Tag Archives: Natashia Deón

An Interview with Natashia Deón

27 Oct
Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of the novel Grace. She’s the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Feminist Wire, and You: An Anthology of Second Person Essays, among others. She has taught creative writing for Gettysburg College, PEN Center USA, and 826LA. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School.

To read an exercise on creating tension by playing against reader expectation based on Grace, click here. (If you’re in the Austin area, you can see Deón at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday at 2:00 on a panel with Yaa Gyasi.)

In this interview, Deón discusses writing in dialect, writing within genre perceptions and writing violence.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Nervous Breakdown, you quoted Walt Whitman: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” How did you find that close-to-the-ground entry to the language of the characters in your book? To my reading ear, it sounded fresh and almost contemporary, not stilted the way that some historical fiction dialogue can. What was your approach to these characters’ language?

Natashia Deón

In every writing class I had ever taken before finishing Grace, I had been taught that one of the golden rules of writing was to never write in dialect. And even though “the rules,” which otherwise seemed sound, also said that it was acceptable to deviate from these “rules,” every writing instructor, writer, speaker, who discussed language and voice always seemed to come back to that same advice: Don’t write in dialect. Or, if you do, do so sparingly. I struggled with that advice. I struggled because the voice I wanted to create for the main character, the narrator of Grace, was in dialect. For a long time, it kept me from writing at all.

Eventually, I gave myself permission. Not because someone told me yes but because I told myself yes. Every day, writers have to tell themselves yes. You are good enough. What you have to say is good enough. You matter.

Maybe it seems obvious to other writers. It wasn’t for me. And coming to that realization was a moment of freedom. But permission was only the beginning. New questions arose about dialect. For instance, I didn’t want readers to assume that my narrator’s dialect was a reflection of her intellect as people often—wrongly—assume about a southern accent. But, rather, that her language was an expression of her exposure and physical limitations. As a writer, this was one of my biggest challenges. How would she express herself if she didn’t know a word like “compete” or “busking?” If it wasn’t in her vocabulary, how would she say those words without using the word? Then I’d have her describe the word in three words or less. And here she was about to narrate the entire novel. In something like poetry.

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Maya Angelou once said, “English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.” In writing Grace, I had to decide what I wanted the language to do. In the early drafts, the dialect was much more rugged. I thought accuracy was the primary point of dialect. So the language in Grace was phonetically accurate to the time and place. And it didn’t sit well with me. As I revised, I began to understand that I was creating a language pattern, somewhere in between the past and our present use of English in the U.S. And in this new understanding, I had to make a decision about how hard I wanted readers to work, and about other craft issues like what I wanted the dialect to do. Do in the sense that everything in a scene, every word, serves the scene. If I read that there’s a fire burning in the fireplace, it needs to serve—ambiance, some future purpose, frame a moment, a thought. Usually, it does more than one thing. In the same way, my narrator’s language had to serve and not just exist on the page…accurately.

So, her language evolves in the novel as she goes on her journey, and it reaches us here in the future, blending the past and present together, which is one of the  themes in Grace. For this reason, her language softens. She learns new words, speaks differently as she’s exposed to new people, new experiences. The same way you or I would. And in this way, her language is close to the ground. It is alive. And my goal was for readers, after the first chapter or so, to read it effortlessly.

Michael Noll

In a recent New Yorker review of the film Birth of a Nation, Vinson Cunningham writes, “The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted, over and over, for the screen…This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.” He goes on to write, “Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story,” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of your book, which, of course, is a ghost story. Your novel also doesn’t strike me as “upper-middlebrow art.” And, because of Naomi’s journey out of slavery, it feels like a different approach to the “slavery genre.” How much did you try to write toward or away from the ways this type of story has been told in the past?

Natashia Deón

When I first began to write Grace, as strange as this may sound, I never set out to write a slave narrative. All of the main characters are not slaves. I saw them first as people, not defined by their station, though their station was of serious consequence.

For me, Grace is and was always a story about women. Women who are survivors, who fight valiantly, and learned to keep their dignity and humanity despite their circumstances. Women who created families of their choosing when family was withheld from them—families that were more than blood but a powerful kind of kinship. And the black people in this story, some of whom are slaves, were not only brutalized bodies or victims of a dehumanizing system, but resilient lovers, dreamers, mothers, daughters, thinkers, heroes, and more. This was always Grace. And Grace is also a slave narrative.

There is diversity even within genres, within any life, real or imagined. Freedom in Grace isn’t a place to get to. It’s not north. It’s a question that all of the characters—Black, White, Latina, and other, have to ask themselves. It’s what we all have to ask ourselves today. Is what we have right now freedom?

I am honored that Grace is included with other great books about slavery—BelovedThe Known World, and others. And because America hasn’t been out of slavery for as long as we were in it, I imagine that there are books coming in the future that will continue to give fresh eyes to this period of time. And those books, like books about baseball, won’t care how many brothers or sisters it has.

Michael Noll

The book contains some scenes that are really difficult to read: graphically-rendered murder and sexual violence. The scenes aren’t gratuitous at all. Each one is necessary and well-written, but I also wonder if you worried about losing readers. To paragraph a character from the novel, not all women have the same sort of strong, and not all readers have the same capability for reading scenes and stories like these. Did you think at all about how to keep readers turning the page in the midst or after such scenes?

Natashia Deón

Yes, I worried about losing readers. But not when I was writing it. I wanted to stay true to the story, to the things that have haunted me in dealing with violence in real life. Our country, our world, is a violent place. We live in a society where even death and the dead are removed from our sight at once. And most of us are blessed to be removed from those realities and the realities of violence, except for occasional episodes in our lives, or what we see on our computer, phone or television screens. I say this because almost all of the descriptions of violence in Grace are details of real life cases I haven’t been in a position to look away from as an attorney, a friend, family member, etc. The violence in Grace was my response to the quintessential command: Write what you know. The violence rings true because it is true. Of course, fictionalized. But I didn’t want to hold back in creating. I was asking readers to trust me to get them through it. I wanted to be trustworthy, for my narrator to be trustworthy. It was a gamble. A choice. And in the end, I wrote the book that I wanted to read, that I felt compelled to write, that I felt readers were ready and mature enough to hear. One that was honest in every way that it could be.

October 2016

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

How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense

25 Oct
A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “Her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Anton Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in the third act. This is good advice, of course, but it’s also pretty bare-bones. So much remains unaccounted for: Who gets shot? Who does the shooting, and why? Is the shooting on purpose or accident? Is it done out of rage, necessity, pity? Does the reader root for the shooting or against it? That final question can be one of the most powerful to answer. Writers sometimes talk about giving readers what they want, but it can be just as effective to give readers something they absolutely do not want.

This is what Natashia Deón does in her novel Grace. You can read an excerpt from the novel at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel tells the story of an escaped slave, Naomi, who finds refuge in a brothel in Georgia, taken under the protective wing of its madam, Cynthia. At least that’s part of the novel. There’s more, but the scene I want to focus on takes place in the brothel. It’s not a nice place, of course, but Cynthia is a strong, complex character who realizes that Naomi is still a virgin. That virginity becomes a kind of amulet in Cynthia’s eyes, freighted with meaning and importance and luck, which is good news for Naomi since it frees her from the obligations of the other women in the brothel.

Into this scene walks Jeremy, a likable gambler who flirts with Naomi (despite the fact that he’s white and she’s black) and whom she falls in love with. Are we more savvy than Naomi? Do we see where this affair is headed? Of course, we do. But Jeremy is also sweet and sincere, and so, if we can’t hope for the best, we’re lulled into dropping our guard, the same as Naomi. And then…

In this scene, Jeremy has lost every penny to his name and is begging Naomi to offer herself to the house dealer in exchange for money—which he will use to win back his losses. She reluctantly agrees to do it:

I stand on the wrong side of this door with my belly quivering, waiting for Mr. Shepard to greet me. He’s counting his money, slipping bills through his pinchers. He folds a wad of dollars and slides it through a silver clasp and into his pocket.

I shift in the doorway, hope he see me move.

He don’t.

He lops a deck of cards in his bag, his dice, then fastens it closed. I clear my throat. “Uh-hum,” I say softly. Louder, “Uh-hum?”

“Didn’t know y’all served breakfast,” he say, and stacks his chips in piles on his table, then sits down. “You here for my order?

No one wants this moment to take place. Naomi doesn’t want to have sex with the dealer, and he recognizes the situation for what it is. As readers, we definitely don’t want the scene to happen, yet the characters begin to go through with it anyway. First, Mr. Shepard says, “Twenty years and I’ve seen hundreds of gals like you.” When she doesn’t leave, he becomes more aggressive:

He puts his hand gently behind my head. I shiver as he kisses my cheek softly. Only Jeremy’s kissed me there. That way.

He slaps it. Grabs my face around my cheeks, squeezing too hard.

It gets worse before he finally calls out the situation for what it is: “Your boyfriend want a chance that bad?” he asks and then:

He clutches my ass, presses his face on the side of mine. I flatten to the door as he breathes in my ear, telling me things I don’t want to hear. Telling me about me. About Jeremy. Nasty things I won’t tell nobody.

He unlocks it, pushes me out the door, tells me to go.

The scene ends the way we hope: she doesn’t have sex with him. But it’s hardly a moment that makes us feel good. Instead, we feel like Naomi: “Withered away” and “nasty.” The novel has met our hopes as readers: Naomi has been spared. But it also brought us to face-to-face with the thing we hoped wouldn’t happen, so close that the very nearness of it affects us. This is an important strategy to remember for creating suspense (will the horrible thing happen?), but it’s also a good example of using Chekhov’s gun. This is a novel where a lot of guns, literally and figuratively, go off. If they always go off, they become less effective as narrative devices. If the worst thing always happens, we become immune to it. We reflexively deaden ourselves to it. But if we’re given evidence that perhaps the worst thing can be avoided, then the impact of the fired bullet is that much greater, even if we knew it was coming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a gun on the wall and make readers dread its use, using Grace by Natashia Deón as a model:

  1. Choose your weapon. In Grace, the weapon is prostitution. Naomi lives in a brothel, and so the risk of being forced to have sex for money is ever-present. The fact that it’s sex and not a gun is a good reminder that Chekhov’s gun can be anything. It could be peanuts—if a character has a peanut allergy. Anything is dangerous if placed in the right circumstances. So, what are the circumstances of your story? What is dangerous or feared?
  2. Pave a path past the weapon. Deón does this twice. First, she creates Cynthia, the madam with the heart of gold (sort of, not exactly), who tries to protect Naomi from participating in her trade. (Incidentally, for a similar character who does the complete opposite, read Alexander Chee’s excellent novel The Queen of the Night.) Second, she creates Jeremy, the suitor who will take her away from the place where the weapon hangs on the wall. Note that Deón offers two characters to guide Naomi down the safe path. Who are those characters in your story? You don’t necessarily need two, but you probably need one.
  3. Make readers buy into the path to safety. This can be a fine line to tread. If you show the path but readers don’t think it’s a plausible direction for the story, they’ll feel like the writer is trying to trick them. But convince readers to go down the path with the characters, and you’ll devastate them when they find themselves facing the gun again. So, take your time. Develop the characters you created in the previous step. Make them likable. (Hint: great characters mix likability with failure, for various reasons, to do the right thing at the right time.)
  4. Stick the character and the readers into a situation they hope to avoid.  Find a place or situation where the weapon you chose is impossible to avoid. To return to Chekhov’s gun metaphor, take your character to the shooting range. This could mean a place where the weapon naturally resides or where it’s use is provoked by a character (as Naomi tries to provoke Mr. Shepard into having sex with her). The trick, of course, is to find the entry to such a place and situation. Deón does this by having one character push the protagonist into doing something she doesn’t want (a version of the age-old “If you really loved me”). So, find a character who, for nefarious or practical reasons, pushes the main character into the dangerous situation.
  5. Sell the readers on the danger. Just as readers feel cheated by safe paths that don’t feel plausible, they also get angry at dangers that don’t feel real. In a successful scene of this type, the reader needs to feel that the gun might really go off, that, in fact, there is a better-than-50-percent-chance that it will.

The goal is to create tension and suspense by thinking beyond the gun on the wall to what the viewer hopes will happen (or not) with the gun.

Good luck.

An Interview with Natashia Deón

9 Jul
Natashia Deón's debut novel will be published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press.

Natashia Deón’s debut novel will be published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press.

Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles attorney, writer, and law professor. She is the creator of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit and was named one of L.A.’s “Most Fascinating People” in L.A. Weekly’s 2013 People Issue. A 2010 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, her writing has appeared side-by-side with Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Yousef Komunyakaa in The Rattling Wall, in B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire, and Asian American Lit Review. Deón has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Prague’s Creative Writing Program, Dickinson House in Belgium, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Deón’s debut novel is due out in the summer of 2016 from Counterpoint Press.

To read two of Deón’s Facebook posts that were republished as stand-alone pieces, plus an exercise on writing artful sentences, click here. In this interview, Deón discusses Facebook’s positive effect on her fiction, the benefit of reading your work aloud, and the importance of being a generous writer.

Michael Noll

What role does Facebook play in your creative life as a writer? Do you have a rhetorical strategy to writing posts? Does the personal aspect of Facebook posts serve as a relief from your fiction writing? I ask because your forthcoming novel is set after the Civil War and so would seem to be at quite a remove from your life.

Natashia Deón

I spend way too much time on Facebook like most people. By too much time, I mean, I know that there are other things I could be doing but I often find myself multitasking in my real life and on social media. Between work and family and volunteering, I’m rarely sitting at home on a computer or somewhere where I can quietly contemplate a post, so my posts are things that randomly strike me in the day, things that I think other people might think are funny or poignant or helpful or sometimes there’s no point, I’m just venting or sharing a day. Is that a strategy?

Honestly, my FB behavior hasn’t really changed since my first sign-on to Facebook years ago after having my first baby and I thought, if I post these photos here, I don’t have to talk to grandma right now. I’ll text her and say, “SEE MY POST!”

Sometimes I say too much. Like having a drink at a bar and talking to a stranger. I’m sure there’s a hazard to this “strategy”–online footprint and all–and I’ve been known to delete posts, but for me, making mistakes matter less to me than connecting with people.

I do think I’ve gotten better at writing short-short stories because of Facebook. You have to get to the point, be clear, or get the dialog right. But that said, I still post long paragraphs that annoy people. But sometimes, that long post is the one that gets the most attention. I try to keep it interesting.

Sometimes I wish I could be like friends who only share other people’s posts, or Bible verses, or encouraging words, but I’m not that girl. I’m the one who’s tapping the microphone saying, “Is this thing on?”

It’s not that I think my thoughts are any more important than anyone else’s but what I’m beginning to understand is that people are afraid. Especially when it comes to social issues, topics that artists for centuries have represented in their work and have been the central voices in positive change. People today, even artists, are afraid of their thoughts and questions and not having the answers or fear that they’ll come to the wrong conclusions.

So I speak for them sometimes. To show people, especially artists, that I don’t know either and it’s O.K. It’s the conversation that matters. There’s still a lot more convincing to do because the trolls will always regulate as they do, convincing people that they shouldn’t have a voice and that we don’t have anything in common.

And yes, breaking away to post on social media is relief. Writing, in general, is relief. It’s emptying out old thoughts and replacing them with new ones. The same as I would in my fiction. And in my debut novel SWEET TEA AND HONEY—the title is about to change—I get to traverse time and through research am reminded that human beings are still the same. We all have hungered, loved, laughed, hurt, are born, die. I’ve read somewhere before that every person alive is the result of thousands of years of love or painful interactions. I’m privileged to live in this time and imagine some of those stories.

Michael Noll

You organize the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. How important is it for writers to perform or read their work publicly? Do you think it benefits the work that eventually winds up on the page?

Natashia Deón

The Dirty Laundry Lit reading series was called a "raucous, all-inclusive party" by L.A. Weekly.

The Dirty Laundry Lit reading series was called a “raucous, all-inclusive party” by L.A. Weekly.

In the last five years or so as I’ve run Dirty Laundry Lit, I’ve seen over a hundred writers take our stage and some are incredible readers and some are so-so readers. So-so is rare on our stage. Both of these “classes” of writers, if you will, are all tremendously talented writers. But sometimes what I hear about the great reader is that he or she is “a great performer” and that’s why he or she did a great job reading, where another reader who might be so-so, is considered to have work that “stands on the page.” It’s one of those double-sided compliments that imply if you’re a great reader, your work does not equally stand.

What I believe and what I have seen is that great work stands when it’s played aloud. Period. Great work stands even when the writer is not a good reader and shines even more when the writer is a good reader.

Readings build confidence in the work. It’s the difference. Not just on the stage but before, as we prepare to take the stage and sometimes while we’re in the throes of reading it. We edit ourselves and armed with the honesty that voice gives our pieces, we become our best editor-selves. We skip things—sentences, words—we make new word choices as we read, playing the sentences aloud. We hear the pacing problems, the unneeded repetition, we become better judges of ourselves, our work. We discover how we can deliver our stories better. Make them more clear. Sometimes we see new things that we hadn’t seen on the page. The solitary side of the writer needs to get dressed and go outside some days. Reading publicly is one of those days. We make ourselves better for the crowd.

Michael Noll

As an organizer of a reading series, you are, in a way, playing a role in the publishing and book industry: you’re giving a voice to writers, giving them a chance to promote themselves and become known and advance their craft. This is an industry that is sometimes criticized for the voices it promotes. In response to that criticism, the small press And Other Stories recently announced that it would publish only women authors in 2018. Given Los Angeles’ rich diversity, it would seem like you could play a similar role with Dirty Laundry Lit, pushing against tendencies within the publishing industry? How do you find readers for the series?

Natashia Deón

When I created Dirty Laundry Lit, diversity was one of my three main goals. And by diversity, I do mean race and gender, and also other larger categories like economic diversity, religious, sexual preference and identity, age, physical ability, etc. This diversity isn’t the exclusion of anyone. It’s the inclusion of all. Or, as many as we can get. Diversity has to be intentional. And without a lot of money, creating diversity means we have to give a lot of personal time and effort to seek and find people, not waiting for them to find us. Our goal for each show is that any person can walk into a Dirty Laundry Lit event and see themselves on the stage; their experience represented. And if not this time, the next, or the next.

This aspect is important to me because when I became part of the literary community here in L.A. that’s not what I saw. Black writers were with Black writers, White with White, Asian with Asian, women with women, most experienced writers with the same, etc. We put ourselves into these ghettos of sameness for protection, support, for encouragement, to even have a space, and I get it. I need that, too. There is richness there but there’s magic when we put our differences together. I believe in creating the world I want to see. We all have a role. Where one repairs, another builds up, and so on as the saying goes. It’s community. The magic is in discovering what’s out there, smoking out the wonder. I believe that’s what we’re doing at Dirty Laundry Lit. And by doing this, we are telling people, you belong here, too.

I choose readers based on diversity, recommendations, and their involvement in the literary community. Dirty Laundry Lit goes hard in promoting writers and we do it with more passion than a paid publicist. We do it because we love it. We truly celebrate writers which is a rare experience for most writers. I was lucky to have first felt “celebrated” as a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow. There were six of us and for the eight months of the fellowship, we were treated like literary rock stars. That’s what I want to share with every writer who signs on to be on the slate of a Dirty Laundry Lit event.

And because we’ve been successful in doing this, there is a wait list to become one of our readers. Writers of all levels come to us and essentially say, “Celebrate me. I’m good.” We want to, but there’s limited time and space. So we tend to choose writers who are generous as we are generous. Writers who are giving back to the literary community already through volunteer work and other ways, and are also making space for other writers. This writing journey is impossible without community.

July 2015

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

How to Write Sentences that Offer Unexpected Views

7 Jul
Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell's Camera Phone.

Natashia Deón is a Los Angeles writer who directs the Dirty Laundry Lit reading series. Her Facebook posts about her son were republished in Rockwell’s Camera Phone.

I recently heard a discussion on a panel of writers, editors, and agents about the difference between literary and non-literary fiction. Someone said, as they always do when this question is posed, that literary fiction puts more focus on sentences, that it’s more interested in language. I agree with this statement, mostly, but it’s also vague. What does it mean to be interested in language? What do great sentences look like? The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like to think. Does language mean big words, as my freshman composition students like to think? Does it mean “poetic” language (whatever that means), as I often heard as a MFA student? Here’s another possibility: literary language is active on a sentence level. The very structure of the sentences elicits a response from the reader—not an intellectual response, though that may be the case as well, but an uncontrolled grunt or gasp. Good sentences catch our attention. Some of the most interesting sentences I’ve read lately were written by Natashia Deón. They were originally written as Facebook posts but were republished as stand-alone pieces in Rockwell’s Camera Phone, where you can read them here and here.

How the Sentences Work

Here is the first post, containing four sentences:

People will ask, “If your son uses more sign language than you know and doesn’t speak, how do you know what he wants?” This, just now, means, “Don’t go to the post office, mom, unless you leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios. Dry. No milk.”

I’m claiming these are beautiful, interesting sentences, and perhaps you find this surprising. The language is straightforward, not lyric, and describes mundane things: sign language, post office, Cheerios. So what makes it noteworthy? The answer, in my view: The way the sentences pivot. The first sentence (“People will ask…”) asks a simple question. The second sentence answers it, and that answer is given in a direct way: “This, just now, means.” And what it means it something simple and clear: “leave your cell phone with me and another bowl of Cheerios.” But then something happens in the third and fourth sentences. The answer in the second sentence is clarified: “Dry. No milk.” Again, the language is simple and clear, but it has also moved in an unexpected direction. Remember, this information is being communicated from son to mother through sign language that only one of them knows. In other words, the first sentence has set up a problem: the speaker can’t understand the language her son speaks. But when we’re told what he’s saying, it’s incredibly specific. The incongruence between the problem and the answer isn’t clear until “Dry. No milk.” In that moment, the sentences pivot. They’ve been moving along in one direction and then, like a hinge, they swing open to offer a new view: the speaker intuits what her son wants because she loves and knows him well, not because of his literal ability to communicate. Here is another post, containing two sentences. Watch for the pivot:

There’s a tiny square of light that comes through our living room window in the morning at about 7:45 a.m. and stays for only about 5 minutes. Big Boy waits for it every day.

Again, the first sentence is clear and straightforward. So is the second sentence. But the connection is unexpected. The square of light is mundane and momentary, barely worth notice—except to the speaker’s son. The sentences are constructed and paired to highlight this unexpected connection. There is a pivot point, and the second sentence swings open.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure sentences around a pivot point, using the posts by Natashia Deón as a model. We’ll use two different approaches. Here’s the first:

  1. Pose a question. Make it something straightforward but not too simple, answerable with yes or no. Make it require explanation. Try beginning with “How do you…”
  2. Answer the question (Part 1). Make your answer just as straightforward as the question: “”Like this. Be specific. Imagine that you’re actually speaking to someone. If you answered them with metaphor or abstraction, they’d probably look at you funny. End the sentence with closure so that it can be read as a stand-alone answer. How do you ____? Like this: _____.
  3. Answer the question (Part 2). Add a clarifying note to the answer. This is your pivot. Add a detail that is unexpectedly specific or that shifts the answer in some way. For instance, if the answer takes place within a particular frame (day/night/in a house/in a park), use the pivot to shift the answer out of that frame. Here’s an example: “How do learn to keep your balance on a skateboard? Like this: Stand on it, every day. On the edge of your bathtub.” I don’t make any claim for these sentences’ greatness. But I hope that you can see the construction, the pivot.

Here’s a second approach:

  1. Make a statement about something that exists or happens in the world. It doesn’t really matter what the statement is about. The subject can be small (Water is dripping from the ceiling) or large (Greece is an island in Europe). It can even be vague (Love is kind).
  2. Make a second statement about the subject that contains a word or idea that isn’t implicit in the first statement. In Deón’s sentences about the light, the word wait isn’t implied by the first statement; the light is just predictably there. But when the second sentence introduces wait, we see the light in a new way, as something fleeting and worth seeing. That’s the power of the pivot. Here are two examples. Water is dripping from the ceiling. My brother won’t get out of the shower. The first sentence suggests urgency. The second sentence (and I make no claim for its artfulness) introduces the idea that someone could ignore the emergency. Greece is an island in Europe. When it’s underwater, the entire continent could go under. Again, this is not particularly artful, yet the second sentence does flip the relationships implicit in the first sentence. In the first, Greece is small, but in the second, it’s powerful. (And that is the extent of my political wisdom.) So, think about the relationships or attitudes present in the first sentence. How can you write a second sentence that introduces a contradictory or unexpected relationship or attitude?

Good luck and have fun.

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