Structure, Details and Shaping A Sprawling Long Form Feature

Photo by Agatauw

Read Klara’s story, The Making of a Polish-American Club Star

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, I admired the ambition of this piece. Oftentimes, initial drafts come in slinking and timid, trying to wrap things up neatly without offending anyone or dipping a toe into unfamiliar waters. It takes a lot to shove them into unfamiliar territory, where the writer is doing some discovering on the page. This is not to devalue those drafts or what is borne of them, but simply to say that when you get a piece like this, rambling, ambitious, long, reaching, it can be thrilling. And daunting.

The first question that needs to be addressed with a long form piece is structure. Unless you really have a straight linear story progressing from point A to B to C, then you’ll need to figure out how all of the things you’re trying to do in a piece can cohere into some sort of structure. If not, the writing can end up lopsided, veering off for two or three or five pages into one area, coming back, slipping away into digressions, hastily summarizing, etc while the reader goes bleary-eyed. The trick is when to introduce the structure, and how to do it in a way that is integrated with, and not divorced from, the piece’s central themes. The trick is to have the structure shape the piece but not in a way that ends up curtailing its main ideas or artificially dictating its content.

In this case, Klara had set out to write about the church in Poland, and her trip to the pilgrimage city of Czestochowa.

Here’s an excerpt from one of our first email exchanges:

“As for the feature story, I was thinking about doing it on Czestochowa – the ‘pilgrimage city’ in Poland that is dying, because it is the ‘pilgrimage city’, and nobody wants to invest there. I played there at a club at the end of November, and it was a very interesting trip.”

This was the initial nugget of a larger pitch, which transformed into an article, which, as you can see, ended up being not nearly as much about the church as about the “very interesting trip” and ultimately, Klara’s experience playing violin in discos. Even here, in this email, she’s sort of orbiting around the experience of playing in that club – that’s where the energy is, although she doesn’t know it until she starts writing. And when I read her first draft, that’s where the piece constantly seemed to gravitate: to the experience of playing in those clubs, and to the way in which that acted as a sort of antidote to and liberation from so many of these other grave and complicated factors weighing on Polish youth.

So after the first draft came in, it quickly became apparent that this piece wasn’t “about” the church, but rather about something much broader. The church quickly fell away as the frame for the piece, and we decided to use the journey to Czestochowa instead as a loose frame, something to drive the story forward and to propel other insights and memories and ideas.

After the first draft, the main issue was how to modulate all of the details and interpolations that Klara as a writer naturally leans towards. This is one of her strengths and part of what draws me to her as a writer, but it’s something that has to be carefully thought out and analyzed or it can become excessive. Each of the details and digressions in her final draft has a purpose: it reveals something specific about Poland, revolves around larger central themes, and furthers her journey. In earlier drafts, the trick was weeding out which scenes and details were ultimately integral to the story and which were tangential, overly anecdotal, or superfluous. As it is, the story is on the long side, but one of the thrills of online publishing is that I don’t have to squeeze it into 4,000 words and can try and make it both as relevant and tight as possible and let it push further to do more than the average magazine piece would be able to do.

As we went through subsequent drafts, the piece shifted constantly. Sections were bumped up, shoved down, cut and pasted and moved around (yeah, that’s got a disco beat to it). It wasn’t until the second-to-last draft that things finally settled into places that felt right. Meanwhile, all that time we were trimming and trimming to get the piece down to where it was lean enough to flow but wouldn’t eliminate or reduce the complexity that Klara was adamant about. It became, as so many long form pieces become, a delicate question of pacing (how to set and time scenes within a larger story, slowing down and speeding up) and of just the right structure (how to hang ideas, moments, scenes from a central frame.) It took us six drafts, but I think we struck a balance we were both happy with.

Below, you can read the initial draft as well as my comments. I’d love to include later versions but think I might wear you all out with six different 8,000-word versions and then you’d collapse of exhaustion before you even got to the main piece. So I’ll leave you with this, and send congratulations to Klara for all of her work in shaping and reshaping this into one of the most insightful stories on contemporary Poland I’ve read.

The Making of a Polish-American Club Star

Standing in the large Dominican church in Krakow, during what my friend has told me is the “most popular mass in Poland.” The priest that the crowd reveres is a tall, square man with a big belly and a bald head. “I want to focus on Jesus’s innocence”, he says, seriously, heavily, almost sadly. This is how he talks – with gravity. “I associate innocence with a baby and a woman – a virgin. Something … extremely desirable.” Everyone around me begins reciting the Apostles Creed as I turn and push my way out of the packed church. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth …” Stares follow me. It is perhaps the worst moment to leave the church.

But how to stay, how to recite a creed I don’t believe? Even if that creed is so tightly entwined with a Polish identity I am not sure I have?

On a train to Czestochowa, I sit with my violin case in an overheated cabin. You can never tell on these trains – sometimes the cabins are too cold, and sometimes they are too hot. The cheap trains usually turn on the heat on full blast, and, just when you think you will have a warm, comfortable, train trip, they turn it off, maybe half an hour into your trip. The rest of the time, coats and hats and scarves gradually come on. One man once pulled out a cigarette and started smoking. Illegally. The smoking ban has been in effect for a few months now.

Czestochowa – the Polish pilgrimage city. Pilgrims from all over the country are drawn here to see the Black Madonna. Thousands come to Czestochowa every year to crawl across the floor of an old church and pray in front of the image of the “Black Madonna, the Queen of Poland” (Black being a metaphorical term for oppressed, rather than for any kind of ethnicity).

The pilgrimage to Czestochowa I imagine will be less popular this year, as it was recently announced that in the beginning of May, “Our Pope”, John Paul II, will be ‘blessed’ in an official ceremony in the Vatican. In the village in which I work, I have heard the shopkeepers already tell each other: “There are no more places to stay in Rome, if you want to go. The travel offices are booked.” It is difficult to understand the effect that Pope John Paul II had on Polish life. Perhaps I still don’t understand it. As a foreigner, having grown up in the United States, I have only known John Paul II as an old man bent low with Parkinson’s. The inspirational tales of him rousing crowds with his speeches, of tearing down the Berlin Wall with his very being, his cry of “do not be afraid” echoing all over Poland – those are tales of older people. In this way, I am similar to Polish youth – there are things that even they will only know from stories. The Poland they know is very different – it is a Poland they might not accept – a church that they might not agree with.

When the church was in opposition to the government, then things were easy. But todays youth only saw “Our Pope” as a sick old man with stories of anti-communist inspiration. A little like the whole shift in Poland. In this way, I am just like all the people my age here. I also don’t remember the worst of it. The change was so fast that now people no longer remember what was – what we wanted to change, and why. There’s only the attempt to reach the standards of countries that – in our eyes – don’t want to change at all.

The train slows. They are often rickety, often late. During the holidays, phantom trains were announced in schedules. Hundreds of people were stranded, far from home. Another example of Polish incompitence, one of my students tells me. He is a man maybe in his mid-40s, his black hair flecked with gray, and his face is often set into the convinced attitude he takes up during our lessons, when I teach him how to explain to me his political opinions in English.

I’ve lived in Poland long enough now to feel the sharp religious tension in the country. Though politically people often present it as a two-sided affair, the issue is, of course, more complicated. Churches are filled with older women wearing furry berets – they are nick-named „moher berets“, and the stereotype is that they all listen to Radio Maryja – or the Mary Radio.

Some time later, in Warsaw, I sit across from one of these women on the metro, on Christmas day. Her golden rings, engagement and wedding bands glitter on her folded hands. She looks steadfastly to the left and tears pour down her face. She cries silently. Did she learn how? When? How? Where? Why? For what? She occasionally sniffels quietly. Why? Because the winter does not allow people to move, it launches itself at a person, tries to break itself into his or her soul, into the heart, and destroy what is hidden so carefully what is taken care of so well, pretending that they don’t know that this something was already, a long time ago, destroyed.

What does she remember? Communism? The war? The infamous queues? What it used to be like, to be herself? Or perhaps simply a time when the arthritis in her knees didn’t make walking up the stairs a painful, thankless task?
The paradoxes of Poland. On the one hand, generations destroyed through war and then the paradoxical self-destruction of communism. On the other hand, people now schooled in destroying Others, desperately trying to manufacture the identity that, supposedly, God gave them. Maintaining “our” Polish identity – showing Europe that we are proud of ourselves, of what we are, not of the identity that they granted us with our entrance into the Union. True, not everyone in Poland wanted to join the union – this, in itself was considered a loss of self. Milk now has to be pasteurized, and soon pickled cabbage will be illegal – considered rotten food. My friend Magda reminds me: some time ago, this Polish self was built on diversity. During the 17th and 18th centuries, before the partitions of the 19th century and the devastating occupations of the XXth, Poland was a thriving monarchy, with some of the most tolerant laws in Europe. Now however, diversity means the EU, the loss of the Polish soul.

“But once it meant something else,” Magda tells me impatiently, her one-year baby boy crawling around a tiny two room apartment, annoyed that I’m the one getting so much attention.

“Poland was once the most diverse place in Europe. It was the place where the most Jews stayed – where Jews were welcome. Being Polish meant something very different then.”

She should know. After years of being raised Catholic, she heard an aunt of hers describe them as Jews. Her grand-aunt who was in the room didn’t protest the description. Ever since this moment, Magda has been searching and learning about Judaism. She finished her undergraduate and graduate thesis on the kabbalah and the figure of the Golem. Every week she goes to an hour of Hebrew lessons, trying to soak in as much language as she can, while her baby boy, Benjamin, continues to constantly vie for her attention.

“Nobody proved anything, though?” I ask, curious that one moment can spark a whole identity shift, even though these kinds of discoveries are not uncommon in Poland, where many people during WWII had to hide their Jewish identities.

“No,” Magda tells me. “Somebody must have hidden it a long time ago. I don’t know that even my Mom knew …” Magda’s mom died when she was fifteen. She was left all alone with her older brother, and a story that didn’t make sense. Only a few months ago did she find out that in fact, her mother had committed suicide.

“I think it was an explanation for me, for why I felt so different my whole life. And the more I found out about Judaism, the more I fit in with the common traits that I found there. Jews are fantastic musicians, brilliant thinkers, they strive to discover the philosophical mysteries of the world … the Jewish God is an abstract God, and this is what draws me to him.” Yet she herself never officially converted.

“I’m somewhere in between,” she says. “I’m still searching.” Her husband is a devout Catholic, and Magda agreed at her wedding that they will raise their children Catholic. “I think that the community is the most important thing,” she tells me.

“After all, Benio will grow up and have a mind of his own … he’ll decide what is most important to him.”

But is God in the Catholic Church? Which God does she believe in?

“It’s funny,” she tells me, “I still believe in God – I’ve always believed in God. But I no longer believe in people. People seem awful to me. I think that maybe God is also disgusted – maybe he created us and now is so disappointed that He is entirely leaving us alone. Because we are really disgusting. Just look at us.”

I look out the window onto a black and cold night. It’s late November, and the sun sets early. I wonder how many people on the train are simply going home after a week of work in Krakow. For me, it is the opposite: I am off to Czestochowa to play violin at a disco.

Walking from the train station to the Grand Hotel where I am supposed to meet my accompanying DJ, I see a giant statue of a woman with her hands in the air, praying to “Matka Boska Czestochowska” – the Queen of Poland. Next to her, a sign: “A Red in Czestochowa? Only St. Nick! Vote on the 5th of December!” The sign is in red, and it makes an impression – tapping into an old fear. Is this particular anxiety really anachronistic? Not in this city. “Horrible communism in Czestochowa”, my roommate had commented when I told him I was going. For a second I couldn’t understand what he was referring to, but then he continued, talking about the gray, block architecture that never changed. This is what I hear a lot in Poland – a frustration with a country that is termed as simply “ugly.” Even Krakow, known as “the most beautiful city in Poland”, has the same inferiority complex – a frustrated inability to restore former, pre-war beauty. My roommate had just caught a deal and spent a day visiting Paris – he came back raving about the Eiffel Tower. I couldn’t help thinking that to me, that is the least impressive part of Paris. But in Poland there is a visible and constant change to decorate what is old and ugly and make it beautiful. Unlike cities like Krakow and Poznan, however, where the oldest, abandoned white elephant buildings are being rebuilt into new and exciting venues – the Teatr Nowy in Nowa Huta, made out of a factory, and a mall in Poznan, created from the remnants of an old brewery – there seems to be nothing fresh about Czestochowa besides a brightly lit McDonalds a short walk out of the station.

I meet the DJ in the lobby of the hotel. He is a warm and well-built man dressed up casually for a party. His stage name is ADHD, and he is currently one of the most famous DJs in Poland. I am wearing black pants, an elegant pink shirt, shiny shoes and a shiny beret. After my first performance in Krakow, I had a lot of men try to explain to me how it is that a woman should dress up for a disco. It had been something that they had assumed I had known, and something they couldn’t explain to me. After this, I keep it elegant, and neat – nothing too exciting. If people will remember me, as they are supposed to, it will be because of my violin playing, and not because of an identifying mark.

It’s almost midnight. Outside, in the freshly falling snow, a cab is waiting for us. After we sit down and begin the short trip to “Klub Retro”, the driver starts talking: “This was supposed to be the pilgrimage city … and it is. Nothing goes on here, the city is falling apart. All the investments go to other, smaller cities – like Radomsk. But there you have it … the pilgrimage city. We weren’t supposed to have anything else, because that would have been un-Christian. But in the last five years 50,000 people left, and now they won’t come back. Nothing happens here. It all began when we lost the wojewodztwo – that’s when it started …“

Though he seems to be talking to both of us, he is really only addressing ADHD – talking to him man to man. Though there is nothing official, ever since I came to Poland, I have strongly felt a subtle sense of gender separation. In my work at the clubs, I am often struck by my inability to find a common language with the men that I work with. They too, often can’t seem to find a common language with me, despite our good will. Why is this? During my first couple of days in Poland, when I was getting over the flu in Warsaw, my Dad told me very emphatically: “Don’t try to convert Polish women to feminism. We don’t need this here. Polish women were raised in a society that gave them full rights and that broke a lot of stereotypical barriers. What communism did for women is give them equality – we don’t need feminism here.” Slowly, I have discovered that on the contrary, Poland is in still in the throws of a huge anti-feminism movement, which gained credence right after communism fell, precisely because women were allowed so many things during communism. Polish feminist writer Agnieszka Graff writes about how the communist world was seen to be a warped state – the return of free Poland was, for many Poles, a return to classic, Catholic patriarchy.

‘Women are not fit for politics,” I recently heard a philosophy professor from the Jagiellonian University say during an official debate on whether or not Polish women need quotas (they were implemented for the first time this year.) “The best contribution they can make to politics is by raising citizens – every Polish woman should have between 2-3 children if Poland as a nation is to survive. And if she wants to raise them well, well … the Ancient Greeks believed that if you want to do a job well, you should focus on it and do only that.” Despite the shock from a mostly female audience, only one older woman and myself, declared ourselves feminists. All the other women began their statements with, “I’m not a feminist, but …”

The largely female audience is quite common in Poland, however. Increasingly, it is Polish women who finish university, Polish women who go to cultural events, Polish women directors who are dominating the theaters, Polish women who are going abroad. Only in the political sphere do they stay behind, intimidated by an old boys club that philosophizes on God, country, and the role of women. Political posters are covered in pictures of white men in ties, promising that in this age of multi-culturalism, “Poland will come first.” Everywhere else, when discussing the priesthood, or women in politics, I hear the question: “But what will this actually solve? What problems will it help?” As if equality needs to solve problems in order to be justified.

There is one more place where I notice a distinct dominance of men over women, and that is in the bar and the 24 hour alcohol stores that are possibly the most common stores in Poland. One night after finishing teaching in a village on the border of Krakow, I walked into a bar and restaurant in order to eat something before I caught my bus. A couple of men sat drinking and watching a game on television, one of them standing next to a slot machine, pressing the button with one hand, a beer in the other. Only men. Watching a game. The man’s face gained intensity, and he slammed the button more and more aggressively. Sweating, pressing his lips together in concentration, though still moving his attention between the television and the game. Outside, dogs howled. All other places in the village were closed. Suddenly, he whooped. One big win! His companions cheered. The tension in his face went out – relief. His friends chuckled and egged him on – bet more now, now you can win more. But then a string of losses, and again, the tension in his face, his lips suddenly opening, the concentration, his brow furrowed, his face gaining an ograsmic quality, and finally, the last couple of thrusts before disappointment. The man‘s face crumples. No money left – he lost everything. He goes and sits down at the table, and turns his face towards the television set. Another man gets up from the table and walks up to the machine to try his luck. These slot machines can now be found all over Poland.

ADHD and I finally arrive at the Retro Club. It is a club that lies underneath a Biedronka, which is one of the cheapest grocery stores in Poland. The lights from the store are still lit up, and I am confused as to where the actual club is. Do people here convert the store into a disco at night? Outside the store, in the snow, a crowd of women in tight, short skirts dresses and men in jeans stand, clamoring to be let into a side door. Their figures, lit up by the commercial smiling face of a giant ladybug, the Biedronka logo, look almost comical, though they are in fact very frustrated. The club is packed and they will have to wait until other people leave in order to go inside and have a good time. The weather is freezing, maybe -5C, and there is snow everywhere.

Inside, lights flash and music thunders. The real party begins at twelve, with me and ADHD. We sit down with drinks in a corner of the bar – though no part of the place escapes the noise. I lean down to him and ask how he got his pseudonym – by accident, he yelled into my ear. Years ago, when he was starting his career, a club called and asked for a name. He glanced at the tv set, where there was a program on children with ADHD. Now the name has stuck. The club owner brings us drinks and talks to ADHD. Later I hear that his father died that day – his car broke down in the road and he went to check on it. He walked around the car on the street side and another car hit him. Despite this tragedy, the owner still shows up for the party. Everyone does.

The party moves on. We get on stage, and the previous DJ introduces us. Everyone is going wild as ADHD announces that the real party has started. Prepare for the night of your life! Everyone on the dance floor goes nuts – how fortunate that they are the lucky ones, the ones chosen to party inside in the warmth, where life is happening, and not freezing outside in the cold. Here you can see, the youth of Czestochowa, starved for an experience, for an adventure – for dancing, alcohol, cigarettes (people still smoke here, despite the ban that was passed? just a few weeks ago). How many dreams on the dance floor? How many broken hearts? How many affairs, and new hopes born here, in the club?

I pull out my violin. As a so-called “Live Act”, my job is to improvise to what the DJ does. The music itself is simple – all of it is Western. Polish youth learn the most English from the music they dance to? here in discos as well as the movies they watch. Despite predictions to the contrary, it seems that Polish fascination with the West has not diminished even though the Iron Curtain fell, and now people are free to travel. Polish people have gone in giant waves to the UK and Ireland, where, despite heavy recession, many people still remain. In May, Germany will open up its borders to Polish workers, and many anticipate another wave of Polish emigrants out of the country. The trickle of people in has not yet supplemented the waves of people coming out.

I remember talking to a priest who was a friend of my family’s when he visited Arizona many years ago. He himself studied and lived many years in Germany. He explained to me: „On average, the pay difference between Poland and Germany is like the difference between Mexico and the USA. Germany functions much more smoothly than Poland. There, it’s not wild capitalism. It’s a socialist country. If people don’t have anything, they can go and get clothing, food, and a place to sleep. That’s why their attitude towards the unemployed is different. Here in Poland, unemployment is a tragedy. There, people are worried that they will have to pay more money, the higher the percentage of unemployment.

In Poland, he explained, nothing is for sure – charities don’t know how much money they will have. In Geramny, they often know at least up to 50 percent, but in Poland you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Everything is unfinished, you never know exactly what you’re standing on, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy. You have to constantly go everywhere, walk everywhere, ask questions, worry about things, exhaust yourself. And people don’t have money. In fact, despite the brain drain on the country, many people believe that Poland cannot support a wave of immigrants.

The party is wild. Everything is whirling, screaming, crying, dancing, pushing, drinking, glasses dropped every once in a while. This is where people get loud, where people can let go, here, underground. Everywhere else, can you really know who to trust? An article in the Gazeta Wyborcza recently pinpointed clubs and restaurants in Poznan which do not allow Roman inside, precisely because they are “too loud.”

I remember seeing a group of Roma in the movie theater in Warsaw – they held up the whole popcorn line by buying popcorn and soda for a hundred zlotys. Their bags and giant soda containers crowded the desk and frustrated the rest of the queue. One huge dark-skinned and jolly young man pointed at a very small blond boy who was also smiling (the only blond one in the bunch), and said, turning to the stale-faced, annoyed crowd: “He’s not black. He’s white. He doesn’t like Albanian, does he? he doesn’t look like our brother.” Everyone in the family laughed, including the blonde boy. Is this why they are asked out, not wanted? Because they are loud, because they disturb others, because they are too happy in a sad country …?

Yet here, in the club, the atmosphere is similar. It seems as if life becomes meaningful in this underground space, where people can really be themselves, where they chant and sing to American songs and don’t think about tomorrow, about Sunday, about God, church or country. More than anything, it seems, these people are starved for real life, whatever that might mean. I recall what a gallery owner in Warsaw told my mom when she was visiting Poland: “Young people these days have it difficult – they’re unhappy and they don’t have any values …” Is this their unhappiness? On the contrary, this is the happiness to their constant frustrations and unhappinesses. This is where dreams happen. This is where prayers are answered, or at least, this is where they are directed.

After I play, ADHD says he will stick around for another few minutes. I sit on the stage and let my feet hang off of it, drink in hand. There is no doubt – out of all the gigs I have played, I seem to be the most popular here. Women come up to me and ask for pictures – men come up and ask for a dance. One man squeezes his way through the crowd and starts talking to me in a strange mix of Polish and English. “Jestem michal. Jestem Zombie, zombie, zombie …” I’m not sure what he means by that, so I just smile and nod. He proceeds to tell me: we could be great together. He’s also a musician. He tries to sell himself to me, pressing his crotch into my leg as I try to move away. He gestures to his right: “That’s my wife. But she doesn’t understand this music thing,” he assures me, “we married when we were eighteen, and …” as if this explains everything. “I’m 30.” He tells me. “My wife is jealous, but I played with … to jest prandy numer.” He insists on yelling into my ear. “This one time,” he tells me, to convince me that we could be great together, “we played on the square until the police came.“” His story drops off. Or perhaps I’m not catching it? It’s very loud and my head hurts at this point. Michael’s insistence on yelling into my ear and trying to get his crotch against my leg is frustrating me. In the end, I give him my number. Maybe he’ll explain what he meant last night? Maybe we could play together? He never calls.

The party wraps up now. Only a few people remain, swaying on the dance floor, unwilling to leave. The floor is sticky with soda and alcohol, and I tread carefully to the back to retrieve my jacket. Alcoholism in Poland has recently reared a new and ugly head, in the form of the Russian report covering the death of the last Polish president in a plane crash last April. The Russian report accused an older general who talked with the pilots of being „under the influence of alcohol“ – for Poland, this was a slap in the face from another country with an alcohol problem. One of my students, a woman with two children who lives outside of Krakow, tells me: “Now the world will see us badly – as just a bunch of alcoholics … nothing ever changes here.”

“What would have to happen for things to change?”, I ask her.

“Young people would have to get involved in politics,” she said. “They would have to want to run for office – but as it is, the only people who are involved are older people who are screwed up by war and the older system. They were taught by the older system to only line their pockets, and that is what they will be doing.” Which of the people dancing on the floor will save Poland from this assessment of itself?

It is freezing outside as we bundle out, catch a taxi, and return to the hotel, where I dress for bed, and lie down in the dark. The sun will be coming up soon.

Could that have really been it? That, the highlight of the week, the real party? I don’t really remember what happened. My ears are still ringing – there is always a point during playing where I stop being able to hear myself, perhaps as a combination of the alcoholic buzz as well as the constant thump and volume of the music. Then again, isn’t all of life relative in this way? In the middle of a sad city, underground, people celebrate life and try to forget about their problems above ground. This is the real weekly ceremony, the real church, created by a generation that did not know the fears and anxieties of the older generation. Do any of the people who danced in the club tonight remember the shock of Martial Law being put into effect in December of 1981?

Later, my aunt and uncle tell me their story about being arrested that day. My uncle summarizes for me: “It was pretend fear. The whole of the XXth century was fear for real – Auschwitz, Siberia. Fate closed her eyes for us – we slipped by unnoticed.” He himself was locked up for twelve months, one of the 3000 men arrested at the beginning of Marshall Law.

My aunt disagrees with him: “It was -20 degrees in the cell. Some kind of toilet. When they sent the priest and nobody believed them that they were really priests. We thought we were going to get shot, or put on a transport to Siberia. Women worried about the children that stayed at home – one was taken away with a 2 month old baby that was also taken, and then left at the police station and then thrown into a random orphanage with no name. It was a miracle – God’s miracle, even though she supposedly doesn’t believe – that a doctor who worked at this particular orphanage had seen this very baby at an emergency room a few days before, and that she remembered and recognized this child. Two weeks was eternity. One came out as a skeleton – I will never forget how her skeleton hands shook when we came out – only bones were left … this was all real.

This was not a shock for me. When they came for me – one slightly drunk, with a machine gun, and then the whole rest of them – when I understood that the world had fallen apart and that all the rules that had governed this world earlier were no longer in effect – then I took at a sack and I threw into it everything that I would need to go to siberia. The commendant let me do this, probably because he was slightly drunk. Clothing, kielbasa …“

Every generation, a different adventure, a different tragedy. For my aunt, the priests were a lifeline into the real world. Here in Czestochowa, it seems that they are the gaze from which young people hide.

The next day, as we drive back to Krakow, ADHD tells me: “This is a sad country – sad people in a sad country, and sometimes they don’t want anything – and then it’s difficult to create a good party.” But as a DJ even I can tell that he’s amazing at building atmosphere – he builds a party, he’s in control. He’s like God – he stands on a stage in a crowded, chaotic, smoky room, and creates with his own fingers the very stuff that compels the sweating bodies, that which causes them to believe in ecstasy. Not the Black Madonna, but this – this makes them believe. This is the party that must go on, the faith that must be kept, despite tragedies. This is why the owner came, despite his father’s death. ADHD himself stands above the room, with earphones over his ears, and lives in his own world, where perhaps the party is even better than it is here.


This is a fantastic start to what looks like a really fascinating piece. It seems to me that what happened here is that the piece quickly wiggled away from what it was intended to be – a piece about your relationship to the church – and became about something much larger: the divide between Polish youth and older Polish generations, and all that this divide encompasses: differing values and views of tradition, differing relationships to outsiders and the church, differing places in a new world. This is a huge, intricate, and very compelling subject, and you’ve gone a long way here in hanging it on the frame of this particular journey to the disco in the pilgrimage city.

In rewriting I’d work on really fleshing out and reworking this structure. What you’re doing here is driving the piece with a central narrative – your journey to this city and your gig at the disco – and then hanging all sorts of other anecdotes, insights, and ideas from that narrative (feminism in Poland, the church, the relationship to immigrants, Communism, etc). In rewriting what you want to do is keep that in mind, fleshing out the narrative a bit more – so that we grasp it as a frame and are following it, and we get the sense of beginning, middle, end to the story – and then figure out where and when to hang certain things from the narrative. The beginning will need to change: maybe you’ll want to start on the train? The beginning gives a false sense that the piece is about the church, which, again, I think could be a result of the piece escaping you and becoming something much larger (totally natural and ultimately a good thing!). I’d weave that into the narrative instead, as you weave in so much else.

Then you’ll want to decide how much weight to give to certain stories versus others: what feels central, important, and what feels peripheral, anecdotal, or briefly illustrative of a certain point. Stretch out the important scenes, condense the others. Zero in on key details instead of relying on rhetorical questions or trumped up sentimentality. Show us, in other words. I think we need to see much more of the disco here. It seems really central to the story but I don’t really grasp WHY it’s so important to the young people, or what happens there that can’t happen elsewhere. You have to earn those types of realizations. You’ll need to build up that narrative, and develop characters, as you also go hanging larger ideas from it.

Overall, a fantastic start!



About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is an MFA student and undergraduate writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and the editor-in-chief of
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2 Responses to Structure, Details and Shaping A Sprawling Long Form Feature

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