Express Yourself

Good Writing Is Asking Good Questions

Investigate your life, and the people within it, until you reach the truth

Illustration: Lulu Jiang

Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth.

Have a question? Share it with us.

Dear Draft,

How do you find the right way to frame a creative nonfiction piece? I have some stories I want to tell from my life, but I am struggling to figure out how to frame them under a larger idea so they have more literary resonance than a simple anecdote. Do you have any tips? Any examples from your own work?

Signed,
Searching for a Frame

Dear Framed,

You might be struggling, but you’re asking all the right questions, which, in creative nonfiction, means you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do.

As you so wisely suspect, whenever you begin to grapple with your material, you want to find the best structure or form to help you organize your memories, your thoughts, your research. And that usually involves drawing a frame around all the messy stuff you otherwise might feel tempted to include.

As we’ve seen in the last edition of The Draft, a writer can gain control over a lifetime of experience by dividing that material into manageable bits, each with its own focus and shape. Many of those bits will take the form of narratives, by which I mean stories that primarily rely on chronology to provide their shape.

But not all essays rely on chronology alone. A journey is a story that unfolds through space as well as time. Maybe you want to take your readers along as you relive your misguided attempt to swim Lake Michigan. Or your quest to find the church where your great-great-grandparents hid on their flight to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

A journey is a story that unfolds through space as well as time.

Or you might already have arrived at the place you want your readers to explore. In that case, wouldn’t it make sense to structure your essay around a tour of that battlefield in Vietnam? Or the mall where you and your friends hung out whenever you skipped junior high?

Do you want to write about the years you spent fighting for your autistic child? You might start with the story of the day your pediatrician delivered the diagnosis. But you might want to structure a second essay around the collection of Beanie Babies, Barbie doll accessories, household appliances, and other objects that figured so prominently in your daughter’s childhood. Or the endless flow of documents you were required to fill out to help her receive the education and care she needed to survive and thrive.

Are you obsessed with women’s rugby? Secretly in love with the Catholic mass? Frustrated by your inability to help the victims of domestic abuse who show up at the shelter where you volunteer? Why not use the ritual of the rugby match, the mass, or a night at the shelter to organize what you write?

Then again, you might want to portray a person rather than a place or thing. Instead of ranting about your boss’s crazy-making practices, why not show a typical morning at your customer-support center and let us see her sowing all that rivalry and paranoia? Instead of summing up the barely believable story of your grandfather’s life, from his birth in war-torn Somalia to his retirement in Minneapolis, you might follow him as he leads a protest at the detention center where migrant children are even now being separated from their parents.

If you are feeling ambitious, you might even structure an essay as a sort of group portrait, profiling three of the women you tried to help at that homeless shelter, or the soldiers in your platoon — female and male, white, Muslim, Hispanic, black, gay, straight, and trans — as you carried out your final mission in Iraq.

Sadly, choosing a beautiful structure for your essay, then rendering the story, landscape, still life, or portrait in exquisite prose, doesn’t guarantee your readers will connect emotionally or intellectually to what you write. What adds literary resonance to a piece of creative nonfiction isn’t so much a larger idea — some abstract theory you cadged from a philosophy book you were assigned in college — but a question that perplexes you about whatever you decided to place inside your frame. The question can be simple to the point of idiocy. Maybe no one has ever asked it before. Or everyone has been asking that same question since the beginning of humankind. All that matters is you care about the answer.

Remember the writer from the last edition of The Draft who felt overwhelmed by his chaotic childhood growing up in a funeral home? I advised him to start by describing the embalming his family forced him to witness when he was 12. But to achieve a larger meaning, the writer also would need to let us know his purpose in reliving that disturbing afternoon. Maybe he wonders why his parents didn’t realize he was far too young to watch a dead body being prepared for burial. Were they really that eager to persuade him to carry on the family business? Or might they have been trying to scare him away instead?

Notice how personal these questions are. And yet, each question easily generalizes into a more universal version of itself. Why are so many parents determined to force their children to follow in their footsteps, despite the child’s utter lack of talent, interest, or desire? Few of us have grown up in a funeral home. And yet, many of us have been pressured to play football, attend Chinese school, or take over the family’s plumbing-supply concern.

Sometimes, you might start with your question and structure your essay according to your efforts to solve the mystery — the clues you followed, the newspapers and diaries you unearthed, the witnesses and suspects you tracked down and interviewed. If you’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you’ve seen how the detective form can be used to delve into huge questions of science, race, and social class. At a humbler level, you might simply want to learn what happened to your neighbor, whom the police led away in handcuffs and whose house has been sitting empty ever since. (For cinematic examples of this form, you might check out the award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the director’s quest to find the Detroit musician whose albums helped to bring down apartheid, or Chris Rock’s Good Hair, in which he tries to figure out why his three-year-old daughter didn’t seem to like what she found growing on her head.)

Once you’ve discovered a natural form for your material and zeroed in on a question, the question and form will interact synergistically.

Answering your question might even require you to carry out an experiment. Can you go a week without eating sugar? Without gossiping? Without checking out the women on your online dating app? In her disgusting and hilarious essay “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” Ann Hodgman tests the claims on various dog-food packages by tasting whatever is in the can or bag and trying to figure out what qualities the advertisements are actually meant to convey and — considering that dogs can’t read — to whom.

Once you’ve discovered a natural form for your material and zeroed in on a question, the question and form will interact synergistically. If you get stuck while trying to meditate on the question, you can move ahead to the next moment in your story, the next signpost on your trip, or the next tool on your father’s workbench, using your question to scratch beneath the surface of what you already know. When you can’t remember why you’re telling us about your voyage to Antarctica, you can regain your focus by returning to the question you were trying to solve by traveling to Antarctica in the first place. When you are trying to decide what to include in your essay and what to leave out, you can ask yourself if that detail or scene relates to your central question: if it doesn’t, leave it out.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to Antarctica to find something worthy of writing about. A few years ago, I decided to take my readers on a detailed tour of the modest 1950s ranch house in which I grew up, trying to figure out why my parents were so obsessed — and I do mean obsessed — with keeping that house, and everyone inside, in perfect order. What I discovered spoke to the terrors two Holocaust- and Depression-fearing children of immigrants might have been trying to keep at bay, a conclusion I might never have reached if I merely sat down to complain about my parents yelling at me for not properly sealing the Tupperware container of American cheese in the refrigerator, or trimming the branches on the willow in the backyard to exactly the right height, or replacing the toilet paper rolls in the bathroom with the sheets coming from behind rather than on top.

None of this is likely to be achieved in a single draft. But finding the most natural structure for your material will provide you with a map to follow as you research and write your essay, while homing in on your central question will furnish you with a purpose as you travel from start to end. You might not solve the mystery you set out to solve. But I guarantee you and your readers will discover something you didn’t already know, even if you venture no farther than the modest 1950s ranch house in which you spent your first 18 years, trying to discover the danger and darkness from which your parents were so desperately trying to protect themselves — and you.

Have a question about writing? Ask The Draft here.

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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