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A hundred pages into The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls I shut the book and yelled at my husband, “You will not believe this book!”
Jeannette’s dad had just brought his family to the zoo, climbed over the fence to pet a cheetah, then told his young children it was safe to do the same.
All her prior stories evoked a similar surge of adrenaline—not the best bedtime routine—but I finally realized what made this book stand apart.
She did not write thoughts or feelings.
All she wrote was dialogue and action. Without anyone’s thoughts or feelings it was like I was experiencing what Jeannette had experienced, which left me hot and throwing the blankets off and sometimes holding my breath.
When Jeannette was around 10 years old a neighborhood boy attacked her and tried to rape her but she bit him on his nose and got away. He came back the next day when Jeannette was home with her three siblings:
“We heard Billy Deel outside, calling my name. Lori looked at me, and I shook my head. We went back to our card game, but Billy kept on, so Lori went out on the porch, which was the old platform where people used to board the train, and told Billy to go away. She came back in and said, ‘He's got a gun.’
“Lori picked up Maureen. One of the windows shattered, and then Billy appeared framed in it. He used the butt of his rifle to knock out the remaining pieces of glass, then pointed the barrel inside.
‘It's just a BB gun,’ Brian said.
‘I told you you'd be sorry,’ Billy said to me and pulled the trigger. It felt like a wasp had stung me in the ribs. Billy started firing at us all, working the pump action quickly back and forth before each shot. Brian pushed over the spool table and we all crouched behind it.”
Notice she didn’t say, “It was crazy!” or “And then he started shooting at us!” She didn’t say she was in pain although I’m sure she was. When she got shot she didn’t gasp or clutch her side—that’s overused dead language and means nothing. Instead, she described what it felt like by comparing it to something else: “It felt like a wasp had stung me in the ribs.” And she didn’t once say how she felt about Billy, the kid who tried to rape her the day before and punched her in the face.
I thought of my favorite writers. Did they write thoughts and feelings?
Sometimes, but it seemed the more traumatic the story the better suited it was for the removal of them, like in this passage from The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer:
“When I was seven months old my father threw my mother on their bed and tried to suffocate her with a pillow. She broke free. Two weeks later he did it again. She broke free again, but this time he chased her and cornered her in the bathroom with his straight razor. He described in gruesome detail how he was going to carve up her face. He lunged for her and only my crying in the next room broke the spell of his rage. That was the day we left him. That was the day we arrived at Grandpa's house, with nowhere else to go.”
It’s not necessary to always leave out thoughts and feelings, like when J.R. wrote, “broke the spell of his rage,” but to be selective about them in order to create more suspense. It reminds me of my first job out of college when I worked as a sportswriter at a local newspaper. The first thing my boss taught me was that there was no such thing as “first annual.” The second thing he drilled into me was, “Only write the facts. Your opinion doesn’t matter.” I always thought this made the writing stale and boring but I didn’t yet understand the power of writing only what you observe.
David Sedaris is known for this. In his essay SantaLand Diaries he wrote about the parents of children who didn’t want to get a picture with Santa:
“They waited in line for over an hour and are not about to give up so easily. Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her sobbing daughter, yelling, ‘Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about.’”
Rather than react with his thoughts he wrote what he saw and heard.
Since discovering this approach I’ve tried to incorporate it into my own writing. Even when I was solely focused on not writing thoughts and feelings I still slipped them in, unintentionally, because to only show action and dialogue was hard. It required stillness to sit with the story and see the movie playing in my head. Writing thoughts and feelings is the easier, lazier route.
The Glass Castle evoked a visceral reaction and completely transformed my writing process. After I read the final lines I closed the book and laid it on my chest.
My husband asked, “So? How was it?”
I was lost for words, but I’ve been talking about it ever since.
Until next week,
P.S. For my full breakdown on The Glass Castle you can listen here.