‘Piñatas at a Funeral’: Meghan Nesmith on Narrative Tone

by Cece Roth-Eagle

Writers on Writing is back with Meghan Nesmith, whose course “Writing the Now” takes place on Saturday, March 6th. She discusses the trial and error of developing tone, a great prompt about garbage, and her own novel-in-progress. 

When did you feel like you first discovered your voice as a writer?

I’m not sure I have discovered my voice–or rather, I like to think I’m still in the process of excavating it. Because I work as a brand copywriter (among other gigs), I have to take on different voices often, and that process is a bit like costuming, so much so that at the end of the day, whatever essential “me-ness” exists is a bit smudged, ruffled, disguised. My personal writing involves gradually shedding those layers, and the layers of what I think I should sound like, what more successful writers sound like, what I was taught to sound like. I think the moments that I feel most proud of or happy with my writing “voice” are when I get as close as I can to the truth of something, which is what I’m always trying to do in my work. 

How do you go about developing the tone of a piece?

Tone depends on so many factors–the publication I’m writing for, the subject matter, the mood I’m trying to convey–and developing that is always a process of trial and error. It’s a bit like party planning: you wouldn’t bring a pinata to a funeral (or maybe you would, that would be a really awesome funeral). This is probably obvious, but the first paragraph of any piece has to do a lot of heavy lifting, so I spend a lot of time making sure that I get the tone right in that opener. I think conveying tone is more important than conveying meaning or facts up front, which is why I’ve never been any good at hard news. 

What’s a piece that you found especially compelling to write and why? 

I have a piece in the new issue of Gossamer magazine that I loved writing. The prompt for the issue is “garbage,” and when I pitched it I had been researching space junk for a brand job–like how trash in space is disposed of and catalogued, which is something I had never considered and was totally fascinated by. I had also just recently become a mother. Those things don’t seem related, but they coalesced into a piece about ghost satellites and object permanence and learning how to parent. That kind of writing–sort of pulling at different threads to see if you can weave them into something beautiful–is some of my favourite to do. 

Are you working on anything right now? 

I am! I’m nearly done with the first draft of a YA fantasy novel. I’m having a blast writing it, which is very odd. Mostly writing leaves me absolutely wallowing in despair, and with this project I asked myself, What would give me joy? I wanted to write the book that I was desperate to read, so that’s what I’m doing.

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