started the excerpt as I met James, including the “first date,” then cut several more pages until I got to the week when I was writing the term paper and, afterward, doing LSD with James. Then I cut the pages that covered the next two years to move straight to the climax (a flashback in the chapter, but in chronological order in the excerpt). In the chapter, there’s an epilogue after the climax that transitions toward the chapter that follows, so I cut that too as not pertinent to the smaller story. Excerpting means deciding that inside the longer chapter is a shorter story, and chiseling away everything that isn’t germane to it. In this case, it was the LSD story. I’ve excerpted other chapters too. There’s an excerpt from the first chapter in Longreads, and that required cutting only secondary characters who didn’t pertain because it’s an excerpt from early in the book. There’s another book excerpt in Texas Monthly, a 6000-word chapter condensed to just 1500 words. There, I decided the kernel story would be “taming wildness” (in myself, my dog, on my land), and I deleted everything that didn’t pertain to that. So excerpting is finding a smaller story inside a larger story and deleting to isolate it, then finessing a few transitions. It’s tricky, but it’s easier than writing a whole new piece.

January 2016

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

How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue

13 Oct
A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, a genuine look at how "sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up."

A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, “a genuine look at how ‘sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up.'”

Good prose isn’t tied to any moment, scene, or place. A passage may be set in a bar on Friday, but the prose can move to a park on Thursday if it wants. It’s this ability to hover and jump that makes a the language of a story or essay seem dynamic. If, at any moment, the writer can take us by the hand and leap, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, into another place and time, then we always quiver with just a bit of expectation: what will the writer do next? We’re used to this quality in narration, but skillful writers can achieve the same effect in dialogue.

A good example of dialogue that moves in and out of time can be found in Debra Monroe’s essay, “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right?” You can read it now at Longreads. It’s also included, in slightly longer and different form, in Monroe’s new memoir, My Unsentimental Education.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about Monroe’s experience as a young college student, struggling to find her way in a writing class and with a new boyfriend. At one point, after meeting the boy, she receives a call at the restaurant where she worked:

I was waiting tables one night when my boss, Kristine, called me to the phone. “Debra!” she said, accented, authoritarian. She was German. She’d married an American soldier during the Allied Occupation. She left the receiver uncovered. “It is a phone call from a boy!”

Here is what the boy says (after Monroe has expected to make a date for later in the week). Pay attention to how smoothly the passage moves in and out of time:

Tonight, he said. With Kristine listening I didn’t feel I could say I didn’t get off work until late and had class in the morning. I said I’d call him when I got home. I hung up. Kristine said: “Our poetess has an admirer.” She’d once seen notes I’d scrawled on a napkin. For what class? she’d asked. For a poem, I’d answered, embarrassed. Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop. Wonderful, she’d said. And did I know the work of Gottfried Benn? I didn’t.

“Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex,” she said now. “But no more phonings at work.”

A couple of things are immediately noticeable:

  1. Some dialogue is put into quotation marks, and other dialogue is not. There is probably an editor out there with rules about this, but I don’t know them. The rules, if they exist, probably change depending on the circumstances. In this case, the dialogue from the past isn’t put into quotation marks, and the dialogue from the present is, with the exception of when the boy says, “Tonight.” A better way to look at this distinction (quotation marks versus no quote marks) might be this: the dialogue that reveals voice is put into quotation marks, which tend to highlight something, make it stand out. The less distinctive lines are not put set off in the same way.
  2. The present action vanishes. After Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” there is no attribution or description of scene before she next says, “Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex.” This is a sophisticated piece of craft. Even good writers fall into the tick-tock of dialogue-description: “Blah blah,” he said, scratching his nose. What Monroe does is give a line of dialogue that references something from the past (which we do all the time in conversation, continually referencing past things we’ve said, inside jokes, conversations interrupted, movie quotes). Rather than describe how Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” Monroe gives the context for the line and even writes dialogue that took place in that contextual moment.
  3. The present action returns, unannounced. Monroe doesn’t write, “Back in the restaurant, Kristine said…” She immediately jumps into what Kristine says, trusting the reader to keep up. The result is a rush through time and context and between exterior action and private revelation (“Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop”). This rush is what makes the prose dynamic and interesting. Like a waterbug or Steph Curry, it never moves in a straight line, and so we lean forward, waiting to see what will happen next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that jumps through time, using “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right” by Debra Monroe as a model:

  1. Choose the moment of dialogue. Don’t choose a moment of high suspense, like a dying character’s last words. Choose a moment that is simply part of your narrative, not the last note of a passage but a moment that exists somewhere in the middle. (The more intensely the reader is waiting for something, as at the end of a scene, the harder it is to avoid, or jump away from, that thing they’re waiting for.) Ideally, the dialogue occurs between characters who have a history, long or short, rather than characters who’ve just met.
  2. Write a line of dialogue that references something from the past. As humans, we have a lovely tendency to reference moments from our past, moments of connection between us and the ones we love (or simply the people around us). It’s why you can spend time with a group of friends and learn a great deal about an absent friend: the others can’t help talking about her. It’s also why the new person to a group is often occasionally lost in conversation, unable to understand the references to shared moments that the others make. So, include one of these moments in your dialogue. Let your character reference a past joke, conflict, or conversation. Or let the character make a joke, observation, or reference to something from the past (it can be anything, really). In other words, let the dialogue reveal the history of the relationship between the characters.
  3. Jump into the reference. Your readers are the new members of the group. They don’t understand the reference. So, tell them about it. Jump into the moment being referenced and either explain or show through scene what was being referenced.
  4. Return to the present moment without transition. It’s almost always the case that transitions are unnecessary. The reader, if you’ve set the scene and context clearly enough, will keep up. Plus, transitions are boring. Plus, sharp juxtapositions are interesting. Monroe juxtaposes Gottfried Benn and “Young people are naturally interested in sex,” which is charming and weird, and so we’re drawn into what gets said next.

The goal is to write dialogue that conveys a sense of time. As a side effect, you may also be able to replace a mundane dialogue tag and description with a flashback or reference that must be explained.

Good luck.

An Interview with Steve Adams

17 Sep
Steve Adams has won multiple awards for his writing, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, "Touch."

Steve Adams is a writing coach has won multiple awards for his stories, plays, and essays, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, “Touch.”

Steve Adams lives in Austin, Texas, where he is a writing coach. His memoir, “Touch,” appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII. He also has been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Pinch and Notre Dame Magazine. His plays and musicals have been produced in New York City.

To read Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” and an exercise on directing the reader’s gaze, click here.

In this interview, Adams discusses writing for an imagined audience, shifting POV without knowing it, and circumventing chronology.

Michael Noll

You make an interesting nod to the reader at the beginning of the second paragraph: “People who have issues with hunting do not understand hunting as I experienced it.” Did this line always exist in the essay, or were you anticipating something about the particular audience for this particular magazine—that readers might have issues with hunting?

Steve Adams

I did not write this essay for that particular magazine, but wrote it, as I do most of my pieces, because a story or essay idea came to me. Afterward I try to find a home for it. That particular line was for my imagined audience while writing it. I’m a liberal, but I’m also a liberal from Texas with a hunting background, and posts from friends on Facebook and elsewhere in social media are not always forgiving or understanding toward hunters. I have a paranoid vision of a reader out there who’s screaming “Bambi killer!” at me. And though I happen to be one, I haven’t hunted since I was a teenager. So I placed that line there to try to buy time from that reader, to establish the possibility that there might be more going on with hunting, at least under proper conditions, than just slaying animals.

The original concept, before I even knew an essay would come from it, occurred in a random conversation at a party in 2002 when I was finishing up my MFA at The New School. I’d developed a reputation for being a guy who produced pages (whether good or bad) regularly, and classmates began asking me for advice along those lines. Writing’s tough for everyone, but I had no idea of the degree that a lot of otherwise gifted writers struggle to simply get words to the page. I’m a writing coach now, and I realize The New School is where I began coaching writers. Anyway, this friend and I were talking in 2002—I specifically remember we were standing a door frame leading to a living room—and somehow via the conversation (thanks, Rebecca!) we discovered that I wasn’t just a natural at producing pages, but that I’d had perhaps the best training possible for such work, and at a very formative age. It was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. Then maybe three years ago I came across the crazy/stupid/wonderful German word “sitzfleisch,” which describes the same capacity, namely being able to keep your butt (or your sit-flesh) in a chair and see a project through to completion.

Michael Noll

You also make a cool chronological move: telling the history of your experience with hunting from first grade to age 14 and, then, shifting back in time (“But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5.”) This seems like a move that many writers could borrow since chronology can be such a trap. We get caught in it and can’t escape, which limits our ability to make sense of events (a process that tends to be circular, not straightforward). How did you find this strategy? Purposefully or through happy accident?

Steve Adams

Good point regarding chronology. I worked with those sentences quite a bit trying to get the passage to feel “right.” First I listed a brief sequence of events, then circled back through expanding on them, and then told the reader I wanted to stop and go back and explore the larger meaning, the larger story they tell. I didn’t decide on that technique beforehand, but tried to follow what the essay seemed to want at the time, which is what I always do if I can. By the circling, as you noted, I think I was instinctively trying to circumvent being locked into strict chronology. I wanted the reader to pull up at that moment, to look back and instead of seeing those moments as separate and linear, to see them as a whole. I also wanted the reader to stop and consider what it might mean that as a child I carried a lethal firearm beside my father and knew full well it was lethal, as well as that if I did something really stupid I could accidentally take his life. He gave me an enormous responsibility by putting a gun in my hands, but also a staggering trust. The gesture carries immense personal weight for me.

Michael Noll

Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

I love your shifts in perspective. For example, you start one paragraph like this: “Picture me beside him, our feet hanging off the platform’s edge.” And the very next paragraph starts this way: “Here is how you manage your presence on the deer blind.” This is the sort of thing that would seem to be forbidden by workshop teachers, but it’s really effective in drawing in the reader. Do you have a particular strategy for switching POV?

Steve Adams

I don’t have a particular strategy so much. And frankly, I wasn’t even aware I’d done that until you brought it up. But I went over that passage a lot, and again, in a focused creative state trying to make it “right.” And I just made that move and worked with it, much as a painter might intuitively decide their painting needs more yellow in the upper right hand corner, and without analyzing why (“why” doesn’t matter as much as “what”), does the work of adding it in. I was keenly aware of how the words sounded. But looking back and putting on my analytical goggles, I think part of my attempt was to break up the narrative flow. Like in the passage above where I break up chronology, I wanted to get the reader to slow down and consider not just the facts of this child’s experience (freezing, feet going to sleep, nose running, unable to move except in the smallest and smoothest of increments), but the fact that this particular child raised in this particular tradition wouldn’t even think twice about such discomforts, thereby (hopefully) causing the reader to frame them and that unit of thought as a whole unto itself that would connect to the discipline of writing.

Michael Noll

The essay is about the writing process, which is surprising given that it’s published in a general-interest magazine, not one aimed solely at writers. Is that why the writing aspect of it doesn’t appear until the end? Were you trying to draw the reader in with hunting and then make the connection with writing after the reader has bought into the story you’re telling?

Steve Adams

Notre Dame Magazine is an interesting hybrid sort of magazine. It’s general interest and focuses a lot on work from Notre Dame alums, but also has a section toward the back called Crosscurrents devoted to more personal essays. They’ve racked up a number of “notable” mentions from the Best American Essay series, and I know of one essay that was published in the series in 2013. My essay went in their magazine almost as-is. I’ve just placed a second piece with them so clearly we’ve got a sympatico relationship happening. They don’t shy from a piece that has a spiritual or ethical component (and not just Christian), and there’s definitely a strain of spiritualism through my essay and the next essay they took.

More than anything with this piece I just wanted to find a way to connect hunting, once I realized the impact it had on my life, with the discipline of writing. By my way of thinking, done right, both are spiritual disciplines. Both demand patience and endurance and usually a degree of hardship before you experience a shift in perspective. And I believe my instinct with this piece was to establish hunting as such a discipline first and foremost, then take a quick dip into meditation, and finally do that swoop into writing at the end, hopefully bringing it all together in a single gesture.

September 2015

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

An Interview with Will Boast

27 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue was called "hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year" by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue was called “hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year” by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.

In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?

Will Boast

I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.

Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.

Michael Noll

The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?

Will Boast

I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.

Michael Noll

Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?

Will Boast

That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.

But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.

Michael Noll

At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?

Will Boast

Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.

August 2015

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

%d bloggers like this: