There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future and long after it’s written). Sometimes as Family Historians, we find that our tales get twisted up into mazes of confusion and backtracking.
It’s frustrating. I’ve been there, and I understand completely.
At times, even while we’re writing a piece we know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we’ve ever really started. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations…presented of course with one of Mom’s little soul-baring stories as a side dish…
10 Steps to Writing a Good Story (that makes sense)
The first time I attended a writing workshop I was full of fire! Inside my leather satchel (yes, it’s been that long ago) I had four typed and double spaced pages of pure storytelling genius. Our samples were collected at the door by a teaching assistant, and then whisked away to the copier room to reproduce one set for each attendee.
Back then, I would guess the photocopying and stapling expense comprised about half of the $25 fee for the series.
Over the next three Thursday evenings, we were immersed in technique discussions and submission sample reviews done in alphabetical order by each author’s last name. Until my “time at the table” I was feeling really good about my little story. Dang good. But when “R” time came in the lineup, my confidence faltered. I deflated, melted, and disintegrated into a thin grimy layer of humiliated dust atop my chair.
The teacher was quite nice about “it” –the killing of my pages that is. She could have been much worse I suppose. As she wrapped up the previous story’s glowing critique and announced my piece, she fanned out the four pages, raised them above her head and proclaimed them “a perfect example of a beginner’s error.”
Apparently, in the meager 1000 words I had slavishly typed during lunch breaks on the nice IBM Selectric at work, I had wasted no paper. She briskly lead us through my beloved pages emptying out red pens as she guided us in circling large chunks of my lovely prose.
As it turned out, I had managed to write about five different story fragments in one small essay.
“Yes,” she reiterated to my classmates, “This is a perfect example of the huge mistakes a beginner makes.”
So in an effort to spare you all from making the same classic “beginner’s errors” I offer you my 10 Steps to writing a clean, clearly focused, enduring and easily understood Family History story.
- Start writing. Don’t worry about any of the above. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and begin.
- Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research.
- Gather together all the media (photos, ephemera, source books etc) and check to see if you’ve left anything out. If you find something, add it in to this piece.
- Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess on the details of the subject: “Old Daniel always wore striped overalls, he saved the solid denim set for Sunday Church”–per photos and stories told to me by Aunts Aida and Lily Poindexter and Uncle Les.
- When you simply cannot write any more about this seemingly narrow subject, get out your red pen.
- Begin circling small or large blocks of text that could be made bigger. Who are the other people (neighbors, the mail carrier, a teacher, the Poindexter Aunts and Uncle Les) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale of interest on its own? Did these events take place at a newly built home or on a farm passed through generations, on a steamship or clipper crossing the Atlantic in August? Is there back-story here that needs to be added in so that years from now–when “everyone” doesn’t possess what we currently think of as common knowledge people will “get it?” Would a future reader need to do research to understand or find explanations in order for this tale to hold their attention? Perhaps the small town your relatives “traded in” no longer exists. Can you map it– if no, why not? Was it wiped out in the TVA project? What was the TVA? Was the town on the main road, and suddenly the railroad came through about a mile to the east…killing all the businesses and leaving the area rather abandoned? Is that small town now swallowed up by a larger city and only referred to on maps as a neighborhood? Was your family’s first home on American soil razed to build Slugger Stadium in Louisville (mine was!)?
- Don’t be intimidated. This really is the fun part. This is when you discover that you have a much larger story to tell when you may have thought otherwise. The “trick” is to dissect it in this way so that it doesn’t all get convoluted and become a “perfect example of huge mistakes that beginners make.”
- Now take your time. Go back to each circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell your reader the story of that solitary snippet. Make it into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you’ve given it’s “parent” essay.Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Worry about weaving together the bigger story later.
- As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little to nothing about your subject matter, ask them if you may read a completed story to them. Have them stop you anytime they have a question or have no point of reference for what or whom you are storytelling about. This info is gold…it’s just like having a reader from the future sit with you over coffee and ask you questions about the story you are telling.
- Since this method will work equally well with pieces you’ve already written…put them through this exercise and see if anything cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find an additional batch of stories to write adding to the richness of the work you’re doing.
Above all, enjoy your writing and storytelling. Go ahead and tell as many stories as you’d like. But make the events clear, interesting and well thought-out so your readers will stay engaged and keep turning pages and wanting more.
Maybe even throw in a photo of yourself at work on the laptop you used to write it with…imagine what a hoot that’ll be to your great grandchildren seeing dinosaurs of all types!
Many of you enjoyed and have sent little notes to me about the Francine Prose book Reading Like a Writer I reviewed. Well, in that spirit, here’s my other all-time favorite, On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner which I’ve also reviewed for my part-time reviewer gig at CatholicFiction.net and Tuscany Press. This is another nugget of gold for your bookshelf! Read on, then read the real book, and better writing is a sure bet!
Here it is. With the definitive line at last drawn in the sand, we can know the truth. The real talents, tricks and learned abilities that absolutely separate the hobbiest from the serious writer. Admittedly, I hesitate to describe On Becoming a Novelist in this tone. It sounds either rather snarky, really mean or sarcastic. But in truth, the description is apt for the contents of this book. Gardner himself was a prolific author, educator, and curmudgeonous guardian of art expressed via perfectly selected words. He dissects the work of “noveling” like a scientist dismantling an important new insect. He wants us to know what makes a story written as marks onto paper into what he refers to as a “fictive dream.”
I love that description; a story as a fictive dream. Indeed, the best told tales are always enchanting and nearly magical to experience. Each time a written scene draws us into it, we become a part of the book and author’s own trance of imagery. We are transported, and when the writing is right, the spell wraps around each person who cracks open the fresh new book and settles in to be transported in place.
The first time I read John Gardner’s book, I was flying in criss-crosses around the country trying to get from Asheville, North Carolina to Indianapolis. With nothing even resembling a direct flight available, I had plenty of time onboard and during layovers to read the entire contents of On Becoming… I have to say that I was fascinated and found myself scribbling notes on the over leafs, in the margins and circling large blocks of text. After nearly twelve hours, four separate airports and too many chatty seatmates, I decided that I needed to set the book aside and reread it when the pleasant distraction from travel trauma wouldn’t cloud my opinion.
Round two proved to be just as fascinating and worthwhile. More notes were taken and by the end of my second reading, I found I was just as impressed as I was originally. I was glad on both readings that I had taken care to read the foreword written by Gardner’s student Raymond Carver and the author’s preface. Generally, I skip these long winded, boring Oscar Award-style thank you notes. But for some reason, I opened the book at Foreword page “i” and read the entire preamble (both foreword and preface). In a book that weighs in at a scant 150 pages, the more than one dozen pages written before the “book” starts are a surprisingly worthwhile portion.
Published posthumously in 1983 by the writer’s estate, one year after his passing, the Library of Congress indexes it perfectly.
1. Fiction–Authorship–Vocational guidance.
Gardner gathered his thoughts into four headings. Parts 1 (The Writer’s Nature) and 4 (Faith) hold my attention like a vise grip every time I read them. The middle sections include, naturally, Part 2 (The Writer’s Training and Education) followed by Part 3’s description of “Publication and Survival.” Did I mention that this guy both knows his stuff, and is hilarious too? On page 46, the author talks about people who press and pry and how a writer can respond to such muse battering inquisitions:
The development of fully competent technique calls for further psychological armor. If a writer learns his craft slowly and carefully, laboriously strengthening his style, not publishing too fast, people may begin to look at the writer aslant and ask suspiciously, “And what do you do?” meaning: “How come you sit around all the time? How come your dog’s so thin?” Here the virtue of childishness is helpful–the writer’s tendency to cry, especially when drunk, a trick that makes persecutors quit. If the pressure grows intense, the oral and anal fixations swing into action: one relieves pressure by chewing things, chattering mindlessly, or straightening and restraightening one’s clothes.
This is fully representative of the writer’s wry style. He proclaims the things that are often thought but not said aloud during polite conversation. Things I will paraphrase here like “education can ruin a perfectly good writer” or “one must be damaged, but not too horrifically, to be an effective author” and “gin is sometimes what it takes to understand the essence of a character.” He makes mention several times of his own struggles with organized religion and whether or not he is cool enough, or dull enough to either bail out completely or whole heartedly jump back in. Throughout his own novels he writes extensively on early classic story themes such as the days of King Arthur and his noble guardians of the grail. In these, he shows a deep understanding of the lyricism and poetry originally funded and commissioned often by the Church. He uses many of these as inspiration for his written chronicles into the “fictive dream.”
I recommend this book highly to all aspiring writers and those who already find themselves flailing neck deep in lyrical prose passages and story arc. Although tongue-in-cheek at times, there are abundant kernels of wisdom. My only disappointment is that I was never fortunate enough to try my hand at enrolling and surviving one of his classes.
On the heels of last week’s Naked in School post, lots of comments and commiseration erupted over crazy writing styles and public humiliations.
While reading through all the fun responses, I kept thinking of a particular fellow who did a recent writing workshop with me. We’ll call him Bill. Nice, anonymous Bill.
He had oodles of fabulous stories that he (near desperately) wanted to get out of his head and onto paper. He had been divorced for many years now, was nearing retirement and really felt it was time to consider leaving some sort of legacy to future generations. I sensed both guilt and nostalgia welling up and about to leak from the corner of his eye each time we spoke.
Bill had a great career, was well liked and respected in his field. In his job, he was required to do a lot of writing. Granted, he had to perform his profession’s writing with great precision and succinct wording. Still, he knew his way around a paragraph and the basic mechanics of sentence structure. Writing family stories should have been a breeze for the guy.
Everything that he wanted to “write up” for his kids, the grandchildren, and those to come was just like everyone else’s stuff in the group. He wanted a good, enjoyable account of family and the events and remembrances of his early life. He yearned to convey the sort of stuff a parent would probably share with their offspring in the natural course of child rearing.
Some of it was of the cautionary tale genre that we are apt to share--do as I say, not as I did–but mostly it was about his life, growing up on a certain street with 8 brothers and sisters in a much gentler world than we live in today.
He wanted to tell them in a keepsake form, perhaps printed and beautifully bound, about their big German family, his loving mother, the funny but philandering dad who died when Bill was so young, the hi-jinx and capers of his teen years and the thrill he felt the first time he slow danced with a girl to an Elvis song.
But with each in-class writing prompt, something darker came forth and over shadowed the lighthearted tales. He told everyone he felt no simmering vendetta against his ex wife whom he had left to raise their children. All those years and that part of their lives was water under the bridge he insisted. They had parted and lived their lives. He freely admitted that she had done well by the children. He was generous in praising and crediting his ex for that. Just as quickly, Bill added that he had dutifully paid support for years without complaint and without ever being one minute late.
Bill chuckled when he went on to say that after many years apart he had made peace with the different parenting styles that he and his ex had embraced. He was pretty sure that was the deal breaker in their marriage. For his part, Bill felt fully comfortable stopping for a drink or two at the Club after a long day of work. “Mrs Bill” on the other hand was not amused when family dinners consistently culminated with dad face down on his plate and reeking of bourbon. One day, she loudly announced that she had a different vision for marriage, child rearing and table etiquette in general.
She threw his stuff out onto the porch and had him served with divorce papers the next week at his office
In finding the words his pencil was lost at every turn. There was so much to be said, so many years to make up for, and an awful lot he was driven to explain away. That’s what stopped him. The explanations. Each piece he started to write suddenly became a diatribe explaining his actions (or absences) in his children’s lives for so long. In each piece he wrote he allowed in a seeping stain of his darlings, the topics that he came circling around to time and again. No matter where he started, the excuses soon jumped into the picture, jarring the story and destroying the mood of his good writing.
No matter how hard he tried, his reasoning and excuses for why he wasn’t there to tell these tales when they would have mattered was the story he kept telling and couldn’t stand clear of
Before a son’s first crush, before a daughter’s first kiss, before selecting a college, before enlisting with a recruiter because of a broken heart; these things he began writing down would have, could have made a difference. Poor Bill was busily getting nowhere while working himself to death trying to write two books at the same time without realizing it. The painful guilt ached through him. When he wrote he felt a long buried sadness from all the missed moments with his own children. What tore at his heart couldn’t be smoothed away by telling simple boyhood stories. The result was always a mishmash of thoughts that started on a fresh road and ended by crashing into the same-head-on-a-dinner-plate.
Finally I jumped the Mom-curb offering a suggestion—
“Hey, if you want to write family history and boyhood stories, do it. It’s a great idea and I’m sure someone will appreciate it. But maybe you have start by chopping out all the other stuff and writing it separately. Even if it’s as a memoir to not be looked at by anyone else ever, this stuff has to get out of your way. As it stands now, your plate is too crowded. It’s a mess. You’re serving up Spaghetti with Sushi. Either start with a story about the favorite fishing holes the guys in your neighborhood went to and finish it, or, talk exclusively about how you started drinking and what it did to your life, but don’t try to tell an adult story in the middle of a book about Sally, Dick and Jane. You have to kill your darlings, not everyone fits into the same boat. You’ll sink it.”
Bill looked at me as if I’d just suggested that he skip the whole writing idea and axe murder his children instead. I went on to explain that it’s actually an old writer’s axiom attributable to William Faulkner when he famously said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
That’s called editing. Weeding out what doesn’t belong. Some “stuff” just doesn’t fit no matter how much it moves you, thrills you, obsesses you. Just like a garden, there’s room for weeds, but it doesn’t mean they’re desirable. Given space where they don’t belong, weeds will quickly get crowded and messy. Once the weeds infiltrate, you’ll never get what you want out of the “good” plants. What doesn’t belong will suck up all the sunshine and rainwater.
I’ve been guilty of this a ba-jillion times in my own writing. I’ll fall in love with a certain word, phrase or side note and just go crazy with it. I can even read a disjointed and confused chapter aloud and still love it because I’m in “darling” mode with the part that doesn’t belong.
But unlike Faulkner I’m a Mom and so I am sympathetic to the darlings who get “cut from the team.” I save mine, in a folder, scribbled on the back of my checkbook, or on a special page I keep in my Google docs I call my “drops.” Occasionally I’ll visit them, the dropped darlings, and I’ll work them into their own essay, short story, chapter or blog post. After all, there has to be some reason I was so in love with, badgered by, drawn to, fascinated or haunted by these bits and pieces.
They probably aren’t as deep and substantial as Bill’s, but they are always worth a second look.
What do you think? Are there any darlings that are keeping you from working through your great stories, muddying the waters, or just plain stabbing you between the eyes? Which darling do you need to kill (or file away for later)?