WRITING LIFE: Writing Out Loud by Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

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I began to talk Mike through the arc of a ten-page essay, one I’d already submitted to a Creative Nonfiction call for submissions. “This is a story about glasnost and sex,” I said. I glanced at the back of the trench coat-clad retiree at the next table, a fellow regular at this Starbucks, and hoped he wasn’t eavesdropping. Mike looked at me expectantly. I continued. “She dates a lot of jerks in her twenties. But then as an adult, when she’s married and has a child, she realizes she feels differently about what happened to her in college, so that’s the change.” I was breathless from the emotions talking about a traumatic event triggered, from the thrill of having produced my longest essay thus far, and from the urgent desire to revise and improve it.

Mike, a member of my writing group, wore his usual neat button-down with a v-neck sweater. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, his brown eyes regarded me steadily, and I noticed he’d turned his phone over so that he was free from distraction. “Why are we reading this essay?” he asked.

I felt scared, like maybe I had no reason to be writing it, or had written it for the wrong reasons. But I didn’t think I was navel-gazing; at least I hoped I wasn’t. “Because I think the topic is pretty universal and people will be able to relate to it,” I said.

“I mean, why are we reading this essay right now, at this moment in time?” Mike pressed.

“Well, because this incident happened in the 80s and what’s happening with Trump and Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman getting involved in the Singapore talks is as absurd as Reagan’s term was.”

“Is that in the essay?”

I flipped through the pages. “Not yet.”

“Have you tried tying what happened to you to the present-day big picture?” I hadn’t. But I would.


When Mike and I began meeting at Starbucks, we followed the revision process of our writing group and the Memoir Incubator, a year-long intensive program at GrubStreet in which we’d drafted memoirs. Before the group met, members posted work on Slack, then offered written and in-person feedback during a meeting.

That is, until one week a few months into our meetings when we fell behind. As Friday rolled around, neither Mike nor I had posted work. I was stuck on the ten-page essay. I brought it with me and told him about its situation, story, arc, action, and conclusion. As I listened to my voice, I heard the holes in my logic, the threads of narrative I’d left dangling.

We no longer prepare written feedback for each other. Instead, we take turns talking each week. Sometimes we read a short excerpt we’re particularly proud of. Then the listener asks questions or makes statements to clarify what they’re hearing. We don’t prepare questions in advance, which brings freshness and a feeling of improvisation to the process. Sometimes the person talking through a piece asks questions. “Does this make sense? What’s missing? Does it sound like I’ve written life too neatly? Is the ending cheesy? Should I write past it to find a greater truth? Do you see a conclusion in an earlier part of what I’ve written?” That day at Starbucks, Mike also said, “Take us inside your head,” and asked if I had read Joanne Beard. (I had, but his suggestion made me see the value in revisiting her work.)

When Mike listened, he served several roles. He was a witness, a mirror, an earnest bullshit detector, a trusted friend who I knew wouldn’t sugarcoat his feedback, and a teacher who held me accountable.

As we’ve talked and listened, I’ve become more attuned to structure. I see that the reason I struggle with the endings of essays is that I’m often not deliberate enough in connecting the threads in the middle. If I don’t orchestrate the beginning and middle, the ending won’t have the intended impact. I also learn from listening to the rhythm of Mike’s sentences, and the pauses between them. I often close my eyes to tune out the high-pitched whine of the barista steaming milk, the chatter of a young child waiting in line with his parents, to hear the way his prose flows and where he weaves in tension to drive home a point.


Now, I tackle new projects by reading an idea I’ve jotted on my iPhone calendar aloud. Then I sit down and write the first draft. Since Mike and I have begun talking through essays, I’ve found I dig a little deeper. I’m more open to surprise, and I spend more time on research. I’ve also become bolder about submitting, and have done so more broadly and frequently. Fellow writers have noticed subtle changes in my work. “Your stories used to spill all over the page. Now you are crafting a journey where we get to discover things along the way,” said Gita, a fellow member of our writing group who has read my work for three years.

Maybe the allure of the approach is also my love of stories, and the sound of the human voice telling them. My husband and I recently attended Modern Love: The Podcast, at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. I listened to the spaces between each polished word, heard the timbre of the three actors’ voices as they each read an essay. I wondered what the readers felt, and thought about the writers too, calculated how many drafts it had taken to reach the center of their tales. Ryan Pfeffer’s essay “Your Dog Has Seen Me Naked” capped the show. I felt the warmth of my connection to hundreds of listening strangers, all of us rapt—each human laughing.

The experience felt like my Starbucks Fridays with Mike. We give each other our full attention, act as a mutual test audience, and contain and hold the material until the next week or draft. And when I leave our meetings, just like when I exited the Huntington, I feel a bit more connected to the larger world. I hope Mike does, too.


Meet the Contributor

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen lives in Boston, where she toils over essays, her memoir-in-progress To Have and To Hoard, and parenting a tween. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Headspace. She is grateful for the support of the writing community she adores. Kristen is a proud co-founder with GrubStreet of nonfiction literary series Tell-All Boston. Follow her on Twitter @kpnwriter or at kristenscarousel.com.

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