Today on our show, we’re talking about beginnings and endings. What is an effective way to begin a story and a satisfying way to end? The story we bring you on this episode is an amazing example of how to start with appropriate grounding and how to land/end the essay like a gymnast. The narrator isn’t just a beginning and ending genius, she also uses lingo associated with her theme. This style is effective, because the reader feels more drawn in.
Another example of that same type of inclusive linguistic style was discussed on Episode 110: How to Write About Death: Use and Obsession. Jackie Ashton told the story of her best friend’s cancer by using the situation of a Golden State Warriors obsession. Jackie used basketball lingo throughout.
Shawna Kenney submitted the essay you will hear today and we were blown away. Her story is called Words with Mom.
Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, the latest being Live at the Safari Club: A History of HarDCore Punk in the Nation’s Capital 1988-1998. Kenney is a Contributing Editor with Narratively and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, Vice, Bust, Rock the Bells and more. She teaches memoir writing with the UCLA Extension Writers Program.
Writing Class Radio is hosted and produced by Allison Langer, and Andrea Askowitz. With frequent guest host, Zorina Frey. Audio production by Matt Cundill, Evan Surminski, and Aidan Glassey at the Sound Off Media Company. Theme music by Justina Shandler.
Follow us on Patreon to join our First Draft weekly writers groups. You have the option to join Allison on Tuesdays 12-1 ET and Zorina Wednesdays 6-7pm ET. You’ll write to a prompt and share what you wrote.
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Join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to www.Patreon.com/writingclassradio. Or email email@example.com for a Zoom link. First session is FREE.
A new episode will drop every other WEDNESDAY.
There’s no better way to understand ourselves and each other, than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?
Alison Langer (Host) 00:00:08
I'm Allison Langer.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:00:11
I'm Andrea Askowitz and this is writing class radio. You'll hear true personal stories and learn how to write your own stories. Together, we produce this podcast, which is equal parts heart and art. By heart, we mean the truth in a story. By art, we mean the craft of writing. No matter what's going on in our lives, writing class is where we tell the truth. It's where we work out our shit. I know it ever gets old? Not to me. There are some people who don't like it, though. I'll tell you that. There are.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:00:44
You're shit haters.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:00:46
Shit haters. There's no place in the world like Writing Class, and we want to bring you in.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:00:51
Today on our show, we're talking about beginnings and endings. We bring you a story by Shauna Kenney. Shauna is the author of or books, the latest being Live at the Safari Club, a history of hardcore punk in the nation's capital. Genny B, a contributing editor with Narratively, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, Vice, Bust, Rock, The Bells, and more. She teaches memoir writing with the UCLA Extension Writers Program.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:01:28
She's got some heavy clips. Yeah, cool.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:01:31
This story's an example. Basically, we feel of how to start a story and end a story, for that matter. That's why we're called beginnings and endings. And I cannot wait for all of you to hear this, because, honestly, I found that so many people have trouble with endings, and a lot of people have trouble with beginnings. So it'll be great to have a little chat about this and hopefully give some guidance to anybody who's a little bit in need of some help.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:01:59
We'll be back with Shauna Kenny's story called Words with mom after the break.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:01:59
We're back. I'm Andrea Askowitz, and you're listening to Writing Class Radio. Here's Shauna Kenney reading her story words with mom.
Shauna Kenney (Guest) 00:02:25
I stare at the glowing blue game board bearing yellow letter tiles on my iPhone screen, playing Words with Friends with my mom. I debate with myself whether or not I can play the word dildo. I am 52 years old. I sacrifice points and played dill instead. Why am I censoring myself, damn it? We've been playing Words with Friends together for a couple of years now. It's one way we stay connected, despite the three 0 mile and many wordless years between us. I don't secondguess myself while playing an old high school friend, a former student, or my motherinlaw, queen of twoletter words no one uses in real life. But when I have options to play words like anal or queer with my religious, 10th grade educated, small town mother, I fear she will be offended or triggered. We have hurt one another with words before. I left home at 17, three days after high school graduation. Years of fighting over religion and politics had me feeling I had been born into the wrong family. When a friend found out that she had been adopted. I secretly hoped for a similar revelation in my life. I thought it might explain our incongruence. At 18, I fell in love with a musician. Before the relationship solidified, my parents heard through the grapevine of small town whispers that my boyfriend was black. My father called and screamed names at me over the phone. My mother cried in the background. It ended with the word disowned. I lived for a long time with this hurt, even after swapping it in my head with the word emancipated. My parents and I didn't speak for years. Through my younger sister, I heard my name could not be mentioned in the home. Meanwhile, I scrambled my way into college, working many odd jobs to support myself, including one as a dominatrix. I eventually broke up with that boyfriend and reconnected with my parents as I graduated from college. It was a shaky truce. I dated a handful of men and introduced my parents to the man who would become the love of my life. They liked them okay, although he was another musician. At 28, I published a memoir about that oddest of jobs I had in college called I Was a Teenagedominatrix. I thought no one would read it, but at the suggestion of my editor, I included two sentences about where my parents had been during that time in my life. As magazines and TV shows started calling for interviews, I had to tell my parents this meant first explaining the job title, then dissuading them from reading my work. My mother called ten pages in, saying it made her look like a terrible mother, that she did not remember disowning me, that they were ashamed of me. This conversation ended with the word disgrace. I asked my family to go to therapy with me, but due to my mother's own upbringing and fear of mental health stigmas, that did not happen. I went alone and started to understand that my parents lived very old fashioned roles with my father as a disciplinarian and my mother is nurturing but deferential to her husband's decisions. Phone calls bridged our years of disconnection, but only for so long. Once, when my mother came to visit us in Los Angeles, we went to see a movie about the rise and fall of a Motown like group. In the midst of a discussion afterward, she expressed sadness for the racism that black people endured back then. It's still happening today. I seized, unable to stop myself from spewing, like when you discarded me for dating a black man. This led to an argument where she apologized. Then she tried to apologize for my father, saying those were his beliefs, not hers. I told her she could not apologize for him. She packed up and flew home three days early. Months later, my dad sent me a handwritten letter of apology for everything, sharing more about his childhood. His chicken scratch writing was barely legible. I thought back and pieced together how my dad left his home at 16 and joined the military to escape his abusive father. My mom filled out his job applications and wrote up his work evaluations. I felt a sting of realization that my father was semiiliterate. The words were hard for him to write, but the apology was sincere. Both sets of parents attended our wedding in Malibu. My mother wore a fuchsia dress and white flowers and her dark hair. My father, the mechanic, dressed beach casual in khakis and a buttondown. He looked smaller than I remembered him, grayer and out of his element there amongst our wildly diverse group of over 100 friends. A few years later, while I was back on the East Coast, he died suddenly. My mother asked me to write his obituary. As difficult as that assignment was, I was glad to do it. Since then, my mother and I have been closer than ever. We talk by phone every day, though we have an unspoken agreement not to talk about the book. We are not Facebook friends, but we play Words with Friends. It evokes fond memories of running around my cousin's house as a kid. My mother and the aunt saw smoking cigarettes while playing Scrabble. My mother won almost every game. Weeks after, I didn't play the word dildo on Words with Friends, my mom played that word against me, scoring 50 points. I laughed. She messaged me, Sorry, that's a bad word. It is a word in the world, I typed back. The truth is that my mother inspired my love for words. Without her influence, I may have never become who I am. And though she usually beats me at this silly app game, I enjoy engaging in this small way with her. Sometimes she messages me, clapping hands emojis with a congratulatory good one. Or a smug smiley face after a big win. Our conversations are not deep, but we are playful and respectful. We relate to each other as grown women. I am free to be myself. I make my living in words, and I need access to all of them. At the end of each game, one of us always hits rematch. I will click accept for as long as she is here. I'm no longer keeping score.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:09:00
So I just I just this this thing is brilliant. That just the play on words is so good. I really, really loved all the like, even the word scrabble or the word tiles. I mean, her word disowned emancipated. She ended each sentence in paragraph with the word which I thought was super effective dominatrix. Every word that this narrator uses disgrace. It tells a whole story. And I just was so amazed.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:09:41
One of our tips is to end each sentence, paragraph and story on the strongest note. And this time, when I was listening to it, I was like, Whoa.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:09:52
She did that?
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:09:54
She ended so many of her paragraphs and her sentences on the words that you just mentioned. And the whole story is about words. Words with mom. I don't think that she has plays on words in here that I recognized.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:10:08
Which ones? What do you mean?
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:10:10
What did you say that you love? How she played with words.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:10:13
You know how there was an episode that we had and we ran it twice because it was one of our favorites about the Golden State Warriors. And so each term that was used, if we're talking about baseball or basketball or football and you're using terminology that goes with it, then each time you're drawn into the story even more. And I feel like she really did this with the words, that she ended with the words and then even some of the words that were in here. I know I highlighted a couple as I was listening to the story.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:10:46
We have hurt one another with words before.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:10:49
So she's setting it up, right? And then she ends with all those words I mentioned, even just small town whispers, because that's words, they screamed names at me over the phone. There was another one scrambled my way into college because words and gets scrambled.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:11:11
I didn't notice that one.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:11:12
Yeah, so that kind of stuff, I just was like, Dang, really, really, really good. That's so effective.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:11:20
Really well crafted. I want to mention the very beginning because this opening is the perfect ground the reader. I stare at the glowing blue game board on my iPhone screen playing Words with Friends with my mom. I debate with myself whether or not I play the word Dildo. I am 52 years old. I sacrifice points and play dill instead. Why am I censoring myself? Damn it. We know exactly who 52 year old woman. We know what she's playing. Words with friends with her mom. Well, we don't know where, but we know that she's situated around her phone. And then she sets up the whole why I sacrifice points and play Dylan's dad. Why am I censoring myself? Damn it. A total voice. True to herself. But also, it's like she's setting us up for a story about a relationship with her mom. And I was just 100% captivated and pulled in from that first paragraph, 100%.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:12:28
And I never got out of it. We get all these submissions, and sometimes I'm like, oh, this could be a really good story. The writing is really good. But here, I felt like there was stakes. I felt like I was drawn in. I could relate. And I just felt like it was so well crafted, like we mentioned earlier, and it ended well. So she brings back the beginning.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:12:55
Wait a second. Because I think I want to better set up the way that we talk about if this is someone's first time listening. I just want to make sure that people understand what we mean by ground the reader. So lots of times, people, they'll start a story, like in a dialogue, and we don't know who's talking, but I learned this from Steve Ahman, and he's really clear about he's a great writer and teacher, and he's really clear about telling his students, get your reader in the car. Tell us right up front who we should care about.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:13:27
And we also talked about before we get into something else, but the episode that I was referring to was episode 110, how to Write about Death, use an obsession. And Jackie Ashton is the author, and she did exactly what I'm saying, the terminology that relates to the sport or whatever she's doing.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:13:49
Well, in her case, it was an obsession with basketball, and so she used all these basketball terms, and in this case, it's not an obsession, but the story is about words and word games, and she uses words that relate to word games.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:14:00
Just what I was going to say when I was interrupted.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:14:04
God, you can tell we're both tired.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:14:07
Holy shit. I was like, first I got the finger over the lips, and now I just got interrupted.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:14:14
Yeah, all right, whatever. We're here.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:14:16
I'm going on vacation tomorrow. I'm going to go visit my mama. That's why I love this. I love this story so much. It just landed right before I went on my trip. So I don't get this finger over the lips again. I'm not going to go to the end yet. But what were you just saying that I was going to say something about?
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:14:32
Well, I was going to say something about how interesting it is that you're about to go visit your mom, and now I'm sweating. No, not because we're sweating, but because we got a bunch of submissions in the last few weeks, and this one stood out. This one stood out so strongly. Yeah, it really stood out. And one reason for me was this opening. I mean, the dildo, please.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:14:55
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:14:56
But maybe it stood out for you because you're about to go visit your mom and you have a raw relationship with your mom. And so editors, it's a bit of luck, although this isn't lucky. This is well crafted and well told story. But okay, what were you going to say?
Alison Langer (Host) 00:15:09
Sorry. I was going to say there were so many places she could have gone off on tangents. The dominatrix, the dad, what he called the boyfriend. But I didn't mind that it didn't dive into these things. I felt like, well, that is not what this story's about. And so for some reason, I felt satisfied without knowing any more than she told us.
Shauna Kenney (Guest) 00:15:29
That's so true.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:15:30
Yeah, I know. I agree with you. Oh, I agree with you, mark that as a one big agreement moment.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:15:35
I know that never happens, because I.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:15:37
See what you're saying. I worked many odd jobs to support myself, including one as a dominatrix. I can imagine people in our writing class being like, what?
Alison Langer (Host) 00:15:44
Tell us more about that, then I tell you more, and then when I share it with you, you cut it all out.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:15:48
Yeah, I don't want it. Because in this case, this is a story about playing with her mom. It's not a story about what it was like being a dominatrix. I would like that story next. And actually, she has a whole book about it, and I think I'll read it. No.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:16:01
Absolutely. Okay, so then what I love the most, and I think we talk about this all the time is the callback. She brings it back to the beginning. So she set it up.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:16:13
Alison Langer (Host) 00:16:13
It's going to be about the struggle with her mom, but then she shows us the struggle, and then she shows us how it's impacted her and how it's resolved. And it's not 100% perfect, so the conversations are not deep, but we are playful and respectful. We relate to each other as grown women.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:16:29
Alison Langer (Host) 00:16:30
And I'm free to be myself. I make my living in words. I need them to access, all of them. So now we see she's grown, she's evolved, and at the end of the game, one of us always hits rematch, and I will click accept. For as long as she is here, I'm no longer keeping score. That is it. The whole time, they were both keeping score, especially kids, we just do that to our moms. And I just thought that was really amazing that we see how she's just like, eh, it's just how their relationship went were evolved, you know?
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:17:04
They evolved. Yeah. And when she's talking about keeping score, she's talking about, like, how many times her mom said some stupid shit. She's not doing that anymore.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:17:12
No, and I don't know if it's age or it's just we mature or I don't know what it is, but I just don't care either anymore. I mean, I love my mom so much. She did the best she could, and now I just want to hang out with her. I know you've heard me bitch and complain for so many years, and it's just like, fucking A. Everybody's doing what they can, and they're all trying, and it's just like, nobody's perfect. Let's just love each other anyway. And she came to this, and I just thought that was amazing.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:17:37
I am so happy to hear you say that about you and your mom. Yeah. Damn, that's cool. Oh, my God, Shaunna. Kenny, look what you did. You healed Allison Langer, her mom.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:17:51
I mean, come on. I've been doing the work, okay, but.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:17:56
You came in a moment.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:17:57
When I'm not playing words with my mom, there's a specific situation that's not happening. But the story is something that really hit me in a big way.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:18:07
That's fucking beautiful.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:18:13
Here. New beginning.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:18:15
Thank you for listening. And thank you, Shaunna Kenny, for sharing your story. Shaunna can be found on Shaunnakenney.com writing class. Radio is hosted by me, Andrea Ashworth.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:18:27
And me, allison Langer.
Andrea Askowitz (Host) 00:18:28
Audio production by Matt Cundill, Evan Sir Minsky and Aiden Glassy at the the Soundoff Media Company. Music is by Justina Chandler. Our other co host, Arena Fry, is on vacation. There's more writing class on our website Writing Class Radio.com, including stories we study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Our website is a super mega amazing resource for writers. Follow us on patreon to join our first draft weekly Writers groups. You have the option to join Allison on Tuesdays from twelve to one Eastern and Zarina on Wednesdays, six to seven Eastern. You'll write to a prompt and share what you wrote. Awesome community. If you're looking to take your writing to the next level, we have two second draft writing groups. Each week, three people bring a finished draft for feedback. Join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to patreon.com writing radio. A new episode will drop every other Wednesday.
Alison Langer (Host) 00:19:44
There's no better way to understand ourselves and each other than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What's yours?