What’s the Story #74

“No matter how important your story, how skillful your structure, how powerful your prose, unless you are writing so that readers understand both what you are saying and what you mean, you may lose them”

Originally, we were planning to devote this issue—which was scheduled for last summer—to the theme of “power.” And as you’ll see, each essay we’ve collected here engages that theme in one way or another. But as this very long, very eventful year wore on, it seemed to us that the word power had come to evoke something different than what’s in these pages—something too big and abstract, maybe, and too quickly evolving for a smallish literary magazine to address at this moment in time.

As we reconsidered these essays, we noticed how often the writers were drawn to moments of enlightenment and shifting awareness—those instants in which power dynamics were observed clearly for the first time. Some of these shifts are incredibly significant, causing cascading realizations that change the path of a life, while others are much quieter . . . and in some of these stories, in fact, what’s notable is the lack of understanding and the possibility of changes yet to come. So, a different theme emerged: moments of clarity.

0f course, clarity means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me and my students, the word evokes a specific punctuation mark:


I like to review my students’ work—and my own, too, for that matter—as if I am going into the piece cold, with little knowledge of either subject or narrator. The first thing I consider is the lede. Is the opening paragraph or page (often a story or scene) compelling? To use the old journalist’s term, are readers, at least initially, hooked?

The lede—the opening gambit—has to lead somewhere, introducing readers to the substance of the piece and hinting at its purpose and what readers might learn if they continue forward. Readers are busy, and there’s tons of material to which they might—or might not—devote precious time. Do they want to read about, let us say, the loneliness and isolation on a farm somewhere in the Midwest? Or bricklaying, or diamonds, or incest, or Christianity? Perhaps, if your lede is compelling enough, richly told enough, the reader will stay interested, even if the subject doesn’t seem particularly suited to their taste.

Story and substance—that’s pretty much what creative nonfiction is all about. Sometimes I draw lines on the page for my students, showing them what they are doing—or not—with this basic structure. (To be sure, lots of great pieces of nonfiction don’t adhere to this pattern. Maybe readers will be entranced, sold, by the sheer eloquent power of the prose, for one thing.)

Your mission as a writer is to keep readers interested, involved, and intrigued as you take them on a journey; they must be delighted and excited to travel with you, wherever you take them. You want them to be riveted.

This is where the punctuation mark comes in. When I read my students’ work, in addition to identifying the structural elements I have described here, I am also combing the text for reasons that another reader—not me, of course—might stop reading. Are there confusing or unfamiliar words or references? An idea that isn’t totally clear? An image that doesn’t make sense? Will readers feel they need to loop back to the beginning of the piece, or go online to look something up? If I see things like this, I will inscribe a big question mark in the margin of my student’s manuscript.

And the key word: Clarity.

No matter how important your story, how skillful your structure, how powerful your prose, unless you are writing so that readers understand both what you are saying and what you mean, you may lose them.

Clarity should be as important to creative nonfiction writers as story and theme. And yet, because of our familiarity with our own stories, we often take for granted or overlook the need to give our readers the information they need.

John McPhee once told me it takes him about nine months to research and write a typical long-form New Yorker piece. He dedicates most of his writing time to shape and structure and doesn’t worry about how he puts his words together until later in the game. But when a piece is as polished and perfect as he can make it, he sends it off to his editor at the New Yorker. Invariably, at some point in the editing process, he’ll take a train from Princeton to New York and huddle side by side with his editor, and they’ll go over every word, sentence, and image, each phrase on each page—polishing, defining, seeking clarity.

I doubt McPhee can safely take the train to huddle with an editor right now, at the end of 2020, but in one way or another, his clarity process takes up to two full eight-hour days, he says. And that’s a lot of question marks.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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