We’re all on some sort of journey, aren’t we? Check back here
periodically to find out more about G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s journeys
through the literary world and through life.
As many writers will tell you, crafting your story is easier said than done. I was recently asked to present a craft talk about this subject at a local college, and while I wrote my lecture with writers in mind, the same concepts can be applied to those of us who just like to orally tell a good story now and then, too.
Which Story To Tell
There are so many stories in each of our life experiences. At the professor’s request, my craft talk was based on an essay I wrote in 2013 stemming from a heavy metal cruise I had taken with my son. As you might imagine, five days on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship with 42 heavy metal bands and over 2000 fans can certainly offer up fodder for any number of stories.
I could have written my essay about the metal culture. For example, I learned on the cruise that metal has a variety of subgenres: thrash metal, death metal, and melodic death metal. Black, gothic, doom, power metal. Speed, Viking, folk metal. Symphonic metal. And neo-Classical metal, too–who knew? One of the bands on the cruise played pirate metal and performed a song called Cruise Ship Terror, about robbing, raping, and killing cruise passengers. It gave me chills, way out at sea as I looked down over the railings into the dark, choppy, shark-infested waters.
I could have written about women in metal and how they were making a big splash (figuratively speaking) in this genre of late. On the cruise, Nevermore had a female lead guitarist who riffed with the best. Cripper had a petite young lady as the lead singer whose lovely little growl reminded me of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. And Epica’s lead was a beautiful woman with a porcelain face, a red mane that belonged on a shampoo commercial, and a sweet soprano voice that contrasted in utter irony with the lead male’s deep, throat-burning growl.
Ultimately I decided my essay needed to be about a mother and son taking one step closer to reconciliation in a most unexpected place. The poet Marvin Bell said that stories “are born in physical, mental, and emotional darkness, where the unknown rests and one understands nothing,” and this cruise qualified as all of the above for me.
How To Tell the Story
I spent two years after the cruise trying to figure out not only which story to tell but how best to tell it. Thanks to several writing friends, I was encouraged to consider a variety of craft and common sense considerations in my various drafts:
- Mindful word choice and how it might impact readers
- Balance between scene and narrative
- Character development
- Where the essay falls on the creative nonfiction continuum
- The right beginning and ending
- Structure of the story
- Truth in nonfiction and writing about loved ones
This whole process of deciding how best to tell the story required continuous mining into my feelings and asking myself whether, how, and why this story might be relevant to readers–and I think these considerations can be absolutely true even to those stories we spout out at parties. Also, Annie Dillard’s admonition that literature is an art, not a martial art, kept slicing through my thoughts as I tried to walk the tightrope between telling my own truth and being fair to my son.
Submitting and Publishing
After multiple iterations and the expansion of my essay from 4700 words to 7800 words, I attended a class at Hugo House about writing nonfiction. It was taught by the inimitable Corbin Lewars, and something she said gave me the crazy idea to submit my essay to Modern Love at the New York Times. Even though it wasn’t a traditional love story, my essay was about a mother’s love for her son. The worst that could happen, I figured, was yet another rejection slip on my wall.
The word count limit for Modern Love is 1700 words, so I had to get out a machete and brutally hack up my essay, getting rid of anything that didn’t clearly support that mother-son theme and killing a lot of darlings along the way. When I received my rejection email, I recalled how someone once told me to ask the rejecter for a recommendation on who might appreciate the essay. I stepped out on the limb of bravado and asked Daniel Jones, the editor for Modern Love, and he actually wrote back to me and referred me to the Motherlode column curated by KJ Dell’Antonia. I debated about whether or not to proceed, and by the time I reached her, she’d already heard about my essay from Daniel. The rest, as they say, is history. Oh, well–it was history, but only after I cropped out more words. By the time it was published, my essay was only 800 words long.
Was it the story I’d intended from the beginning? Probably not. Did it include all the rich scenes from this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Nope. But hey, I got a little bitty check from the New York Times, so who am I to complain? Also, most of the feedback I got, from people I knew and readers I didn’t know, was positive. (The only folks who didn’t like it were headbangers.)
But most importantly of all, I discovered a truth from that cruise experience which I was only able to do because I spent 2 ½ years crafting a story about it. And the funny thing is that it wasn’t really until now, after another 2 ½ years have passed and I’ve been asked to talk about that process, that I really have seen what that process meant to me.