How Abigail Thomas Creates Narrative Tension

The Building Blocks of Good Memoir

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest craft essay by Paul Zakrzewski on narrative drive in the segmented memoir:

3a36f29138705bc7d15156308c033669Recently, I found myself re-reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, a fabulous memoir-in-fragments about marriage and motherhood. And once again, I’m struck by a contradiction at the heart of the book:

How does the author create such narrative drive, such a fully realized portrait of a life, in a memoir whose form would appear to undercut these achievements?

Even if you don’t know Abigail Thomas’s memoir, it’s likely — especially if you’ve gotten an MFA in the past – you’ve heard it name-check. It’s one of those more experimental books, like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which make the rounds in CNF courses. You know, the ones advisers push on you during conferences. The ones your classmates urge you to read in their manuscript margin notes.

The book is comprised of dozens of short sections—some four or…

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Feel better, Little Buddy, it’s just a rejection letter


Sometimes those rejection letters get you down. Sometimes it is easy to slip into that mindset where you believe that rejections are some sort of reflection of the quality of your work.

I do my best to shake it off. I re-read my work and remember why I believe it in. Then I send it out again.

Spare Change received 5 form rejections before Room said, Hey this is really good, but not right for us. Please try again. So, I tried again by sending it to Plenitude, which published it in February.

And 5 6 rejections are, like, NOTHING. Want proof? Read this awesome list from Buzzfeed:

20 Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected

Feeling discouraged? Rejected? Don’t worry. We’ve all been there.

Ploughshares Literary Magazine

The Five Pillars of Place by A.J. Kandathil

Ploughshares Literary Magazine

I just read a great article that I wanted to share with fellow writers who are working on projects that prominently feature place. “The Five Pillars of Place,” by A.J. Kandathil, is available from Ploughshares.

Kandathil identifies the Five Pillars of Place as:

  1. Position
  2. Economy
  3. Young vs. Old
  4. Greek Chorus
  5. Lexicon

In examining each pillar, she raises some very important questions about place that I think all writers should consider.


How to make it as a freelance and other tips for leading a writer’s life

I came across this lovely little video of Neil Gaiman giving a graduation address to Arts students.

I love his advice on how to make it as a freelancer:

“But you get work however you get work, but people keep working, in a freelance world—and more and more of today’s world is freelance—because their work is good and because they’re easy to get along with and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three; two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”

On doing art for love or for money:

“…I decided that I’d do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. And if I did work that I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work. Every now and then, I forget that rule and whenever I do, the Universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don’t know that it’s an issue for anybody but me, but it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money either.”

The whole video is a gem, if you have 20 free minutes.