Writing

Dot to Dot~


A writer friend has a blog entry about “narrative arc,” in memoir. While I am not writing memoir (at the moment) I do see what he is angling after when talking about writing essays that string together to tell a linear story.

His point was, I think, that when events cause us to change at a certain age we do not need to remind readers of these events in every essay throughout the book, but, rather, we need to see growth from that starting point to a completed person or, at least, a more reflective person by the end of the book. That is the difference between stand-alone essay and narrative arc essays.

I am reading David Sedaris’ Naked at the moment and I think the same could be said of that memoir. Each essay can stand alone, but all link together to form an amalgam of the person as he grows up.

The other interesting thing I have been thinking about recently, and this reflects back to one of the best books written on the subject of story as far as I’m concerned, Jon Franklin’s, Writing for Story, is backstory and story. In it, Franklin talks about backstory, or what the piece is really about, which can be quite different than the surface story.

So, if we want the reader to connect the dots of the backstory we must carefully draw them in a pattern that can be easily followed. But whether the reader interprets the message the same way we intended or not would be up to each individual. To me this makes for a much more fulfilling essay than one that is a clear message, tidily wrapped up with a bow on top.

As my UCLA instructor, Gordon Grice, recently said: “And here’s an interesting phenomenon: Sometimes a reader sees a meaning in your work you didn’t know about at all, but which immediately strikes you as true. This is possible because the story itself knows more than you do, contains many possibilities.

Sometimes the reader discovers things in your story that strike you as great revelations about yourself. This is perhaps the biggest pay-off a writer ever gets. And it can only happen if you haven’t closed off the discussion in advance by nailing the meaning down to your own special theory.”

Backstory in Nonfiction~

This month Brevity has an excellent craft essay by Phillip Gerard on truth in nonfiction or, more accurately, backstory in nonfiction. He tells the tale of himself as a cub reporter being sent to the local high school to get a “hero story” about a boy who saved his girlfriend from a burning car. He gets the story and his first front page byline. His career is launched. He is proud.

Years later he discovers quite by accident that he only got part of the story because of questions he failed to ask at the scene of the heroic rescue. It turned out, ironically enough, that the boy had actually locked his girlfriend in the car during a squabble, set the fire to the vehicle, and then, having second thoughts, pulled her to safety. Quite a different story than the first version.

What a great story Gerard tells at his own expense. And what a great reminder to those of us who write nonfiction that the story we perceive is not always the actual truth.

I am in the process of trying to tell a long and incredibly intricate tale of a land-deal-gone-bad in a foreign country. I am all too aware that many of the facts of this case are presented from my point of view and, as such, are inherently flawed. I know Mr. Gerard is right in his main point in this essay: backstory drives present action.

Gerard goes on to say:

Sometimes the facts do indeed point to an obvious story. But more often there is a larger true thing, a Big Fact, behind the Facts of the Case. It is this fact behind the facts that determines the meaning of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.

For every story, like every sentence, has a syntax: a dynamic architectural cohesion that determines meaning, based on three qualities that every word in a sentence has—as does every element of a story:

1. Sequence: in what order the elements are arranged, and where in that sequence any particular element fits.

2. Priority: the importance of any element relative to other elements.

3. Relationship: a special connection to each other element and to the story as a whole.

This, then, is the driving force behind any good narrative, isn’t it? It is the deeper truth we search for and discovering it requires more exploration than simply the surface facts.

He concludes by holding all of us who write nonfiction accountable for knowing the difference. Indeed.

Online Writing Classes~

I’ve taken my fair share of online writing classes. Some of them have been worth it, but most of them not. The best of them have been given by UCLA Extension. At least the last one I took got me a published piece, and the payout on it more than paid for the class. So there is that.

The one I am currently enrolled in seems to fall into the positive category. The class is titled: Intermediate Nonfiction and is taught by Gordon Grice. The idea is to generate about 30 pages of “completed nonfiction.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I am at least feeling the pressure of generating about a 1000 words a day. Some people are writing a series of essays, like me, while others a section of memoir.

Today was a 2500 word essay about a Kingfisher I saw on the beach this morning and a memory of one I saw in my youth. It is far from complete but the bones are there. Now I have to go back and figure out the reason why I wrote what I did. I know there is a message in there lurking; I just haven’t found it yet. Isn’t it the way with writing essays?

I have a mere 26 more pages of writing to go before the revisions start next month. I might be a bit absent in the weeks to come; the writing is coming (at least today) and I don’t like to interupt it.

The class ends at the end of March, but I’ll post ideas and parts of essays as they come up.

An Ode to the Cliché~

In honor of the Lake Superior State University Banished Words List for 2008.

Back in the day I was just a wordsmith (wordsmyth, if you prefer) who didn’t know a cliché when I saw one. The tipping point came after several people pointed out to me how I used clichés like a truck farmer uses seeds. The surge of complaints from readers created a perfect storm, and I discovered to my chagrin that my writing had become, at best, subprime.

In a perfect world I could have avoided all these words, but they came so naturally to me. Finally, I realized I would need to improve to surpass the 2.0 (two point oh, if you prefer) brand of writing I was turning out. I had to move beyond the norm and push my prose forward toward the cutting edge of the craft.

That being said, it was a lot harder than I thought. It required me to begin thinking outside the box, and, here’s the thing, it became rather problematic when I discovered that I couldn’t write a sentence without a cliché in it to save my life. But, be that as it may, I was determined to make things right. After all, I want my writing up there with the best, to be sold to the best publications not just the low hanging fruit of the industry.

I believe I can create a game plan for my own empowerment so I can achieve these goals. Money is no object, so I’m seeking help from anyone who might have some insights for me. And, in the long view, I feel I will be able to elevate my writing so that I am not simply writing pieces that are singing from the same hymn sheet, but, instead, pieces that actually resonate with the reader.

I’m ready to approach the situation in a new way. Let me turn it on its head in order that my writing becomes more full and frank, because, at the end of the day, only writing that is truly robust will become state-of-the-art.

So, going forward, I have made a pact with myself; the check is in the mail. It will happen. Unless…

Am I missing something here? .

An Accidental Writer~

I have been busy with visiting family and, of course, the quarrelsome neighbors. It is reported that Paul Newman has a sign above his fireplace that reads “Everyone that comes here brings happiness: some by coming and some by leaving.” My neighbors fit into the latter category, my brother and his wife definitely the former.

But on with the blog and my subject for today.

I think I’m an accidental writer. I never thought consciously to myself, I’m going to be a writer. My daughter, who is one, knew that is what she wanted to do since she was about ten-years-old. She did several things in between but has returned to that vocation in her thirties as a reporter for AP..

And I never thought, I have a great story to tell. It sort of crept up on me in an odd way. As many of you know my husband and I moved to Costa Rica. At first we spent six months here and six months working in the States to pay our bills. Call us slackers or call us lazy if you want, but we wanted an interesting and full life before retirement, when, it occurred to us, we might be too old to enjoy it. It also crossed our minds that we might not even make it to any official retirement age–life being an unsure gamble. So we went.

In the course of our time here I began writing to family and friends back “home,” although after several years of living here, “here” began to feel more like home than “home.” These emails of mine began to evolve into regular chapters of our lives, building a house and the many trials and tribulations of living in a foreign country. I now have over 100,000 words of memories filed away.

Now comes the question: what to I do with all this material?

I think one of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is find the central theme to a book. I have a feeling this is true regardless of whether one is writing fiction or nonfiction. What is the trunk from which all the branches of the story grow? I find I have an enormous pile of branches and a ton of leaves, but as of yet I have not figured out the trunk of the story.

This has not deterred me from continuing to write, which is a good thing. And perhaps the message will be delivered to me in an epiphany someday, a bit like the Magi, but I doubt it. And “Epiphany” is a pretty lofty word to be throwing around here. Perhaps the word “insight” would be better. As I read recently: “‘Epiphany’ is not the sort of word that one hears on ESPN or reads in the New York Times. If you were to tell a friend, ‘I had an epiphany,’ he or she might reply, ‘My Uncle Ralph had one of those, too, but his doctor removed it and he’s doing fine now.’ ‘Epiphany’ means ‘an appearance’ or ‘something revealed.’ An angelic visitation would be considered an epiphany. The car keys you misplaced after last year’s office party would not.”

Okay, so I suppose I could use the word epiphany here, but insight will do for now. And getting back to my point, if it’s anything like the rest of writing, what I am dead sure of is that it will require hard work and perseverance on my part; seeing past the individual pieces to some greater whole, a bit like the alphabet from found objects.