Revisiting Fine Work from 2013: Debra Gwartney: A Few Thoughts on Writing Scenes (for memoir writers)

Debra Gwartney is the author of I am a Stranger Here Myself, a memoir published in 2019 for which she was awarded the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.  Last year she won the WILLA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West. She has also been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and the Oregon Book Award. She’s also the co-editor, along with her recently departed husband Barry Lopez, of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.

The following essay first appeared on the 49 Writer’s blog in 2013.

Back when I was enrolled in a MFA program and writing early drafts of pieces about my daughters that would eventually lead to my memoir, Live Through This, my teachers often suggested I needed to write more scenes. Furthermore, they advised me to deepen and complicate the scenes I’d begun. I’d think, what are they talking about? I have written complicated scenes! The advice perplexed me. It took me a while to realizethat in those MFA days, I hadn’t yet grasped the intricate mechanics of the fully rendered scene.

Now I’m a teacher, and students I work with often seem bewildered when I say, “more scenes needed,” or “more complex scenes needed.” What are you talking about? a student willtell me. I have written scenes. Right there! See? A scene.” That impulse to defend doesn’t surprise me—many of us convince ourselves we’ve written a
scene when we haven’t done so. Not quite yet, anyway, because a few scenic elements—lovely images, a line or two of snappy dialogue—don’t add up necessarily to scene. Still, I can’t tell you how many students have appeared in my office to point at their drafts and argue that the language there constitutes a scene.

My response to such a person might go something like this:

*You have not yet effectively moved us from general time to specific time. As a reader I remain unconvinced that I have entered the micro time of a moment. Time, because it’s not carefully defined, is muddled and
disorienting to the reader.

*I see that you have mentioned your characters are in, say, in a modern high rise in Singapore, or the Bose Stereo Store at the outlet mall in Woodburn, Oregon; that is, you’ve given the reader a place, but you have yet to achieve space. You’ve put your characters in a living room, but I have little idea what that living room looks like. Let
me say here that in describing that living room, don’t go hog wild with description. Instead, you must limit your details to those that are equally vivid and essential. Leave out gratuitous images and instead discover detail
relevant to the emotional tenor of your piece. In this living room, are there chandeliers from the ceiling and silk brocade on the chair? Or does a single sofa have a hole in the middle of the cushion where a small dog is curled up and panting? Is there a bowl of rotting pears on the table, a vase of paper whites stretching toward the one ray of sun? In your current draft, I might tell this writer, the physical elements and the characters are not yet employed to swiftly, succinctly, create a three-dimensional space for the reader to step into, too.

*I might tell the student who is still insistently jabbing at her page, look, right here—a scene!, that though her characters do speak to each other, yes, the words they say burythe reader in information—the “information dump”— that could be delivered in a more convincing, concise manner. That is, through exposition. Put most of the facts in exposition, thereby leaving the dialogue to do what dialogue must do: reveal character and move the story forward. To use dialogue to convey information is to halt your story, to detach from your reader rather than pull her in.

“Furthermore, in a piece of nonfiction, an essay or memoir, you’ve worked awfully hard to establish voice, to infuse that voice with authority and credibility, and you want to break into that voice with another character’s
voice only when you cannot express the sentiment as well or better. I remindmyself of my training as a journalist when I’m writing dialogue. If I was interviewing a farmer named Tom Jones for an article on ag business, for
instance, I would not quote him as saying, “I am the third generation to farm this land, and last year, my 492 hogs ate 5,222 pounds of grain and 2200 tubs of yogurt, which cost me thousands of dollars that I was not able to
recoup at the market.” I would paraphrase those facts while ending the graph with a gem of a quote from his mouth, discovering (in the interview) the phrase or phrases the farmer and the farmer alone could express. Something like this: “My grandfather farmed this land, and after that my father,” Jones said. “It looks like
I’ll be the one to lose it.”

*Back to the now deflated student in my office: I might tell her that all scenes require action—something critical must happen between or among the people she’s introduced us to and within the space she’s defined for
us—someone must act, someone else react, while up, up goes the tension. If the reader begins to sense we are in the scene merely for the scene’s sake, merely because one person said something cute or witty or particularly cruel to another, because a group of friends broke out a bong to get high, because a couple slipped off to a bedroom to have sex, because a car broke down on a lonely road, we will quickly grow disenchanted and lose interest in the story as a whole. Scenes have beginnings, middles and ends—you get the reader in and you provide a way out and something significant occurs in the middle. This is what’s called in workshop jargon, “the pay off.”

In Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book, she defines scenes as, “those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action.”

Sounds so easy, so straight-forward, but if it was easy and straight-forward Sandra Scofield would not have had to write a whole book about how to do it. Scene writing is a hugely intricate endeavor. First, a nonfiction writer (a writer of any genre) must decide which moments related to this particular period in her history are worth elevating to scene. Not everything can be a scene, obviously, or we’d just be following you in real time and that
would become quickly, yawn, tedious. How many scenes should you use in a given piece or chapter? In nonfiction, often the form you settle on helps you decide the weight that’s going to be given to scenes vs. the weight given to exposition (reflection, introspection, summary, back story, etc). Personal essays tend to—not always, but tend to—rely more on “thinking on the page,” and less on the fully wrought scene. The well developed half-scene is common. Memoir is often—again, not always—more dependent on scene with reflection/summary/exposition woven in where it’s needed and thoughtfully
employed depending on the narrative distance you seek.

What’s essential, and I realize I’ve already made this point but shall make it again, is that once you settle on a scene, then commit to that scene. Don’t gloss, don’t settle for wishy-washy or muddled. Don’t rush. Employ all five senses, if you can, while you energize the characters and give them something to DO. With artful subtlety, convince us that a shift took place because this moment occurred, and that from this point on there’s no going
back. Scenes can give your piece urgency, and urgency is what engages the reader.

The note I write most often on student manuscripts is “put us there.” Even when we think we’re in
scene—returning to that dispirited student at my desk—it’s frequently the case that the narrator is actually recounting a scene rather than opening a point of entry for the reader to step in to what’s going on. This might be akin to sitting on the bus next to a guy who insists on telling you the entire plot of the movie, Argo, from opening credits to the final tender relief to flash across Ben Affleck’s face.  I can promise you, it is much, much more satisfying to go to the theater and see Argo yourself.

When I taught a semester-long scene writing class not long ago, I started off by showing the students a few clips from television shows that I think illustrate these points I’ve been discussing. I know, television. A
pedestrian model. But I tell you, if you watch a 15-minute segment of any Law and Order episode and make yourself pay attention to the development and evolution of a single scene, you’ll soon realize how flat that scene is, really, even in the midst of melodrama. How hackneyed and obvious. No subtlety in presenting the elements. We’re given information-packed dialogue—something like, “I was alarmed when I heard that Bob had stolen a
seven-inch knife from my kitchen drawer to use in the murder of histwenty-four-year-old neighbor.” If the director wants us to notice a bloody handprint on the sliding glass door, the camera is going to shove our faces in that image. If he wants us to see the victim’s boyfriend’s anguish, then the crumpled man’s sobbing is front and center with background violins wailing about him. And so on. Years ago, my daughters liked to watch the Law and Order show, when Vincent D’Anafrio played the slightly off-balance detective. The girls called the program “Jen-Jen,” as in “are you watching jen-jen tonight?” They came up with this name from two notes meant to notify us that serious developments are at hand, and that also serve as the transition between scenes: JEN JEN. So, in the kind of writing required for television cop/murderdrama, even the sounds must be overly obvious.

Compare this to one scene in a single episode of Breaking Bad. I realize the show’s critics call it morally reprehensible, but the program is artfully bright in terms of artistic elements—the acting, the mind-bending storylines [unpredictable, yet inevitable], and, I would argue, the exquisite care in the scene writing. If golden light shines through a high window onto a filthy carpet and dusty furniture, there’s a reason for it. If the character Jesse breaks into a vacant house and stumbles over a prosthetic leg, that detail sets us up for the vulnerability he’s soon to face in himself. If, later in the same scene, Jesse leaves a jar of marshmallow cream on the counter, this glimpse of a detail is guaranteed to add pathos to the larger dynamic at work and also adds to the sincerity of the empathy we begin to feel for Jesse, totally messed up though this young man is. Marshmallow cream. A cloying detail in most any narrative, hard to pull off without over-instructing the reader/viewer (Hey! A metaphor!)—but in the Breaking Bad episode I’m thinking of, it’s deftly handled with not a single neon arrow pointing to the detail, insisting we notice it. In fact, I had to rewind and slow down the frame so I could read
the label. When I realized what it was, marshmallow cream, the scene came together for me in one more interesting way. I got to express that delicious, “Oh, I see.”

As a bit of an aside—I’ll return to the Breaking Bad scene below—here’s a brief passage from a nonfiction
piece I once read in a student publication. The essay was published, I think,because it holds a lot of writerly promise. But this section, which purports to be scene is not a scene. Let’s see if you agree with me:

“Jason and I had 10 p.m. curfews throughout high school, and while I generally stuck to it, he
often wandered home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of pot and booze. His eyes and his actions, however, indicated that his nights consisted of substances far more sinister. His boots on the hardwood floor woke my mother and they screamed and argued with each other until Peter and I peeked out of our rooms and our wide eyes met. Peter scurried back to bed as Jason approached the room they shared and my mother returned to her bedroom and slammed the door. Most nights, I was left staring into an empty hall. It was seldom, though, that much time would pass before I heard my brother’s bedroom door creak open. Jason, comfortable in pajamas, emerged, and we snuck down the hall to the living room. He was always in charge of what we watched on TV those early mornings, and it was always the History Channel.”

We get where they are generally, but where are these characters precisely? The boy next to his bedroom door, hand on the knob, with his mother a few feet away in the hall? Are they face-to-face in the living room with the younger children peeking in from the hallway? I can’t “see” the three-dimensional arrangement of space and people in the small hints about place/ space. And what happens during the argument? Does the brother tap a
cigarette out of his pack and light it even though his mother has strictly forbidden smoking in the house? Does the mother notice her robe has fallen open, exposing her dingy nightgown, and respond by tying the belt tight and firm?

Does our narrator wrap her arms around the little brother while glaring at her mother for what she thinks of as a profound failure to parent? Does this person called “I” step in between her mother and older brother, tugging at her mom’s hand and trying to lead her back to bed? Any one of those gestures would turn the story in a different direction. Any one of those gestures would clue us in to the stirred up dynamic and emotional tenor. But because I haven’t been given detail to inform the emotional stakes,
I haven’t been allowed into the moment.

Furthermore, why are we in general time rather than specific time? Put us in one time, one late night, one argument and more distinction and depth is possible. What kind of pajamas is the brother wearing when he reemerges? How does the television light her brother’s face as the two sit down together? What is the texture of the couch’s fabric, comfortable or itchy? What’s the subject that night on The History Channel—a bloody war, the
excavation of a king’s bones, a president’s deeply held secret life?

Do all of these questions need to be answered to make a fully realized scene? I don’t know, because I’m not fully aware what the piece is about yet. There are too many fuzzy abstractions in this recounted moment for us to add up the meaning, and we have not yet entered specific time. Also, what brings a scene to life is relevant specificity.

OK, back to the Breaking Bad episode. The one with the prosthetic leg and marshmallow cream. The title of this one is “Peek a Boo,” and it’s one of the best examples ever of sharp, smart scene writing. Jesse, a main character in the show, breaks into the house of a couple of meth addicts aiming to take back, with force, the
money they’ve stolen from him. He thinks the house is empty until he finds their child who’s been left alone in his bed. A filthy, skinny boy about four-years-old in a squalid room covered by a flea-ridden blanket. When the meth parents come home, a tremendous tension is launched, not just because Jesse has broken in, but because the child is there, too—just watch this episode and note the ways, again and again, the little boy reveals Jesse’s character—his vulnerability, his self-deception, the weakness of his façade—and ups the ante when it comes to the stakes. The boy has only one line of dialogue, “I’m hungry.” Brilliant. We do not see Jesse make a sandwich for a child (before the parents return home) who’s clearly desperate, uncared for, needy. That would be too obvious. What we get instead is a flash of that jar of marshmallow cream left on the counter, and the boy eating a fistful of awful white stuff that leaves a mess on his face. That’s just one of the many moments that work well in this perfectly delineated scene. In general, the scene would be flat, ordinary, and predictable without the boy. Adding this character, and using physical gesture over dialogue, is like sending an emotional missile into
the middle of the room.

Television is, of course, a different medium than memoir writing. Way different. As instructive as these programs can be to our writing processes, it’s far better to find examples of great scene writing in contemporary (or not so contemporary) literature. So I’ll leave you with a list of some of the essays/books I bring with me and present as models when I’m teaching a scene writing workshop, examples of nonfiction prose that succeed brilliantly in “putting us there,” with micro time, action that takes us somewhere new and unexpected, well rendered characters, and scintillating dialogue:

*Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time,
though published forty some years ago, tops my list. One scene after another
doing tremendous work in the narrative, with exquisitely selective detail.

*Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a scene driven memoir; as well as Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception.

*Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, especially “Fourth State of Matter.”

*Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.

*Darrin Strauss’ Half a Life.

*Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction.
*Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise.

*Mark Doty’s Firebird.

*Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace.

*Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone.

*Jane Bernstein’s Bereft.

And so many more. . .full of beautiful, poignant (never
sentimental) scenes you’ll never forget.

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