Tag Archives: personal essays

How to Defy Readers’ Expectations with Paragraph Structure

9 May

Samuel Peterson’s memoir, Trunky (Transgender Junky) tells the story of the author’s stay in an all-male drug and alcohol rehab facility in the South.

There are probably more personal essays published today than at any other point in history—in part because we’re hungry for authenticity, which we believe we find in “real” stories, as opposed to “reality” programming, but also because it’s easier than ever to publish them. Seneca and Montaigne, the great inventors of the personal essay, didn’t have the luxury of a thousand websites seeking essays or social media opportunities to simply publish whatever you want. It’s difficult to separate the modern personal essay from the medium where we most often find it: online. We read essays the way that we read anything online—with short attention spans and itchy mouse pointers poised over the back button. As always, writers are consciously or unconsciously shaping their essays for their readers, which means that successful essayists are building a kind of constant surprise into their form. Move in any one direction for too long, and readers are likely to get bored. This might seem frustrating (can’t people just pay attention longer?), but there is actually a way to seem to change subjects while also making a larger point.

Samuel Peterson does exactly that in his memoir Trunky (Transgender Junky).

How the Memoir Works

In a personal essay and memoir, there inevitably comes a moment when the writer is called to be smart—to say something wise, spot-on, and on point. You might think that readers would be hooked during these moments, that nothing could distract them. But I think we all understand that’s not true. (How many times have you been talking to someone you love and, while listening, felt your phone n and checked the text or email or notification? Distraction comes naturally to us, even when we ought to, or even want to, be paying attention.)

What’s needed is a way to avoid falling into any kind of rut—of moving in the same direction or making the same point—for too long, leaving readers susceptible to distraction. Of course, good narrative requires that we make larger points and tell longer stories. Something’s got to give, right?

In this passage from later in the book, Samuel Peterson manages to do both. (The book is about his time spent in an all-men’s wing of a drug and alcohol rehab facility. One of the workers is named Jordan.)

The institution was full of remarkable people; he couldn’t imagine himself in any one job maintaining any sort of cool. He had seen Jordan post-cry; if he worked here his eyes would be red all the time too from being a piñata for the men’s suffering, or he would be arrested for actually piñata-ing someone else. the men often were abusive, and it took a special personality (combined with rigorous training, he reflected) to be able to constantly deflect, and then use that moment to condition the men in socially appropriate response.

The masculine ego took poorly to discipline—which made him consider the number of institutions geared towards “breaking a man down to build him up.” He marveled at the way the world treated men, from his father, whose drunken flirtations and general boundary-pushing had been stonily sanctioned, and his brother, who had never been told his endless commentary was less than fascinating. He was both revolted and envious of the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.

He understood men would resist this diagnosis, and he appreciated the intense scrutiny masculinity was subjected to, but he knew firsthand that men could never understand what it was like to always be a paler version of yourself because of the assumption of your opinion’s lesser value.

The passage uses topic sentences: “The institution was full of remarkable people…” and “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” But only one of the paragraphs actually follows its topic sentence in a straightforward way. “The institution was full of remarkable people” is followed by an example of one of those people—Jordan—and a reflection on his actions. This straightforwardness is important. If writing never moves in a straight line, readers will have a difficult time following it.

The second paragraph breaks this rule. Its first sentence (“The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…the number of institutions geared toward ‘breaking a man down to build him up'”) sets up the expectation that what will follow is examples of one of these points: the ego not responding to discipline or breaking a man down. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the rest of the paragraph gives examples of men’s ego not being disciplined or broken down. It ends with an observation that is both brilliant and obvious (and brilliant because it’s so obvious): “the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.”

The paragraph is great because it’s smart but also because it doesn’t give us what we expect. It breaks the logical structure set up by the previous paragraph (point, illustration, explanation—the infamous PIE from college composition classes). As a result, readers are more apt to pay attention. We can’t fall into a lull as we read. We’re jolted into reading more carefully. Peterson’s observation about men’s confidence would is great no matter where it’s placed, but if we read over it without really seeing it, then we’ve missed his point.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s surprise a reader into paying attention, using Trunky (Transgender Junky) by Samuel Peterson as a model:

  1. Find a moment in your essay where you’re talking about something, not what happened. In other words, the narrative of the essay has paused momentarily for you to make a point. You often know this has happened when you start writing sentences that begin, “The thing is…” or “What’s really important…” or “What people don’t realize…”
  2. Give yourself a topic sentence. You might use any of these sentences that start with phrases like “The thing is…” Or you might start with a basic statement, as Peterson does: “The institution was full of remarkable people.” In short, write something that leads to examples.
  3. Give those examples—in a logical way. If you’ve ever written a five-paragraph essay, you know how to do this. If you write, “The food was terrible,” then you’re going to give examples of how terrible it was.
  4. Keep the flow going with another, related topic sentence. I use the word flow grudgingly here. When I taught college composition, my students used it all the time to describe their vague feeling that an essay had gotten off track. “You know,” they’d say, “it just doesn’t flow.” From a craft standpoint, this was not helpful to them. And yet we all know what flow means: a piece of writing continues moving in one direction. So, keep making the same point in the same way. Peterson does this with the sentence that begins “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” He just finished talking about people whose job it was to shape men’s responses, so this makes sense. He keeps the flow going.
  5. Break the structure. Instead of giving examples of men’s egos resisting discipline, he instead gives examples of the opposite—of egos unrestrained, subject to no discipline at all. A college comp instructor might advise changing the topic sentence. But that would be boring (and, thus, appropriate for a college comp essay; but this is a personal essay, meant to be interesting). Everything Peterson writes in this paragraph is smart and sharply observed; it just don’t quite flow in the way we expect. The paragraph isn’t completely scattered, though. The word discipline holds together. So, in your paragraph, pick one word from your topic sentence and riff on it in any way that comes to mind. Don’t worry about following logically—about flow. As long as you’re in the ballpark, readers will stay with you. But by moving away from the logical flow, you’ll hold their attention.

The goal is to create and break structure within paragraphs and passages in order to keep readers paying attention.

Good luck.

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An Interview with D Watkins

24 Jun
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, tells the story of his journey from drug dealer to writer.

D. Watkins is a columnist for Salon. His work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He holds a master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a college professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins has been the recipient of numerous awards including Ford’s Men of Courage and a BME Fellowship. Watkins is from and lives in East Baltimore. He is the author of The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

Originally published March 2015

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

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.

An Interview with Selin Gökçesu

18 Feb
Selin Gökçesu's essay "Under the Aegean Moon" appeared in the Tin House blog "Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon” appeared in the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on the Tin House blog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays and in Gingerbread Literary Magazine.

To read an exercise about creating character amid conflict, inspired by Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon,” click here.

In this interview, Gökçesu discusses the challenge of writing about current events before readers lose interest, not holding back on personal feelings, and knowing how much analysis to provide in an essay.

Michael Noll

I’m fascinated by essays like this one because they’re not really about a story or anecdote—or, the anecdote at the heart of them is very quick. In this case, you honeymooned in Turkey and saw, from a distance, a dinghy full of Syrian refugees. The essay is mostly setup for this moment and a meditation on understanding your experience of it. How soon after your trip did you write this? Did you need to digest the experience for a while, or were you able to quickly organize your thoughts and feelings into this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I wrote this essay about two months after the trip. Normally, I like to let my experiences sink in longer, but when you are writing about current events, waiting is not always a good strategy. When the topic no longer seems relevant, both the writer and the audience might lose interest in it.

At first, the essay was a chronicle of all my encounters with Syrian refugees in Turkey through the summers of the past few years and my reflections on how people react to the “crisis.” The first draft was more than four times as long as the final essay. As I edited the original version, I found that the moment of watching the boat take off was the highlight of the piece. It was a surreal moment, I liked how I had written it, and I felt that it was symbolic of what I was interested in: separate lives in geographic proximity. After I decided that the essay would build up to that moment, I trimmed everything else.

Michael Noll

The essay achieves something that I think is awfully difficult to do: it captures the moment when something large that is happening in the world overtakes our private experience of day-to-day life. To that end, I’m interested in how you created that private experience. You seem to do it, in part, with a line like this:

“Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it.”

The refugee crisis was happening, but you were thinking about something quite different. As you wrote the essay, were you conscious of trying to convey that gap between what you thought about versus what was happening around you?

Selin Gökçesu

A personal essay has to start at a private point because that is what the writer understands or can hope to understand. The duality of the personal and non-personal emerges as the narrative shifts from showing to telling—you can only “show” what you have experienced first-hand.

The emotional gap between myself and what was happening around me was the heart of the essay. Emotionally isolating yourself from other people’s tragedy is both a callous way of evading negative emotions and an inevitable human response when your own life is not struck by disaster. Your day-to-day commitments, events that you are personally engaged in gain precedence over events that you are simply witnessing from the outside. I think of the essay as a partial analysis of the factors that contributed to this dissociation.

Michael Noll

You take a risk in the essay. It’s about something awful—the horrible plight of the Syrian refugees—and so I would think it might be tempting to portray yourself as caring deeply about it. And you do that, but you also do something else. For example, you write, “My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.” An Internet-troll type of reader might say, “Oh, well, your honeymoon was more important than the refugees.” But I don’t think that’s what saying. Instead, you seem to be writing about the complex way we interact with such news, which is usually safely at a distance. Did you worry about how people might read this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I don’t think that goody-two-shoes, self-protective personas serve the personal essay very well. Although readers might not pick up on it when a writer fudges facts, emotional and intellectual dishonesty are very easy to detect. When I find that I am holding back in my writing to protect my ego or my privacy, I take it as a sign that I’m not ready to handle that particular topic yet.

I also don’t find predictable responses to events intellectually appealing—“I saw something tragic and I was really sad” is not an interesting premise for an essay. No matter what the topic is, I’m more interested in the unpleasant things that crawl under rocks. Especially when it comes to human nature.

Michael Noll

The essay in intensely personal, except for one paragraph, this one:

When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional.  The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.

It’s the one moment where you pull back and try to give context to your experience. Was this passage ever longer? Did you have more than you wanted to say (clearly, you’ve given the experience in the essay a great deal of thought), or did you always know how much explanation was needed?

Selin Gökçesu

This passage was longer, and there were more passages like it in the original version of the essay. Having gone through the nonfiction workshop in an MFA program, I know that most readers don’t care for the passages where the narrator steps back and analyzes her experience. So, I’ve learned to self-censor and keep these to a minimum. My strategy in this particular essay was to keep sight of the fact that I was building up to a specific point and eliminate everything that didn’t serve my purpose.

February 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 Write Multifaceted Characters

28 Jul
Herpreet Singh's essay,

Herpreet Singh’s essay, “Choking Out the Natives,” appeared in The Bitter Southerner and tells the story of a mixed marriage in Louisiana.

There are two ways of thinking about personality. In one, personality is a coherent thing that allows us to make definitive statements about someone, like, “He’s a bitter person” or “She always undermines her own happiness” or “She just makes you feel good about life.” In the other view, personality is sliced up, and so a person can be bitter at times, happy at times, and can be both cruel and loving. In this version, you might say to someone, “He’s such a jerk,” and have that person say, in response, “But he’s always been so nice when I’m around.”

Contradictory and seemingly mysterious behavior can be fodder for great writing, and nowhere is this more true than in Herpreet Singh’s essay, “Choking Out the Natives.” It was published at The Bitter Southerner, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begin with a description of Singh’s father-in-law, introduced this way:

When I started dating Chris, a friend asked, and then many friends asked, bemused, “Do you know he’s Honest Abe’s son?”

Honest Abe, as it turns out, is both a person and a character. He owns a tire shop, and his commercials, in which he starts, are famous in his hometown. We’re given a glimpse of several:

Him, slim and 6 feet 2 inches, a workhorse of a man, wearing gigantic prosthetic ears, shouting to the camera, “Hi, folks! Honest Abe ear — I mean here! I still have WAY too much inventory. I’m not kiddin. HELP! I HAVE A WHOLE BUNCHA TIRES COMIN OUT MY EARS!”

We learn something else about Abe, too:

He is also the man who legally adopted and raised Chris with Chris’s biological mother when Chris was 2 or 3, not that Chris has ever thought of any other person as his dad.

This early portrait of Abe is funny and sympathetic. We like the guy, in part because he’s impossible not to like, a colorful local celebrity, the stuff of great Southern writing. But, of course, it’s not enough to drive an essay. What makes this essay so good is what else we learn about Honest Abe. I won’t spoil it for you, but when it arrives on the page, it’s stunning. (Read it here.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a multifaceted character using “Choking Out the Natives” by Herpreet Singh as a model:

  1. Identify the overriding trait of the character’s personality. This works, incidentally, for fictional and nonfictional characters. For either, think about the character in terms of your emotional reaction. Sure, we can say that somebody is a good person, but if we get incensed thinking about them, then their overriding trait, for us anyway, is something other than goodness. For example, Singh makes her emotional reaction to her father-in-law clear later in the essay, and it’s probably that reaction that prompted the essay. Sum up that trait in a sentence or two.
  2. Identify other traits. Again, follow the emotion—but this time, follow someone else’s emotional reaction. Singh does this at the beginning of the essay, when a friend asks, “Do you know he’s Honest Abe’s son?” For the friend, Honest Abe is an entirely different person than he is to Singh, and her positive reaction reflects that difference. So, how would someone else view the character? Do this as many times as you need. Move through the character’s day and life: childhood and adulthood, work and at home, in public and in private. Find as many traits as you can. Sum each up in a sentence or two.
  3. Start with a trait that seem contradictory to your own reaction. Buy into this trait—don’t give it a half effort. Make the reader believe that this is really how the character is. Singh does this by giving examples—showing the character being the way others perceive him. You’re setting the reader up so that when another, contradictory trait (the more important trait, perhaps, or simply another trait) the reader will be surprised. The contradiction can also drive the story or essay forward as it gives the writing something to chew on: how can a person act in such different ways? That question can be unanswerable, and that’s why it’s worth writing about.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with D Watkins

19 Mar
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essays about living and growing up in Baltimore have been widely published. His essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral, and, since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

March 2015

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

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