What to Learn about Writing from: Age of Innocence, Things We Didn’t See Coming

How to fit in coincidence and outside action later in a story.

Or: how to get the outside inside.

Sometimes, in order to make things happen with passive protagonists, or in books/stories that feature setting or where set pieces play a big role (think: arctic exploration, apocalypse, floods, car crashes), we bring in an outside event/something happens by coincidence. This convenience to the story can easily turn off the reader, break them out of the magic spell the author is weaving, make them see the artifice. So how do we get these things in without the reader noticing they aren’t what Forester says is plot: caused by a previous action?

I think our accepted way as writers is to “plant the seeds.” To include, earlier in the text, hints that the outside event is coming, or even a flash forward so that the reader knows it will come and it isn’t a surprise. Sometimes, historical context is on our side, and the seeds are mostly planted for us, like the end of World War II in The English Patient, or the coming of the Ugandan civil war in The Gravity of Sunlight. If a flood will play a role in our story, we might show frequent rain and have the characters remark on the weather, or even show a forecast. If a ship is going to steer into an iceberg, we might see the iceberg off in the distance or hear a warning or a story of another collision. If a building must collapse, we might have our protagonist mean to seal up a crack in the wall or someone might say in passing that the building should probably be condemned.

Another (to me, less satisfying) technique is to explain the convenience after it happens. There is a moment in Snow, by Orhan Pamuck, when something crucial happens and then just afterward, the narrator explains why, that seriously reduced how much I could enjoy the (great) book thereafter. I won’t spoil the plot, but I felt as if, had a certain crucial character trait (which we only saw after it affected the plot) shown up as a trait all along, this moment would not have bothered me.

But with either method, I wonder if these moves we do are enough to convince the reader that what happened had to happen. That’s the effect a writer wants, after all. We can put up with coincidence as the reason a story starts, as a reason to start telling a story in the first place, but less so as a reason a story turns, and probably not at all as the reason a story resolves. Or at least not in literary fiction. We have certain expectations.

I just finished The Age of Innocence and Things We Didn’t See Coming for school. There is something in The Age of Innocence that is an outside action that helps move the book along to its conclusion (SPOILER ALERT): the financial crises of Beaufort. We pass right over this and accept it. In Things We Didn’t See Coming, each story (except the first) has a new post-apocalyptic or dystopian society, but the details of these societies are pretty much never really given. I mentioned in class that in some of the stories I felt cheated by not knowing why the world was the way it was, and in some I didn’t care, it wasn’t necessary. Then I wondered why that was. My thought is this: one (1), because in some stories, the society drove the plot, and in others, the effects of the society drove the plot. That is, new needs to be filled and/or the destruction of nature drove the plot. In the situation where the effects were more important than the society, I didn’t need to know so much about the post-apocalyptic infrastructure because I cared more about the people. But in the situation where the society was more important, caring about the people seemed incomplete if I couldn’t place them within that context and know why the society was the way it was and they within it. Two (2), I also think it was because of something I’m going to call thematic logic.

A good dystopian book has a lot to do, I think, with thematic logic. The world represents some failing in which the protagonist has the same failing or is the solution to it, the key that fits in that lock. The failing has caused all of the things in the dystopian government to be as they are. Which is why they can be resolved or have to be struggled with by the protagonist. In the stories that work for me in Things We Didn’t See Coming, the action seems to progress out of the same thematic logic that governs the character and the world. In a world (imagine the movie voice now) where it rains constantly and nature has taken over, people must be driven out, and the narrator, who hates himself but wants to survive, has to and chooses to drive those people out and then sneak back in and steal their belongings to sell in the cities where people do still live, and this type of behavior gets him shot. In a world where the border between city and country is the border between not having life and having life, a grandmother wakes from basically a coma for a day, full of life, trying to make something out of what is left, and then at night, goes to sleep and ends up back in her coma. There is a progression of thematic logic there that accepts the outside logic. In other stories, the world was rebuilding itself around personality and a man wanted to keep his wife by giving her away and yet drugs somehow blew his chances, or the world was rebuilding itself around some secret society and a man had to pass some test of morality vs. survival based on whether or not he takes some object from his past that suddenly appears, or so on.

In The Age of Innocence, Beaufort’s financial loss puts a ton of pressure on the protagonist’s potential losses in society. He, like Beaufort, might lose his position due to unacceptable decisions (he wants—SPOILER—to leave his wife for another woman). The entire book, Beaufort has been presented as a foil for Archer. Beaufort is the kind of man who holds loose the morals of his group yet enjoys the pleasures of it. As Archer chooses to go after the love of his life, Beaufort comes to ruin and that ruin pushes their society and Archer’s own law firm to cast him out. Meanwhile, his wife and he are also setting plans, as well as his lover, and he is about to make the choice real or not. Beaufort’s situation puts a lot of pressure on Archer by showing him what he will come to. This is a coincidence, with no obvious seeds, and little explanation afterward. So how does it work?

It works, I think, because of how Beaufort has always been the foil, and after his ruin, is even more the foil. He is Archer’s possible fate, possible path. And the outside event of his ruin is just a progression, in action, of that thematic logic. The story needs this ruin for various reasons, not the least of which is to do even more of what Beaufort has always been doing for the story. So though the event does not build causally, it does build thematically. This may be one way to get an outside event inside the spell of story.


My latest column at The Good Men Project, in which my daughter and I get in a car crash, and worse.

What to Learn about Writing from: Mat(t)s, kdramas, lists

I wanted to write a novel that had the momentum of the Korean dramas I was watching. I had agreed to write a serialized novel for an adoptee magazine, Gazillion Voices, because I was an idiot and thought that would be a nice short easy project. My idea was to structure it like a kdrama, which would allow me to keep watching them as “research” and to write the thing that felt most compelling to me—that is, if I’m honest: magical romance, with a little mystery thrown in.

But I couldn’t make that happen on the page.

My most successful stories had always been stories with almost no sense of scene, and good kdramas, like most good TV, thrive on big (often cliffhanger) scenes, on getting you *emotionally* invested in what happens next, not only wanting to know plot-wise, but wanting to feel the emotional build-up and anticipating a point where all those emotions will get some release. What can I say, I like to feel the feels.

I had a good sense of stakes and arc, how get the reader involved, how to push the story forward, and frankly, how to write a nice sentence, but these were general things that all seemed more useful once I could get everything set up and in moving everything forward from there to a big payoff.

This is why it worked fine in stories, and in my novel of tiny sentence-driven parts, and even, perhaps, in the novella (though I think what helped me there was writing it first as a screenplay). It meant a small set up, a quick drive to the end, and a satisfying finish that carried most of the emotional weight.

You can’t write the kind of novel I wanted to write like that. The kind of novel that is like a TV show, that is based on scenes and action and drama and keeps the reader/viewer on edge with what is going to happen for a long time, even while many things are actually happening.

I was submitting this novel to a workshop run by Mat Johnson. One of the simple things Mat said that changed how I was thinking was: just put in only the information that you need to make a particular scene work. I was struggling to get in all the stuff that would make the novel good later on. Like, this character likes that character but that character likes another character, and if the wrong relationship happens, this and that and this other thing will be lost forever, and it represents this struggle in his past and so on. Instead of, for one scene: this character likes that character but that character doesn’t like him. That was all I needed to make that scene go, and that scene would build the information in for later scenes, where the information was actually needed.

Another little piece of advice Mat dropped in one day as I was leaving the classroom. He said something like, “You need a symbolic action.” I nodded and left without much thought. Later, at home, I considered what he had said and then what I thought that meant to me, realizing that I both kind of knew but didn’t know at all. I watched another episode of a kdrama. I analyzed how those scenes worked, what a symbolic action was in them. Like how a man might wait all night in the cold without a coat for a woman to show up, late. Or record a video for a woman to play after he might die. Or follow her all the way home without revealing himself.

The symbolic action, to me, meant an action that would represent the emotion of the character. In the first example (Boys Over Flowers), it shows the feelings of the character before he or the love interest really realize themselves. It shows that he would go through something difficult for her. It shows that he has changed a little in his feelings toward her, and it changes our esteem for him a little. It also changes the woman’s, whether or not she is ready to admit it yet.

In the second example (The Greatest Love), it shows how much he would give up, a man whose heart malfunctions (literally). These are actors, so it’s also representing the movie he really wants to make (okay, sappy). He has gone, at this point, from someone completely about himself to someone who thinks that what he should leave when he dies is something for one other person.

In the third example (every kdrama ever), it shows, usually by this point, that the man is in love with the woman but can’t admit it, or feels he can’t act on his love, or is protecting the woman and protecting the woman from it, though also that it’s inevitable that eventually she will turn and they will face each other again. Etc.

A good symbolic action, I started to think, is more than often present in effective scenes, real scenes that actually do the things I was told a scene does a long time ago and had forgotten: change the character, change the situation, start in one place (emotionally and/or physically) and end in another. It also does or leads to the kind of things we love about drama: gets your heart beating, reaches or displays some emotion, gets both the reader and the character emotionally involved, sometimes in the same direction and sometimes in opposite directions, makes the reader want to go on and find out how this has affected what’s to come.

I jotted down a little list of things to note for each scene in the “Scratch Pad” of Scrivener, starting with the symbolic action and going from there, thinking about advice I had stored away and internalized (hopefully) or even given to students and failed to keep well enough in mind. And then I looked at the scenes I had and answered the questions with either what was there or what should be there, and revised the scene accordingly. This helped immensely. Before I wrote each scene from then on, I would answer these questions. They were a guide to me. Maybe they will help others, either in planning or in revision.


What to remember for each scene:

What is the symbolic ACTION?

How does the character change (even a little)?

How does the situation change (even a little)?

What is the high point/what gets heart beating? (Get out of the scene here or at least very soon after.)

How does this scene affect the reader’s emotions?

What emotion is at play for the character?

What is this scene about? I.e. what is its purpose, and why do I need it (here)?

What to Learn about Writing from: Gene Luen Yang, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Tea Obreht

What to Learn about Writing from: Hayao Miyazaki and The Wind Rises

What to Learn about Writing from: Catherine Chung, Don Lee, Amy Hempel, and AWP

How to use a structural metaphor.

1. AWP was its usual craziness this year, as is bound to happen when 14k writers get under each other’s armpits. I tried to avoid “seeing” anything but people. I go to AWP for the relationships. My favorite moments are on the couches, where writers start to really talk to each other and mean something to each other. Maybe it’s because I have a kid. Other writers get out. I get AWP.

I did a couple of panels. One on Twitter, and one that was basically a reading with four other Korean American writers. I read second. Catherine Chung read before me, which meant that by the time I got up to read, I felt very inadequate.

Cathy read a section of something new, and she started by saying it included a math problem. When she got to the math problem, it was a math problem of love. One of the characters was also falling in love (or at least believing she was falling in love) with math and with her math teacher. The section went on, and I started to realize that, though the math problem was the math problem of love, the entire section was a math problem of love.

By this time was when I was starting to feel like, pass. Like, why do they make me follow that?

2. I teach a Don Lee story, “Widowers,” in my Introductory Fiction Workshop. It’s not my favorite story in Yellow, but it’s a great story, and I teach it during a week we talk about structure. The other story we read for the week is Andy Mozina’s “Dogs I Have Known,” which is very much worth checking out, if you haven’t read it. “Widowers” is about three widowers. The main character has not been able to get over his wife’s death, and keeps going back to a perfect moment in which they fell in love. His best friend keeps telling him he’s stuck in the past. He starts a relationship with a girl who is the same age as he was when he met his wife. The story ends [SPOILER ALERT] with him recreating the perfect moment from his past with the girl in the present.

The story is structured in a way most readers have basically seen before, alternating between the present and the past. But Lee does this more elegantly than simply alternating between a present arc and a backstory arc. The characters bring forth the present and the past, and complicate it. The best friend seems to bring up the past, but then he also is the one pushing against it. The girl seems to represent the present, but she also reminds the main character of the past.

There is one moment in the story that does not seem to fit. The section describes why the protagonist stopped fishing, how the boats used to follow dolphins to catch tuna and would end up having to kill the dolphins with the tuna, catching both in their nets. This section works as a metaphor for the “suspension” the protagonist is caught in. It also, as I like to draw (terribly) on the board, operates as a metaphor for the structure.

I know, my handwriting is awful, but the water on which the protagonist floats his wife and the girl and his boat (career) and his life is the present, or the line between the present and the past, and the dolphin that dives and comes up to the surface for air and brings with it the tuna is the past. The ending of the story is the moment in which the present and the past are caught up together.

3. Another teaching story. As many workshop instructors know, the first story the class reads sets the tone. I like to teach Amy Hempel stories first. I think it helps us all pay more attention to the line. When I teach flash fiction courses, I like to start with “San Francisco,” which Alan Cheuse has said somewhere is the best story by any living writer. It’s two pages.

"San Francisco" is the story of a narrator dealing with her mother’s death and an argument with her sister over who took her mother’s watch. You know, in the way that it’s about so much more, too. The central metaphor, as might be deduced from the title—if you’re thinking as far as Hempel is—is an earthquake. An earthquake is what the narrator says may have made her mother lose the watch at some point. An earthquake is the loss of a mother. An earthquake in San Francisco is something that happens all the time, is something small that is really something big, or vice versa. But an earthquake is also what happens structurally in the story.

The story is split in half by a section break, by a page break in the Collected Stories. Everything in the story is split by the death of the mother.

4. I like to put things together. I like to see how things work. It is why I was into science as a kid, and why I started to lose interest in science when it became less about how things worked and more about memorization, or so it seemed to me. I have trouble operating under stress, the stress of the unknown, the stress of meeting new people (like at AWP), the stress of the mess of life. So, as we do in writing, I try to find a way to make sense of the mess, for myself. I try to make connections, or rather to figure out the connections

Here is the structural question for this post: how does it all fit together? Is it just reaching, as always, for meaning?

The Ways We Talk, the Ways We Listen

What to Learn about Writing from: Elizabeth Strout (and Gordon Lish?)

I live-tweeted a craft talk Elizabeth Strout gave at UH. Topics covered: urgency, authority, truthfulness, Gordon Lish, plot, character, publishing, linked story collections…

What to Learn about Writing from: “Escape from Spiderhead” and Robert Boswell and (sort of) Bread Loaf

Context and dramatic context.

Or, context that establishes the rules of the story and context that establishes the drama of the story.

Has everyone read “Escape from Spiderhead”? There might be some spoilers, so keep that in mind, I guess, if you’re into surprises.

I teach “Escape from Spiderhead” as a way to talk about agency, and how to give a protagonist agency even when your protagonist is in a position of almost no power, even when he’s a cog in a greater satirized machine. The narrator of the story is in a special jail where they do drug experiments on him, with drugs such as Darkenfloxx, which gives you despair, or Verbaluce, which gives you eloquence. The only agency the protagonist has here, since he is a prisoner, is that he has to say “Acknowledge” for the higher ups (in this case a scientist named Abnesti) to be able to test a drug on him, or at least for them to do so without jumping through additional hoops. The protagonist has this one little piece of agency, but it’s crucial to the story. As the story goes on, and the morality is more and more complicated, the narrator takes longer and longer to say “Acknowledge,” and finally refuses, and when Abnesti decides to go to the extra lengths, the narrator Darkenfloxxes himself and escapes. It’s a hell of a story.

But what I want to talk about here is context. There’s a lot of context to be filled in here, in order to tell us where our narrator is and what kind of world he is in and what responsibilities and roles he has/can have. There’s also dramatic context to be filled in, like why it’s so hard for him—personally—to say “Acknowledge” to Abnesti’s request to Darkenfloxx a woman in front of him. It’s not just that Darkenfloxx will send the woman into despair and maybe kill her, it’s that the narrator is a killer and has worked hard to come to terms with himself, and so on and so forth.

I am taking the term dramatic context from a talk by Robert Boswell, which you can find on iTunes U—he gave it at Bread Loaf last year, and all of the BL talks are on iTunes (a good resource, I’d add). Boswell talks about how more dramatic context is needed in some situations than in others, for example, a woman wearing the same hat in “Everything that Rises Must Converge” versus someone kissing a stranger in the dark. One is inherently more dramatic than the other. In the first instance, the story needs to tell/show the reader why this moment matters so much. In the second instance, though, dramatic context is still important. We want to know why this moment matters to our protagonist. 

Obviously, whether or not to send someone else into despair, in the Saunders story, has its own drama. But again, we need to know why our narrator and not another of the prisoners, and what makes it so hard for our narrator as an individual. Dramatic context, it seems to me, is tied to the protagonist, in a way that the general context of the story—that we are in this special jail, with drug testing, in the future, and the ability to say Acknowledge—is not necessarily. But what I really truly actually want to talk about is when to give us the dramatic context and the general context, and how, and why.

I often get to the point, when I’m teaching a workshop, where I need to sit everyone down and talk a little about context, mainly because I get a lot of stories where, at the beginning, I can’t figure out what’s going on, and that seems to be treated as a way to get a reader invested in the story. It’s true that this creates mystery, but the mystery is not an engaging mystery, it’s a disengaging mystery. I need to know the rules of the story right away. I don’t need to know, for example, what crime the narrator of “Escape from Spiderhead” committed, or what crime the other prisoners committed. I do need to know that they’re being drug tested, and that the drugs can affect the language, and that we’re in a different world than our own, so on. If I don’t know these things right away, I would be too disoriented, and I would focus on trying to figure out the logistics rather than the heart of the story, whether this guy can overcome his crime and how—or whatever you think it is, my point is that it is not: where is he and what kind of world is this?

I do want mystery, but I want the mystery that matters, the mystery where, if I knew two people were going to run into each other, wearing the same hat, and that it would matter, I would want to read on to know why. I wouldn’t want to read on to know what social class they were from, or what the hat looked like, or who’s talking to whom, or what kind of job the main character has, or so on—general context.

The general context gives us a sense of grounding, a word I hate but that I will use here anyway.

How do we give this context of where they are and who they are and what world they’re in and when they are without being completely boring? When I look at the Saunders story, the entire first section of the story is pretty much just this context, and it’s a routine, it’s something that happens between the narrator and Abnesti often. They know the situation and how it works. But we don’t. We don’t, however, want to hear about their routines or for someone to simply tell us the rules, or to get a long description of the prison. Or I don’t. Saunders manages a way around how boring all this context would be: he uses humor and language. He’s funny. That pretty much distracts us long enough not to notice that the story really parts after section one. And he doesn’t give us a breakdown of the routine, he shows us a scene and implies that it is something regular. We get a singular action that also encompasses recurring action. That’s far more interesting.

We get the context in the details, too, like how in the first sentence, Abnest is speaking “over the P.A.” That tells us a lot, nothing too exact, but that they’re in differing positions, a certain kind of place, and one person has the ability to make himself heard or not.

When Saunders gives the dramatic context is also instructive. We don’t find out the context about our narrator being a criminal and how he got out of the regular jail and into this special jail, or many details about his and Abnesti’s personal lives, until we need to: that is, until Abnesti asks the narrator to Acknowledge Darkenfloxxing a woman named Heather.

At first, the narrator does not Acknowledge. Then Abnesti brings up all this dramatic context in order to put pressure on the narrator’s decision. It seems to me that’s exactly when dramatic context can be most useful, that it should come in at the point where it adds the most pressure/stakes to the protagonist’s action and agency. When do we need to know? Story-wise, we need to know these things when they create conflict and action.


On the page, there’s a whole column of text now (context) between when Abnesti asks, “Drip on?” and the narrator at last says, “Acknowledge,” and something in the story has changed in that space.

Context is a tricky thing, and it can often seem to work against a story, to be kind of boring but also very necessary, and I’m always looking for ways to get it in so that it serves the momentum of the story, rather than slowing it.

*note: in the photo, the red is the context and the black is the agency.

Letter of Introduction to My Students (kids)

Dear class,

I am writing you from the island of PITS, where I just moved. It’s a very small island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s called PITS because it’s full of pits. There is only one tree on the whole island, and it’s right in the center of the island, like it’s the queen of trees. All around that tree are the pits. You have to be really careful not to fall into them. If you walk a few feet while you’re talking to your friend and not paying attention, you might fall into one. Nobody knows where the pits go.

On the island of PITS, everyone is in school or everyone is a teacher. It’s like one big school. We learn all the time! Last week, even though I’m a teacher, I learned something, too. I learned that the island of PITS used to have no pits at all! Why and how they started is a mystery! But after the pits started to appear, everyone wanted to learn about them. So the schools became very popular, and the students tried even harder! My classes are all very respectful and love to talk if it’s time to talk and listen if it’s time to listen and write if it’s time to write. We learn a lot about the pits and about the island and about what the world is like outside of our island, like in Texas, were you are! The teachers, like me, are all really encouraging and happy when our students learn something. Everyone’s favorite part of class is at the end when some students get to share their writing if everyone has worked hard. I love that part, too!

Before I moved to PITS, I was a very careless walker. I never looked where I was going! So, weirdly, I actually kind of like the pits. The pits mean that I have to concentrate. I’m a better listener because I don’t worry about talking, only listening and walking and not falling in! All of my students seem to feel the same way, like the pits can be kind of annoying, but we’re glad they’re there. It’s funny how that works.

When I lived in Boston, before I moved to PITS, I spent more time being a writer. I wrote a lot and was often lonely and stuck in my own little world. I have a 2-year old daughter and she and I played a lot. That helped! I also wrote a couple of books! Sometimes I look at the pits on the island and I wonder if my books are down there in those holes. It can feel like that, sometimes, to write. Like you want your writing to be like the tree in the center of the island, but you keep stepping in the pits. But at least with writing—not like life—you can write your story again and make the pits disappear.

As an adopted kid, I often wished the pits would disappear. I mean pits as a metaphor now. Like, I felt like I always had to be careful of falling into another world. I mean that sometimes, being adopted was like the tree, and sometimes, it was like the pits. A lot of things are like that, I guess. We can learn a lot from the island of PITS! I hope our class can be more like that tree in the center of the island, that we give it lots of water and sunlight and love so it will grow tall enough to see from anywhere. I want us to be proud that we made that tree grow.

I’m looking forward to teaching you!

Mr. Salesses

Asian American Lit: On the Similarities Between Authors and Their Narrators | ALIST

I spoke to Catherine Chung and Kirstin Chen about similarities between authors and their narrators and what the question has to do with race and gender and craft. I think this is an important conversation, and I’ve seen this question leveled at writers of color and women writers like some sort of x-ray gun, and what these authors have to say is well worth the read.

What to Learn about Writing from: Emily Rapp, The Good Men Project, JFK, Melodrama, and Amy Hempel

Phew, that’s a long title. 

The TL;DR: a rhythm affects the reader most when you break it.

Or, how do you get a reader to cry, to share in the joy and sadness of a story, and to want to share it with others? (If I only knew!) Maybe it has to do with utilizing the counterintuitive.

After the funeral van (I had expected a hearse, and felt a moment of strange, almost euphoric happiness for this very normal looking van) drove away, I stood in the doorway with Ronan’s father, who had the hood of his sweatshirt up, and felt bolted to the world and untethered from every tangible, known, or valued thing. I thought, I now have to make something of my life, because my boy has been driven away in a gray mini-van, and he is dead, having never had a chance to make anything of his life, or make a single decision about how to direct it or live it. I also thought, I could care less about publishing another book, staying in shape, getting the perfect teaching job, or anything at all. If there is an all powerful being in the business of throwing lightning bolts like lethal javelins, now is the time for him or her or it to take aim. And finally I thought fuck this world and all of the people and things in it.  I felt relieved and gutted, furious and insane. My friend Julia came over and kissed my face. I ate a bagel. My neighbors never said a word to me, although some of them were getting into their cars that morning as Ronan’s body was driven away, beginning their commute, still alive, still making lists and plans, and very soon after that morning I moved away with my sadnesses and they were unburdened from whatever feelings they may have had about my situation. My landlord, over the intervening weeks, was concerned about the logistics of how and when I would be moving out. I wanted no happiness in that house ever again and wished misery for everyone inside it. I wanted it burned to the ground. Months later, when a tornado ripped the roof from the house of my aunt and uncle’s house in Illinois, the two of them clinging to a shower pipe in the downstairs bathroom, telling me later you could not believe the noise, we thought we were going to die I wished that a natural disaster had hit the place where Ronan had died. A dramatic hole in the ground, a roof of sky, would prove that something had happened there. Otherwise who could possibly live there? I longed for those old Sunday school stories, for stones rolled away, a shroud on a bench, some apparition floating in a cave saying I’m just fine. Proof. Provide it, show it, give it to me.

That’s a paragraph from an essay by the writer Emily Rapp, author of The Still Point of the Turning World. You can find online a number of essays she wrote about her baby dying of Tay-Sachs disease. Pretty much all of these essays are absolutely heartbreaking. Or they are to me.

Recently, I was having a conversation with another writer about a Big Famous Book That Everyone Likes, Even Oprah. He didn’t like it. I haven’t read it, but have heard nothing but raves, so it surprised me to hear that he wasn’t feeling it. It’s one of those books that is supposed to make you feel the feels, but for him (I’m paraphrasing) the author didn’t let go enough for the reader to have any room to feel deeply. It was constantly interpreting the feelings and events for the reader.

We were talking about what makes you feel something in nonfiction, and my belief that convincing nonfiction often starts with that moment when the reader clicks in, usually through some vulnerability from the author. I told him about Emily Rapp, a writer who almost always manages to make me cry.

He asked me why that was. I hadn’t really thought about it that much, I had mostly just been letting myself get caught up in the emotions. But I tried to put my finger on it, because we were talking about writing and it is my insane mission to demystify craft even in small conversations with friends. I thought about the moments that made me cry, and I realized as I was talking it out that these moments were almost always when the interpreting broke down. The essay form is a form that does a lot of interpreting, gives a lot of insight. The essay is a form that makes meaning out of action, I said in a recent class, rather than a form that makes meaningful action, as fiction does. I think I would stand by that if pressed. And these essays Rapp writes often come to a point where the incredibly insightful voice nearly or does break down. Like in the above paragraph, when we get to the most “cliche” feeling: Fuck this world and all of the people and things in it. That kills me. It’s like there’s no new way to say it, and there’s no interpretation to be done. Her son is dead and nothing else matters and she can’t make meaning out of a little boy dying. It’s all the meaning-making that surrounds these moments that make those moments so poignant for me, I think. It’s the inarticulateness in the midst of all the articulateness.

That’s it, my friend said. The Big Book That Everyone Likes, Even Oprah, never breaks down. It just continues and continues to try to make meaning.

There is something that The Good Men Project sends out in their emails about how posts become hits, that I have always kind of resisted. It’s to write something counterintuitive. But thinking about why the Rapp essays always hit me so hard, I wondered if this wasn’t right after all. It’s the breakdown of meaning in an essay full of meaning that sticks with me. It’s the idea that when one cannot express oneself, one is expressing oneself most truly. Or it’s an essay where the writer seems to be talking about books but then you realize she’s really talking about some personal trauma. Maybe counterintuitive isn’t exactly the right word for it, but there’s something to that.

In Boston, I taught a course called Writing with Style. In it, we looked at some ways of utilizing “style” to affect the reader, to make a scene move faster or slower, for example, to sound pleasing to the ear, to drive home a point or an emotion. I talked about repetition in the class, and had everyone read the JFK “Ask what you can do” speech. What I wanted to look at about the speech was not that so much is repeated—though it is—but that the most memorable parts of the speech are where the repetition turns on itself, as in the “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In the tiny reversals. This happens multiple times. The speech also deals a lot in the counterintuitive, or at least the seemingly counterintuitive.

It is the reversal, the breakdown, that gets to me. I am reading a book right now called The Melodramatic Imagination, because I am writing a melodrama and am interested in how they work and why they grab us so hard. One of the themes of melodrama, Peter Brooks points out in the book, is muteness. I see this in TV shows all the time. Characters are not able to express their love for one another, for example. It’s agonizing to watch. The emotional climax often turns on a moment when the character is able, finally, to tell her/his love how s/he really feels. It’s the articulation of those feelings, after all of the silencing of them, that makes the moment so charged.

Or it goes the other way, too. Think of Amy Hempel’s beautiful story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The ending of that story is about the surest thing, other than babies, to make cry every time.

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

The chimp has gone through all of this trouble to be able to communicate in this new language, through her hands. She is able to express herself in this way, she has a voice. And then the baby dies, and like Rapp, she stands over the body with all the words that she knows and is unable to say anything that will make her child come back to her. That, Hempel writes, is being fluent in grief.

That is a moment that stays with a reader forever.


"A story works when there’s momentum, life behind the words," Mary Miller told Matthew Salesses at The Rumpus. She needs that momentum for her new novel, The Last Days of California, about a family driving to California for the rapture. Also, Amy Butcher wrote about her favorite Millerisms at Hobart.

basically: What to Learn about Writing from: Mary Miller, an interview

Inside the Inside of the Green Monster | PEN American Center

I have something up in the PEN America/Guernica Flash Fiction Series. I wrote it for some contest in Boston at a bar, years ago. Glad it’s finally seeing the light of day. Thanks to Cathy Chung for asking for it.