I’m not good at keeping secrets, but I love collecting them. Of course, I’m not saying that I can’t keep my friends’ secrets (though maybe I’m writing that on the off chance one reads this). The secrets I can’t keep are my own (when I was nearly 16, I came out to my parents one week after figuring it out myself). My own secrets swell out of myself like a compulsion, one that makes me confess to even having the thought of doing something wrong before I do it. A psychiatrist once revealed to me that these compulsive thoughts and the urge to share them were a sign of OCD, but I told him I had enough labels to juggle at the moment. Sometimes to process things I feel the need to share them out loud, to talk out of turn, to go beyond the limits of standard conversation.

In this way, understanding what the writer says between the parenthesis, and why they do, lets you feel like you’re on the inside of an inside joke. In nonfiction, these asides follow the shot of action with the chaser of the writer’s voice, an embodied clarity that the writer wants to tell you something directly. To me, they illustrate what Alexander Chee beautifully illustrates in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel when he states, “When the writing works best, I feel like I could poke one of these words out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me.”

Parenthetical asides help the writer achieve the kind of connection that Chee describes through several ways: humorous juxtaposition, imagined possibilities, sly insinuations, and more. In other words: real writers use curves. This is not to say that we always should, and I have been guilty of over-indulging. But if you’re planning to use them as much as I do, then consider this a therapy session to break down the parenthetical walls and find all that lurks beneath, a diagnostic of how asides can work.

When imbued with humor, the parenthetical aside shows its family resemblance to the theatrical version. Parenthetical asides can inject juxtaposing levity into an otherwise heavy topic, giving the reader a place to rest before returning to the matter at hand. The humor can be discomfiting, such as Jia Tolentino’s take on the fun and flirty girlboss world of the brand Outdoor Voices,

#Doingthings is short for the company’s full slogan…  But, as a guiding principle for athletic activity, the slogan is pleasantly open-ended—“Just Do It” flipped for an era of inclusivity and wellness. (The Nike slogan was inspired by the last words of the Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, who, just before he was executed, in 1977, by firing squad, said, “Let’s do it.”)

Tolentino relishes in these mordant juxtapositions, flipping the story from the high-spirited realm of athletic wear to reveal the surprising origins of a slogan that is central to our American lexicon. For us writers, it’s useful to note how through parenthetical juxtaposition we can point to themes outside the direct focus of the story, like how Tolentino connects the image of wellness with its inverse, death. In doing so, she discreetly prods readers to think about the supply chains that enable these brands.

Parenthetical asides sometimes go beyond the facts to indulge in the hypothetical. Somewhere between the punctuation exists another landscape, a lush world through the looking glass. Joan Didion often did this, melding humility and humor to give us a window to a different world, as shown in her essay “On Self Respect”:

I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that…  guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honour, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight) …”

This example draws us into Didion’s idealistic youth, and reveals how easily it can come crashing down. Didion’s example shows how nonfiction writers can engage in fictional elements to give readers the sense of the writer or other characters.

One of the hardest forms of the aside to master is the kind of sly insinuation accomplished in few words—like your friend giving you the side eye when someone says something problematic at the dinner table. Leave it then to Zadie Smith to use it in her listing of the so-called “interests” of a former partner for her essay “You Are in Paradise”: “M liked anything that lurked around the equator: Herman Melville, the early explorers, pirates, breadfruit (or the idea of breadfruit), and native girls of all varieties.”

Those parentheses are so tightly packed with implications that unpacking them takes a paragraph. The parenthesis undercut the symbol of the breadfruit as nourishment and cultural significance by making it clear that this is blasé fetishizing. Its brevity makes it easy to skim past on a first reading, a curt reference to M’s true nature. In case you miss it, Smith makes it quite clear in the kicker—M is more interested in a specific type of women than a specific type of fruit. Read the aside carefully and you know that by the end of the essay you are going to want to kick M’s ass.

For me, Smith’s exacting conciseness in the aside is worth considering when we use asides. Smith also demonstrates that writers on the margin can use asides to critique hegemonic values, which the critic and writer Lauren Michele Jackson brilliantly calls attention to in her essay “Aside Effects.” As Jackson writes, Frederick Douglass navigated the trepidatious waters that would seek to drown him, but he still found a way to call them out in his asides: “Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear).” Douglass points to the reader with the “had then” that of course there would be plenty of fear to come. Douglass’ asides are transgressive and subtly radical, saying what he means without being overt.

By nature of their form, most asides tend to share something subtle, a secret message in the midst of a narrative. Perhaps that’s why I, as a collector of secrets, enjoy them. But I still take caution to not overuse asides, just like I have learned from my youth to not share secrets. For my writing, this looks like limiting the use of asides to when they are truly delivering something magical, like Smith’s usage, lest I come off like a kid trying to show you card tricks in a middle school cafeteria. Otherwise, I might run amok and use one of the “insufferable asides” described and ranked in The Hairpin. As readers, I hope asides take us all back to the way of reading with wonder, relishing that the author wants to connect with us. I hope you won’t see the parentheses as a closed door but as a beckoning, asking, “Won’t you come in?”


Jack Lancaster is a writer based in Brooklyn by way of rural Michigan, where he grew up. He is working on a book of essays about queer inheritance. His writing has been featured/is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Men’s Health, Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Hobart, and much more, which you can find on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram.