Monthly Archives: February 2010

Make a scene

The big shocker this winter: making scenes is hard. At least it’s a lot more work to give readers an experience than to pound out summary. The payoff’s obvious—the reader gets to immerse in another life—and scenes may even help me cut swaths of fat exposition from my memoir. All this is clarifying, and my writing feels more like conscious craft these days. Always in this latest revision, I’m trying to bring more showing to the foreground and less recapping. Scenes are defined by action—something’s happening before our eyes—and usually include dialogue, a strong point of view, and are highly visual.

Donald M. Murray has a great example of the power of visual details in The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition:


A parent always wants to protect a child and never, no matter how irrational it is, stops feeling guilty if a child is killed or dies from an illness, feeling there must have been something the parent could have done.



Remember me not

when I was kept from you

in the waiting room, not

when I sat in an office signing

your dying, not

when I pushed you on the swing

higher than you had ever flown

and you looked back as I grew small,

certain I would always be able

to save you.

In Murray’s poem about his daughter’s death, in a flashback we see what he saw—her glance back—that revealed her confidence in him. We understand, without being told, that the memory, surely always poignant, now haunts him because he let her down. He couldn’t save her. Since we see this, we understand his emotions, his feeling of loss and guilt—even that he betrayed her trust. That such a short, spare piece can stir empathy and convey so much is astonishing.

Perhaps in a longer scene, and surely in a narrative made of scenes, the writer might move readers to feel an emotion as well as to empathize. Just explaining won’t hack it, because the two techniques trigger completely different areas of the brain, explains Jordan E. Rosenfeld in Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story one Scene at a Time. Visual scenes of unfolding action stimulate the brain’s visual cortex—our mind’s eye—and allow readers to participate. In contrast, exposition affects the inner ear. “While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound,” writes Rosenfeld. Voice is important, she allows, but explaining can make readers feel bored, like they’re “sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.”

Here’s part of a scene from Alice Munro’s story “Royal Beatings”:

“All right,” he says, meaning that’s enough, more than enough, this part is over, things can proceed. He starts to loosen his belt.

Flo has stopped anyway. She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, then there comes a time when you can’t draw back. . . .

At the first or maybe the second crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the door. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage, or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking: Forgive me, Oh please, forgive me! Not yet, he throws her down.

Saying “My father beat me” lets us know a fact but doesn’t help us imagine the experience. With our intellects, we can understand only the tip of the iceberg. So making scenes is the technique of choice when the writer is asking for readers’ emotional understanding. Here’s a scene from near the end of Bernard Cooper’s memoir essay “Winner Take Nothing”:

After loading the boxes into my car, I came back inside the kitchen to say goodbye. “I have something for you,” my father said. He beamed at me and stepped aside. Atop the counter, a pink bakery box yawned open to reveal an enormous cake, its circumference studded with ripe strawberries. Slivered almonds, toasted gold, had been evenly pressed into a mortar of white frosting, every spare surface dotted with florets. In the center was written, in goopy blue script, Papa loves Bernard. For a second, I thought there’d been some mistake. I’d never called my father Papa. Dad, yes. Pop, perhaps. The nickname didn’t mesh with the life I knew. If the years of silence between us had an inverse, that cloying, layered cake was it.

Back to Donald M. Murray, who says in Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem that the light went on for him about this fundamental building block when someone told him, supposedly quoting Joseph Conrad, to write narrative in “scenes of confrontation.” In the above example, conflict suffuses Cooper’s scene.

Lest we get too simplistic about the components of scene, Alice LaPlante observes in her excellent textbook The Making of a Story that all scenes blend telling and showing. There’s much more telling than is recognized, she says, because technically only three things constitute showing: dialogue; actions; and basic objective descriptions of objects or settings that a reader would see if he were there. She’s a little strict about this, but is making a point to strike at the sanctimony of those who advocate pure scene-by-scene construction. The depiction of viewpoint, so basic to voice and usually intrinsic to scene, is telling.

Writers fall somewhere on a continuum of showing vs. telling, their particular mix defining their style, says LaPlante, who prints a scene from Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres that’s mostly shown; another passage from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News leans more heavily on relaying point of view; and the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” uses telling and showing equally for rich texture and satisfying point-of-view lines like, “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”

But try to show the important stuff, LaPlante emphasizes. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which, she shows, arise constantly within scenes) and to set up a scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.” Recognize that “often we can tell something more efficiently, elegantly, beautifully, or subtly” than by dramatizing it.

So this matter is complex, but the writer’s gut seems a good guide. The important lesson I’ve taken is to use scenes of unfolding experience involving action and conflict whenever possible, whatever their mix of two very different modes of writing. Yeah, it’s basically the timeless advice “Show, don’t tell,” if tell isn’t taken too literally.

1 Comment

Filed under emotion, memoir, scene

Review: ‘Old Friend from Far Away’

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. Free Press. 309 pages

Books on writing fall into two broad categories: how-to and inspirational. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is solidly in the latter tradition, and I suppose so is Old Friend From Far Away. Yet Old Friend is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the spirit of writing and the essence of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book underscores how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. Her freewriting methods (basically bursts of timed writing to discover subject or to pile up pages once one’s subject is found) seem great at getting beneath the chattering “monkey mind” (which Goldberg says is also highly and destructively critical)  to tap what we really experienced and how we felt and feel.

In Old Friend—that person we were—Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing—tactile, visual, specific, quirky—with related Zen principles and a theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she’s so popular as a teacher, for she empowers. What she’s saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.

Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but Old Friend has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft, and artistic determination. She’s obviously an artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. Her approach to writing is intuitive rather than linear. As a linear guy, I needed Old Friend from Far Away a lot sooner than I got it. But perhaps it’s simply true that the teacher you need appears when you need her.


Filed under discovery, freewriting, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

On memoir vs. monkey mind

“Know that writing is born from the ache of contraries, polarities in search of peace, of unity. But not the unity of making mush. You want to live in the country. Your husband is an urban boy. You compromise and both live in the suburbs. What a squash of desire and energy.”

“But writing has this quality where all the effort and desire in the world doesn’t do shit. It’s hard to comprehend. All our lives we’ve been taught to try hard. That’s good, important to writing, too, but then in the middle of it, you have to be willing to jump off a hundred-foot pole with no net to catch you, no assurances. To let wind take you or the day or time or love. Writing’s essential nature asks you not to go forward, not to be productive, not to be logical. In the middle of all your conservative striving, it asks you to take a step backward into the dark unknown—actually back into your real self, which has never been explored and you are not sure how to get there.”

“You have to find your own set of coincidences. You make your own great—and crooked—path and at the same time be open for something to come to you. A meeting is involved—you and the large unknown. Let the mountains walk into your living room. Listen to the squawking yellow cabs. This is beginning to sound like a child’s fantasy. You do need a child’s mind. Something half innocent, and naïve, but also watchful, observant. Sophistication gets in the way, too complicated for finding your true home.”

“Everyone has this [critical inner] voice. Even if you had the ultimate in supportive parents and encouraging teachers, the human mind generates this old survival technique. Can you imagine if cave people had decided to wander off and contemplate their past? They wouldn’t have gotten meat on the table. But this inheritance is not obsolete. We still have fear of our inner world. Will we survive if we take time to think, to examine, to understand? Instead we prefer to go hurtling from one war to another, from one marriage to another, from one painful situation smack-dab into one more. We think that if we stay blind, ignorant, and keep going, we will make it through. And plop!—in the middle of all this you decide you want to write a memoir, to look back, to ponder. Of course, your deep survival mechanism, old monkey mind, is going to go bananas. . . . Eventually monkey mind’s concern with survival transforms. You finally hold the jewels. You rule now. Monkey mind becomes the guardian at your gate. She’s not a squawker anymore. She pays silent vigil, has joined your forces.”

“There are no great answers for who we are. Don’t wait for them. Pick up the pen right now and in ten furious minutes tell the story of your life. I’m not kidding. Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere.”

From Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, memoir, NOTED, working method

Narrative among the dark Danes

K. Brian Soderquist, U.S.A.-born and now a Danish citizen, co-author of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony, teaches my son Tom’s Kierkegaard class this winter in Copenhagen. While on a recent field trip, Brian conveyed to Tom and to his study-abroad classmates an interesting perspective on storytelling that resonates for all nonfiction writers and especially for memoirists:

“I think we should keep in mind that on this trip we’re going to hear a lot of narratives—or stories—that can be different however you tell them. People don’t think about history or themselves in terms of raw facts, they just think of narrative. And we are always negotiating with our previous narratives of ourselves as new events happen to us: I say that as an existentialist, that we are forced into narrative as a method of making sense of an identity that is constantly changing and different from every point of view. The way we present ourselves is never a statement of things as-they-are, but as-you-have-come-to-terms-with-them. Tom here just asked me how I happened to move to Denmark permanently, so I had to summarize fifteen years of my life for a two-minute conversational blurb.”

(This is excerpted from “Brian’s Head, Part One,” an essay on Tom’s blog, Kierkegaard In Me.)

Or as a writer told me, “No one tells everything, Richard!” Chalk another one up for memoir as a species of literature. As if even journalism as allegedly literal as reality TV isn’t edited. Any narrative is partial and cast in a certain light. Truth changes, a fiction.

The intensely passionate truth-searcher Kierkegaard only ever referred to himself as an author, Brian told Tom, occasioning a significant pause of understanding between these two intellectuals at the front of  the bus. I take the meaning: We’ve added the labels: Knight of Faith, Christian philosopher, father of existentialism. Kierkegaard despised labels. But an author he indisputably was: He’d published thirteen books by the time of his death, at age 42, in 1855. His journals, since published and considered his most poetic and beautiful work, run to 7,000 pages.

But in the impatient computer age don’t try this secret for discovering meaning, which he unveiled in Either/Or, Volume I: “Tested Advice for Authors: Set down your reflections carelessly, and let them be printed; in correcting the proof sheets a number of good ideas will gradually suggest themselves.”

(A by-the-by lesson of his life and his existential philosophy for writers: if you want to write and it brings you pleasure, write—it’s the world’s problem if you aren’t any good. Of course, he was published—and also widely regarded as a joke during his lifetime.)

When I was a year older than Tom, I read some Kierkegaard, and what I understood stuck. Amidst

Our Tom, with his buddy Jack

endless paragraphs emerged hard gemstones of truth, everlasting precepts that flashed from his stormy soul: “Truth is subjectivity”; “To defend anything is to discredit it”; “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”; “Desire is a very sophisticated emotion.”

He’s my favorite philosopher because he didn’t believe in philosophy and created stories, told by wild alter-ego narrators. He published most of his books under their names, though everyone knew it was Soren playing around. “Kierkegaard would have us recognize that we are the authors of our worlds and have us assume responsibility for that authorship, recognizing that it derives from values that we have chosen,” explains Donald Palmer in Kierkegaard for Beginners. He tells a wonderful story of young Soren‘s strange upbringing: His father sent him to a Latin school with instructions to bring home the third highest grade. “It’s easy for a genius to get the best grade,” Palmer explains the strategy. “But to get the third best, he must learn psychology. He must figure out who the second and fourth smartest boys are and place his own work between theirs.”

I wasn’t and haven’t been patient enough to stick with Kierkegaard at length, but perhaps I should, considering that my most cherished philosophical zingers came from him. As an adult my profound spiritual touchstones are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both works speak to writing’s, as well as to life’s and each sex’s, larger reality and deeper purpose. While more clear than Kierkegaard, who trafficked in irony, and rich for me conceptually, neither has left me with the wealth of one-liners to compare with those I quoted above. But then, I was twenty-two when I read the Danish bard, and I may be readier now to deal with him with greater conceptual understanding.

John Updike, in his last videotaped interview, with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, said that a diminution of energy had changed his writing over the years. Some wonder was lost. He spoke of a scene in Rabbit Run where the protagonist, abandoning his wife, strokes his hand across the velvety foliage of a privet hedge as he leaves the premises.

“Your ability to care about that kind of detail I think slightly diminishes,” said Updike, who nevertheless carried on. He was, incidentally, a serious student of Kierkegaard.

Forgive. Love. Create. That’s all there is. All there ever was. To go on, in fear and trembling, in the face of eternity. Tom knows this already, at barely twenty-one. And he feeds his soul this winter on the oeuvre of a man who looked at eternity, searching and suffering for transcendence from earthbound blindness.

Comments Off on Narrative among the dark Danes

Filed under evolutionary psychology, memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, religion & spirituality, theme

William Zinsser on Anglo-Saxon’s glory

“The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

“How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in –ion . . . Here’s a typical sentence: ‘Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.’ That means ‘Before we fixed our money problems.’ Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation.”

“So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road . . .  words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.

“What are your best tools? Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor.”

“One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

“Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die, discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot about him—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.”

Excerpted from William Zinsser’s essay “Writing English as a Second Language” in The American Scholar on line, winter 2010.

1 Comment

Filed under NOTED, style, syntax