About Your Writing: The Third Thing

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 tell my younger writers not to write about the things that you remember, but the things that you wish you could forget.”
—Sandra Cisneros

What Cisneros says is very clear, but just to break it down a little more, a lot of writers walk into a workshop with an idea of something they experienced that they want to turn into a story. Maybe some big adventure, maybe something they’re a little proud of they’ve been holding onto for awhile. But though it may have been exciting to live the event, very often on the page these stories fall flat because there’s little more to them than just “what happened.” Say, some buddies getting into a little trouble in a border town, then getting out of it. One thing after the next, and little meaning beyond that for a reader. The story doesn’t necessarily “mean” anything (and what a reader wants is “meaning”) to someone who wasn’t there. There’s no mystery, the stakes are limited, there’s little emotional connection.

On the other hand, if there’s some thing or event in your life you wish you could forget, you can be damned certain there’s meaning in it for you, and meaning you haven’t quite worked out yet. This is ideal for story-making, because the working out of the story often transmits immense energy into the piece, and best of all, it can lead to surprises the writer didn’t see coming. As Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” What you want in your writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is an exploration. And how can you explore something you’ve already consumed, digested, and totally understand?

This opens the door to what I call “the third thing.” If the first thing is the characters, and the second thing is what happens, the third thing is where the writer of the story finds a perspective in the distance, and through it frames the event so that the story is bigger and carries more meaning. This can be explicitly stated, or communicated by the ordering and telling of the story, or by a combination of both. As one editor once told me, there’s what the story’s about, and then there’s what the story is *about*. The third thing gives dimension and complexity to a linear story that was otherwise lying there flat.

So how to get to that second *about* so that there’s meaning beyond the events of a story? Here’s one way.

I have a friend who’s well published who says he finds source material in things he’s ashamed of. I should say he also admits he comes from a “shame family,” so he can access this emotional content easily. We all come from one type of family or another, and this is normal and nothing to be “ashamed of.” So, if you can identify your family’s dominant dysfunctional tonality (shame, anger, insecurity, etc.), you might as well mine that area to see what gem could be lying under a rock. And when you feel that particular emotional energy raising its head while you’re writing, you might want to look more closely at where specifically in the piece it’s coming from. The bonus in being able to tap into and use such content, is that you get to use these so called “negative” feelings to generate and enrich your work. In other words, instead of their being only a pain, they can pay off.

I’ll give you an example. I come from a fear family. My family tends to be afraid of things, to worry, to only go on adventures if the need is strong enough to overwhelm the fear. This can be useful at times, but it does keep me from, say, spontaneously hopping on a plane to a foreign country. I have to spend months preparing for such an event, and usually with more dread than excitement. I arrive at the airport hours early because it feels like the world might end if I miss my flight. You get the idea.

Years back I was writing what turned out to be one of my most successful short pieces, a memoir about my “shiatsu guy” and dear friend, Jonah, back in New York City, who helped me recover from a debilitating injury. After eight full years of this relationship, he died. Jonah was gay, and I’m straight, from a suburb of Dallas, and I carry some of the predictable baggage. Yet if I’m being honest, for all those years, he and I met through my body (did you see the way I purposely phrased this, and how it might hold fear for me, as well as a charge?), and I came to love him. After he was gone, I knew I’d have to write about him. In creating the setting of his apartment where he worked on me, I had to choose what I would describe and what I would leave out. (This is possibly the essence of memoir writing.). And there on his wooden floor I saw his shiatsu mat, “a bed, of sorts,” as I would call it. Because of the charge I felt from the image, the fear around addressing it so directly, I went right at it. Because it held truth, and power. And of course, stakes and drama.

Once I got my hands on the emotional stakes of the story—not just that someone I loved had died, but that my sexuality and sense of self was challenged by my love—I knew I had a powerful handle on the piece and what would become an elegy for one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. Without that element, which I was afraid of (What would my dad think if it got published? What would my straight friends think?), it wouldn’t have had that extra element, that third point. In other words, there was the small story, and there was the big story. On one hand my memoir was about physical therapy; on the other, it was about the mysteries of the heart. Guess in which story my fear lay?

If you wish you could forget something, if it won’t go away after years, it’s because there’s story material there calling out to you. It wants to be brought to consciousness and explored. And the beauty of writing is you can either turn it into fiction where the reader will have little idea of the literal source of this energy, or you can do like I did and make the literal source the point. Either way works. You get to decide what’s best for the story, and what’s best for you.

One of the fortunes of being a writer, is our form allows us, actually demands that we go straight to such sources, and explore, and open up what it means to us. We only have to give ourselves permission to be a little bit brave, and to care less what others might think, and go in, and see what we’re made of.

After my memoir was published, more than one straight male friend thanked me for writing it. Because they’re afraid too; afraid to speak, to admit who they are to themselves and others. And they have hearts like mine, who need permission to open in whatever way they might open, fear or no. And that’s another of the things we do by writing. In giving ourselves permission, we also give it to those who read our work.

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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