I’ve been wrestling with the same essay for about five years now. It’s a chapter of the travel memoir I wrote about living in Korea, which became my MFA thesis. The chapter always stood alone better than some of the others, and for that reason it’s the one section of the book that I’ve sent out to literary magazines. It was a finalist in a contest I entered a few years ago, and that little bit of a confidence boost has left me reluctant to let the piece die despite a number of rejections since then. I know that there’s something to the essay, but in the past year or so I’ve realized some tweaks were needed. In the years since I first wrote the piece the writing has become stale to me; some days I just assumed I’d looked at it too many times, but on others, I saw that the writing could be better. Because I looked at the piece so, so many times, I have had a hard time making myself work to improve it in order to send it out again. I have been easily frustrated by it. I’ve been bored by it.
Since the beginning of this year though, I’ve been trying. Really hard. I’ve printed the essay out and ripped through it with a red pen several times. It was longer than 5,000 words, which is the prose cutoff for some lit mags, and I managed to shave more than 1,000 words off of it — which to my surprise, improved it. I tightened some sentences, and eliminated words and phrases that I had realized didn’t add anything. Still, something wasn’t right. I got frustrated again. I wondered if I should give up on the essay altogether.
In my previous post, one of my suggestions for getting unstuck when mired in a writing project was to “get at the truth.” I’m not talking about fact vs. fiction when I use the word truth; at least not exactly. In my previous post I think I referred to what I’m talking about here as “the emotional core” of a piece of writing. It is responsible for an element of believability; it is hard to quantify or describe. But as a reader, you know it when you come across it. It’s that something that pulls you into a piece of writing.
I realize I’m being a bit vague. But a reader knows when a writer is being emotionally (and even factually) dishonest. And, a writer knows, too. She might not know how to fix it, or what the truth is, but she knows when it’s missing. Recently I had this sort of epiphany about my Korea essay. I had known for a long time that the second paragraph – a sort of nut graph for you journalists out there, which explained the who, what, where and why of the piece — needed re-writing. I was really uncomfortable with that paragraph.
Here’s what it used to say:
We had chosen, rather impulsively, to do a year-long stint teaching English in South Korea. Neither of us knew much about Korea, and neither of us spoke Korean. Everything — buying groceries, riding the bus, maintaining our relationship — felt harder than it was supposed to. We got lost a lot, and not just in the physical sense.
Here’s what it says now:
B. was my college boyfriend, a man I was once so close to I could read his mood by the slightest of expressions, whose voice soothed me when I was upset, and whose understated humor was full of irony and occasionally inappropriate material. I haven’t spoken to him in a decade or so; it’s been longer since I’ve seen his face. But we went to Korea together for a year, some fifteen years ago. We taught English at the same private language school in a new suburb of Seoul, and shared one room in the home of a newly wealthy Korean family of four. These were not ideal conditions for building a relationship. These were not ideal conditions.
Still, we blundered on, through cultural missteps, teaching inexperience, relationship bumps, illiteracy in a new language. We were in our early 20s, and teaching abroad seemed like a good idea, an adventure that would allow us to save some money. We did not foresee how difficult our lives would be in Korea. We were unprepared. And yet, whether because of our youth or relative privilege, we believed in our superiority as travelers. We saw ourselves as hearty survivors. In fact our approach to living abroad bordered on the misanthropic. Our first months in Korea were marked by a pervasive wariness: B. and I avoided and dodged, feared and sidestepped.
Obviously the second version of this graph is much longer and has more information in it. But that’s not what makes me feel better about it (although that was needed). What bothered me so much about the first version of the paragraph, and indeed, with much of the book, was that I attempted to gloss over one of the major relationships that defined the narrative. I took to summing it up, as in “We got lost a lot, and not just in the physical sense.” What does that even mean? It says little, and conveys almost no emotion. This is what I meant when I called my book “hollow” and “flat” in my previous post.
It’s easy to see why I might avoid the topic: I’m happily married to someone else now, and writing in such detail about someone I had once lived with made me feel a bit like I was cheating. But the narrative needs clarity on the relationship, otherwise readers are left with a hollow shell of a character, and a relationship that feels outlined rather than fully fleshed out. There’s nothing factually inaccurate about the first version of the paragraph. The second version just offers a little bit more of the emotional truth.