About Your Writing: Using Questions as Keys

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

“I start with a question. Then try to answer it.”

– Mary Lee Settle


Questions, as opposed to answers, can provide the best sources of material. Frequently they carry ideas the farthest and turn up the most meaningful surprises. For instance, what was it about that girl you went out with three times in high school? Why does she pass across your mind decades later, and all you did was park under a mesquite tree with her a couple of nights after you took her out to dinner? Why is it you can still see the way her dark hair fell across her face as she leaned down to kiss you?

Tip: Someone who remains in your mind is a question. An event that remains in your mind is a question.

The trouble with straight personal nonfiction is that “the facts” are never enough. They lie there flat. But again, questions can save you here, add dimension and point toward miles still to be walked. What is it about that boy who challenged you to fight in the third grade after school on the hot black schoolyard in Grand Prairie, Texas? And it was your first fight, and he was a rougher kid from a rougher neighborhood, knew what he was doing, and instead of beating you bloody he just, with one or two quick moves, expertly put you in a headlock and brought you to the ground and held you there, immobilized and helpless, slowly putting the squeeze on you until you said “uncle.” This happened to me. And I hated him for it. The humiliation, and my older cousin watching as my “second.”

My cousin reached a hand down to pull me up but I refused it, wanting to get up on my own. I can still see the boy’s face and blond hair and remember his name, Gary, and yet I have no other memory of him. He doesn’t even exist for me outside of this moment. Why is that? And why is it only now, writing about this event from decades past did I realize that what he did was to some degree an act of kindness? I was smaller than him, smaller than anyone in the class, didn’t know how to fight, and he knew he could destroy me easily. But instead he exhibited pure dominance, with as little pain as possible, to me.

Maybe that’s what humiliated me the most. The fact he was so above me I didn’t even register as a threat.

That night I went home and told my dad I wanted him to teach me to fight (he’d boxed in Golden Gloves), and so for a couple weeks he strapped boxing gloves as big as my head on my hands, and we boxed in the backyard. When I thought I was ready I began my “reign of terror” where I more or less put myself in a position with bigger, but weak boys, where I could say the “let’s go” line: “Are you challenging me?” By honor they had to say yes, and then we met on the schoolyard where I used my tricks and new skills to deliver a quick blow that ended the contest. But I never challenged Gary again; I knew better. For the rest of that year I was a pint-sized bully, and carved notches in my family’s wooden picnic table in our backyard for every victory or no-show, and across from it, the one notch for the one loss at the hands of Gary, who again, had no reason to hurt me, and so he didn’t. 11 victories to 1 loss. I had a sure shot swing for the nose that ended fights as quickly as Gary had, except I spilled blood.

I could go on and on exploring this storyline, the rough boy who humiliated but didn’t hurt me; the fact that I preyed on weaker boys afterward, which because of my size never looked like bullying, but was.

Gary still stands in my mind on that playground looking at me knowingly; that girl who kissed me under that mesquite tree imprinted me more powerfully than women I’ve slept with. Why?

Those questions are a part of you as much as the pain and the longing. In fact, in the pain and longing lie questions, and once you start exploring those, that’s when paths open, and facts shift and become dimensional, and the story you’re writing becomes more than the story you’ve been telling yourself your whole life. That’s when you can become free of it, or more accurately, free with it. But free.

Freed from the limitations of the story as you’ve always known it, so you can find the story within that’s more true, more complicated, and more strange than you ever realized, and because of that, more likely to reach and touch a reader.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

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