Turns out the last 12 months have been busier than I thought they’d be
Last September, I let readers know I’d be slowing down the frequency of this newsletter to concentrate on a book project. The book is finished—more on that in a minute—and the newsletter is back. If you’re still interested in receiving it, do nothing and it will land in your in-box monthly. If your interest has waned, simply unsubscribe.
And on the book front: over the last 18 months, I’ve had the enormous privilege of working with Toufah Jallow to tell her story. The book we co-authored, Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement, is due out in the US on Oct. 12, and in Canada on Feb. 1. We’ve been fortunate to receive some stellar reviews: both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly have given the book starred reviews, with Kirkus describing it as a “fiercely readable, potent memoir of a survivor who refuses to be silenced” and PW saying “this powerful story shouldn’t be missed.”
Coming up in October are four online events related to the US book launch—I hope you’ll register to join us at one or more. Toufah’s story is compelling and inspirational!
October 12: Toufah and I will be in conversation at Washington DC’s Politics and Prose as part of their P&P Live series. It’s free—register here.
October 13: Toufah will be in conversation with Bob Lingle at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Lakewood, Pennsylvania. Find out more on their events page.
October 18: Toufah will be in conversation with Gambian storyteller Saikou Camara at A Room of One’s Own bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. Register here.
October 19: Toufah and I will be in conversation together at Brooklyn’s Café con Libros. You can find out more here.
I hope to virtually see you at one of these great events!
Craft: But what’s it really about?
“What are you writing about?”
It’s a question writers get asked frequently. The easiest answer is to focus on the story’s narrative: it’s the story of a woman who had premature triplets. It’s the story of a family who lost a loved one in 9/11. It’s the story of a young woman who was raped by the president of her country and had to escape and create a new life thousands of miles away.
But what’s it really about?
The “really” part of the question takes us to theme, to the ideas a story explores: it’s a story about the ethical limits of medical procedures. It’s a story about grief and how different people cope. It’s a story about rediscovering your voice after being silenced by violence.
In both fiction and nonfiction, we talk about plot, and by that we generally mean the narrative plot. But the strongest stories, the ones that stay with us, also have an idea plot. (Some refer to this as theme.) And those two plot lines—narrative and idea—need to connect, intersect and intertwine. So how do we do that?
What questions are at the heart of your story?
If you’re thinking of storytelling in terms of the traditional journalistic 5Ws + H, the narrative plot is typically focused on four of those Ws with a bit of H mixed in: who, what, when, where and how. The idea plot focuses on that remaining W—why—and may also have a bit of H layered into it.
I’m a perfume nut, so I have another way of looking at this. A perfume’s scent has three distinct layers: the top notes are what you notice when you first spray, typically lasting a few minutes; the heart notes, what you smell as the perfume dries and is warmed by your skin, lasting up to a few hours; and the base notes, the last to go, its most persistent ingredients. If I compare this to storytelling, a story’s top notes are its narrative, its heart notes are the themes and ideas it explores, and its base notes are its impact on us, the shift that happens in our own thinking and point of view as a result of having been in contact with the story.
As writers and readers, we’re often drawn to a story by the narrative, by the top notes, and then as we explore the narrative, we get pulled into its heart, into the questions it prompts. (Though sometimes as writers we work the other way: we have an idea we want to explore, and we look for a narrative story we can use as “a way into” those ideas or questions.) But here’s the thing: one narrative can contain the seeds of many alternative idea plots.
Here’s an example I used with a class of journalism undergraduates recently. I called it “The Big Bang,” a made-up example of a multi-car accident on a foggy stretch of highway. There were victims: some injured, some killed, some survived. There were heroes: the courier who rescued a family from a burning car, the truck driver who blocked the on-ramp so other vehicles didn’t pile on, the first responders, the people who searched for pets who escaped from damaged cars, the doctors and nurses who saved lives. And there were systems to look at too: the highways department that rejected calls to twin the highway despite warnings about bad visibility on that stretch; the emergency response structures that were quickly overwhelmed by the scope of the accident; the inadequate mental health supports for dealing with post-accident trauma among first responders, and so on. It’s a story with lots of potential “angles.”
“Let’s say it’s coming up on the fifth anniversary of the crash,” I said. “What story would you pitch related to this accident?”
Some wanted to focus on the heroes—the courier driver’s story, the truck driver’s tale. Others wanted to look at whether anything had changed to make highways safer in the five years since the accident. One wanted to tell the story of the dog rescuers. Another wanted to look at how the accident response was handled by fire, ambulance and hospitals.
While all those stories emerge from the same set of facts, the same incident, each has different characters, different starting points, different narrative arcs.
But beyond that, each also asks different questions—not the questions the writer or journalist would ask potential sources, but the larger questions posed by the story itself. I pushed the students on this: what questions, what big ideas, did they think they might be exploring with these various narratives? Were they asking questions about why, in a moment of crisis, some people step forward to save someone else, when others hang back? Maybe those “hero” stories offered a chance to explore questions about what it means to live with the label “hero”—or what it means to “owe” your life to someone else’s bravery. Perhaps the highway safety narrative was a chance to ask questions about how bureaucracies cope with crisis, or how experts get entrenched in how they think a system works rather than how it actually works on the ground. What if one of the dog rescuers became attached to a dog that appeared to have no surviving owner—only to discover months later that an owner did exist? Would that be a chance to tell a story about love and loss and letting go? And so on…
Of course, the tricky part in all of this is that you might not have a clear sense of the theme until you actually dive into the story. Or you might think you’re going to explore one theme, and have an entirely different theme push its way to the foreground.
The nut graf
So how do we weave the idea plot through a story? How do we intertwine it with the narrative plot? And what tools do we use to signal that idea plot to the reader?
In journalistic feature writing, we often lean heavily on the “nut graph” or “theme paragraph” as our key way of indicating the ideas we’re exploring in a story. As the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan put it in the search-engine-friendly-titled piece “The nut graf tells the reader what the writer it up to” :
The nut graf tells the reader what the writer is up to; it delivers a promise of the story’s content and message. It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story. …The nut graf has several purposes:
It justifies the story by telling readers why they should care.
It provides a transition from the lead and explains the lead and its connection to the rest of the story.
It often tells readers why the story is timely.
It often includes supporting material that helps readers see why the story is important.
But the nut graf isn’t the only place your idea plot shows up.
Every journey needs signposts
Just as travelers rely on signposts to indicate streets and directions, readers rely on story signposts to direct them on their journey through your pages. Narrative signposts are generally pretty straightforward: they orient the reader in place and time and are employed when there is a shift in place or time. So, a new section in story may begin simply with the words “A few days earlier…” to tell the reader that we’re shifting backwards in time, or with something like “The sun sparkled on the river’s slow-flowing water…” to tell us we’re now down by the river in this scene.
Idea signposts are a bit more nuanced and are used to introduce or emphasize key elements in your idea plot. Idea signposts can include:
Material that adds context
Sections that highlight contrast or contradiction, including a character or the writer engaging in self-questioning
Decision points or moments where tough questions are posed, indicating what’s at stake
Moments of illumination or understanding/aha
Words of wisdom from the writer, a character or an expert
Repetition of recurring images, words or references
What does this look like on the page?
It can be tough to grasp this without looking at some examples, so I’m going to focus on two different magazine pieces as illustrations, one a piece I wrote some years ago and the other a recent piece by Jennifer Senior in The Atlantic.
I’ll start with the simpler of the two, my piece “Borderline Babies”. It’s the story of Loretta and Michael Fearman and the birth of their premature triplets—or, at least, that’s the narrative plot. The idea plot is expressed in the nut graf, which shows up as the fifth paragraph of the story, and is signalled in the sixth paragraph with a line that sets up the stakes:
“With triplets, the Fearmans knew prematurity was almost guaranteed. But just how premature has become the agonizing question faced by parents and medical staff alike. Only two out of 10 babies born at 23 weeks will survive. And only about half of those survivors will be free of a major handicap: brain damage is not uncommon, and as many as 25 percent of survivors will develop the neuromuscular disorder cerebral palsy by age 2. Vision and hearing problems are common, as well as a higher than average rate of learning disabilities. The risk of handicap declines with each successive week, until at 30 weeks preemies and full-term babies have an almost equal chance of ‘intact survival.’
But Loretta Fearman is still seven weeks shy of that safety zone. … They’re so focused on the black-and-white of life and death, they don’t even consider the gray zone: life at a price….”
The story follows a common magazine feature structure, what some call ABAB: a section of action or narrative, followed by a section of background or context, alternating to the end of the story. The weaving of the narrative and idea plots is a simple back and forth between narrative and idea. The idea plot shows up in the sections that start:
“Only a generation ago, extreme prematurity…was typically a death sentence.” context
“For the detached and statistically minded authors of the Toronto preemie study…” contrast, contradiction, context
“For 23-weekers, Leah is the exception, not the rule.” contradiction, illumination/understanding, words of wisdom/expert
And at beginning and the very end, some repetition: “At 6:18, the first baby announces her arrival with a cry that under other circumstances would have prompted smiles. But to Michael, who has given up hope for his babies, it seems like a cruel joke. “ and “The cry Loretta and Michael didn’t want to hear that July morning has become a welcome sound, a daily reminder of their little girl who seems to have beaten the odds.”
Jennifer Senior’s story “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind” is both much longer and much more nuanced in its structure. Senior does a fabulous job of weaving narrative and idea plots seamlessly together. There’s a nut graf section high in the story that sets up the theme—“every mourner has a very different story to tell”—and provides some broad context for that idea:
“Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.
It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”
This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.”
As the story continues, Senior weaves in idea plot signposts as she helps point the way to a deeper understanding for the reader. These include:
“To this day, I credit Bobby with teaching me a valuable lesson: If you’re going to cede the power of the last word to someone else, you’d better be damn sure that person deserves it.” Repetition (with a bit of foreshadowing)
“Does a man wake up on September 12, 2001, and believe such a thing? No. This belief takes shape over the span of years, many years.” aha
“It may be hard to imagine why anyone would want to spend so much time immersed in the story, sensations, and forensics of his son’s death. But for Bob Sr., that’s precisely the point: to keep the grief close.” aha
“You know what radical acceptance is? Living with a husband who has dedicated his life to spreading the word that the United States deliberately orchestrated the collapse of the World Trade Center and then conspired to cover it up.” stakes, aha
“Bob Sr.’s crusade may look to the outside world like madness. Helen sees it as an act of love. ‘He’s almost going to war for his son,’ she tells me. ‘He’s being a father in the best way he knows how. How can I not allow that?’” stakes/decision, aha
“Most theories of grief, particularly the ones involving stages, are more literary than literal.” context, experts
“That’s one of the most ruthless lessons trauma teaches you: You are not in charge. All you can control is your reaction to whatever grenade the demented universe rolls in your path.” aha
“Memories of traumatic experiences are curious things.” context, contradiction
“We are always inventing and reinventing the dead.” aha
“There are people that need me. And that, in itself, is life. There are people I do not know yet that need me. That is life.” aha, repetition
“Yes. Being needed. That is everything.” repetition
“It’s the damnedest thing: The dead abandon you; then, with the passage of time, you abandon the dead.” aha, contradiction, repetition
“For 26 years, she got to know this boy, to care for him, to love him. It was a privilege. It was a gift. It was a bittersweet sacrifice. And that, in itself, is life.” repetition, aha
Note that Senior allows “aha” moments of insight and other signposts to be expressed through the insights of her characters, as well as in her own words. She isn’t the only one “delivering” the ideas here—she is accompanying her characters as they explore the ideas and deeper themes related to Bobby McIlvaine’s death and its impact on those who loved him, and we, as readers, are traveling with them all.
So how do you translate this to a book-length project? The tools are largely the same, but the trick is in ensuring that you’re layering in insights, references and repetitions of ideas, words and concepts throughout. As I worked on Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement, co-authored with Toufah Jallow, and read and reread drafts, I kept a list of key themes: being silenced and reclaiming one’s voice; living across two cultures; embracing the strength of Toufah’s African feminist roots as seen through her mother and grandmothers; choosing to be a visible survivor when others might not be able to do so; and honouring the choices that women are forced to make to maintain the safety of themselves and their loved ones. I kept asking myself, had we laid the foundation for this idea or that insight? I noted sections where it would make sense to insert a phrase or reference that pointed back to the various themes. I circled words that deliberately repeated key themes and layered in synonyms that helped build resonance. In many respects, the narrative plot of Toufah’s story provided the scaffolding of the book’s structure, and the idea plot was then woven throughout as we revised and deepened the book.
Whether you’re working on a feature or a book-length project, the development of both the narrative and idea plots push and pull each other along. Your ideas and themes will deepen and shift and develop as you grapple with the narrative details, and you will find yourself asking better questions of your sources and diving more deeply into your research as you develop your ideas and insights. And while you may have a strong sense of the narrative plot you’re exploring as you embark on it, it has been my experience that the idea plot almost inevitably twists, develops and deepens as you write. Be prepared for the story you are telling to tell you something unexpected—because if you end up exactly where you expected to go, I fear you may have missed an opportunity to travel a more interesting path, to tell a more interesting tale.
Take it apart, part 1: Go back to a story—a feature or book—that resonated with you. Reread it as a writer, not a reader. Mark it up: look for the nut graf or theme statement. Mark the idea plot signposts—and indicate what kind of signpost each is (context, aha, expert, wisdom, etc). Reading the work of other writers critically is an essential skill for any writer: learn by observing what other writers have done successfully (and by seeing where they trip or fail).
Take it apart, part 2: Go to a piece of your own writing—something you completed in the past or are struggling with now. Highlight or underline your theme statement in purple. Highlight or underline your idea plot signposts in green. Copy your signposts to a separate page and paste the theme statement at the end. As you read just these lines, ask yourself if the signposts logically support your theme statement. Are there gaps? What do you need to explore more deeply or say more clearly to get from your signposts to your theme?
If you’re looking for more craft content, check out the craft essay I wrote for Brevity Magazine on lessons on memoir in self-portraiture. While you’re there, check out the other craft essays on offer—Brevity has a rich archive of great stuff!
What I’m Reading
I’ve been bingeing on unreliable narrators lately, as I’m playing with an idea of my own for a piece of fiction involving a character who may not be telling us the whole truth. I’ve realized that I have some very clear preferences: I am not a fan of the blackout drinker/drug-user storyline. (Yes, I’m one of the handful of people who hated HBO’s The Flight Attendant. I parachuted out about halfway through the flight.) I’m much more comfortable with the narrator who is deliberately holding back, or who is in some other way deluding themselves as they mislead us. I’m one of the last people on the planet to have finally read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I inhaled last month and loved for its structure and pacing as well as its narrator plot twist. Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is also terrific—not featuring an unreliable narrator so much as a narrator who is unreliable in his observation and understanding of other key characters, the people in his family. His lack of clarity is a survival skill in a way: people in deeply dysfunctional families often survive by walking a tightrope of being observant enough to recognize and dodge danger within their families, while also tamping down the reality of the violence being perpetrated within their homes. The book’s crimes can only be solved as the narrator’s views of the others in his family become more honest, more clear. Highly recommend both.
Other good stuff
Watch If you haven’t watched HBO’s The White Lotus, you’re in for a treat. The series is masterful at notching up the tension as the episodes progress (some lessons in pacing to be gleaned from this!). You know from the first scene that someone has been killed at the resort, but don’t know until the final few minutes of the series who or why. It’s less a whodunnit than a dunnittowho—and it’s full of humour, pointed social commentary and some outstanding acting. (I think I am now a Jennifer Coolidge fan-girl.)
Book industry stuff
It’s all about the supply chain: Long story short—buy your Christmas gift and winter reading books now, because supply problems are rife. Here’s a Canadian take on it and here’s the American situation.
Women-led book-club bizes: Interesting piece in Marie Claire about four US-based book club businesses, all led by women.
Courses, community & stuff
A plug for my home team: The University of King’s College is offering a range of non-credit online writing workshops, all starting the first week of October, so register now! If you’re mystified by the book biz, Nellwyn Lampert’s The Emerging Writer’s Toolkit offers a great primer on how the business works and how to set yourself up for success. Gillian Turnbull’s Finessing Your Language focuses on constructing sentences that are precise and clear. Paula Altenburg will help you craft stronger characters and more compelling settings. And there’s more: Cooper Lee Bombardier on memoir; Kelly S. Thompson on writing about hard things; Chris Benjamin on fundamentals of fiction; and Karen Pinchin on science and nature writing. You can find out more at ukings.ca/workshops.
A plug for one of my faves: Throughout the pandemic, Diana Goetsch’s Actually Writing workshop sessions were a sanity saver for me. As Diana points out, musicians run scales, artists sketch, and athletes train—but writers often don’t have a regular practice of actually practicing their craft as opposed to producing work. Her sessions—you can drop in for one or sign up for all—are focused on practice. She’s a terrific teacher and her classes are wonderful. Offered through Paragraph New York.
Obligatory photo of Buddy
Buddy says “I do so love a car ride!”
The stuff at the bottom
I’m a writer, editor and teacher. This is my personal e-newsletter on the craft of writing nonfiction, sprinkled with occasional feminism and social justice. You can find out more about me on my website at kimpittaway.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m the executive director of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction limited residency program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you should check our program out!
Share your online course and community recommendations, links to cool things writers and others are doing to get through all of this and whatever else strikes you in the comments section of the web version of this post.