Transitions are hard, in life and in writing. But they can also be exciting, especially when you know when and how to make big leaps. (Check out this amazing video to see what I mean!)
The leaps writers need to make may not be as attention grabbing as Coghlan’s dive into home plate, but they are equally challenging.
How do I get people in my scenes out of the room, into the car, and into the restaurant without detailing their every move? Where does one scene end and a new one begin? Are there seamless ways to move into back story without over explaining and boring my readers?
Yes, there are. Some are very straightforward, some more nuanced. The skill is in employing both kinds of approaches. Use them well and your readers will happily follow as you make exciting leaps within your writing. This is true whether you are writing a personal essay or complex novel.
In this post, we’ll look closely at an approach for making transitions that helped one author make seamless leaps in her personal essay, Making a Marriage Tidy, which appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. (Note: In my next post I’ll be examining how master fiction writer, Elizabeth Strout makes transitions.)
Another note: Modern Love has some wonderful personal essays. It also accepts submissions from readers. Go here to learn how to submit.)
Associative Leaps in Nonfiction. Do Them Right
What’s striking about the first few paragraphs of Making a Marriage Tidy are the rapid-fire leaps in time, place, and even subject matter. The author accomplishes these leaps by making associations, an approach that feels very natural. It’s what we do every day when we tell stories. Something reminds us of something else. We move from topic to topic, saying things like “oh that reminds me of ____” or “the same thing happened to my cousin,” and soon we can’t remember what we were talking about in the first place.
Of course, forgetting where you started may be okay in conversation, depending on whom you are talking with, but not in writing. Sure, when doing rough drafts, you want to go exploring. But there comes a time when we have to tie it all together, this is when we get strategic about our moves through time, space, and topic.
As you read, notice the words I’ve put in bold face. They seem like nothing special. Most are small pronouns, words with little content, some are just repetitions of things she has mentioned previously. What’s important, however, is how the author uses them strategically to build associations, as well as to point and orient, and so we stay with her through leaps and shifts in direction.
Note, I use slashes to indicate where these shifts and leaps occur. When you get to the slashes, take a moment to consider the vast amount of explanatory material, the details she has left out. What you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.
I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo might call a magically tidy life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare and my kitchen is so clean I could perform surgery in it.
I wasn’t always this way. When I was 23, //I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back.
Yes, it was used. Yes, earlier that day , I had taken it off and tossed it onto my bed like a bear throws salmon bones onto a rock. Once it was there, I guess I forgot about it. It was probably camouflaged. //I promise you there was other stuff on the bed. My bed used to look like a landfill
//Maybe I threw my coat over it and it stuck. And then I put my coat back on and rode a bus 30 blocks with a panty liner between my shoulder blades. Nobody said a word. I didn’t know it was there until //my date gave me a hug and then peeled it off like he was at a burlesque show in hell.
//This was not the man I married.
The man I married walked into my apartment and found Pop-Tart crusts on my couch. I can still see his face, bewildered and big-eyed, pointing at the crusts as if to ask, “Do you see them, too?”
He sat on the sofa. //It is my husband’s nature to accept me the way I am.
How Do These Words Work as Transitions?
Movement from “Tidy” to “sloppy” to “panty liner” to “date”
“I wasn’t always this way” may seems like the simplest choice a writer could make. A seven-year-old could do it. But let’s consider its genius use in this essay. By using the term this way, the author points back to the previous paragraph, while the sentence moves us into the past. What if she had written, “I used to be a slob.” A perfectly fine choice if her only goal was to get her message across, but not a good choice when it comes to facilitating a leap into the past. It would be jarring to make such a leap without pointing clearly to the idea above. We would feel a bit jerked around.
When the writer moves to the story of the panty liner, notice what she leaves out in that same paragraph. There are none of the typical transition words, no “I remember the time…” or “For example, “ or “Like when, “ all of which would communicate, “hey I’m going to tell you more about this past time when I wasn’t tidy.” (BTW: Such obvious transitions are absolutely fine, but take up valuable real estate and can weigh down the writing.) Instead, she communicates all this with the simple lead in, When I was 23, elegantly and seamlessly linking us to the time in the past, while revealing her age. We feel the piece moving along briskly carrying us with it.
Notice how that day, in the third paragraph refers back to the day introduced in the second paragraph, how the word other in other stuff works as a subtle link back to the panty liner, while landfill, connects so beautifully to stuff. Yes, we make these kinds of links naturally when we talk , but sometimes when we write, they get lost as we struggle with our sentences, and end up taking our writing further and further from the natural rhythms of speech.
Movement from “date” to “man she married” to”his sitting on sloppy sofa” to “his acceptance of her as she is”
Finally, let’s look at the how the author makes the most important, and the biggest, leap of all, when she moves away from the topic of her tidiness quotient to her marriage. By paragraph eight, we are suddenly reading about an accepting husband.
How did we get here?
We got here by a series of associations that began when the panty liner story made a shift mid sentence into the story of a date, then quickly from this story with the sentence, to this not being the man she married, then to the man she did marry into a whole new story about him reacting to and choosing to sit on her crumb infested sofa.
It is an easy leap from his decision to sit on the sofa anyway, to the notion that he accepts her as she is.
This movement happens lightening fast, yet we stay with the story and author because of the words that make the associations crystal clear, This is not the man, but here is the man.
It is exhilarating.