Reading Like a Writer

I am obsessed with how other writers show time in a piece of writing. There are so many different ways to do it and every piece that you write calls for the writer to pick what will work and how it will work.
Brevity is a great place to go and check out all kinds of writing and there are tons of works that caught my eye, but these three stayed with me this week, mostly for how they used time and the way the author’s were blunt but still painted a picture, a use of language I admire.

My favorite this week is Tyrese L. Coleman’s Why I Let Him Touch My Hair.

In this story, we are taken on a journey using a series of flashbacks. We start out with our author feeling strong as she sits with a man of a different race in an empty bar.

He spoke anxiously. An awkward laugh followed every statement, every eyeball-dash at my cleavage, each concerned glance upward at the wild black kinks springing from my head, and then, each nervous scan behind him, around the room. His fear empowered me.

We jump quickly from being empowered to being powerless, as the author takes us on a journey using several flashbacks interwoven with her current conversation with the white guy at a bar.

These flashbacks counteract to the opening statement of her empowerment as she details times that she has felt powerless against white boys and men.

The further in she takes us using these experiences as a young child at first, and then later as a college student, we realize that there isn’t much of a contradiction between her powerless past and her empowered present. This leads us to the reveal, “My power disappeared. If it had ever existed to begin with.”

Beauty and Youth by Elizabeth K. Brown writes the passing of time in a different way than Coleman. Brown tells the passing of time in chronological order, but writes in a fast paced way that reflects what is going on in her life at the time of her story.

Brown uses a clear beginning and outlines the events leading up to her end,”It begins with a man, an older man, and he is nothing like your father.”

Time passes quickly, “Years pass. You are 17, 19, 23.” Brown outlines what “he” is doing her life during this time. Taking her on vacations, buying her gas, going to art galleries, being jealous. They push away from each other and then gravitate back to one another and Brown ends the story bluntly, making clear to the reader that he is the one with romantic notions, but not her. She knows what the reality is and has alluded the reader to her feelings from the beginning, contrasting sharp words with romantic scenes.

The last story I read was the most interesting. How to Discuss Race as a White Person by Samuel Stokley, uses the concept of space in a very literal sense. The essay is a series of numbers placed sporadically on the page. The numbers work like traditional footnotes and correspond with tips.

Some of the tips seem random.

8 Approx. 240 minutes, or 14400 seconds.

9 See: Strange Fruit.

10 You have access to Google(dot)com.

A lot of them don’t, they fill up all of the empty space on the essay page plus so much more.

15 What if you’d called those cops?

16 What if you hadn’t?

17 “2015 may be one of the safest years for law enforcement in a quarter century.” The Guardian.

18 The number of people killed by cops this year will surpass the number of American soldiers killed in any single year since 2003. This is also true of last year.

Stokley delivers so much impact with his use of white space on a page. A guide full of white space written for white people.

These are just a couple of examples of how space and time can be used very successfully and I can’t wait to incorporate some (or all) of these techniques in with my personal writing.


5 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer

  1. Hi Megan,
    I liked your writing about Stokely;s story. It affected me the same way as I realized how much white space he had used. All of his questions really make you stop and think about things. EP


  2. Hi, Maegan. I really admire how you said so much in such few words, a mix of clarity with conciseness. I’m learning from you.


  3. Hey Maegan,
    When it comes to writing, I always find manipulation of space interesting. I didn’t always feel that way. I actually had to take a poetry class before I began to appreciate, not only the writing, but the composition or arrangement of white space as a tool.
    When you noted how time was addressed in “How to Discuss Race as a White Person,” I was reminded of an author I’d read several years ago. The author is Anderson Monson. He doesn’t write nonfiction, but he offers a lot of techniques that are useful. In his book Other Electricities, he uses numbers to move the narrative along in the chapter titled “Big 32.” Not in the traditional sense. He uses temperature, and as the temperature falls you know you are moving. It’s a different approach. I always notice writing that is “outside the box.” It makes it interesting.


  4. Maegan,
    Like Judith, I haven’t always been interested in how the author uses time to tell the story. It’s only since I have been in class and done in-depth studies on techniques that I really started to pick up on the power of time, and the difference a chronological and an irregular timeline can have on a story.
    I like your view on how “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” uses flashbacks to show the relationship between her powerlessness, her past and her current empowered future- which isn’t all that empowering. Such a story wouldn’t have been nearly so powerful without those.
    Like Mary Catherine, I admire your conciseness. I can also read this and hear your voice in my head- an excellent feat. (I knew you’d be great at blogging.)
    Keep up the great work and keep writing!


  5. I love the concept of space as well as words in the Stokley piece, both because of the visual effect and for the meaning behind what it is to have space between yourself and others. One of the most difficult parts of brief nonfiction is to pack in meaning without rushing. How do you use 750 words to write a story without just jumping over vast amounts of time? Where do you help the reader to touch down into a scene without snatching them back too quickly? In many ways, these essays all create meaning through juxtaposition, which is one of the best ways in brief work to use space and time.


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