Upending Expectations

Early in her recent memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith writes about confronting her husband about his affair. We see her wake him up, and then, scene over. “Maybe you want a scene here… But while we’re on the subject: Why would you want to be in that room with us? Maybe I’m sparing you something.”

Is that scene really what we, as readers, want? Or is it just what we expect?

It’s a familiar dynamic in workshop: A writer turns in a story with a recognizable narrative—the bad diagnosis, the addiction recovery, the divorce, the roommate who admires your style a little too fervently. Should a familiar piece be missing, classmates ask why. Where’s the hitting-bottom scene? Where’s the scene where the husband lies to his wife?

But those scenes aren’t mandatory. They’re not always necessary. They can even steer the writer away from the real story.

Recently, the author Madhushree Ghosh visited my class to discuss her mouth-watering memoir Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family. In it, Madhushree rejects parts of the familiar narrative in many ways, but two stand out to me.

One, she named the character of her ex-husband “my now ex,” and uses it from the first reference on, even in the early chapters when they are dating, meeting each other’s parents, falling in love. The reader knows, from the jump, their relationship is doomed. Second, she doesn’t mention her now ex’s mental health diagnosis until near the end of the book.

Madhushree said she did consider sticking to the familiar arc of the love-found, love-lost story, but she quickly figured out, doing so would have fundamentally altered her portrayal of the book’s most important character: herself.

“You have to decide where you want to put your power,” she said. “My now ex, and to a certain extent his parents, they are part of the story, but they’re not the story. Not naming my now ex, or my now ex-in-laws, that means the power continues to reside with me.”

Because of those decisions, the reader immediately knows the protagonist as the woman who emigrated, who emerged from that marriage, who loves cooking. Even when they’re reading about her as a girl eating the last guava, or the teenager locked in a bathroom with a ghost.

“I wanted to make sure folks understood this memoir uses food as a social justice tool,” Madhushree said. “And I also wanted to make sure they understood that if there are two South Asian women in a room, one of them has a story they haven’t been able to share with you yet.”

Once she identified those goals, her choices about her now ex were not only easy, they were obvious. I’d love to tell you to ignore the expectations people have about stories, the expectations we hold without even realizing it. But who are we kidding? Those expectations are everywhere. Better to do as Madhushree did, and notice when you’re writing to those expectations, then make a deliberate choice to write what’s important to you, as the author of your own story.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

A Title That Works

Awhile back, I was working with a student whose memoir encompassed the AIDS epidemic, being (illegally) deported from American Samoa, taking a midnight tour of Algiers, lecturing Madeleine Albright on the United Nations’ failures during the AIDS crisis (while Albright was the UN Ambassador), and explaining a suitcase full of female condoms to curious customs inspectors in Tehran.

And the title Martina Clark was working with for this romp through international awkward encounters? My Accidental Life. 

“You may have to rethink that,” I said.

Martina liked it because her life and her story are just so full of surprises. But I kept tripping over “Accidental.” I mean, Martina puts the “active” in activist.

Ultimately, a few more surprises would determine the title for Martina’s memoir: My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19.

“My life…is, indeed, filled with many—many—unexpected events,” Martina says. “And I’ve bookended the memoir with COVID which, unfortunately, is also timely and relevant.”

In looking for her title in the surprises, adventures, and urgent social issues of her story, Martina did exactly what Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recommends.

Paulson-Nguyen is a professional title doctor (yes, that’s a thing!), and the No. 1 mistake she sees is authors choosing soft-focus titles.

“A vague title does a book a disservice,” she says. “I begin with the writer’s query letter and synopsis. They contain vivid imagery; action; and the specifics of your story’s world.”

OK, you’ve found imagery, action, and details. Now what?

Play, Paulson-Nguyen says. Try:

  • Reworking a significant snippet of dialogue;
  • Enlivening a phrase by adding a verb;
  • Linking two words you don’t usually see together, like Katherine Standefer’s book Lightning Flowers;
  • Making up a new word, like Samantha Montano’s Disasterology.

These are the moves Gotham Fiction teacher Divya Sood tries for her own books. With her first novel, a story about reincarnation manifested through shared dreams, Divya landed her title when she finally decided on the name for her protagonist: Maya,which means illusion in Sanskrit.

For her second novel, she realized her characters refer repeatedly to a line from the poem “Tonight I Write” by Pablo Neruda: “Through nights like this one I held her in my arms. I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.”

“The book—Nights Like These—is about love and loss,” Divya says. “So, I thought it apt.”

Once you have a good candidate for a title, you still have one more test to run, Paulson-Nguyen says. Read it to your friends. If they pause before gushing, “I love it!” it’s still not the right one.

When it’s right, they’ll react immediately, Paulson-Nguyen says. “We all recognize a title that works.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Never Finished, Only Abandoned

Teresa Wong, fellow Gotham teacher, did me the huge favor of dropping in on my memoir class recently to talk about her graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet, and the graphic memoir she’s working on now, All Our Ordinary Stories, which will come out next year.
And she said something about Dear Scarlet that really surprised me: “I am a little bit embarrassed at some of my drawings in my book.”
Why should this surprise me? Authors talk constantly about how they open their published books and find sentences, paragraphs, chapters they want to take another run at. Every writer I know can quote Leonardo Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
To me, a reader, Teresa’s book seemed as though it must be exactly what she intended: A heartfelt and moving story about her experience with post-partum depression.
But no story is ever what the writer first envisioned.
“The pictures in my head are much more beautiful and well rendered than the ones I can actually draw,” Teresa said. “That’s a creative phenomenon that everyone has. It’s always going to be better in your head.
“But then you have to realize that if it’s beautiful in your head, it doesn’t really mean anything. Because no one else can see it.”
And that’s the salient point. It’s wonderful, really, to love a story in your mind. To love the idea, or how it might move people, how it might sound, or look, or feel.
As long as you don’t get too hung up on that perfect story that doesn’t actually exist. Yet.
That’s a kind of perfectionism that’s especially self-defeating. Unchecked, it can feed a writer’s imposter syndrome, and paralyze you even further.
Author Athena Dixon, whose memoir The Loneliness Files is forthcoming this fall, has written and spoken extensively about imposter syndrome, and says that kind of perfectionism can warp your own perceptions of your work.

“Any small mistake makes [perfectionists] question their competence,” Dixon wrote in the anthology Getting to the Truth. But, if “you can give yourself credit for what you are doing well, it will make what you have to ‘fix’ less overwhelming.”
If you’re asking whether the version of the story you write (or the picture you draw) is as good as the one you envisioned, you’re asking the wrong questions.
“It’s better to ask, does it communicate? Does it reach people?” Teresa said. “As long as you communicate, you’re golden.”
If you do get that sinking feeling when you’re writing, that this story will never be what you’d hoped, remember that most likely, what you were picturing was a story that would move people. Other people. Who don’t live in your head. And for it to do that, you have to let go, let it out, and let it be what it’s going to be.
“To exist, it has to be a little bit flawed,” Teresa said. “But then at least it can be shared, right?”

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty