Tag Archives: Salon

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.

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How to Defy Readers’ Expectations for Characters

21 Jun
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” was one of the most-read essays of the year in 2014.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us as readers, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay as a whole suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. The essay could work at the level of the broad categories  and still make its point. Yet something would be lost. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. But that’s not what Watkins is interested in writing about. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that many of us are familiar with, which means it’s a language that carries with it certain expectations.

Now, watch how Watkins moves away from those expectations, from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Once the people in the essay are allowed to participate in the discussion, they show their wit and intelligence. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. The line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” not only reveals that the speaker knows about corporate bailouts but also reveals a sense of goofball, idiosyncratic sense of humor. It complicates the portrayal of someone who is “disenfranchised,” a term that can flatten the people it describes.

Once you honor the people’s or characters’ complexity, you can begin to describe the complexity of their world:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

This is a passage that does not fit into much of the political speech we’re hearing at the moment–because it’s complex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. Use Watkins’ headline as a model: “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” Fill in the blanks: Too ___ for ____. This won’t be difficult for essay writers, but it applies to fiction writers as well. Many love stories are about characters who believe they’re too ___ to be loved or, conversely, too ____ for the person who loves them. Most fiction is driven by a sense of a character’s dissatisfaction. What is it in your story?
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: “I call us disenfranchised” and “one of those spots where.” Fill in the blanks: So-and-so calls them _____ because ___” and “It was one of those places that ___.” You’re inherently working with categories, with types of characters or places, and these types carry expectations for readers.
  3. Let the characters or people speak for themselves. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. So, let your characters/people comment on the categories you’ve just made. Imagine that they’ve just read your line from Step 2. Or, someone in the room has said something similar. How would they respond?

The goal is to create categories that are both real and that seem familiar to readers and then let your characters/people surprise you and the reader by speaking for themselves.

Good luck.

Why a Story Should Show Its Dramatic Elements Twice

31 Mar
Nicole Haroutunian's story, "Youse," was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse,” was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming, and was published at The Literarian, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Showing moments twice in a story gives you the opportunity to create parallels. In life, we tend to see something and then react when we see it again because the first experience has stayed with us. In fiction, letting this happen gives characters a chance to reveal more complex sides of themselves. It also provides a sense of depth of vision. The statue of liberty, for instance, might look small if shown by itself, but when a tourist is standing in front of it, you perceive its actual size. The same can be true for stories.

Haroutunian’s story contains two scenes with the same bronze SUV. The first time it appears, the main character, Rae, is walking home from school with her friend, Joanna:

The man inside yells, “How about youse sit on my dick?”

That’s the end of it. The man drives off. What’s more important is the girls’ reactions:

“Did he say ‘youse’?” Rae asks, shuddering.

Joanna rubs her arms as if she’s showering. “Dirty,” she says. “Bad grammar makes me feel dirty.”

“I bet he’s married,” Rae says. “My dad never believes me when I say that men do that. He can’t conceive of it.”

The scene ends with this bit of foreshadowing:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the dude to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). It begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

The scene diverges from the first one in how the girls react:

Rae does not want to hear the rest of his sentence. “How about we fucking kill you?” she yells, kicking her foot in the direction of the car.

“I’m going to scream,” Joanna murmurs. “Let’s scream.”

“No,” Rae says, walking faster. “We’ll get in trouble if someone comes. He just wants attention—he’s full of shit.”

This reaction prompts a response from the man in the SUV:

“What are you going to do?” the guy asks, keeping pace with them. His voice is deep and mean; he’s also dropped the “youse.”

And this is how the scene ends:

Joanna grabs for Rae’s wrist and starts off toward someone’s yard. Rae leans back in opposition. Their tug of war paralyzes them in place. It’s not that she’s being stubborn by not changing course—the yard is full of shrubs, shrubs she can picture lying dead in.

He rolls down the window a little farther. No one is moving.

“I can see you,” Rae says, although she can’t. “We know what you look like.”

He says, “Oh yeah?” in this threatening way, like there’s more he has to say, but before he does, he pops open the passenger door. It swings so close it almost hits them.

Then they’re running.

It’s pretty clear how much this scene appearance of the SUV adds to the story. The first time it rolls up, the girls react the way anyone would: with surprise. It’d be unbelievable if they had the wherewithal to respond to the man in any meaningful way; few people have that kind of presence of mind. So, by reintroducing the SUV later, it gives the girls a chance to respond in almost premeditated way—in a way that reflects some essential thing about their characters. Because those essential things aren’t necessarily compatible with most people’s deeply embedded desire to avoid confrontation, their responses increase the dramatic tension.

On their own, these scenes don’t carry a ton of weight—though they’re certainly compelling. It’s when they’re put into the larger context of the story that they become truly interesting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene twice using “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian as a model:

  1. Write a short scene that interrupts the thread of the story. Fiction is often structured around routine; drama comes from the interruption of that routine. The routine can along the lines of “Everyday Joe read the paper at his favorite coffee shop until one day.” Or it can be the sort of routine that Haroutunian uses. The story begins with two high school girls talking and quick, awkward sexual encounter—pretty common high school behavior. Then the SUV rolls up. So, think about a story that you’re already writing or that you’ve written but which seems incomplete. Find a way to interrupt whatever routine the story has established. Here’s the catch: the interruption doesn’t need to seem significant at first. In “Youse,” the SUV drives away as quickly as it appeared. It’s only when it returns that it really impacts the story. So, don’t make too much of your interruption; just be sure it’s something that can be repeated in some way.
  2. End the scene with foreshadowing. This doesn’t need to be subtle. In “Youse,” the character says, “Next time that dude drives by…” The difference between that phrase and “Wow! Wasn’t that weird?” is the difference between the scene ending with no impact and ending with a bit of resonance that carries forward into the story.
  3. Write the scene again. This time, let your characters respond in a more thoughtful way. This is similar to those moments we all experience, when something happens and we think of the right thing to say only after the moment has ended. In your story, you’re basically giving your characters the chance to react the way that they wished they’d reacted the first time. The nature of this reaction will depend on the kind of story you’re writing and the context for the scene.
  4. Don’t put too much pressure on the scene. It’s no accident that “Youse” doesn’t end with the second appearance of the SUV. Instead, the story continues on, with the emotional impact of the scene carrying forward into what the story is really about—Rae’s relationship with her mom, in the aftermath of her father’s untimely death. So, don’t make your entire story about the scene. Simply use it as a way to provide depth of vision for the part of the story that is foregrounded.

Good luck.

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.

How to Write Complex Characters

17 Mar
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. See how quickly I’m able to sum up those first sentences? The essay could work at the level of the categories I just created and still make its point. Yet something would be lost, and that something would be the people at the heart of the essay. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. If the essay proceeded from the general categories I created, those lives would be reduced. But that’s not what Watkins does. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that plays into expectation, that assumes the reader knows something already about these people.

Now, here is how Watkins moves away from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Imagine how John Steinbeck might have written this scene, the kind of plodding march he would have made toward the thematic conclusion. You can’t miss the point in any of Steinbeck’s writing or in any number of political speeches. And you can’t miss the point here, either. But the essay also allows the people at its heart to participate in the discussion. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. Another writer might have left out the line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” because it reveals that the speaker, Dontay, a man drinking vodka in a tenement, knows about corporate bailouts. It complicates the characterization of someone who is disenfranchised. These are people with thoughts and opinions of their own—and they aren’t always predictable, as Watkins later reveals:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

Good writing should hit the mark it aims for. If it has a point, it should make it. But the writing shouldn’t make that point while honoring the complexity of the world it portrays.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. In a story, this point is usually dramatic: where should the drama/tension stand at the end of the scene? In an essay, this point can be dramatic or thematic. Either way, it’s important to know where you’re headed. Can you sum up the conclusion or how things stand in a phrase as easy to understand as “Too Poor for Pop Culture?”
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: I/they call us/them _____. One of those places that ______. You’re connecting the characters, and, by extension, the setting, with the knowledge or expectations that the readers bring with them.
  3. Let the characters or people speak. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. How can you let your characters or the people in your essay talk about the thing at the heart of your writing?

Good luck.

How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

23 Dec
Owen Egerton's essay about his parents' odd Christmas tradition appeared in Salon last Christmas.

Owen Egerton’s essay, “Jesus never gave Christmas porn,” about his parents’ odd Christmas tradition is heartfelt and excellent.

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines.

After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents. I can’t recommend the essay highly enough, especially its ending, which manages to draw the tension to a close without resolving it. “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” was published at Salon, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay sets up two clear belief systems. The first belongs to Egerton’s parents, especially his father:

My father grew up as the son of a minister in rural England. He never embraced his own father’s faith. Instead he became a practical man of medicine who viewed sex as a pleasant and necessary part of the human life cycle. Sex was never a taboo subject in our house. Sex was something to talk about, laugh about and responsibly explore. Sure, buying your kids pornography might seem at tad unorthodox, but at the heart of the gift was my parents’ desire to instill a healthy view of sex in their children.

This humanistic view of sex was paired with Egerton’s parents’ attitude toward Christianity:

There was another reason my parents felt compelled to give flesh mags. Pornography was a way to simultaneously celebrate the holiday and keep its more religious themes at bay. Christ got no preferential treatment in our house.

The result was stockings filled with Christmas-themed pornography magazines. Like most children, Egerton went along with his parents’ beliefs when young. But as he reached his teens, he began to explore ideas outside of those accepted at home:

The summer of my 16th year, I spent a week at a Christian summer camp and came back home a born-again Christian. The very night I returned, before my bags were unpacked or my new Adventure New Testament was cracked, I opened my bottom desk drawer, removed three years of well-used Christmas pornography and dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even take a final peek.

With one swift act, I replaced my father’s humanistic view of lust for a moralistic, evangelical view. Lust, I now understood, was in itself a sin.

Like any teen with a new idea, Egerton tried to convince his parents of its worth:

I put my parents through laborious conversations and countless clumsy metaphors, trying to get them to see what I saw so clearly. They were patient, nodding at my testimonials and refilling their wine glasses, but they were not to be moved.

This is where the essay reveals its greatness. As readers, we want endings to resolve tension. But how can this tension be resolved? Egerton’s parents weren’t going to change his minds, and he wasn’t going to change his (at least not for several years). He could have ended by fast forwarding to that subsequent conversion, but what would it accomplish? Many people change their minds about things—even about beliefs that, like religious tenants, are often central to our identity. And, of course, most of us make ridiculous claims and arguments when we’re teenagers. So, an ending that resolves the religious conflict avoids, in a way, the basic tension of the essay: when you love someone but don’t agree with them, how do you live together?

As a teen, Egerton handled the conflict by giving his father a rolled-up scroll with a hand-written Bible verse. In the essay, he handles the ending like this:

We sat in our living room on that Christmas morning, he with the scroll of verses and me with an unopened Penthouse, both feeling his gift had not been appreciated, both sure the other just didn’t get it, both believing the other was drifting down a path that led to something like damnation and wanting more than anything to rescue them. I was trying to save my dad and he was trying to save me. And neither of us knew how.

In the end, Egerton doesn’t try to resolve the conflict. Instead, he can only acknowledge the impossibility of resolving it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s conclude a moment of tension without resolving the underlying conflict, using “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Identify the conflicting beliefs or desires. This likely seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprisingly easy to write an entire essay or story without clearly defining this conflict. Or, we’ll define one but fail to put that belief or desire into direct conflict with a competing belief or desire. (A story about someone in love who never makes the feeling known is a story without a conflict.) So, try this exercise with the major characters in your story or essay: Have them say, “I really want_____” or “I really believe_____.” Force them to make explicitly what might presently only be tacitly understood.
  2. Put the beliefs or desire into conflict. Perhaps you have a major conflict in mind (a clear destination for the story), and, if so, that’s great. But you may want to introduce the conflict in a smaller way before the big blowup arrives. In Egerton’s essay, we know that he’ll get porn in his stocking even though he’s become a born-again Christian. But Christmas morning is not the first appearance of the conflict. Instead, he shows public scenes of dinner-table debate and private signs of belief (dumping the old magazines in the trash). These scenes end politely but with the conflict clearly unresolved. How can you introduce the conflict so that everyone behaves well? How can you create the anticipation in the reader of a bigger blow-up to come?
  3. Consider the possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. An ending that resolves the conflict neatly—so that all tension that was created in the beginning is now gone—can be disappointing. To avoid this let down, consider this what-if question: If the conflict cannot be resolved, and the characters cannot permanently separate themselves, what then? This is the conflict that causes so much stress during the holidays. People move away from their families (often a source of conflict) but then are forced to sit at the same table and stay in the same house as them for a few days. Every year, you’ll hear people asking, “How do I get through the holiday?” Let your characters ask this same question. What does it mean to remain close to someone with whom you have an essential conflict? The answer may be your ending.

Good luck and happy holidays!

An Interview with Roxane Gay

27 Jun
Roxane Gay is the author of X and the editor of X. She teaches at X.

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, an editor at both The Rumpus and PANK, and a regular contributor at Salon, where this excellent piece about the Paula Deen controversy recently appeared..

When Roxane Gay claims in the bio on her website, that “I write things,” she’s not being vague, only inclusive. Her long list of publications includes the story collection Ayiti and appearances in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus. On top of all of that, she teaches writing as an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.

In this interview, Gay discusses what it means to write a story in the guise of a restaurant menu, the virtues of exposition, and her response to people who claim that there are not that many good writers of color.

(For an exercise based on her menu-themed story “Contrapasso” click here.)

Michael Noll

The first thing every reader will notice about “Contrapasso” is its structure–which is amazing. I’ve never seen a story like it. How did using the conceit of a menu affect how you wrote the story? Did you write the story first and apply it to the structure, or did you take the menu structure and write a story that would make sense within it?

Roxane Gay

This story went through a few drafts. It’s been a while since I wrote this story but even though it has been through a few drafts, the menu structure was always a part of the story. Originally, it was just a few dishes and I was focused more on seven deadly sins and there wasn’t much story there. The editor of Artifice sent me some editorial suggestions and I really took them to heart, and expanded the story into a full blown narrative and the menu structure still worked really well, particularly because I fully committed to it in the revision.

Michael Noll

Just the other day, I heard someone advocating for “show, don’t tell,” but this story seems to show by telling. In part because of the structure, it rarely descends into a scene for longer than a few sentences. There is almost no extended dialogue. Several stories are told that begin and end within a single paragraph (about the cheesemonger, about cooking lobster.) As a result, I’m curious what your attitude is toward that that old advice of “show don’t tell”?

Roxane Gay

We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.

Michael Noll

The “Writing” page on your website is kind of astounding. You’ve published more than 100 stories and many essays. How do you produce so much material? What does your writing process look like?

Roxane Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia quite often and I also write fast because I’m always thinking through story and essay ideas in my head. My writing process involves a lot of procrastination and then sitting down and just writing and writing and writing until I can’t write anymore.

Michael Noll

Roxane Gay's essay "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere" in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It's long and wonderful, especially if you're a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Roxane Gay’s essay “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It’s long and wonderful, especially if you’re a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Last summer, you wrote a piece for The Rumpus (We Are Many. We Are Everywhere) about the idea within the publishing world that the reason writers of color have little visibility is that there simply are not very many of them. So you put together a list. You also said this: “This is not a token list of writers to go to when you need someone to write about race—these writers write about a wide range of subjects.” What reaction did this statement get? What do you think needs to happen so that a statement like that is no longer necessary?

Roxane Gay

Great question. That whole project was really successful. A great list of writers was compiled. I don’t know that the statement you highlighted got a specific reaction but I included it because all too often, people tend to think that writers from a certain group should only write about issues specific to that group. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t compiling a list of race-related subject matter experts. I was compiling a list of writers who happen to be of different races and ethnicities. For a statement like that to no longer be necessary, a list like the one I compiled no longer needs to be necessary. We’re a long way from there.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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