What matters in writing a ‘moment’ is whether it feels real

This week our class was cancelled because of (more) snow. So while I can’t draw on class discussions for this post, I have been thinking a lot about how to write “moments,” or small, descriptive narrative scenes.

I’ll start with some moments I stumbled across this week in leisure and schoolwork that I found especially moving. I have taken out some block quotes from the stories, but please read them in their entirety with the links provided:

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From an August 8, 2012, New York Times story by Ruth Padawer about boys who fall somewhere in the middle on the gender spectrum:

“Toward the end of the first week of kindergarten, Alex showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks — a mere inch of a forbidden color. A boy in his class taunted, “Are you a girl?” Alex told his parents his feelings were so hurt that he couldn’t even respond. In solidarity, his father bought a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear when he dropped Alex off at school.”

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A reference to “My Struggle,” a book by Karl Ove Knausgaard From a February 28, 2013, New Yorker story by Sasha Weiss about those who criticize Anne Hathaway’s unapologetically cheerful demeanor:

“Karl takes his little daughter, Vanje, to a classmate’s birthday party. She is a shy and introverted child, but she longs to play with other children, and looks forward to the party with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. She chooses to wear a new pair of sparkling golden shoes. When she arrives, she is thrust into a room with other children, who are all playing wildly. Karl watches her as she tries to figure out how to break in:

For a while she stood observing them. Then it was as if she had decided to take the plunge.

‘I’ve got golden shoes!’ she said.

She bent forward and took off one shoe, held it up in the air in case anyone wanted to see. But no one did. When she realized that, she put it back on.”

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I saw a film called “The Garden of Eden” that made its North American debut during the True/False Film Fest yesterday evening. The film’s director is Ran Tal, a native Israeli who grew up near the Gan Shlosha, a state park known as “Sakhne.” (Trailer from the film’s website, linked above. See its facebook page here.)

I can’t show you this moment, but in one scene an older man told the story about how he left his home in Germany during World War II to move to Israel. He talks while we see him calmly swimming and bobbing in the rock-surrounded waters Sakhne. Right at the end of his monologue, the man tells us that he knows his brother worked in the crematorium at the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. Having this job meant his brother knew the day his father had died, and by passing on that information the man can observe his father’s yahrtzeit (memorial of the day of his death).

I can’t do this moment justice with such a plain description, but watching it brought me close to tears. (I highly recommend you see this film if you get the chance.)

Tal talked about how he got the scenes for his documentary. In some cases, he filmed the swimming scenes before he did the personal interviews (often at the interviewees’ homes), but sometimes it was the other way around. In every case, the “action” was separate from the interviews.

It was done this way, Tal said, so that he could have more personal conversations with each subject. He wanted them to open up to him about their lives and stories of separation, which could be best accomplished when they trusted and liked him and felt comfortable.

Tal said he had to sometimes go back to an interviewee for further information. The stories were edited together in a monologue format, but nonetheless, they felt genuine.

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What I’m learning about moments is that what makes them special isn’t some kind of extraordinary action or especially powerful prose. When we include these moments or “scenes” in our writing, we’re giving the reader a taste of honest, human feeling.

I don’t relate to the little girl with the gold shoes because she’s a fascinating character study or a tragic hero; I relate to her because I know what it feels like to be unabashedly happy about something and have that joy met with uncaring stares from others. I know how it feels to have my feelings hurt in such a way that I can’t bring myself to even tell anyone else. And I know how much it means to be able to properly mourn a loved one.

When I go about my reporting, I want to capture these moments that will resonate with my readers and make them remember how they’ve felt in similar situations. They can be long and full of dialogue, or short, sweet glimpses into someone’s day. I’m telling myself to be open and focus more on the quality of what I find, rather than the quantity.

My observations (should) begin soon, and having come across such beautiful examples of scenes this week, I’m more excited than ever to get the chance to practice.

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