Alyssa Limperis: Writing Tips and Tricks
I found an Easter egg. Not with chocolate inside or a $100 bill, but equally and delightfully surprising.
You never know where you might find creative inspiration.
I first knew Alyssa Limperis as a comedian known for her viral mom videos. Her impersonation of her Rhode Island mom IS my mother-in-law. It’s uncanny. And that’s what makes the videos so great - she’s a mom we all know.
What Limperis isn’t well known for - but should be - is her writing. Of the 25 pieces of writing on her website, over 20 are about her Dad and his death. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and died a year later in 2015.
Not only is her writing a stark contrast to her light-hearted videos and quippy tweets, it’s also littered with examples of great writing tips.
Here’s a list of my favorite things as they pertain to the writings of Alyssa Limperis.
Intros and Endings
A good introduction grabs the reader and a good ending leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Limperis nails both in her post, The Year After My Dad’s Death.
“A little more than one year ago, I listened to the thunderous sound of nothing. The sound of no more breathing. The sound of anticipation for another strained inhale followed by the sound of my shrieking when it never came. A little more than a year ago, the thing that we had feared for a year finally happened. We lost my dad.”
The gravity and repetition of the words build up to a powerful and tragic image in the third sentence. By the fourth sentence we understand what happened and by the fifth sentence we know exactly who this is about. Strong introduction.
“Watching my dad die allowed me to live. His death woke me up and gave me the chance to really breathe in life before I stop breathing. Because I too am dying. We are all dying. I’ve always been dying. But now I finally live like it.”
Even though this is terribly sad, Limperis leaves on a high note. And she’s not just talking to herself. She’s presenting a call to action to the reader: it’s time to start living. A hopeful and inspirational ending.
When used poorly, repetition reads as extra words and redundancy. When used correctly it reads like poetry.
Limperis has struggled with anorexia and in her essay, Eight Years Later and I’m Still Not Better, I was hanging on to every word:
“I’d decided I wanted to stop blacking out every weekend, to stop being freezing in the summer, to stop waking up at 5am to work out for 2 hours, to stop only sleeping for 3 [hours], and to stop dreading daylight because it meant the beginning of starvation.”
Geez. Each “stop” statement is more powerful than the last. I was never anorexic but did have a battle each day with the scale so “dreading daylight” really resonated.
“Eight years and eight therapists later, I couldn’t get off the couch this morning after trying on tights that pinched me the wrong way. ... Eight years later, I can’t look at a picture of myself without thinking my face looks like a chubby 5th grader. Eight years later, I still think about every single thing I eat every single day.”
Geez, again. The repetition combined with the specificity makes each sentence feel like a punch to the gut. And the fact that this is eight years since she’s gotten help makes it painfully clear that anorexia is not something that just goes away.
Usually I hate exclamation points. They catch me off guard and take me out of the piece. Like the author is yelling at me.
But in the following excerpt from her essay, The Coffee Shop, the exclamation point is perfectly placed. Limperis writes about the inevitability of families coming home for Thanksgiving. This particular Thanksgiving would be her first without her Dad:
“They are coming home from their lives for a weekend to be with their families. Of course they are! There is nothing wrong with it. Of course they are. But I feel sick.”
The exclamation point is an emphasis on the obviousness of the previous statement. With just an exclamation point the reader understands that the author is very aware of the fact that everyone around her is normal and she is not. She is in her own world. And when she repeats the same line (another great example of repetition) without the exclamation point, it feels like a combination of resignation and understanding.
A Unique Perspective
I’ve never heard someone talk about the loss of someone as an actual third person. Limperis describes losing her Dad in her essay, Humming Hearts:
“I think the most defining ache of heartbreak is the emptiness. That painful feeling of every minute. Of never getting that person back. Not the person you lost but the person you became with them. That third person who exists in between you two that only breathes when you’re together. That gorgeous, comfortable soul who is brought to life by two fused hearts. When a heart is broken, that third person is forever gone. ... Over what feels like decades, maybe you meet a new person and then you make a new third person and maybe they’re even better. Maybe they’re even better! But they are not the same. And that old joined soul is still lost in space and memory. And it’s ok.”
Limperis turns tragedy into hope (and she did it again with the exclamation point). I feel raw and kind of want to curl up in the fetal position, but at the same time I feel uplifted.
Something a lot of people miss in their writing is specificity. They write in general terms, hoping to appeal to the masses. But that’s not the way it works. The more specific, the more relatable.
An example of this occurs in her essay, The Coffee Shop, in which Limperis describes this horrible place that she is actually quite fond of:
“This coffee shop is a chain. They have one blend of coffee. None of their treats are gluten free or vegan. They don’t have Matcha. They play Maroon Five. If this cafe existed in New York City it would be in midtown and you would need a big key with a spatula on it to use the bathroom.”
The Maroon Five line really gets me. It’s like she wants you to know she would never listen to Maroon Five but secretly finds their music catchy. I also decided that she wouldn’t even drink Matcha if it was an option, but she would like to have the option.
Or maybe I’m just projecting.
Common advice to most easily improve writing is to shorten your sentences, but being able to artfully insert long sentences is like leveling up in the video game. I love a long sentence. When executed poorly it feels like a run-on but when executed well it feels like we’re inside the author’s head.
Limperis starts her essay, 2015, with a short sentence followed by an extra long one:
“2015 was the messiest year of my life. I’d spent the prior 24 years growing accustomed to having my precious things in tiny little boxes placed carefully on a glass shelf and this year the glass cracked and the boxes were crawling with insects and I lost my dad and parts of my mom and I screamed on runs and hurt wonderful hearts and slept little and cried a lot and messily, messily made it to today.”
So messy. The sentence feels messy because Limperis feels messy and life is just a mess, isn’t it?
Two of my favorite things are Christmas and sarcasm. What do you get when you put them together? A Christmas satire!
People should write more satires. I recently wanted to write a satire that pregnant women should drink alcohol. But then I realized how much I would really like to drink alcohol while I’m pregnant and it was no longer funny.
Limperis wrote a satirical Christmas Newsletter after her Dad’s death. It’s horribly sad but deliciously funny. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s one excerpt:
“Alyssa was a busy bee! She has wanted a puppy for as long as she could speak and this year she finally got her first pet – a set of persistent bedbugs who loyally stayed by her side for months. She received them right upon moving into a brand new place and promptly had to throw away all of her belongings, lose her broker’s fee and head to Craigslist to find a new pad. Luckily, she managed to find a great spot in the East Village with a walk-in closet! She lived in the walk-in closet.”
Not only did I live with bedbugs my senior year of college, I also lived in a closet in NYC for nine months. Both experiences were traumatic. Which makes this passage all the more funny. I’m positive that many tears were shed while Limperis dealt with bedbugs and living in a closet.
And finally, I know things have gotten pretty dark with these pieces, but have I mentioned how fucking hilarious Limperis is??
Of course you can watch all her mom videos, but she also wrote two pieces for The New York Times. One is titled, An Adult Woman Goes Home for the Holidays. The subheader: 364 days of the year, I am an independent person. Then I get to my mother’s house.
Limperis crushes the one-liners:
- "We all hug and shriek until I am taken on an in-depth tour of the house (that I grew up in)."
- "My mom slides me a candle she got from her co-worker to 'give to your aunt later, as a gift.'”
- "Our pastry spread has its own ZIP code."
- "My mom panics that there isn’t enough food. The casserole-to-guest ratio is 1:1."
I aspire to write one-liners like these. They’re short, relatable, and to the point. Be funny and move on.
Much of the best comedic work is born from tragic experiences. Alyssa Limperis is no exception. The dark pain of her past translates into the most vulnerable comedy. I’ll watch her videos every day. If my husband can hear me laughing from the other room, there’s a good chance it’s because Limperis has come out with a new video.
But I wish she’d write more. Because to most, Alyssa Limperis is an actor and a comedian, but to me she is a great writer.