My new book “Midlife Solo” is now available.

Beth Kaplan logo

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 22

Unpack your suitcases
student began to read her piece. Excited about the prospect of going away to camp, I ran around getting my gear ready. As I searched for my sleeping bag, I wished that Mum hadn’t left us and that she was there to help me. When the camp bus pulled up, I was first in line, eager for adventure …
Wait a minute … what did you say? We’re listening to a tale about going to camp and then suddenly there’s a mother who has disappeared. Which is the more interesting story? Right there, in the middle of the paragraph, is a closed suitcase, a giant mystery waiting to be unpacked. We want to hear about Mum and won’t be satisfied with zooming right by her off to camp.
The writer will have to unpack that suitcase right now, which means opening up the hugely important subject of a mother’s disappearance and writing about it—if not in depth, because you don’t want her to take over the camp story, then enough to explain. The reader needs to be enlightened and will fuss until you explain. Or else you had better leave your vanished and intriguing mother out of this story altogether. She probably deserves one of her own.
Sometimes we’re so accustomed to lugging our suitcases around that we don’t even recognize them. This writer was so used to missing her mother, it was natural for her to bring up that loss when recalling her childhood. She didn’t realize how curious we’d be about such a tantalizing subject. Often, in fact, the whole point of the essay or story is the suitcase; the writer has that topic pressing on mind and heart but, because it’s so fraught, prefers to put it down, unopened, and rush on by. Perhaps secretly hoping that we’ll notice it and ask. Perhaps not.
But if we’re reading with any kind of attentiveness, we will notice. So you’d better have an explanation. (See Step 37.)
Good personal writing is about the process of discovery. The narrator is grappling with a problem, a pain, a life-changing moment, something that needs to be explored and understood before the journey can continue or end. That’s why we read: to find out how the issue is resolved.
If you are busy hiding a key part of your story, you’re not telling us the truth. And if you don’t think enough of your readers to go deeply into the truth, why should we stay with you?
What are your suitcases? Are you trying to conceal them in the middle of your essays? Your readers are pointing at them and saying, “Open that! Now!”
When I start something and an instinct in me is saying don’t go there, don’t go there—that’s where I know I have to go.
wayson choy
Your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element of your style. 
kurt vonnegut



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

Some Blogs I Follow

Chris Walks
This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.


Theresa Kishkan
Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.


I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.


Carrie Snyder
Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.


Juliet in Paris, Spain and Beyond
Juliet is a Canadian who’s lived for decades in Paris and writes about her travels and the many things that interest her.