THE ART OF WRITING THE 'IN BETWEEN'
Description: To be a skilled storyteller is to be adept at establishing narrative plot points, establishing tension, and developing scene, but what to say about the reality that so much of life—both on the page and off it—consists of slow, mundane, inconspicuous moments? Moments where nothing, really, happens? These moments, a good writer knows, are equally ripe for poetic rendering, for it is in these vast periods of time—ordinary and commonplace, drowsy and dull and quiet—that characters often evolve and grow the most, where the casual nature of everyday living obscures unfathomable potential to develop and deepen the emotional resonance and the atmospheric energy of a work. In this class, we’ll study the art and craft of writing moments where nothing really happens, where time expands and collapses, where people live and spend the vast majority of their days and lives. Oftentimes, little happens, and it is the job of the writer to write about these things in a way that 'defamiliarizes' and beautifies—or else 'uglifies,' or makes melancholy, or 'humorizes,' or dignifies—the moments other people might take for granted. We will make these moments shimmer.
Discussion: To learn how to harness energy from these moments, we will study the work of Jo Ann Beard, quiet moment renderer-extraordinaire. Often celebrated for her highly immersive prose and her incredible skill at writing the life stories of near or complete strangers, Jo Ann Beard is the author of the recently published essay collection, Festival Days; the collection is a long-awaited follow-up to her cult classic, The Boys Of My Youth, which features her widely celebrated and commonly anthologized essay, "The Fourth State of Matter" (which I advise you to read if you haven't already). For our purposes, we'll be reading excerpts and discussing Beard's essay, "Cheri," which follows the final few months in the life of Cheri Tremble—a woman who, when diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, sought physician-assisted suicide from Dr. Death, or Jack Kevorkian. Cheri is also, notably, a woman Beard never met in life (which requires skills I can't even fathom). To write "Cheri," Beard completed extensive interviews from friends and family and relied on elements of fiction to close the gaps in-between. To get us started, please download and open the essay.
Excerpts of Note:
Pg. 37 - 41 (establish opening)
Pg. 41 - 42 (characterization via mundane everyday)
Pg. 44 - 49 (study the rendering of slow moments)
Pg. 56 - 61 (study the rendering of slow moments)
Discussion Questions: Obviously in writing about something like terminal illness—breast cancer—Beard has to find a way to span months, years even, while maintaining energy and tension in her prose. This is no small feat. What do you notice about the way in which Beard depicts time, and 'down time,' at that? Which techniques might we identify and borrow? How might mastery of illustratively rendering these moments benefit our writing and our readers' experience, more generally?
Writing Exercise: After reading excerpts from Jo Ann Beard’s “Cheri" and discussing the ways Jo Ann Beard writes about passing time and relatively unclimactic moments, write about some period of time between last Friday and today. The exact duration of this period of time is up to you: you might write something that spans days, or just the weekend, or just Monday, or just hours, or perhaps even just a few minutes. Regardless, write in a way that defamiliarizes the little moments, activities, and elements comprised within that time period. Work to render these moments in a way that further illustrates a mood or characterizes your narrator or main characters. Again, work not to write about the exciting events, the highlights, but those in-between spaces and time more generally in a way that suggests a mood, an atmosphere, an understanding, an ‘essaying.’
More Questions?: Contact me here.