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An Interview with Jennifer duBois

6 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer Dubois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer duBois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included in at least eight best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Dubois attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed a Stegnor Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and others. She was the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award, and she currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

In this interview, duBois discusses sentence structure and style, her reason for telling a story from multiple points of view, and how she chose Buenos Aires as the setting for Cartwheel.

To read the opening pages of Cartwheel and an exercise on controlling narrative pace with sentence structure, click here.

Michael Noll

The book is a whodunit thriller, and yet the sentences move at a deliberative, almost stately pace. The sentences rarely move in a smooth, straight line. In the first paragraph, for instance, four out of the five sentences contain a phrase that is literally offset by punctuation: commas, dashes, or hyphens. The same thing happens throughout the novel, and, as a result, I was forced to slow down instead of racing ahead to see what happened on the next page–which was a pleasurable relief. Anxious page flipping always causes me to feel as though I’m blindly devouring a jumbo bag of Doritos. I’m curious how aware you were of this sentence style. Was the pace purposeful or simply the way your voice appears on the page? Or was it something that began naturally but fine-tuned through revision?

Jennifer duBois

I never thought of the book as a whodunit, or even really as a thriller. To me Cartwheel is more of a whoisit than a whodunit, I guess you could say: I wanted readers to experience a sense of suspense regarding the question of who Lily Hayes really was, and what they thought she was capable of; I wanted the plot’s twists and turns to stem not only from events, but from readers’ shifting interpretations of those events. And so the sentence structure wasn’t really a conscious effort to slow down the pace; I think I probably do tend to write long sentences anyway—and I definitely get a lot of mileage out of the em dash (case in point). And that tendency was probably amplified by the fact that each chapter is embedded so deeply in each character’s perspective. I really hoped that readers would be persuaded by the logic of each character’s thinking while they were with them, so I tried to capture that thinking in as much detail as I could—there’s a lot of time spent in each of their heads.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from four different points of view: the accused murderer, her father, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. As a finished product, the novel seems whole and complete, but I imagine that in the early stage of writing it, you were unsure of basic things such as whose point of view to follow. There are other important characters in the novel, but their actions take place mostly off the page. Was it difficult to decide on these four viewpoints? Did you ever try writing from the POV of any other characters?

Jennifer duBois

I knew from the beginning that I would include the prosecutor’s and Lily’s father’s point of view, since it seemed natural to hear from a character totally convinced of Lily’s guilt and a character totally convinced of her innocence. I also knew I’d include Lily’s point of view, but that her sections would end the night of the murder—I wanted her chapters to offer psychological revelations about her character, but not factual revelations about the crime itself. The fourth point of view, Sebastien’s, was the last addition. I liked the idea of hearing from a character whose sympathies weren’t necessarily so pre-ordained as the prosecutor’s or Lily’s father’s were. I also liked the idea of introducing another character whose behavior inspires wildly different reactions, and whose interiority doesn’t always match the way he’s externally perceived. I didn’t think Lily should be the only character in the book who is at the mercy of other people’s interpretations—because in real life, we all are. To misquote St. Francis, I wanted Lily not only to be misunderstood, but to misunderstand.

 Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sense of place. It’s set in Buenos Aires, but most of the action takes place in a series of closed spaces, not just houses but rooms in houses: Lily’s bedroom, the parlor in her boyfriend’s house, the prosecutor’s bedroom, the rooms in the jail cell where Lily is allowed to talk to her family and lawyers, and the inside of a restaurant where Lily worked. The rest of Buenos Aires appears only briefly, through Lily’s photographs (or as she tours the city, photographing it) or the travels of the other characters to and from the prison. I can imagine beginning this novel and feeling the need to capture the city, to do a kind of travel-show introduction. But this never happens. Were those passages cut, or did you know from the beginning how to approach descriptions of the city?

Jennifer duBois

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin's political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington's Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin’s political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington’s Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

That’s such an interesting observation and question—I never really thought about the number of closed spaces in the book, but you’re totally right. I think it relates to my sense of the book as being “set” in a hazy sphere of personal perception much more than in an objective external reality. There were a few reasons I selected Buenos Aires—I needed a city an American study abroad student might fall in love with, in a country with a judicial system similar enough to our own that said student might not be aware of some key differences. I wanted a country with a language that an American college student might have mastered sufficiently to feel overly confident in. I thought that setting the book in a Catholic country could provide an interesting dimension to its exploration of misogyny/ideas about female sexuality, and that setting the book in a country with such a fraught history with the U.S. could add an interesting angle to the questions about American entitlement/anti-American resentment. But ultimately I didn’t see Cartwheel as trying to depict a particular place as much as trying to depict four different characters’ minds. In a very fundamental way I think Cartwheel is a story that could have been set anywhere—this was very different from my first book, A Partial History of Lost Causes, in which the Russian setting is, in many ways, the book’s soul. And so that’s probably partly why Cartwheel doesn’t linger in the Argentinean setting very much; I hope that readers believe Buenos Aires as the book’s backdrop, but I think its real setting is in the characters’ heads (talk about enclosed spaces).

Michael Noll

 A lot of young writers tend to stick close to home with their work, but this isn’t the case for you. So far, your novels have been about characters who seem, at least on the surface, pretty different than yourself: an American exchange student charged with murder, a father, an Argentinean prosecutor, a Russian chess champion and political dissident. Plus, your novels have mostly been set in countries other than the United States. What draws your imagination to these characters and places? Are you drawing on the books that you read as a child? Were you a news and Time magazine junky as a kid?

Jennifer duBois

I don’t think my own life has really been interesting enough to generate a ton of material for fiction—but even if it had been, I’m not sure writing about it would appeal to me very much. I’m in my own life and memories every day anyway, and there is a real limit to my curiosity about myself. For me, the fun of fiction writing is in imagining lives and experiences that are very different from my own, and in getting to explore ideas or situations that I think are interesting. And because I’ve always been interested in other countries–and in international politics in particular (I was a political science major in college)—that interest winds up showing up in my fiction, along with assorted other preoccupations and hobbies and fun facts and jokes and pet conspiracy theories, etc. If I’m curious about it, it’s going in.

February 2014

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

How to Control Narrative Pace with Sentence Structure

4 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' novel Cartwheel has been called...

The writing in Jennifer Dubois’ novel Cartwheel was described in The New York Times as “a pleasure: electric, fine-tuned, intelligent, conflicted.”

Maybe you’ve had this experience: you’re deep into a gripping novel, hooked by the plot and dying to know what happens next, when you realize that you aren’t actually reading the book anymore. Instead, you’re skimming pages. The writing is still strong; you’d like to slow down and enjoy the sentences, but you can’t. You need to find out what comes next right now.

As a writer, this might seem like a victory: you’ve written a page-turner. But this type of reading also makes many of the actual words in the book superfluous. Wouldn’t it be nice to set an intriguing plot into motion and keep the reader’s attention on each sentence and detail?

This is precisely the feat that Jennifer duBois has pulled off in her novel Cartwheel. It was inspired by, though not based on, the Amanda Knox trial, and has been called a “tabloid tragedy elevated to high art,” by Entertainment Weekly. You can read the opening pages here (click on “Look Inside”).

How the Story Works

If the plot of Cartwheel pushes us forward, making us want to turn the page, the sentences slow us down, directing our attention to nuances. The sentences are not long or difficult to read, but they are structurally complex, filled with interruptions and asides. Notice how many of the sentences in the first paragraph do not move in a straight line:

Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time. Outside the window, the sun was a hideous orb, bleeding orange light through wavering heat. Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this. The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped. Neither could it be mitigated by the knowledge—always understood but now finally believed—that the things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.

The sentences use punctuation (commas, dashes, and parentheses) like detour signs. Some of these detours are long (“no irony was lost on him ever”), some are short (“as promised”), and some are a string of short detours (“to anywhere, for anything, though especially here, for this). The information they deliver varies widely. The phrase “no irony was lost on him ever” tells us a great deal about character. “Always understood but now finally believed” neatly lays out an eternal, psychological truth.

But what about the first one: “as promised”?

Planes land according to schedule all the time. Or they don’t, and no one is put out except in minor ways. Or the consequences are serious (missed connections, overnight stays in unfamiliar cities) but so common that they’re rarely noteworthy. If this paragraph was being discussed in a workshop, someone would almost certainly suggest cutting the phrase. And yet those two words—”as promised—perform an essential function. They force the reader to slow down, if only a little, and this is important because subsequent sentences will ask the reader to slow down even more. To some extent, the entire novel is about slowing down. It’s told from the point of view of multiple characters, each perspective often correcting or complicating the others. As much as the story moves forward, it also moves downward, deepening our understanding of the characters. If we’re racing along, flipping pages, we might miss most of what the novel offers. And so the sentences slow the reader to the pace required to truly enjoy the book.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing three short sentences that contain detours, using the opening paragraph from Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois as a model:

Sentence 1: Taking nothing for granted

  1. Write a sentence about a character entering a scene. This kind of sentence tends to drive writers crazy: walking characters through doors or into rooms, moving them from one place to another, sitting them down to a meeting or dinner or date. It’s a mechanical part of any story. Keep it simple, and then we’ll add to it.
  2. Suggest that some part of that sentence could have happened (or did happen) differently. Here is what duBois writes: “Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time.” The “as promised” suggests that the plan could have arrived late or early. It’s a small detail, but it makes a mechanical, dull sentence take the reader by surprise and, perhaps, a bit uneasy. So, if your sentence is “He walked into the room,” you could change it to “He walked—tripped, really—into the room.” Notice what a difference this makes, how it catches your attention.

Sentence 2: Adding a postscript about desire

  1. Write a sentence about something a character needs or wants. The desire could be for anything: a Coke, a different job, somebody to love. It might be helpful to locate the character in a place, like this: “The sun was shining down on the stadium, and she desperately needed a Coke.”
  2. Add a note at the end about the desired thing. Here is what duBois writes: “Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this.” The passage after the hyphen makes it clear how much he needs the Valium and wine. So, if your sentence is “She needed a Coke,” you could add, “She needed a Coke—right here, right now, even if it cost her twenty dollars.” This kind of postscript mimics the way we often talk in real life—children and adults alike.

Sentence 3: Interrupting your own train of thought

  1. Write a sentence about a character’s personality. You might identify a trait or a tendency that exists despite the difficulties it causes: “Another drink would cause him to start shooting off his mouth, but he walked to the bar anyway” or “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming, but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”
  2. Add an aside that interrupts the flow of the sentence entirely. duBois writes, “The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped.” The parenthetical aside gives the character a measure of self-awareness, which can be useful later in a story when the character must make an important decision. An easy way to add an aside is to let the character comment on his/her own trait or tendency. So, my sentence about correcting people in public might become “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming (those twerps who worked as aids to powerful men were always insisting on manners), but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”

By writing sentences with detours, you may find that your story becomes looser, with room for characters to move about and think and forget, even momentarily, about the plot you’ve put them in. Perhaps you’ll write a page-turner that makes the reader stick to every word out of fear of missing something great.

Good luck!

How to Write a Dream Sequence

20 Aug
Paul Yoon's novel, Snow Hunters, was published by Simon and Schuster. It follows the travels of Yohan, a Korean who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil.

Paul Yoon’s novel, Snow Hunters, follows the travels of Yohan, a man who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil. The novel prompted a New York Times reviewer to write, “One of the gratifications of literature is to know a character in a book more completely than we can know people in real life.”

Some writing teachers make a rule for stories submitted in workshop: No dreams. No dream sequences. They make this rule because badly written dreams are all the same. They “show” a character’s inner torments/thoughts rather than artfully imbedding them into the narrative. But if fiction is, in any way, supposed to imitate life, then dreams are fair game. The question is how to write them well.

Paul Yoon has written one of the best dream sequences I’ve ever read in his new novel Snow Hunters. You can read the first chapter here. The dream begins at the bottom of page 16.

How the Story Works

The passage begin with Yohan falling asleep and hearing sounds through the open window:

“the tapping of the rain and voices and a car and then a ship’s horn. A single chime of a church bell. a door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine. He heard aircraft and the dust spraying from trucks and the wind against the tents”

We get a short reflection on this noise from Yohan (“it was faint and calm and he did not mind”), and then the dream begins.

“He was riding a bicycle. He felt a hand on the small of his back. Someone familiar spoke to him and he said, —I can go a little longer, and he lifted a shovel and sank it into the earth. A group of children whistled and clapped. And then he was running his hands through a girl’s hair and she took his wrist and they moved through a corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling. Those dresses turned into the sea.”

Then the dream ends. So why does this dream work? First, it has no clear message. It’s not telegraphing crucial information about Yohan’s interior life. At best, the message is mixed: the desire and need to push himself and the desire for friendship and love. The images are not accidental. They reflect encounters and experiences from waking life. Second, the dream does not predict the future. It doesn’t attempt to move the plot forward.  Though dreams sometimes cause us to act (dreaming that someone has an accident and then, upon waking, contacting that person), we tend to be skeptical of someone who claims that valuable information was gained in a dream.

So why does the dream work? Here are four reasons (and lessons to keep in mind):

  1. It’s so beautifully and simply written.
  2. It glides from image to image, never dwelling too long in one place.
  3. It’s short.
  4. The images reflect things we’ve already seen in the novel. The dream feels to us, the readers, the same as it does to Yohan. In other words, the dream feels like a real dream. And that is rare in fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a dream sequence, using Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters as a model:

  1. Choose a character whom you’ve already created and written about.
  2. Bring the character home, to bed, after a long day—not after a life-changing event but simply a day in which things seem to be on the cusp of happening.
  3. When the characters’ eyes are closed, let the sounds of the world drift in. Be specific and precise. You’re describing that odd state in which the mind is both idle and resting and also alert and aware of its surroundings.
  4. Ease into the dream. If you’ve ever heard the voice/sound from the waking world in your dream (a spouse or child talking to you, a professor speaking, the alarm clock), then you know how permeable dreams can be.
  5. Make the dream a reflection of the images of the waking world. Treat the dream’s reflective power like that of an almost-still lake. Remember, the mind is not directing traffic any longer but instead letting images trickle through unfiltered. Move from image to image. End on one that best seems to fit the mood of the day.

Now you have a dream sequence. If it seems inconsequential, that’s good. Beware dreams of great import—unless you’re writing about the Virgin Mary. Let the dream become part of the character’s fabric and, thus, the fabric of the novel.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Matt Bell

1 Aug
Matt Bell's novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods has been called not "just a joy to read, it's also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years."

Matt Bell’s novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods has been called not “just a joy to read, it’s also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years.”

Matt Bell is the author of the new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods from Soho Press, which has received the kind of positive reviews that writers dream about. He’s also written Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction.  He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also edits the literary magazine The Collagist, and he teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.

In this interview, Bell discusses conveying emotion in fiction, his revision process, and words of wisdom from great writers.

(To read excerpts from his novel, and to find exercises based on them, click here and here.)

Michael Noll

In the excerpt of the novel that appears at The Good Men Project, every paragraph begins with the phrase “And in this room.” It’s a powerful piece. Each time the phrase “In this room” appears, it hits with greater impact. The effect is not unlike reading a forceful essay or listening to a speech. Did you have something like that in mind? What drew you to this device/strategy?

Matt Bell

Thank you: I think the part of the book that section is from is the heart of the book, in many ways, and I was lucky to discover it as I was writing. I’m not sure exactly when I first found the form of that section, but in a lot of my work there are similar constructs, some kind of structure or system by which emotion can be organized and then interacted with. My characters often externalize their emotions in order to deal with them, and in this case it’s the wife who creates the deep house, so that her husband might be able to experience their marriage and its component parts anew, one by one, room after room.

Michael Noll

The sentence structure in both excerpts is very formal: long sentences, often structured around a series of repetitions. Here is one example: “And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

And here is another: “The genes of a killer, the genes of someone killed; half of what her parents had, but which half?”

And a final example: “And what bruises accompanied these words. What burns and shallow cuts. What years those wounds lasted, scabbed over, healed, replaced, scarred white.”

Sentences like these have the effect of fixing the reader’s gaze, of expanding the space for reflection. How much revision is required to make these sentences work? Is the rhythm of these sentences in your head from the start, or do you tease it out through the drafting process?

Matt Bell

The amount of revision required was fairly staggering. There’s rarely a sentence that appears whole and then remains untouched over the years it takes to finish the book. I’d say that an approximation of the rhythm appears early on—I can’t begin without the voice, or at least a version of it—but the fuller, final version of the voice takes a long time to emerge. The first draft of the book contained a sketch of the husband’s voice, but it took years of rewriting to get it into this final form.

Michael Noll

Both excerpts use unlikely vocabulary: exhalations, immolations, sequestered. What draws you to words like these?

Matt Bell

In this book, the diction is somewhat determined by the voice, which has a certain archaic feel to it. I’d say that some of the words are suggested by the setting of the book, which has mythic and biblical overtones, and others are determined by sentence acoustics, by the other words of the sentences. There’s a little King James Version here, a little Greek myth, a little Old Norwegian folklore, a smattering of words gleaned from 19th-century American dictionaries. All together, these words perhaps allow the book to exist outside any specific time or place, which allows it to be its own kind of myth, without overdetermining any particular association.

Michael Noll

Matt Bell's website offers quotes from writers about craft and the writing life.

Matt Bell’s website offers quotes from writers about craft and the writing life.

Every day on your website and Facebook page, you post a quote from a writer. They’re often about the mentality required to be a writer, the need for persistence and doggedness and self-criticism. Now that you have three books out, I wonder what these quotes mean to you now as compared to when you were

Matt Bell

If anything, they mean more to me than ever. The career of a writer is long, not short. Nothing is finished, nothing is good enough, nothing lasts. All of the publication and reviews and so on won’t sustain me in the same way the work will. I knew that before I had a book, and I know it more now. So I’ll take inspiration wherever I can find it. Anyone that can push me to get up everyday and hit the keys again is someone worth listening to and learning from.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Use Unusual Words

31 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, has been called “fiercely original” and “a gut punch.” It’s also the only novel you’ll read this year where one of the conflicts is Man vs. Bear.

Ernest Hemingway didn’t mince words about style. About William Faulkner’s, he wrote, ““Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” But what if the two sides are not exclusive? What if you can use ten-dollar words that are also old and simple?

Matt Bell offers a lesson in using unusual vocabulary in his new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. You can read a few of those words in this excerpt published at Guernica.

How the Story Works

Here are a few of the words used in the excerpt:

kith, kin, circumscribing, exhalations, remove (used as a noun), rankled (used as an adjective), sequestered.

Some of these words belong to languages other than fiction’s: sequestered is now a political word. Exhalations belongs to biology, physiology, and yoga. Circumscribing comes from geometry, mapmaking, and travel. Kith and kin belong to another age. To see just how specific our ideas can be about when certain words are appropriate, try this simple experiment: Use any of these words in casual conversation. Example: What were you doing this weekend? Oh, just hanging with my kith and kin. You’ll get some odd looks. Someone might ask, “Why are you talking that way?” But you would have accomplished a sometimes-difficult feat. That person would paying attention to you, trying to figure out, “Why is he talking that way?” or “Who is she that she uses words like that?” Part of the battle of fiction is just to get the reader to wake up and pay attention. Using unusual words can do that.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice using unusual words:

  1. Find your source. Words seem unusual only when they’re used outside of their usual contexts. So, pick up a trade magazine or one that caters to a hobby or special interest. Or visit a website that serves the same purpose. Write down all the words that you understand but would never use in conversation.
  2. Create a character who would use those words. The easiest way is to write a character who is part of the words’ trade or special interest; obviously, doctors don’t talk like studio engineers. But you can also shoot for idiosyncrasy. Ask yourself, what kind of person would use these words casually in a sentence outside of their usual context? Try to hear the person’s voice as he or she speaks.
  3. Write a passage in which the character discusses something mundane: eating dinner, walking the dog, going on a date, putting the kids to bed. If it’s a character with a specific job or interest, make him/her discuss the topic with someone else from that job/interest. If it’s an idiosyncratic character, just let him/her talk. Try to use as many of the unusual words from your list as possible. Some won’t make any sense, or they’ll feel forced. But others will surprise you. They’ll become part of the fabric of the character’s speech, and when that happens, you may discover that you’ve created a character with a voice you’ve never heard before.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write about Remembering

30 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel was published by Soho Press and has been called, by the New York Times, “a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergency from some kind of personal hell.”

A novel that’s getting some well-deserved attention is Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the synopsis will give you some sense of this novel’s ambition:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

Think about that phrase: the labyrinth of memory. Many novels—and certainly memoirs—feature narrators telling stories from memory. But what if the novel seeks to represent the act of remembering? It’s not an easy task. In a way, storytelling and memory are incompatible. Fiction moves forward while memory tends to return endlessly to an image or moment. So, it takes a gifted writer to reconcile the two.

Matt Bell is one of those writers. Find out how he writes about remembering in this excerpt from his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

Every paragraph from the excerpt begins with the same four words: And in this room. The effect is powerful and clear. The passage is drilling down into a room, into and through moments, details, revelations that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The first two encounters with memory may seem familiar: “The love letters we wrote to each other” and “the moment of our first lovemaking.” But then comes the third encounter:

“And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

As the passage develops, the phrase “And in this room” continues to be repeated, leaving the narrator no choice to not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: And in this room. The character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s encounter a memory without looking away. (This exercise works for both fiction and nonfiction.)

  1. Choose a powerful memory to write about (yours or the character/narrator’s). It could be something funny or sad, happy or tragic. The best memories often cannot be easily labeled; that is why we remember deaths and births. They’re some of the few times that we, as adults, will encounter something that is wholly and completely outside of our experience.
  2. Let’s borrow from Matt Bell and use the phrase “And in this room.” If the memory takes place outside, substitute the appropriate noun for room.
  3. Write a series of paragraphs that begin with “And in this room.” You’ll write about the obvious things, of course, but don’t stop there. Keep going. Exhaust your memory; excavate the contents. Discover things that you thought you’d forgotten or that the character never realized she knew. Focus on objects in the room and their role in the memory. Think about relationships that define the room and the objects that were picked up or leaned against or sat on by the people in that relationship.
  4. Once you’ve written about a moment, try to remember the moment that occurred immediately before or afterward. You can worry about arranging and rearranging the details later. For now, let your mind surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

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