Teaching Lessons

Think Always of the Reader

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By Sheila Kohler

May 23, 2016


 

For years I have written in fictional form about my sister’s early death. Her husband drove his car off the road and into a lamppost on a dry night with no other cars in sight, leaving no skid marks. He was a violent man with a history of wife battering. Fiction both distanced me emotionally and hid dangerous truths behind the event: my sister left six small children behind and my brother-in-law, who survived.

Recently, the main protagonists now being dead, I decided to write a memoir about my own difficulties with a wayward husband, while interweaving it with my sister’s tragic story. I wrote fast and furiously and sent the book to my editor, who responded succinctly that the book lacked a narrative arc. “Narrative arc!” I thought, surely I know about that after 13 books of fiction! Is it not something I teach?

I reread the book and realized that I had let the facts take over, forgetting the first rule of fiction or nonfiction. I remembered what a great writing teacher, Gordon Lish, had told us to write out and stick on our computers, the words, “steady forward motion.” Where was all this information, true though it might be, taking the reader?

So I started at the beginning: the first time I had heard about my sister’s husband. Then I made sure that my text led the reader ineluctably, step by step, flashing back and forth but moving always toward the death of my beloved sister. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot:

A hard coming I had of it,
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony, like Death, our death.


Sheila Kohler is the author of 10 novels, three collections of short stories, and a forthcoming memoir called Once We Were Sisters. The recipient of many awards, she teaches creative writing at Princeton and Columbia universities.

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