Craft: The Importance of the Simmer by Risa Nye

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The talented author and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently published an essay in the New Yorker titled “A Memoir is Not a Status Update,” and if you spend any amount of time on Facebook or Twitter (or even if you don’t), you will understand the distinction she is making here.

As someone who has read many essays and memoir excerpts by novice and experienced writers alike, I applaud her concept of letting the “pressure valve” within the writer “fill and fill to the point of explosion.” We are often too quick, and too close, to write about life-altering events with the perspective and self-awareness that come with time and distance.

I’ve written here before about having to answer the “why now, why you, and so what” questions about the choices we make in our writing. We must be able to answer these questions convincingly (to ourselves and to others) before we get underway, otherwise the story we tell may not be quite ready to emerge. A story may haunt us for years before it must be written.

“A story may haunt us for years before it must be written.”

With the daily (or hourly) posting of events and updates on our Twitter feed or Facebook pages, the pressure of an emerging story is never allowed to build up to the explosive state Shapiro describes. She suggests that the greatest pleasure for a writer comes after a slow build-up, a “deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.” Many writers do not give themselves enough time to make sense out of life-changing events, and instead rush to write about them without allowing the stories to simmer slowly until they reveal their true meanings and deep layers. As Shapiro says of her own story, after years of silence, it “burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my being until it became a story I could turn inside out, hold to the light like a prism, craft into a story that was bigger than its small, sorry details.”

Think about a book you may have read in your teens. You read about the characters and interpreted their actions through the eyes of a teenager. If you re-read that book today, you may very well see things differently. Your perspective has changed, since you know more about life than you did then; you may have evolving views of the characters, judging them differently than when you read the book the first time. You’ve learned more about human nature and relationships and how the world works. You may come away from that second reading with an entirely different reaction this time. I remember reading Gone With the Wind when I was in high school and then again years later. My take on the relationships had changed dramatically—and I wondered how I could’ve been so charmed by Scarlett O’Hara and her scheming ways. The tragedies within the story, the flaws in the characters, revealed themselves much earlier, and carried a greater emotional punch.

I strongly agree with Shapiro that waiting and allowing ourselves distance from events makes it possible for the true nature of our stories to reveal themselves. The waiting can be long, and sometimes painful, but, as she says, “our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment.”

Think about that statement for a moment. Does this ring true for a story you’re thinking of right now?

I’ve been struggling to write something about the scary beginnings of my daughter’s life ever since she was born. This was so long ago that I sat in front of a typewriter on my dining room table, looking out the window at the playground across the street when she was in elementary school, trying unsuccessfully to get to the depth of my feelings contained within the story. Again, years later, I wrote about her when she was in middle school, after she made it onto the basketball team. Still couldn’t get it right. It wasn’t until many more years had passed that I felt the shape of the story, and my role in it, emerge. As Shapiro says, we need to get to a place where we can “turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.”

The almost irresistible temptation for a writer is to rush to get it all down while the story is fresh. But there is a danger in that sense of urgency. We cannot see ourselves clearly right away; our feelings are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. If we allow our stories to build, even as they conceal themselves from us, we will be fighting the good fight by giving them a chance to come into focus, to sort themselves out.

There’s a reason we leave a pot simmering on the back burner. We know from experience that its contents will get richer and more nourishing over time. We cannot hurry the process while it takes place. We must resist the urge to remove the lid too soon. What we end up with is infinitely more interesting than what we had when we started.

Let’s heed the wise words of Dani Shapiro and let the simmering do its work while we go on living our lives.

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  6 comments for “Craft: The Importance of the Simmer by Risa Nye

  1. ***Many writers do not give themselves enough time to make sense out of life-changing events, and instead rush to write about them without allowing the stories to simmer slowly until they reveal their true meanings and deep layers***
    I agree FULLY))).
    3 years ago, I asked Beryl Bissell Singleton if I should write a book about my sister’s murder.
    She said, “NO!” ( Having been thru the same experience as me ) “You must wait, Kim. The first two years, all you want to do it kill yourself.”
    She was right. That was some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
    The “simmering” has brought my words & perspective into an entirely new level of understanding.
    Great Post!

  2. Risa–
    One of my favorite examples of waiting to tell a story until the story is ready, and the writer, too, finally feels the distance and perspective are right, involves Kurt Vonnegut. Probably as soon as I mention his name you will already know the story. Vonnegut was held by the Germans as a POW in WWII in the city of Dresden. The POW’s were sleeping underground, in the locker of a slaughterhouse, the night the Allies dropped so many bombs on the city it created a vast and powerful firestorm that immolated the entire city and killed every creature living above ground. When the POW’s and their captors emerged from their shelter after the firestorm, they were witness to a sight I am sure not one of them could forget as long as he lived. Vonnegut certainly couldn’t. But his experience was so overwhelming he couldn’t even begin to write about it until relatively late in his writing career. He had written a lot of novels and short stories as a younger man, but he saved “Slaughterhouse Five” until he felt he could write it right!

  3. Ah, but there is also the glory of the quickly sauteed, expertly put together reflection of the moment, in the moment. I agree completely that too often we rush to write the impression before its time. There is also glory in the slowly stewed. Or even something in between. Sometimes, we need to get that impression down, as it’s happening, to get a grip on what it is. But we also need to get the distance and the maturity to understand what it truly means.

  4. Yes, a back burner pot indeed. What a wonderful response to Dani Shapiro’s remarkable essay. For what it is worth it took me over 2 decades to write, then publish, my memoir. Given my story is about the effect that living through domestic violence had on me, it was imperative that I have that distance, otherwise it would have purely been a survival story and memoir demands so much more. Good luck to you as you bring your story out into the light.

    • Thanks to all of you for your comments! It’s so nice to hear from the readers when I post these essays.

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