What am I writing anyway?

I had a moment of clarity about my work, myself as a writer, during a discussion with writing coach Isoke Nia in the fall. I observed as she taught a room full of public school teachers about genres. You see, state and national education standards reference “expository, narrative, descriptive and persuasive” types of writing, but Isoke and her peers (many of whom come from the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia) advocate organizing curriculum by genre and teaching children how each of these forms can strengthen writing in every genre. A good writer uses a combination of those forms, not any one in isolation.

Enlightened by Isoke’s definitions of genres, forms and literary devices, I suddenly understood that the memoir I’ve been writing is not a story — that the frustrations I felt about it at the time were all tied to the fact that I was senselessly trying to identify narrative characteristics in a text that was, as a whole, non-narrative. “Oh!” I wrote in my notebook as Isoke spoke. “It doesn’t need a climax!”

So I plodded happily through the fall and ran off to grad school in January thinking I was well on my way to publication.

But during our January grad school residency, my writing peers in workshop responded to my manuscript as if reading a story. What is the arc? They asked me. What do you want your reader to know, to feel, to think? And, they added, Lose the subheadings. Those “subheadings” were lines of demarcation that I saw as chapter divisions in a non-narrative text, but others obviously saw them as distracting text within a lengthy, narrative chapter.

I scratched my head and squinted my eyes. This wasn’t devastating news, but it did make one fact clear: I have a lot of writing to do. I’m not nearly as far along as I thought I was.

Alex Johnson, my faculty mentor at Lesley, recommended several memoirs and a few short story collections to feed my craft studies and my writing this semester. Of all the recommendations, Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas spoke loudest to me from the UPS box when it arrived on my porch, so I read it first.

Now I’m scratching my head again, thinking, “So wait, I thought that’s sort of what I was doing. Why was my lack of story arc lambasted in workshop but this text works so beautifully?”

On deeper reading of Thomas’ work and mine, I see that perhaps I’m straddling two very different forms — narrative and non-narrative — perhaps even alternating between two different voices — the logical, tie-up-loose-ends me and the poetic, just-show-’em-the-pictures me — and, as a result, I’m not doing either form or either voice justice.

I dug out some old work of mine, two very tiny non-fiction vignettes written in third person (a la Thomas, who I didn’t know at the time). I hacked at them, prying out everything but the absolutely essential and sprinkling in some newly inspired descriptive text.

I’m turning these revised pieces in with my first grad school submission on Monday. I still have no idea where I’m headed with this memoir, but I recall that E. L. Doctorow says Writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.


One thought

  1. Julie, I enjoy experiencing your insights and struggles with along with you in this blog. I picked up my old journal again this week. Not in an effort to rewrite it but to resolve some internal conflicts that feel so familiar. In reading, I was stunned by how my writing has changed. My journal has always been free form stream of consciousness. Just this past week I submitted a paper for school which was such a struggle to write and a contrast to my journal efforts. The form and effort of writing is a fascinating topic. Thanks for sharing your experiences on this blog. I look forward to more. -K


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