Category Archives: craft, technique

Echoing a familial refrain

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords.

A crowd mobbed Book People, Austin, for Hosseini's appearance.

A crowd mobbed BookPeople, Austin, Texas, for Hosseini’s recent appearance.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“…and the place echoed every word,

and when he said ‘Goodbye!’

Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”

 —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline)

Hosseini CoverKhaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a different structure.

In his first published work, The Kite Runner, Hosseini followed one boy’s life and how it related to his childhood friendship with another boy named Hassan, portrayed through the voice of the protagonist named Amir.

In his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused initially on the individual stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, and then later on both as their paths crossed. I admired the fact that, being a male author, Hosseini had pulled off a convincing protagonist gender shift from his first book.

When I recently heard Hosseini discuss his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, he noted, “The structure of this novel was far more ambitious.” He addressed a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which was already mobbed an hour before Hosseini was scheduled.

“The heart of the book is about an act of separation—a relationship between a boy and his sister,” he told us, after reading an excerpt. “Splitting them affects who they become as adults,” as the boy has been “almost like a parent to her.”

Hosseini offered details about how he shaped the book.

“Like a giant oak tree, there’s a trunk to the novel that branches out with all the characters, and the geography of the settings as well. It gets wider as the book goes on,” he said. “It was the hardest book to write.”

And it was the hardest book to read, at least for me. As if traveling on the ancient Silk Road, many characters in Mountains Echoed take circuitous routes to their ultimate destinations—and so does the storytelling. These interwoven lives begin to resemble the stacked “spaghetti bowl” of an interstate highway with flyover ramps and exits.

Such a plot construction is not necessarily detrimental to a story, though, nor to one’s growth as a writer. Once again, I admire Hosseini for stretching himself rather than relying on the formulaic repetition of a style with which he’d become comfortable.

In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini constructs the metastories of an entire clan to examine their intersections. It becomes an interesting device for disentangling the relatives in a particular family of origin as they fan out across the globe. Hosseini investigates the genealogical ramifications of family connections. He scrutinizes various generations as if he were peeling back delicate paper-thin layers of phyllo from a wedge of baklava with tweezers.

Charting the novel’s cast

Lanie Tankard's aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

Lanie Tankard’s aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

I did have to chart my way through the book, however.  Early on, I had the fortunate premonition to start drafting a map to follow as I read. I wonder why the editor didn’t suggest inserting a family tree to assist the reader? Yet quite honestly, the lack of one did not deter me from being totally absorbed by this story, even though I did have to consult my hand-drawn legend from time to time to keep the characters straight.

Hosseini’s storytelling ability is nothing short of mesmerizing. He knows just when to stop with a particular strand, leaving the reader hungering for more detail. He puts your mind to work. As he told his Austin audience, “It’s a series of revelations and epiphanies for which the reader must connect the dots.”

While Hosseini set the story in specific countries, he grounded it in larger themes that cross borders and speak the language of the global family. He laid bare the fundamental elements of our common humanity.

Hosseini wrenched unexpected tears out of me in different sections, due not only to such universal refrains, but also because he assembled in the denouement a heartbreaking scenario similar to one I witnessed in my own family as well. Since I’ve never been fond of spoilers in reviews, I’ll not divulge the endgame of Mountains Echoed except to say it rang true.

Tears arising unbidden as I read usually alert me to the fact that I’m holding a compelling book in my hands—a “heads up” that I need to pay close attention to the illusion that I’m consuming a straightforward rendition of a simple tale.

Indeed, as some of Hosseini’s characters become Westernized in Mountains Echoed, I notice that an individualistic culture has slowly begun to muffle echoes of the earlier stages of their lives in a collectivistic society. The author writes with subtle strokes of his calligraphy brush to achieve this effect.

Perhaps such subtlety was intentional. After all, how clearly can we actually view an ancestor who lived several generations prior to our own and truly understand the choices made during that person’s sojourn on this planet?

Hosseini’s characters speak truths we ought to know like the backs of our hands already, and yet we continuously require reminding. Some of these verities underscore the values of memoir writing, genealogy research, and meditation. Hosseini prompts us to realize that it’s important to know where you came from, because in doing so you may encounter a part of yourself that was lost.

Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne, wrote in her memoir titled The Hornes: An American Family: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them.”

Flawed characters thwarted in love

Yet Hosseini denies most if not all of the characters in Mountains Echoed such types of discoveries due to assorted acts of separation he writes into their lives. He sets up many types of love in his characters’ relationships, and then creates formidable barriers to their perpetuation. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote about herself: “This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.” The fictional individuals who people the Mountains Echoed plot won’t have such an inheritance, though. That’s where the angst in this novel arises, and it’s powerfully strong.

Hosseini in Austin.

Hosseini in Austin.

“I really like flawed characters,” Hosseini told his Austin listeners. “They allow me the most to work with. All of us have things about ourselves that we don’t like at all. We can see our own flaws in them.”

He pointed out that the “evil stepmother” character, Parwana, “is the black sheep of her family“ but she “gets her day in the sun later in her own chapter.”

Fiction can be a potent tool. Authors who serve up their home countries via literature to the world can call attention to inequities, assist in cultural understanding, or play roles in uniting us. Consider such writers as Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk, or Chinua Achebe. And when a novelist writes about the assimilation of people from one culture into another culture, as such authors as Amy Tan or Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri have done, readers gain the perspectives of characters who have migrated from their native countries. In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini depicts the homelands of his characters (Afghanistan and Greece) as well as later adaptation to new countries (France and the United States), illustrating how Westernization has changed them.

What factors determine the impact of a literary contribution? Is it the words alone—or do timing, packaging, current news events, author talks explaining motivation and intent, and advance promotion each play a role? The Zeitgeist likely creates desire for certain subject matter. Once upon a time, journalists were taught the term Afghanistanism to avoid concentrating on issues in faraway places when problems in their own cities cried out for attention. Technology, transportation, and wars have both broadened our horizons and shrunk our world since that time, negating the term.

Hosseini mentioned the influence of the poet Rumi in his Austin talk, and he uses a wonderful Rumi quote as an epigraph in Mountains Echoed: 

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century

 He also alluded to music in reference to his third novel: “My intention was that each chapter raises the stakes for what has happened before, creating a synchronicity—like a lot of single instruments playing together to create a symphony.”

Hosseini seems to have blended music, poetry, and myth in Mountains Echoed. An echo in music has a resonance that amplifies the sound and makes it reverberate with the underlying meaning. It’s a nice metaphor for what Hosseini accomplishes in his new novel.

There are hints of the Echo and Narcissus myth as well, if one focuses on the ideas of separation and later deprivation of speech and garbling of the tongue, as Juno did to Echo. The separation in Mountains Echoed deprived the siblings of speech with one another, and the novel’s ending symbolizes garbled memories.

The echo motif also fits into the storyline of Mountains Echoed as a rhetorical device, which Hosseini employs in both a literal and a figurative sense. With the repeated refrains and themes, one could almost view the novel as a musical composition of lyrical poetry, with a chorus continuing to sing praises to the nuclear family unit in the midst of a long narrative ballad, ideas John Hollander discusses in his book The Figure of Echo.

Hollander uses the example of echo in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which indeed Afghanistan has become.

“The country is struggling with a lot of problems,” Hosseini said of his native land. “The big question is what will move into the vacuum when the US and NATO troops leave in 2014. There’s a lot of skepticism on the part of Afghans. Not many people in the West understand what the Afghans fear. The militia wars preceded the Taliban. Those were the darkest of the last thirty-two years. There’s a reason Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires.’”

One audience member called out a heartfelt comment: “Thank you for teaching us about Afghanistan.”

BookPeople showed a five-minute film before Hosseini spoke, highlighting the Khaled Hosseini Foundation he has set up. The author explained how his organization concentrates on helping all the homeless refugees returning to Afghanistan by finding shelter for them there.

Hosseini’s shift from a medical career

“I was a doctor in my former life,” Hosseini said in his Texas book discussion. “I wrote all my life though,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write, but I didn’t think I was very good. I just did it for myself. I wrote Kite Runner, and then 9/11 happened. I felt the book would be distasteful at that time.” So he shelved it in the garage.

His wife ran across it “and made a bunch of notes on it.  She urged me to try to publish it later.” He noted that she majored in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, and is his editor and a lawyer.

“She’s edited every draft. She can’t come up with an answer as to where the story should go,” he said, adding that “the danger of having an ‘in-house’ editor is that you don’t get what you need to hear—you get what you want to hear. Although sometimes she writes things like ‘LOL. You can’t be serious.’ I go into a mini funk when she does that.”

He sent Kite Runner around, but “it got rejected a lot.” Finally an agent (who is now deceased) took him on and Kite Runner was published. “I thought maybe my cousins would read it,” he joked. “I was still a doctor then.”

So just how did the transition from medicine to literature occur?

“Three things happened to change me from a doctor to a full-time writer,” he said, and listed them: “(1) I began to notice people reading my book on airplanes. (2) All my patients wanted to take up the time during their office visits asking me to sign their copies of my book. (3) I found myself as the answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question when I was watching the show on TV. So I thought maybe I could take a year or so off.” The health plan he worked for “didn’t allow time off, so I had to quit to write.”

Listening to Hosseini articulate tales from his own family made me realize he’s a natural-born narrator. And the Mountains Echoed is a paean to the importance of storytelling to strengthen family bonds. There is an African saying: “When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle once underscored this leitmotif when she said: “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. ”

Every one of Hosseini’s three novels has seemed stronger than its predecessor to me, so I await the fourth with great expectations.

Lanie & Grandma

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. (Photo of Lanie Tankard and her grandmother by Toni Fuller. Photos of Khaled Hosseini by Elaine F. Tankard)

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, REVIEW, structure

Learning the craft, part one

Pondering the writer’s never-ending education.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

This is part one of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

“I don’t think writers go to college,” my father informed me as I prepared to leave home for college. His unsparing honesty was one of the reasons I hadn’t revealed my ambitions, of course, but my dreams were obvious.

And while Dad was trying to be helpful, he was wrong. Not totally, in that his knowledge reflected what he knew of writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain and those of his generation—probably Hemingway and Faulkner. He didn’t know about Fitzgerald attending a prestigious Catholic prep school and then Princeton or about Dos Passos at Choate and then Harvard. Dad was a man of action. Though he’d graduated from a famous prep school himself, earning today’s equivalent of a fine college liberal arts education, he’d been thrown out of Cornell for landing an airplane on a campus lawn.

Afterward, he’d educated himself. He believed writing was about gaining experience in the world and then putting butt to chair. That’s how he’d written and self-published his own book, Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics.

There’s some truth in my father’s vision of the writer, but it’s ignorant about the degree to which writers must be highly educated, through some process, by other writers. Hemingway, again, is the case in point, though he famously turned on all those who’d helped him.

“I think you can be big in this business,” my father told me as I, newly graduated, headed off for my first newspaper job. “But learn the craft.”

Today the writers are in colleges, and that’s where craft lessons usually start. I’m not building up here to say that an MFA is necessary, not at all. But education in craft by fellow writers is. For most, that tutelage continues long past one’s undergraduate years; the guild of writers schools its apprentices by means of chummy conferences, by stray remarks about their work, and by sharp blows to the snout—stark rejections.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

Creative writing, in whatever genre, is an endless education, which ultimately does become self-directed, through reading books and from practice. But there’s nothing sadder than a man who sits down to write a big book, the book of his life, thinking it’s just a matter of butt to chair. I had been such a boy and almost was that man. And while I like to think I’d have gotten a draft done without my MFA program, I might have lost heart without its craft lessons and its affirmation. Because at Goucher College I gained an instant supportive community—students and mentors who live and breathe literature—and also began my long-overdue apprenticeship in the craft of book writing.

I learned so much afterward, in writing draft after draft of my book—it’s true that the only way to learn to write a book is to write one—that I risk falling into the common trap of undervaluing my MFA as part of my process.

There are many paths, but the consistent key is learning, at first with help—with lots of help. I know a writer who published a fine memoir, with a big New York trade house, after taking post-college on-line classes (Stanford’s are great) and after attending writers’ conferences. (Then she got an MFA, desiring to write fiction and probably wanting the degree to teach.) After a while, reading deeply in your chosen genre is the main thing, and reading and raiding everything else, as you write. Plus all the other things you’ve always heard you should do and finally find yourself doing: looking up words, counting syllables, reading your work aloud.

So many times I thought of my father as the years went by: I’m learning the craft, Dad.

Next: Another lesson on the path to publication: learning to love the process.

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Filed under craft, technique, MFA, MY LIFE, teaching, education

John McPhee on writer’s block

In which he nails the issue & I rename this blog Draft No. 4.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

—John McPhee

—source unknown

—source unknown

Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion of renaming this blog, called Narrative now well into its fifth year. “It’s getting confused with Narrative the online magazine,” I said. An acquaintance recently offered me a fine guest post, I explained, but withdrew it when I told her this wasn’t that Narrative.

Kathy nodded, taking this problem under advisement.

“Today I came up with the perfect name,” I went on. “I’ll call it The Fourth Draft. You know, that was my book’s transforming draft.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” she said, giving me pause. I saw that The Fourth Draft sounded like a minor-league baseball team or a microbrewery.

Friday morning, I sat down with my oatmeal and opened my new New Yorker, the April 29 issue, to John McPhee’s latest piece: “Draft No. 4.”

More than a title, it struck me as a sign.

McPhee’s essay, my favorite so far in his valedictory series on writing, is about writer’s block. He suffers the torments of the damned in forcing out his first drafts. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” he asks, nailing the existential problem writers face in trying to make something out of nothing. “Until it exists,” he adds, “writing has not really begun.” Much of this grandiose problem of facing the blank page with the self seems simply the difficulty of thinking: writing is concentrated thought. Yet it’s true as well that one writes in Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.” One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy.

And first drafts don’t feel very worthy.

For McPhee, though, subsequent drafts just get easier and better. At last, in draft four, he draws boxes around many of his chosen words. He explains:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.

McPhee allows himself to enjoy the fourth draft, his final draft.

Honestly, I thought producing the fourth draft of my book, a memoir of farming, would kill me. I’d enjoyed writing the first draft, so much so that after some cutting and polishing, I was ready to shop around what I was probably calling draft three. Luckily I ran into an editor who bluntly directed me to get the services of a developmental editor. So I found one. Namely Bill Roorbach, a novelist, award-winning short story writer, and memoirist.

Development? That isn’t a big enough word for what Bill did to my book. I mean for my book. From sentences to story arc, he laid about with a heavy sword. But with a strangely positive energy and kindness—he believed in my story! All the same, when I got his report I crashed for three months.

My persona wasn’t working—there was blurring between me then, the guy in the action, and me now, at the desk recalling (plus he mentioned a meta-level of “me” beyond all that: the me creating the me at the desk; that one still tests the limit of my cognitive abilities). The narrative arc wasn’t working, either, because I’d bring up a character who should have appeared throughout, but dispose of him right away, as if the chapter were a stand-alone essay. And my scenes weren’t sustained enough to dramatize fully my experience.

Whew. Bill’s markup in Word looked like the Fourth of July. I say I crashed for three months, but the actual fetal position surely lasted only about three weeks. Then I got up and thought, and walked and thought, and read voraciously. I questioned myself down to the soles of my feet. I grasped what Annie Dillard said about sitting with a book as with a dying friend. I decided I’d worked too long and hard to quit and let my book fully expire. Though I’d cobbled together an awkward narrative homunculus, I still yearned to share my story.

And the heart of my monster was there, weakly beating. Bill said the creature just needed major surgery.

My crisis over Bill’s editing turned out to be trivial. For the first time, I had to force myself to the keyboard. The resistance, I’m sure, was fear of failure. Then the usual happened: it took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the second hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m usually good for, came any good stuff. My usual hourly rate held steady, a page an hour.

I’ve just polished my sixth draft, and my book is ready. I hope to announce a publishing contract soon. Meantime, it’s not easy for me to rename this blog, because I love the word narrative and think of myself as writing for an entity I created called Narrative. But everyone else loves the word too, and with a literary magazine having claimed the name, I feel like someone who writes about TV news calling his blog CNN.

So in honor of my agonizing but fruitful fourth draft, and in hopes that I might one day emulate McPhee’s comparative ease and pleasure in his fourth drafts, I hereby rechristen this old blog Draft No. 4.

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Filed under blogging, craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, revision, working method

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

Stephens-Days are Gods

A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-classical, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Lee Child: Write What You Feel

Lee Child: Write What You Feel.

Having just featured Lee Child on using questions to propel narrative, I was intrigued with this explication of more of Child’s advice by blogger Wilson K.

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Filed under craft, technique, emotion, NOTED

Values & the writer

Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.

William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:

Zinsser-The Writer Who Stayed Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.

I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America; to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, NOTED, religion & spirituality

A cheap trick that slays readers

Hairy Canary x

Jill Talbot’s braided essay & Lee Child on creating suspense.

It’s difficult for most people to verbalize the ways in which they disappoint themselves and others. The personal essay and the memoir demand that it be written down, perhaps even read aloud to others. The genre, I tell my students, is not for everyone. If you’re not comfortable with looking closely at where you have gone wrong or at least trying to find out why, you’re not going to be a good essayist.

—Jill Talbot, “Creating Nonfiction”

Jill Talbot is an acclaimed essayist and nonfiction theorist. Her braided essay “Emergent” has just appeared in the Paris Review, and I commend it to you. I predict you won’t be able to stop reading it because you’ll see what Talbot couldn’t see, the terrible danger that she and her young daughter were in. Multiple questions drive it forward as she lets the reader see what the apparent problem was even as she was oblivious to it in the wake of her move and her daughter’s seemingly separate issue. You’ll want to know how it comes out. And I love the way the essay’s braided structure deepens the foreground story and makes it seem even more real, more textured like life. Her memories and worries continue along with the slowly unfolding disaster, just as they surely do. This chilling story embodies so much more than its abundant explicit content.

In her essay “Creating Nonfiction” Talbot addresses the so-what-why-should-we-care issue I’ve been writing about:

In writing essays, you have to be more loyal to the art than the experience that created that art. A good place to start is by choosing an appropriate persona. It’s not enough to be an “I.” As I ask my students, Who are you for this piece? Because I believe that is the relationship between the persona and the essay. An essay demands a certain persona to achieve what it sets out to do. One of the ways I introduce the idea of persona is by making a list on the board of each of my varying personas, including ones like professor, mother, smoker, runner, writer, lover, seventies music aficionado.

Notice what this implies: You as a narrator are standing at least somewhat outside experience, delivering wisdom or at least testifying as to meaning. Talbot makes this explicit a little later:

When a student wrote about being raped at the age of twelve by her cousin, her workshop group grew visibly reticent from across the room. I usually stay out of workshops unless the group needs a new direction or an essay affords me an opportunity to make a point that will help all of the writers, but here, I purposefully broke in to remind them they were responding to the writing, not the written rape in any innovative or intriguing way. If an essay doesn’t bring a new voice or approach to its subject matter, don’t write it. If you write the essay as a surface catharsis, a confession, or for attention,  the  significance  is  yours  only. What makes an essay move  beyond the telling is when a reader, with or without  a similar experience, can  recognize  a humanistic  truth emerging  from its words.

• • •

Part of the narrative puzzle: Ask a question to make readers care.

If you’re still reading, I must’ve hooked you with that “cheap trick” line. Sorry for making you feel craven and unclean, but I had to try it. And it’s not really cheap so much as comparatively easy and effective; we pose questions naturally but like all impulses in writing this move can become more effective when we use it consciously.

I’ve mentioned in a writing class a few times this semester how important narrative suspense is. That’s an overt or implicit question that keeps the reader reading. Overt questions like, “I couldn’t figure out why I’d acted that way,” propel the reader forward, as do implicit questions. How will the relationship come out? Does he live or die? Did her eating disorder get better? As we know, Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his new book on writing (reviewed) that implication is one of writing’s most powerful qualities because it lets readers grasp and figure out some of the narrative’s pieces for themselves.

Now suddenly I’ve remembered that, in December, a short New York Times essay by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, addressed this issue. “A Simple Way to Create Suspense” mentions only fiction, but it applies directly to nonfiction as well. Child says posing a question can seem almost unfair because it works so well. I’m all for what works, however easy, because writing is concentrated thought and hard enough. And memoir always faces this “So what?” issue. He says you can make readers care by asking a question, since humans are compelled by curiosity about how questions are answered:

Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. I learned that fact in my first job. I worked in television production from 1977 until 1995, and the business changed radically during that time, mainly because of one particular invention. It was something that almost no one had in 1980, and that almost everyone had in 1990, and it changed the game forever. We had to cope with it. We had to invent a solution to the serious problem it posed.

(You notice I haven’t told you what the invention was yet? I implied a question, and didn’t answer it. You’re waiting. You’re wondering, what did almost no one have in 1980 that almost everyone had in 1990? You’re definitely going to read the next paragraph, aren’t you? Thus the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.)

What almost no one had in 1980 and almost everyone had in 1990 was a remote control. Previously, at the end of a segment or a program, we could be fairly sure the viewer wouldn’t change the channel on a whim, because changing the channel required the viewer to get off the sofa and cross the room. But afterward, changing the channel was easy, which was very dangerous for an audience-hungry station.

So how did we respond? (Notice the structure here? Wait for it!) We started asking questions before the commercials, and answering them afterward.

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