This essay was originally published in the January 31st edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.
In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released in cinemas. If you’ve forgotten the movie’s premise, here’s a recap. Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburg weatherman played by Bill Murray, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—home of the famous Punxsutawney Phil. The next day he finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same miserable day over and over. And, because it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues.
I enjoyed Murray’s irreverence and the director’s use of the radio to cue the time loop. But what I remember most about the movie is that while each day was a repeat of the one before, we as viewers perceived them differently based on the details.
In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir Sue Silverman writes, “you’ve all heard the cliché ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ but it’s also true—maybe more true—that one word is worth a thousand pictures if it’s the right word.” She says we need to tell it slant—as in not just rendering what happened, but flavoring what happened by choosing precise sensory details that create the right emotional tone.
Silverman’s book is full of helpful exercises, such as writing about a first (as in the first day of school, a date, a love, or house) and slanting the details to reveal how you feel, or writing a physical description of yourself that reveals the inner you.
My favorite exercise on telling it slant comes from Dinty Moore’s book The Story Cure. He suggests writers choose a house they once lived in and describe it from the perspective of a character who’s just returned from war. Once you’re done, describe the same house from the perspective of a character who’s just fallen in love. Read both pieces and pay attention to how the light, color, and sounds differ? Which items are emphasized? Which ones are ignored?
You can modify this exercise by writing or revising scenes while listening to music. Many writers find lyric-free movie soundtracks work best. If you’re not sure where to find them, try iTunes or Spotify. Just for fun, take a scene you’ve written, (perhaps about one of Silverman’s firsts) and re-write it while listening to the soundtracks for Manchester by the Sea, Star Wars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When you finish, examine the details in your drafts. How did the music influence your writing? Which soundtrack seemed like the right fit?
If you’re not sure what soundtracks might work best, consider the following suggestions:
When it comes to telling it slant, experimentation is key. Rarely do writers find a detail worth a thousand pictures on their first try. Often, our work looks like the movie Groundhog Day—drafts of the same day written again and again. Rather than thinking of these drafts as failures, see them as opportunities—each version a tuning fork you’ll ring to your scene’s perfect tone.
Today is the twenty-one-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Twenty-one years. On his twenty-first birthday, I planned to take him skydiving. I was researching drop zones, having already made ten jumps myself. I couldn’t wait to give him the thumbs up as he scooted to the open doorway and prepared to leave a perfectly good airplane for the first time. To free fall and experience the vast silence of the sky.
On his twenty-first birthday, I stood with family members around the patch of tender new grass marking his grave plot and sang happy birthday to the wind, hoping he would stop freefalling long enough to relieve the silent wringing of my heart. We placed a cake made of flowers by his plaque (his gravestone was still on order) and released balloons that floated skyward—to the air I wanted us to touch together.
During the hardest times, before and after my parents’ divorce, my twin brothers and I were inseparable. That life was short, was a certitude we never forgot. Deep in our marrow, we knew at least one of us wouldn’t survive to adulthood, that this short childhood was our only gift. We made each day an adventure—the good ones epic victories, the bad ones battles to surmount. We didn’t always behave wisely (there were way too many fires) or do the right thing, but we captured what we could, even during the darkest of times.
I’d forgotten that lesson just before Joe’s death. Busy adulting and trying to get ahead, I worked sixty-hour weeks and let important events slide. During the January before he died, Joe and I chatted on AOL during the nascent days of the public internet. We almost always said I love you at the end of our sessions.
I say almost because the last time we were kicked off early and never reconnected. Had I known this was the last time, I would’ve tried harder. I would’ve made sure he knew how I felt. I would’ve stayed up all night trying to get online or braved a long-distance call I couldn’t afford.
Rarely do we know it’s the last time.
Most days we expect to wake up along with the rest of the world. Our time feels endless. Since Joe’s death, I’ve operated as if any day could be my last, paying attention, sucking the good out of life and seeing the challenges as cinematic battles I’ll one day conquer. I say I love you, even if it means no one else will.
Courses in grief are a human requirement we can neither drop nor escape. A year doesn’t go by when I don’t cry at least a couple of minutes on this anniversary or his birthday. Nor does a year go by when I don’t hear his cackle in my laugh or see the outline of his face in mine and light up with joy.
After Joe’s death, I made three more jumps out of perfectly good airplanes. Each time, I carried the heaviness of his ghost in my jumpsuit and said, “This one’s for us.” I imagined us sharing the harness, him probably complaining that the straps were ball crushers, but also hitching his breath as he experienced an unencumbered view of the earth from sky—reveling in how at sunset mist rises to the sky, how heights are relative above 1,000 feet, and how we’re all just specks from up high.
For everyone who reads this, may your courses in grief teach you about abundance and love. I love you for all that you are and all that you will be. May you find comfort in knowing your sorrows are equivalent to your love. Each wave of grief is an opportunity to experience the preciousness of life and to love again. And may you enjoy this song. Listen to it, sing it, and pass it on. Namaste.
A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.
Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.
As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.
So, what is in my control?
The work and only the work.
I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)
But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:
A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
A schedule for completing these tasks
A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
A self-care plan
A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.
At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.
What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?
On October 1st, I started the fourth draft of my memoir by channeling George Saunders. I’d recently watched his interview on Late Night with Seth Myers. During that interview, Saunders explained how his editorial process shows respect for his readers and love for his characters. He sees each revision as an act of love.
I need to cut 25,000 words from my fourth draft. That’s a lot of love.
Over the past few months, I’ve read The Story Cure by Dinty Moore, attended Hippocamp, and read a number of blog posts on making good writing great. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned.
Examine your character arc: Good memoirs are about transformation. Many writers outline the narrative arc for their books and have a good sense of how the plot moves forward. But it’s also important to outline the character arc, or how the character changes over time. Outlining the character arc will help you refine your plot and delete tangential scenes.
Drop the backstory: As a teenager, I loved Stephen King’s novels. But there was one problem. Every book contained between 50 – 200 pages of backstory on his main characters. Talk about skim city. Modern readers are impatient. And let’s face it, few of us are Mr. King. In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly,” Folio agent Jeff Kleinman says, “In almost all cases if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.” My new rule of thumb: if it doesn’t affect a character’s decisions or reappear in the story, it goes.
Examine the weight of each scene: All scenes are not equal. Some contain vital moments that hold the essence of your work. Others just move the plot forward. Consider the work each scene is doing. Compress essential but undramatic scenes so you can make room for the ones that really count.
Replace adjectives and adverbs with active, strong verbs.
Nix Useless Words: Diane Urban has a blog post that contains 43 words to remove from your work. While you can make a case for keeping some of these words, each one you keep should earn its place in your manuscript.
Read your work out loud. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get to work. There’s no substitute for doing this, no matter the length of your work.
Find a second pair of eyes: We all become blind to our manuscripts’ flaws. Talented beta readers and editors can help you kill your darlings so your stars can shine.
George Saunders is right. Since October 1st, I’ve cut over 7,000 words from the first two sections of my book. I already feel more loving toward my characters and the scenes I’ve decided to keep. With some persistence and a lot of tea, I’ll scrap the next 18,000 with ease. Imagine the love I’ll feel for my work. Imagine the love you’ll feel for yours.
This post was originally published in the November 2, 2017 edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
There are the stories we tell about our lives and the stories we discover if we’re brave enough to ask questions. “Re-Examining the Stories We Tell About Our Lives — A Conversation with Memoirist Sharon Harrigan” is an interview with Sharon Harrigan, author of Playing with Dynamite that was published in Huffington Post.