Tag Archives: political writing

An Interview with Daniel Oppenheimer

3 Mar
Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer’s book Exit Right has received rapturous reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: “This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more.”

Daniel Oppenheimer’s articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com. He earned a BA in religious studies from Yale and an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia. He lives in Austin with his wife, the historian and psychotherapist Jessica Grogan, and his kids Jolie and Asa. He is Director of Strategic Communications for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century is his first book.

To read an exercise about revealing tension indirectly, inspired by Exit Right, click here.

In this interview, Oppenheimer discusses quoting versus paraphrasing, the most under-recognized tool in the nonfiction writer’s trade, and the most insightful comparison of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz I’ve seen yet.

Michael Noll

I love the passage about Whittaker Chambers’ parents, the way they used everything in the world as a proxy battle for their mutual dislike of each other: the house that Chambers’ father allowed to go into disrepair, the way they treated their kids. You quote Chambers on this subject, but you also write about it in your own words. How did you know what to quote and what to summarize, what to footnote and what to pass by un-noted?

Daniel Oppenheimer

When it comes to quoting vs. paraphrasing or characterizing, I’m always trying to balance a few considerations. I like quoting, and particularly with someone like Whittaker Chambers, who was such an evocative writer, there’s great value in quoting him directly. He gives a good quote.

At the same time I think readers, for whatever reason, tend to zone out and begin to skim if you quote at too great length. I don’t usually love it, as a reader, when I encounter too many or too lengthy quotations. It feels like the writer fell too much in love with the material and lost sight of the reader—maybe also like they’re wanting the quotes to do their work for them. There are exceptions to that generalization. I think of someone like Janet Malcolm, who will quote from her interviews for pages, or of WG Sebald, who will also quote for pages. I’ll follow them anywhere, including into incredibly long quotations.

But they’re brilliant, and there’s also something about what they’re trying to do, as writers, that’s well served by their techniques. Malcolm is fascinated by the stories people tell about themselves, and so it makes sense that she shows that process at length. Sebald is trying to blur boundaries between himself and others, and the present and the past, so it serves that end for him, particularly since (if memory serves) he usually doesn’t even use quotation marks to signal that he’s begun quoting. It all kind of blends together.

I haven’t yet hit upon a method that feels organic that allows me to quote at great length, so I treat quotations in a more conventional way, and in general try to be somewhat sparing. In practice, I tend to include more quotes in the early drafts and then pare away as I revise, leaving only the ones that really work and seem really necessary in terms of giving a flavor of who the person was and how they saw the world.

I also like summarizing, paraphrasing, and distilling for their own sakes. Or at least I like having done it well. Some of my best writing happens, I think, when I’m trying to sum up what someone else thinks or has said. I’m trying to inhabit them, and at the same time to overlay in a subtle way the additional perspective that I bring to their story. In truth it can be a pretty sneaky thing to do, when I pull it off. I make it seem like I’m just paraphrasing or summarizing, but I’m actually inflecting the readers’ interpretation of what’s going on in a rather manipulative way.

In terms of footnoting, it’s less complex. I’m not an academic, so I don’t feel the need to footnote everything or list every source. I needed to do some of it for a few reasons: to legitimize myself, to serve that academic purpose at a basic level, and also to occasionally draw attention to other books or articles or writing that deserve to be read. I also, like a lot of writers, use the footnotes as a basin of last resort for passages that it made sense to cut from the main text, for reasons of flow and space, but that feel too good to just get rid of entirely.

Michael Noll

Many of the reviews (New Yorker, AtlanticNew Republic, Washington Post, Barnes & Noble) of the book have noted its terrific prose, and I agree. For example, you write this about the 1920s: “Any kind of sickness—an infected hangnail, a fever, a cough—might be the first domino in a short cascade that led to death. Epidemics and pandemics rolled across the populace like stampedes. Fires took out cities.” This is such vivid language, active and compelling for what is essentially a passage with a mechanical role: give the reader a sense for Chambers’ world. What was your process for writing the book? Did you research and take notes and then write? Or did you write as you researched? I guess I’m wondering at the head space that passages like this one came out of.

Daniel Oppenheimer

I’m glad you like that passage. I’m happy with myself every time I read it. My wife will laugh when she sees you quoting that, and will probably make an obscene joke about how happy it must have made me.

Daniel Oppenheimer's political biography, Exit Right, tells the story of six men who converted from the American left to American Conservatism—with an eye toward what the history and experience that set the stage for their conversions.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s political biography, Exit Right, tells the story of six men who converted from the American left to American Conservatism—with an eye toward what the history and experience that set the stage for their conversions.

I think I have a few other passages in the book that do that same kind of thing, distilling a lot of historical or social background into a few tight, evocative paragraphs, and I’m excessively proud of them. This kind of distillation has to be among the most under-recognized and under-theorized tools of the nonfiction writer’s trade. There should be entire craft classes on how to do this, because you need that background in a lot of historical and journalistic writing, and yet it’s so tempting to do it in a half-assed way, to knock it out in workman-like prose so you can get back to the sexy stuff. And I get it. It’s hard work, and when you do it well it’s pretty self-effacing. You’ll rarely be recognized for doing it well (unless you get interviewed by Michael Noll, apparently). But it’s so important. And if you do it poorly, it just slows the narrative down so much.

In answer to your specific questions, I started out the book doing a whole bunch of research before I began writing. That was a good way to go, in terms of writing passages like that one, but it was a bad way to go in terms of finishing the book in anywhere near a reasonable amount of time. So for Hitchens (which I wrote first even though it’s the last chapter chronologically), Chambers, and Burnham, I did it that way. Then I realized I needed to speed up if I was ever going to finish the book, so with Reagan, Podhoretz, and Horowitz it was more the latter strategy, researching and writing at the same time. I’d do a bit of reading in advance, usually the main biographies and autobiographies, and then I’d begin writing while also delving into the rest of the material (their writings from the time, what their colleagues had to say, other people’s memoirs, etc.). My guess is that these latter three chapters have fewer of the kinds of passages you quoted, which is too bad. At the same time I think they’re lighter and more fluid in some appealing ways. Research can sometimes weigh you down. So I honestly don’t know which strategy worked best for me, purely in terms of the quality of the book.

Michael Noll

You write this about Chambers: “There are different ways of reading the arc of Chambers.” This is probably true about all of the men you profile. About Christopher Hitchens, who abandoned the left several decades after Chambers, you summarize the view of his conversion from the left, from the right, and from his own eyes. These different ways of reading these men can make it difficult to see them with fresh eyes, but you can hardly avoid the filters and spin. How did you find your own way of seeing the men?

Daniel Oppenheimer

I was talking to my brother the other day about why it is that no one has written this book before, about people who’ve gone from the left to the right. In a way it seems like an obvious book to write. My theory, which he liked, and which touches on this question, is that I brought to the project a rare mix of humility and arrogance (or at least confidence).

What’s humble is that I’m just taking what everyone else has already written and said on the subject and synthesizing and summarizing and distilling it. I’m not venturing any great theses about history. I’m not uncovering any new material on these people. I’m not even offering radical new takes on them. Most writers who could pull off something like this have too much ego and ambition to be so self-effacing.

The arrogance is that I trusted that there was something about the way I write, and the way my brain works, that was going to produce writing that felt fresh even though I was going over territory that has been so thoroughly gone over before. A lot of writers, I suspect, would it find it daunting to have to say something new about folks like Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens, who’ve been written about so many times over so many years. I didn’t worry about it so much. I trusted my voice.

Michael Noll

The book is remarkably understanding of its subjects, several of whom were often not viewed charitably by the people who knew them best. In the introduction, you write, “We can make judgments—we can’t not make judgements—but they should be made with an awareness of how hard it is to be a person in the world, period, and how much more confusing that task can become when you take on responsibility for repairing or redeeming it.” As you researched and thought about these men in this humanizing light, you must have found yourself identifying with them. That is the goal of humanizing people, right? If you did identify with them, could you begin to identify with their political conversions and beliefs? In the words, did the book affect your own political views at all?

Daniel Oppenheimer

I did find myself identifying with these men. In a sense that was the method of the book. Let’s see what it looks like when I try to see as deeply into their stories as possible, through their eyes, and then complement that with the perspective I can bring to their lives as someone who is not them, who can see certain things about them more clearly because I’m not them.

Daniel Oppenheimer's essay, "What Donald Trump Learned from Ronald Reagan's Flip-Flops," appeared in the Washington Post.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s essay, “What Donald Trump Learned from Ronald Reagan’s Flip-Flops,” appeared in the Washington Post.

I was writing an essay recently on Donald Trump, whose views I find truly awful, and the more I read about him the more sympathetic I became, to the point where there’s a part of me that kind of wants him to win the Republican nomination, simply because he’s the only one to whom I’ve cathected in that basic way. I watch him up on stage, at the debates, and I feel for him when he loses control. That’s just how my brain works. It would be interesting to do an experiment in which I spent a lot of time researching Ted Cruz just to see if the same thing would happen. I suspect not. I think Cruz is empathy-proof. I think he’s done such a good job of polishing off anything in him that’s vulnerable that there are no visible cracks left. I need the cracks to get access. Donald is almost all cracks.

So does this process of identification influence my politics? Well, yes I’m sure it does, but not in a very linear way, any more than a novelist is likely to be influenced in a linear way by writing with empathy about characters who are evil, or who do evil. The novelist doesn’t become more evil as a result of that, or more likely to do evil. What they become is more able to comprehend why someone might do evil. I’m sure that could lead to more evil, depending on the novelist’s character, but my guess is that it’s more likely to result in the opposite, in a deepening of the empathizer’s humanity and capacity for goodness. I haven’t become more conservative, but I like to think that I’ve become more understanding of why someone might leave the left, and why they might embrace conservatism.

If anything, I’ve probably gotten more ruthless as a leftist. It doesn’t feel as personal anymore. It’s about power, and who wields it, and how to change the balance of power to better achieve the ends I’d like to see achieved. I have empathy for the people on the other side. I don’t think they’re bad people just because they don’t share my political priorities. If I were super rich, for instance, I’d probably persuade myself that my wealth was a manifestation of my virtue, and that a healthy society is one that celebrates the wealthy and recognizes them as the natural leaders of their fellow men and women. I can imagine that. But I think it’s a toxic perspective when it acquires too much influence in the polity, and that that’s the best reason to do what we can to diminish the power and influence of the wealthy. It’s not personal. In fact, in that project making it too personal can obscure the best strategies. I don’t need them to be evil. I just need them to lose.

I read Saul Alinsky not too long ago, and what struck me about him was how pragmatic and non-moralizing he was about what he did. He wanted the world to be a certain way. The other side wanted it to be a different way. Both sides were going to do what they could to win, and he was going to be as clever and rude and tough and sneaky as he could be to increase the odds that his side won. Of course he cared deeply, and could get angry, but he had a real ability to see his political opponents with empathy and detachment, and to imagine the world through their eyes, and that helped him enormously in defeating them.

I’m no Saul Alinsky, but I think I have some of that in me. Honestly, someone should hire me to devise strategies to take down conservative politicians. I think I’d be a brilliant, ruthless, empathetic bastard.

March 2016

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

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An Interview with Jess Stoner

9 Oct
Jess Stoner's essay, "Blues on Wheels," about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired hundreds of postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner’s essay, “Blues on Wheels,” about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired many postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Her work has been published in The Morning News, The Rumpus, Burnt Orange Report, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Colorado and previously lived in Austin, where she worked for the United States Postal Service. Stoner wrote about the illegal and abusive labor practices that she experienced as a postal carrier in the essay “Blues on Wheels.”

To read “Blues on Wheels” and an exercise on writing for a hostile audience, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay contains so many stories of abuse and working conditions that are not only unsafe but illegal. How did you know where to begin telling them? When there is so much to tell, how do you figure out what to put in the essay, what to leave out, and how to organize the stories and details that you choose to include?

Jess Stoner

The most important thing I did, for myself, was wait a few months after I quit to even think about putting anything coherent together. I needed some emotional distance, because I knew it had to be bigger than just “The Post Office is the worst! Feel bad for me!”

Once we moved from Texas to Colorado, I had even more breathing room, and I started researching the history of the USPS.  It wasn’t until after I had read hundreds of posts on postal worker forums and a few books, including Mailman, USA, written by a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, that I started to truly understand my experience as a part of a larger narrative.

One thing I knew for certain was that no one outside the USPS understands what the job is like—that’s such a lonely space to inhabit seven days a week. In addition, a fantastic editor I worked with at The Morning News, Rosecrans Baldwin, encouraged me to include not just the micro details (like what a typical morning looks like) but the macro (the historical and political) as well.

I was finally ready to finish the essay after telling a friend about the 40,000 words I had written. His response was: “That’s not an essay, that’s a book.” And that simple answer was so freeing. So maybe I wouldn’t talk about how letter carriers see and feel a city changing in unique ways (a house is torn down and three duplexes are built in its space—multiplying by six the amount of mail and packages you have to deliver); but it could still be a chapter in the book.

Michael Noll

The Dallas Morning News reported that "one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature."

The Dallas Morning News reported that “one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature.”

You mention that Texas, where you worked, is a right-to-work state, which means the power of unions is severely limited. Texas is not alone; it’s one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which is not surprising. Generally speaking, Americans are not particularly sympathetic to issues of worker safety or abuse. Perhaps it’s due to that old Protestant work ethic: work hard, don’t complain. Or perhaps it’s a result of the poor economy; when so many people are out of work or underemployed, they may have little interest in hearing complains from people with jobs. It seemed that you had these attitudes in mind as you wrote. For instance, you mention your work ethic, which was instilled by your lower middle class background. You remind readers that you could have quit if you wanted to; the job wasn’t a matter of avoiding destitution. I’m curious when these passages entered the essay. Where they always present? Did you have the readers’ skepticism in mind from the beginning? Or did you add them later after getting some initial feedback?

Jess Stoner

It wasn’t just the reader’s skepticism I was worried about; I was worried the entire time I worked at the Post Office that my colleagues would think I wasn’t cut out for the job. It meant everything to me to work hard and earn their respect.

And I was even more worried, from the very first day of training, that if my colleagues knew my background, they would think I accepted the position as an experiment, as fodder for something I’d write about later. In reality, I was proud to deliver the mail, and for the first two months or so, I naively hoped that it would be the last job I ever had.

You know, we hear a lot about the dignity of work. Politicians from the left and right, including President Obama, talk about how a job gives you dignity. I call bullshit. The people I worked with at the Post Office were good parents and grandparents; they were veterans; some of them talked about their strong faith—they all have an innate dignity that has nothing to do with how they earn a paycheck. From them, from my own experiences, and from the experiences of my friends who work at chain restaurants or are sales clerks at big box retailers, I have learned an incredibly important lesson: Work is just what millions of Americans do, despite the indignity.

The Texas Tribune's series "Hurting for Work" reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed "The Texas Miracle."

The Texas Tribune’s series “Hurting for Work” reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed “The Texas Miracle.”

I mean, for Christ’s sake, the Austin City Council had to pass an ordinance requiring employers to give construction workers rest breaks. According to The Dallas Morning News, one out of every three construction workers in Dallas isn’t allowed to take a water break—even when it’s 110 degrees outside. The Texas Tribune did an excellent, and, I think, award-deserving series called “Hurting for Work,” that details the terrible conditions workers face throughout the state. That more people aren’t horrified and publicly demanding change makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Michael Noll

At one point, you describe getting bit by a dog (unleashed, unfenced), and your supervisor’s reaction was, “You’re probably going to get fired.” I can only imagine how incensed and upset you must have been at this. How were you able to control those emotions to write about the incident? Was it a matter of letting some time pass? Or did you use some other strategy to direct your anger?

Jess Stoner

In the moment I was blown away—my vision and mind went white—I felt like I had Saramago’s blindness. I had known, mostly only theoretically, of workman’s comp laws, of OSHA rules—they don’t exactly come up in faculty meetings and I hadn’t worked outside of a university, the state government, or a non-profit in years. I assumed that these laws existed and they were respected. Beyond my initial bewilderment and subsequent anger, I felt, more than anything, beaten down and depressed.

For weeks and months after I quit, I felt a strangling guilt over the fact that I had given up, that I could give up, that I abandoned the carriers and CCAs I worked with who had been so kind and supportive. I had to shake that off though. I had the privilege of walking away. Now what was I going to do with it?

Michael Noll

This essay falls into the long tradition of muckraker journalism: from Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat packing industry to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, about the conditions faced by the working poor. As such, it’s making highly critical claims about not only the USPS as a whole but also individual employees who behaved badly. Did you have concerns about legal repercussions of publishing the essay—libel, for instance? I know that you changed the names of the people involved, but I’m curious what other steps you may have taken to protect yourself from lawsuits or other legal retribution.

Jess Stoner

I’m beyond flattered that you consider my essay in concert with Ehrenreich—whose book I, coincidentally, re-read when I was writing the essay—the margins are full of my notes (like that part about why many low-paid workers get real pleasure from their short cigarette breaks: “Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.”). Nickle and Dimed, in so many ways, is even more depressing to read now; since its publication in 2001, workers are barely making more per hour, and, as we approach a divisive midterm election and are heading into 2016, so few are talking about the burden of affordable housing—which is a huge part of the book.

I have heard from a number of supervisors since the essay was published, and I realize that in my book, I need to include their experiences—because they’re under terrible pressure as well. One thing I regret is cutting a few lines about my supervisor. While I couldn’t predict when the day would go bad, we started each day off with a hospitable “Good Morning,” and no matter what happened afterward, I appreciated that. On my last day, when I had to come back early from a route because my back was so messed up I couldn’t breathe, she happened to be in the office, visiting from her new station, and she was phenomenal—didn’t yell at me, recognized that I needed immediate medical attention. I was so grateful she was there and not the district supervisor.

As for libel, while I’m not thinking, “Come at me bro,” everything I wrote was true, and if I were threatened with legal action, I think the USPS might have to deal with the Streisand Effect. Since the article was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from carriers, clerks, maintenance workers, and even people who work in upper management, who wrote to thank me for sharing my story, because theirs are all too similar. Many have signed their emails, “Too afraid to give my name,” and while I understand why they would do so, it both breaks my heart and encourages me to continue my work.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Build a Political Argument around a Personal Story

24 Jun
Domingo Martinez' memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, "Quarantined," appeared in The New Republic.

Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, “Quarantined,” appeared in The New Republic.

It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.

One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.

How the Story Works

The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.

The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:

I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”

The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:

My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.

The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”

Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:

Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.

He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?

Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”

Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:

  1. Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
  2. Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
  3. Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
  4. Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
  5. Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
  6. Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
  7. Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
  8. If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.

Good luck!

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