Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

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Journalism Supplies Emotional Skills For Stories

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reporterNot everyone who writes for a career has a writing degree. It’s common to see the letters MFA, for Master of Fine Arts, behind a name of an instructor or an accomplished writer. But there’s another degree — really a set of practices and studies — that delivers compelling writing. Bloggers, who tell stories all the time in great numbers, are starting to rely on the skills of a degreed journalist. The thinking is that journalism, as practiced by a professional with experience, gives you a great storytelling voice. The reporter’s.

Over on the Write to Done website, a handful of tips help writers become better earners while practicing their craft. Once you go beyond the joy of writing for the experience of creation — what I call The Writing Life — you can graduate to a Writing Career. You don’t have to pursue a career, of course. Becoming a writer who earns a living with their storytelling is the entry to a Writing Career.

Journalism skills, in the voice of the reporter, are the Number 1 talent in the Write to Done article. It says, in part

#1. Draw them in with story.

Many writers feel their job is to merely convey information, and so that’s what most of us do: We put numbered lists and ultimate guides on our blogs, or enumerate the benefits of our copywriting clients’ products in a brochure — and then sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in. Oops. The fact is, no matter what kind of writing you do, your job is to connect with readers by telling stories.

Sure, those stories will convey information, but they will also help readers understand your info emotionally as well as logically. Pick up any women’s health magazine and you’ll see articles that lead off with an anecdote about a woman who survived a dread disease. Scan through a business publication and you’ll notice stories of entrepreneurs who increased their profits through the downturn, or hired homeless people, or succeeded despite going up against big box stores. Parenting articles are rife with anecdotes from real moms.

You can use the same technique in your web pages, blogs, and books. Instead of listing your client’s amazing qualities in a brochure, tell a story about how their product improved someone’s life. Rather than writing “just the facts, ma’am” in your book or blog post about time management tactics, weave a story about a hopeless case who turned his life around by learning to manage his time.

Using storytelling techniques like journalists do will not just teach your readers, but make them care about what they’re learning.

The idea of making someone care about your writing is important. It gives your stories emotional weight, heft, and leaves the reader sticking to what’s being told. The journalist’s craft — really, an art considering how few words we get to use — can be supplemented by extended work in setting, and in dialogue. Most journalism doesn’t build scene as extensively as fiction, or creative non-fiction. But the exemplary writing does. It’s the kind that can sell an app, or make a reader cry. Journalists have something call a nut-graf, the paragraph in the story early on that lets the reader know “why should I care?” Journalists set the stakes early in their brief stories. Early stakes is an essential part of good storytelling. You can read a lot of literature where the stakes are hidden, or not even considered, in lieu of the beauty of the language. Beauty is essential, but not at the expense of story — if your writing will be memorable.

Memories make up memoirs, and that’s another place where storytelling becomes essential. A mid-grade memoir, one that won’t find a wide readership, is going to be bogged down by too many details and too little emotion. It takes the structure of a story, illustrated by memorable places and lively scenes and drama, to make an exemplary one. Good journalism is easy to find in places like the website longreads.com.

How to Start a Memoir

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WritingWellWilliam Zissner, a giant in the nonfiction writing world and the author of On Writing Well, gives us the most simple advice. From an essay of his in 2006, on the American Scholar website.

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

Of course, the “putting together” the late, great Zissner describes can be one of the most creative aspects of this project. But until you have pieces, you can only imagine what your memoir will say, or hear the voice that will be telling the tale. You must be patient and write awhile, to begin.

Essentials for a Compelling Memoir

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Memoir is a story told with the author as the hero. But also told as the goat, buffoon and dupe. You see, a memoir needs to balance its heroism and sacrifice — easy enough to write in the first person — with the mistakes and flaws we observe about ourselves. Or have noted about ourselves by friends, lovers, and rivals.

I try to remind writers of memoirs they should be asking hard questions of themselves while choosing their material. (After all, it’s a memoir, so it’s selective. An autobiography makes sure that all the ground is covered over a lifetime.) The questions are

1. What are my flaws that are revealed in this story?
2. How am I being fearless in the writing of this story?
3. How am I being vulnerable in this section?
4. How can I be more fierce in drawing conclusions or showing the lessons?

Memoirs also unreel stories that a narrator is compelled to relate. But that’s not the most entertaining way to tell the story, in some instances. That can be the scene. One basic definition of a scene is a short period of time where people grapple with a task or a goal to be accomplished, a striving that includes conflict or struggle. And at the end of a scene something is resolved, and something is not. The unresolved yearning pushes our heroine — yes, the writer — into the next event or choice.

These scenes provide the open glens which are the complement to the dense forests of narration. The showing versus telling give-and-take in any story can gain the essence of showing, even during narration. Include specific detail, the more unique the better, in any stretch of narration. As they say in journalism to reporters, if a dog bites a man, get the name of the dog.

Hunt for fearlessness, fierceness, and flaws in your memoir writing. Telling has more than one definition. When an action is telling, it means it’s representative of a larger truth. Using this ideal, even your showing can be telling.

News Flashes from the Personal Essay World

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Winik “It doesn’t matter if it’s true — only if it works,” says Marion Winik, author of Telling, Then Comes Love and The Lunchbox Chronicles. From her 2000 seminar at the Writer’s League of Texas, Advice for Personal Essayists:

  • You will write great beginnings and endings. You just won’t write them first and last.
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s true — only if it works.
  • The more idiosyncratic and specific, the better
  • What an essay writer shares with fiction writers: storytelling
  • What an essay writer shares with poets: intimacy
  • What an essay writer shares with all writers: love of the language.

This week she’s been reading and signing Highs in the Low Fifties, How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living — her ninth book — in Austin and San Antonio. Photo above from her inspiring, funny evening this week at BookPeople. She reads today at Bookwoman.

Winik’s writing is memoir. It’s told in the form of personal essays in her latest book. David Sedaris uses the same structure. While these writers are not considered in the same aspect as a Cheryl Strayed writing Wild, Winik and Sedaris are no less fearless, meaningful or intimate. They tie together memoir through stories which relate to an overall theme. Being single is a loving place to be in your life; that might be the way you’d see her latest book, written after a divorce and becoming mother to a third child in her forties. And then discovering Baltimore after the dazzle of years in Austin.

She’s definitely a memoir writer and essayist to study. We’ll be doing that this season as our Memoir Intensives start up in August.

Know the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography: all about you

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It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.

Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride, plus the rigors of publishing a first book. A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life—only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?”

Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.

Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. Covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader live the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.

Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’ll read doesn’t portray actual events.

It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection — that’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Author’s note:

This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.

That, dear writer, is license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.

Time changes stories

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There may be times when stepping back for awhile from a story or novel can provide a deeper understanding of what is vital to the tale. Up on the Web site for the literary journal Glimmer Train, the writer Erica Johnson Debeljak talks about writing her memoir twice, 10 years apart, first as journalism and much later as a novelization.

An honest writer of either fiction or nonfiction has to admit that the treatment of characters and situations — what is left in and what is left out — ultimately serves the meaning of the work, and that meaning can change over time. In other words, there is content (lived experience, impressions, imagination) and there is form (genre, story shape, the flow of words and sentences on the page), and the process of a writer funneling content into form will virtually always produce a different product depending on perspective and what meaning is being pushed to the fore at any given time.

She goes on to say this isn’t a viewpoint that non-fiction writers will embrace easily. But she “made changes in chronology and cold hard facts” while creating the memoir Forbidden Bread, the second life of her story.

More than a few writers in our workshops have worked on fiction based in life experience, or even a novelized memoir. Letting time elapse between drafts might help you if you’re working on such a story.

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