Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Short Answer when Writing a Long Essay

Occasionally, when I'm working on what is revealing itself to be a long and involved piece of nonfiction narrative on a complicated topic, I worry I may never finish it. I get lost in revisions and rewrites, buffeted by new thinking or memories, and wonder if all the tangents and digressions and bits of backstory really matter. Sometimes the meandering route to a long piece includes questioning why I am even writing it in the first place.

What helps at a time like that (besides dark chocolate, wine, and whining), is to move away from the developing piece, and to purposely write a much shorter version of the story, to pare away and get at the center, the heart of the piece. To figure out what's driving it in the first place.

Usually, I'll write a micro essay, sometimes in a very different form (second person, a list essay), or a poem. And sometimes I like what I've done in the abbreviated form enough that I work on it a little bit more, shine it up, and send it out.

That's what happened last fall with a 690 word essay, "Gray," which eventually garnered an honorable mention in the Our Past Loves 2015 contest. It's a small capsule, culled from the still-accumulating pages (and pages and pages) of what will someday be a long look at my teenage relationship with a boy of another race.

Here's a short excerpt from "Gray":

…I want to say Brant's color did not matter, but it did. I was drawn to different, trained on years of family travel where my father emphasized befriending people of different cultures, seizing local experiences, seeing not exactly past color, class, and religion, but rather seeing and not pretending not to see. Coming of age in hotels and exotic locales, my early experience of attraction was not just to to the opposite sex, but to opposites. Brown boys. Jewish. Poor. Black boys.
            Home, though, I was expected to date white, Catholic, Italian, middle- or upper-class boys…

If you'd like to read the rest, hop over to the Our Past Loves site, and scroll down.

Meanwhile, I'm curious, does anyone else ever take detours like this? Write the mini-version?

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