An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Content (Page 2 of 2)

On Length

I’ve been surprised by how many beginning writers have a strange notion that whatever they’re writing—say, a chapter or short memoir or essay—must be certain length—say, twenty pages—and get tied in knots when their writing doesn’t conform.  Ironically, everyone’s assumptions about the proper length for a piece are different.  Where do these ideas come from?  And why?

I suspect these assumptions have their origins in twelve-plus years of schooling, during which every bit of writing comes with page expectations.  Our five-paragraph themes had to be three pages long.  Our college essays had to present our response to certain texts within twelve pages.  When I taught creative writing at a seminary a few years ago, I was amazed at how many times my students asked me how long their assignments had to be.  “As long as they need to be,” I answered repeatedly.  In the freewheeling world of creative adulthood, guidelines such as page limits fall by the wayside.  I don’t think my students ever believed me.  Such freedom is frightening, and almost unheard of in an academic setting.

Honestly, though:  A creative piece should take up as much space as it needs to to be whole, to do the work it sets out to do.  Read Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones’ anthology, In Short, to see just how short creative nonfiction can be.  Read Kathleen Norris’ Dakota or Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum to see how varied the lengths of individual chapters can be within a book.  Read an essay by James Baldwin to see how long essays can be.  Just as individual sentences can consist of a single word or fill whole pages, the length of creative prose will work if it fits the content.  Length, like any element of structure, must serve the story’s heartbeat.

That said, a page-count restriction can be a helpful boundary in the same way a sonnet’s strict form can provide inspiration and creative limitation to the poet.  Venue often dictates length; writers who submit to periodicals or contests must abide by word-counts, and writers for the web must keep things punchy, sometimes even within the boundaries of the screen.  In these cases it’s good to keep a rough sense of length in mind as you compose.  The act of reading alone leads to certain strictures.  I once worked with a memoir so long, the author expected it to be printed in four volumes.  Despite his gripping story and outrageous humor, his story would be well-served by the limitations of a single volume.  I say this not because he’d be more apt to sell it this way (although this is true) but because readers need material to be digestible.  Sure, a nine-course meal can be a treat, just not on a regular basis.  Most often the discipline of fitting a story into a reasonable length for a book is good for the story.

This is yet another instance when we must trust our stories more than our selves.  Like people, each story will grow into its own unique size.  Our challenge as writers is to find the length that serves the story best.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Authorship

Here’s an observation to chew on:  A few times in my career as a writing instructor, I’ve coached retired therapists in writing their memoirs.  These are people who have worked with their personal stories over decades; they’ve had extensive experience in therapy and have continued to explore their stories through supervision groups and continuing education.  And yet, when they sit down to pen their life experiences, they’re shocked.  They remember details that have never before emerged.  They pair memories in surprising ways, revealing new perspectives on events.  They discover recurring themes that bring unity to their story they never knew existed.

This phenomenon is not unique to therapists.  Many authors who have done extensive therapy or told their stories multiple times in twelve-step groups make the same observation:  writing an experience down changes us in different ways than telling it aloud.

Why?

Here’s my theory.  When keep our stories to ourselves, they roil around in our being and exert tremendous control over our lives.  Events from our childhood, conscious or otherwise, dictate current behaviors.  A shameful secret held close over years can eat away at our sense of self; it can govern our choices; it can cause us to generate more shameful secrets.  Unshared, our experiences yield a terrible power.

Once we begin telling the stories of our life experiences, even with a friend, something changes.  The events that shaped us lose a bit of their control.  When a friend hears our shameful secret and laughs at how silly it is, the shame dissipates.  Or if the friend shares her shameful secret in response, we feel less lonely in our short-comings.  Sharing our stories aloud can diffuse their power.

Part of the reason therapy works is that the therapist offers him or herself as a forum for working with our memories.  The therapist hears our story, holds it, reflects on it, and helps us to see it in new ways.  In other words, a professional makes room for our story to exist outside of ourselves and helps us to work with that story.  Done well and over time, this can radically change our relationship to events from our past.

As anyone who journals knows, the blank page works similar magic.  A piece of paper can transform a memory, insubstantial and powerful, into a thing that exists outside of ourselves.  Even a first draft can diffuse that power, because the memory now has form and the writer has gained some authority over the memory.  As we take a memory through revision, however, a remarkable transformation happens.  We make a thousand miniscule choices about how to tell our story—the order, the pacing, when to reflect and when to describe the scene, which themes to pull forward and which to relinquish… We can use the same tragic childhood to wallow in self-pity or to explore the nature of suffering or to ask, “What gave me the resilience to survive?”  And as we make these choices, we become authors of our own identity.  The act of creating a story essentially becomes an act of creating ourselves.  The power exits our memories and enters our being.  We gain authority.

The page provides a container more solid than a good listening ear.  Written words stay put.  They mirror our stories back to us.  Our stories exist outside of ourselves as things, and the more we write, the more we understand exactly how malleable these things are.  This process is lonelier than therapy and by no means a substitute.  My point is that something different happens in us when we write memoir—the difference between being a self-aware person and the author of one’s life.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Removing What’s Not Story

I’ve just cut fifty pages from a polished, 400-page draft—that’s one-eighth of what I’d considered a completed book.  What was in those pages?  A few scenes that slowed down the plot, a lot of unnecessary dialogue, whole paragraphs of exposition, and hundreds of extraneous words extracted from too-long sentences.  Everything I cut was not my story. As it’s very possible there are remnants of not-story remaining, I still have some final combing to do.  And I’ve no doubt my agent and eventual editor will cut even more.

I began working on this novel in 2005, and I am humbled by how much of the volume of what I’ve written has not been my story.  Perhaps other writers are more efficient and economical; perhaps others have the capacity to anticipate the essence of an emergent story, or focus their work during the initial drafting, or otherwise find shortcuts that don’t shortchange the quality of their writing.  This is my fourth book, and I’ve yet to discover an easier method.  I must generate years of notes and scenes and reflections, and then revise “until kingdom come” as my mother says.  In my final revisions, I mostly cut.  I’m a spring gardener after the bushes have bloomed—hack that lilac down to the ground; give that spirea a deep shave.  The story’s life-blood is trustworthy.  If I’m ruthless now, it will bloom all the more when its read.

The hardest part of writing a story—the part that takes the longest—is figuring out what the story is about.  How can I say this so beginning writers don’t think I’m crazy?  Stories are mysterious ecosystems, populated by complex, interconnected people and fueled by subterranean forces.  This is as true for memoir as it is for fiction.  We may write to discover what happens next, but we rewrite to discover a story’s soul.  Souls are shy; they flee the spotlight; they are glimpsed best from the periphery of our vision.  Souls emerge only gradually.  A story’s soul shows itself only once the author has demonstrated faithfulness, commitment, and a deep capacity for listening.  You know your story’s soul is shining through when pages and pages of your work seem superfluous, and you find yourself willing to slough them off for the sake of that light.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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