Tough Stuff

We writers need to write about the tough stuff, happening around and inside us. However, we also want to keep it so engrossing that our audience will stick with it.

Three classic examples:

All in the Family, created by Norman Lear…

Confronts racism and intolerance. It’s a TV sitcom that was #1 in the ratings for five years running in the 1970s. (The show’s creator, Norman Lear, recently passed at the age of 101.)

Archie Bunker, the central character, is an unapologetic bigot, a working-class white guy who “knows” he is superior to Blacks, Jews, gays, and pretty much anyone different than him.

Archie is more ignorant than hateful, and we can laugh at his ignorance, as with his malapropisms, like when he speaks of a priest sprinklin’ incest on the congregation. But he’s not a cartoon; he’s a real person that we feel we know. And we’re glad to see others challenging his odious views, especially his lefty son-in-law, whom he calls Meathead.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl…

Confronts the emotional and physical abuse of children. It’s an uproarious children’s book beloved by generations of kids.

Matilda is a five-year-old girl with a brilliant mind, whose parents have no interest in her. Her school is run by Miss Trunchbull, a towering woman who despises kids, calling them things like maggot and slug. And she roughs them up, like the time she grabs a child by her pigtails and sends her sailing through the air.

Most of the abuse is so over the top as to be humorous, without entirely losing its terror. And we stay with the story because Matilda quietly fights the abuse, gluing her dad’s hat to his head and working on a devious way (involving telekinesis and chalk) to send Trunchbull fleeing the school forever.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala…

Confronts the grief of losing loved ones. It’s a highly acclaimed, bestselling memoir that’s offered solace to its many readers.

It’s a true account of how Sonali lost her parents, husband, and two sons on the day an ungodly tsunami struck Sri Lanka. And how she tried to cope with the loss through alcohol, pills, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.

We experience her unimaginable grief, but we want to keep going because it’s strong storytelling (will she survive her grief or not?) and it’s written with eloquent honesty, as seen here, when Sonali visits the site of the disaster six months later:

What I really wanted was to find Crazy Crow, the big glove puppet with unruly black feathers that we had given Malli for Christmas, the day before the wave. When he tore open the wrapping and saw it, how he’d lit up.

So much loss and love right there.

A writer’s magic trick: taking us through the tough stuff by telling a great tale.   

Alex Steele


Tangent Town

“*HOW* do you guys decide which story gets told first? I can’t tell which story should get my time and energy, my brain hurts, and I tend to visit Tangent Town because that is how my brain likes to play.”

This question came from a student recently, who’s struggling with the opposite of writer’s block, what she’s calling “writer’s firehose.”

Usually, my go-to advice for writers struggling with their stories is to let the subconscious have its way. But that won’t help my student, because her subconscious is firehosing ideas all over the page, dragging her to Tangent Town, and basically not letting her finish anything. And she really wants to finish something.

And look, we’ve all been to Tangent Town. It’s that brain space where too many ideas live, all clamoring to escape. Sometimes, it’s exactly where you want to be. There are days you need firehose your ideas all over the page, (yes, firehose is my new favorite verb). You want to let your subconscious excavate a long-forgotten memory, or take your protagonist through the entire Illinois State Fair (for some reason), or obsess about avocado farms. There are days your subconscious will throw a tantrum and block the exits if you don’t.

But we choose to write because we have something to say. So I say, some days, you get to choose. You can decide that your subconscious is not—and should not—be the boss of you. On those days, tell it to go sit in a chair, as my colleague N. West Moss will do, while you have your say.

Recently, Mary Karr has been posting about writing a memoir about her sister, and in these posts, we watch her wrestle with these exact issues in real time. Sometimes, Karr is very deliberately driving the bus; others, she’s letting her mind tell her where to go; still others, both her conscious and subconscious mind labor together for three hours to produce four good sentences. Check out some of Karr’s posts here.

I think I’m trying to give you different colored permission slips to do what you need: A pink one for when you need to focus on something urgent and get it out; green if you need to make a deadline; azure when you want to commandeer a chair and tell your dead grandmother to shush; orange if you just want to open the firehose to its widest setting, and see what comes out.

Try this: open your notebook, close your eyes and see what happens. Nothing? OK, look at the most recent thing you wrote and pick up where you left off. Following the thread of something that hooked your interest can be a good way to wade back into the flow, even if you don’t write something you want to keep later. 

Or? Decide at the end of a writing session exactly what you’ll work on during your next one, ie, “Next time, start with the story about Dexter and the platypus.”  

But if writing about Dexter and the platypus feels like a chore, don’t force it. Shuffle your permission slips and move on. 

Whatever it takes, keep the traffic flowing in one direction. Never forget, you are the mayor of Tangent Town.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Reality Calling

In Susan Breen’s mystery novel Maggie Dove, Maggie (a Sunday school teacher in a small town) discovers the dead body of her neighbor in her front yard late at night. Then…

Maggie took off her sweater and put it over his face, thinking to protect him. Then she ran into her house and called the police, except that in her nervousness she accidentally transposed the digits. She wound up with the pizza parlor instead.

“You can’t be wanting a pizza so late, Mrs. Dove,” Joe said. “What’s up?”

“Something terrible’s happened, Joe,” she whispered because it didn’t seem right to speak loudly. “Something’s wrong. Marcus Bender is dead on my lawn.”

This being a small town, Joe knows Maggie, and he calls an ambulance.

It reminds me of a moment in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy (a financier in Manhattan) takes the dog out of for a walk because he wants to call his mistress out of earshot of Judy, his wife. This being the 1980’s, he calls from a payphone:

Three rings, and a woman’s voice: “Hello?”

But it was not Maria’s voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: “May I speak to Maria, please?”

The woman said: “Sherman? Is that you?”

Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialed his own apartment! He’s aghast—paralyzed!


He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He’ll bluff it out. When she asks him, he’ll say she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

I love both these moments not because I’m a fan of misplaced phone calls (interesting as they are), but because they’re the kind of accidental, absurd things that happen in real life. They’re so minor, you might not think to include them in your story, but you should, at least now and then.

These accidental, absurd things bring a smudge of reality to your story. They seem so randomly real that they must have truly happened. Why would someone invent something so silly?

It’s nice to bring reality-smudges to a story heavy on artifice—for example, a cozy mystery like Maggie Dove. And you’ll want life’s randomness to run rampant in a highly naturalistic story—for example, the current TV series The Bear.

Hey, try this: write a scene about a mistaken phone call.

And I’ll leave you with the opening of Raymond Carver’s short story “Whoever Was Using This Bed”:

The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.

“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God, who is it? Answer it!”

Wrong number.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President