As writers of nonfiction, the goal is to adhere to the facts as we excavate memory for stories and it is often the unpleasant, difficult events in our past that are most suited to story. But, how do we tell these tales – especially the sad and incomprehensible events – so that, as Robert Olmstead describes, “…our minds find a place where they can endure what is unendurable.” The objective is to keep the reader with us, not to drag them along sad and whimpering, feeling forsaken as the writer describes the awful things that have happened to him or her. What’s the solution?

Olmstead suggests in Elements of the Writing Craft that writers can find ways to talk about something large and unbearable (death, murder, terminal illness, molestation) by talking about the pain of something inconsequential right along side. It is almost as if the smaller unimportant pain provides a respite, a seat cushion on a hard bench, from which the reader can watch the large, devastating event unfold. It offers the reader a perspective with scale by moving from small, less easily categorized details, to the large and ungainly.

Here is Donald Hall at the funeral home describing his wife after her death from cancer in, The Best Day and the Worst Day: “…Dead Jane looked all right… She looked like Jane, sick Jane after fifteen months of wasting. John Singer Sargent once described portraiture as that form of painting in which there is always something a little wrong about the mouth. There was something a little wrong about Jane’s mouth. Marion Chadwick [the funeral director] told me that mouths were the hardest part.”

He doesn’t say what the mouth looked like but his choice of words, especially the repetition of little, brings us along with him to experience a terrible moment with a surprising, tolerable twist. Hall, with his steady hand and great sense of scale with words, has invited the reader into an intimate, horrifying, instance where they might not have been willing to go. Sharper, more particular, smaller details will “crowd the reader out of their own space” according to Alice LaPlante in The Making of Story, and into a specific emotional and psychological space prepared by the writer.

Olmstead suggests also that the order in which a  story is told – putting the main event in the past and focusing on something more trivial, for example – also invites the reader to instantly imagine the magnitude of the past event.  He invites writers to begin with the word after. After the house burned down; After my father fell off the roof. He says, “Open a story with a tragedy and some small parallel event. Perhaps a death is accompanied by a profound loss of appetite, a bankruptcy by a dying lawn, a loss of faith by forgetfulness.”

Patricia Hampl also encourages imaging and descriptive writing as a method of encouraging the reader to stay with us even on a difficult journey. She says, “…not just looking to the past, not trying to understand it, but to attend to images almost as if they were photographs, and to write those. To discipline yourself to say what you see rather than what you feel. Let the feeling flow through the seeing. Try saying … my truth is saying what I see. It offsets the self, just a bit.”

And hopefully our readers will stay with us for the ride – even the roller coaster and the tilt-a-whirl.