Publishing a Modern Love essay in the New York Times has launched many a literary career. The competition is fierce, even long established writers continually try and fail. And so it was thrilling when my friend Michelle Fiordaliso called to say that her essay had been chosen -- and to run on Mother’s Day, no less. It was doubly thrilling for me, because I’d had the honor of working with her as she crafted the piece. As with any story that reads so beautifully you have the sense that writing it was effortless, it took a lot of work. So I thought it might be interesting to show the process Michelle went through to take her piece from a good idea to a riveting read.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Michelle is a fabulous writer. Her voice is assured, compelling and nuanced; her insights are piercing in the best possible way – at first unsettling and then, reassuring.
Interestingly, she didn’t set out to write a Modern Love piece, she set out to write about death for a monthly personal essay series (think The Moth). But like most of us, the hardest part was finding the story itself, the interconnected cause-and-effect chain of events capable of bringing her vision to life.
That’s where I came in. I worked with Michelle, helping her do just that. She was already miles ahead of the game, because she went into the process having defined the one thing that writers often forget to do: she had zeroed in on the point she wanted to make. To wit, that nothing can prepare you for how vulnerable loving others, especially your children, makes you feel.
Michelle: I knew the emotional truth of my story. I spent years working with terminal AIDS patients, helping people face death – I thought I’d made peace with it. But being a single mother turned all of that experience upside down. My dread of something happening to myself, or my son, made me fearful of death in a way that I didn’t understand. This caused me to shut down emotionally and as a result I was missing out on life, particularly my son’s life. That’s what I was writing about.
Lisa: Then came finding the story – the series of events – that would bring her point to life, so we could experience it ourselves. Michelle was writing a personal essay, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that she had a storehouse of actual events to choose from, the curse that that storehouse spans her entire life. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. So her first job was to zero in on the right event, or series of events. She started with a story about baseball.
M: I knew that I needed to choose an event from my life that personified that point I wanted to make. I thought about using the story of the day when my son was nine and got hit in the face with a baseball during a little league game. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life and certainly put me in touch with the fragility of my son’s life. But that didn’t feel quite right. It didn’t have anything to do with my own fear of death, or the numbness I’d allowed it to cast over my life. So although yes, it did touch on my fear of death and my son, it didn’t have anything to do with the point I wanted to make. I knew I needed to go in a new direction.
L: We began brainstorming. When Michelle mentioned – in passing – something that had happened between her and her son Joe a week earlier, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This time it wasn’t Joe’s vulnerability that leapt out of the story, it was Michelle’s. Which is exactly what she was writing about. Here’s how it happened:
M: I’d mentioned to Lisa that I’d had an emergency MRI the week before, and that on the morning of the procedure I’d lost my temper while driving my son to school. I was already stressed, and as he dawdled getting out of the car I snapped, “I can’t start our day this way, this kind of stress is going to make me sick.” Telling the story out loud made me realize that I didn’t explode because I was worried about myself; I exploded because I was terrified of what might happen if I died and left my son. That was the connection between real events in my life and the emotional story beneath those events. It wasn’t about how I felt when he was injured; it was about how he’d feel if something happened to me. The thought of leaving him alone in the world terrified me more than the thought of dying. That fear is what caused me to shut down emotionally, trumping everything I’d done prior to “get over” my fear of death, and so, ironically, I was leaving him in little ways every day.
L: Once we centered on that particular day, the goal was to then cherry pick the necessary backstory to bring it to life, and give it meaning and weight. This is always very tricky process, because there are often so many things that happen concurrently that are fascinating in and of themselves, but really have nothing to do with the story being told.
M: That’s so true. There were lots of things I could’ve included in the piece. For example, why I chose to keep my pregnancy despite having known my son’s father for such a short time, why his father left, why I was drawn to working with AIDS patients and tons of other things. While all of those things are interesting details, they weren’t relevant to the particular story that I was telling. What’s more, I was looking for details that didn’t just tell about my fear of my own mortality. The story is about why I was fearful, how that caused me to become emotionally numb, and how I came to realize it and begin to feel again.
L: That done, the next task was to bring what remained into sharp focus, identifying which specific facet of each remaining memory was relevant to Michelle’s point, then making sure it was vivid enough to allow the reader to not only picture it, but experience it as if it were happening to her.
M: For example, I knew it was important to tell readers about my history working with AIDS patients and becoming a bit of a daredevil, but why? It wasn’t until I made the connection that I thought that exposing myself to some of life’s most challenging experiences would make me fearless and that fearlessness would somehow protect me from the potential loss of people I love. As I reflect on all this I realize that good writing also involves fearlessness—there must be a bold (and often painful) willingness to look under the surface of things. It’s not enough to recount what happens, we must reveal why those things happened and how our characters are defined by the choices they make. We, in turn, as writers, are defined by the details we choose to show and tell. And perhaps, we’re even more clearly defined by something the reader will never know, the things we left out—finally realizing their presence in our story would dilute it rather than enrich it.
L: How true is that? It reminds me of something Tony Bennett said recently on NPR. When asked what he can put into a song in his eighties that he couldn’t when he was younger, he answered without missing a beat, “The business of knowing what to leave out.” Why wait until you’re eighty to master that one?