WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S CLASS is only one of three classes I’ll teach this week, but I already know that it’s one that will stay with me for a good long time. Why? Because of the exquisite complexity of the topics we covered, the integrity of the writing, and the gnarly-ness of some of the problems. Wish you were there? I wish you were, as well.
Here are some of the topics we covered.
Writing in Real Time
What choices have you got to make when you are both living something – say, the illness of a parent – and writing about it at the same time?
I know a lot about this, having written the first, first-person account of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. It was 1983, and the piece was in The New York Times Magazine and, strange as it sounds, no one had ever heard of the disease. This made choosing when to run it an issue. There was no cure, no anniversary of a major breakthrough to peg the piece to — just me and my sister watching our 51-year-old mother lose her mind in handfuls.
How do you choose when to tell your story? This issue confronts an enormous number of my students, many of whom are confronting family illness, and while you might think this is the least of their worries, it’s not. In fact, it is among the most difficult of choices. These writers must find news pegs. For short pieces of memoir – personal essays, op-eds, radio pieces — they’ll have to answer the reader’s subconscious question of why now? Why is this piece in the paper or on the radio today? Remember, while you too may be engaged in a crisis – placing your mother in a nursing home, inviting hospice into your house, changing schools for your kids – it’s not our crisis, and yet we need to offer our time to read or listen.
How you then tell the story while living amid its complexities is an enormous thing to consider: Which details, in what order? If you want to read a master nonfiction writer talking candidly about writing in real time, read this Diane Ackerman interview on writing about — while living though — her husband’s illness.
There is nothing more satisfying than humor that happens right on time. But how about when things are not so funny? Is the placement and timing of individual words important to the piece? Of course it is, though for best results, this kind of analysis is best done after the vomit draft and during the editing process, when you heighten and add to what you’ve got on the page.
We are not heightening and adding, as in adding more words. We are adding to, as in adding to your message, upping your sense of fear, adjusting your timing, your syncopation, your joy. It’s not volume we need. It’s precision aimed at illustrating your unique point of view. That’s what editing is all about.
And Lists. And more Lists
Interestingly, lists were included in four of the pieces read during Wednesday night’s class, though none of these was what I might call a mere list. Instead, each was tucked into a paragraph, describing people and their manners of death, the things taken along on a journey, what was in a drawer and one, which enumerated the many specialists seen for a complex malady. Each list was arresting in its own way. Placed within the pieces, these lists precisely heightened each tale.
I could feel the tension in the room while each was read. Unique and wonderful, it’s one of the feelings I most adore – that wonder in a room of people appreciating each other’s stories and, by extension, each other’s lives. Want to read more on lists and their astonishing power? See here.
As I said, I wish you were there. Upcoming classes? There are several. See here, and come along. Too far away? This column, Class Notes, will run here on the blog each Friday. Subscribe to The Memoir Project newsletter, get it delivered, and follow along.
See a typo, a grammar flub, my (ever-present) overuse of commas? Point it out, and I’ll throw you in the pool for a monthly free book giveaway. Which book? One of mine – your choice – all of which were professionally copy edited, thank goodness.