“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
torytelling, I find, is a lot easier than telling someone how it’s done.
On Monday, I led a class on memoir writing and creative writing. The good folks at Meadow Lake Senior Living Community asked if I would talk with a group of aspiring writers — retirees who have lived full and interesting lives and want to share their experiences.
How hard could it be, I thought. I’m a writer; a lot of what I write for this column is reflections, recollections and memories. So when they asked, I said, “Sure. Why not?”
Then, the commitment remorse set in.
“What have I gotten myself into?” I was going to stand before a group of people and say, “Here’s how it’s done.” Well … I had to ask myself, “How is it done?”
I’ll confess right here, I am not a grammarian. Yes, I read Strunk and White … even dog-eared a few pages. Do I remember a lot of it? Not really. But it’s on my desk.
I struggle with rules. Sure, I prefer to color within the lines as much as I can, but I don’t get hung up on language legalities. I tend to glaze over when the conversation drifts to gerunds and past perfect progressive participles.
I’ve got a dozen copies of AP and UPI stylebooks, the Chicago Manual of Style and even a few military stylebooks … all well used. But I don’t do well at citing usage guidelines. I just look them up when I stumble.
I enjoyed history, geology and science ... and I was passable in English class, though it wasn’t my best subject. However, a chance encounter in college English my sophomore year led me to ditch my withering dream of being a CPA and sent me sprinting to the journalism lab.
I’ve lived in newsrooms for more than four decades, coaching writers and challenging photographers, editing copy and designing pages, leading news projects and creating feature spreads, critiquing stories and criticizing weak leads.
So why was this freaking me out?
I finally decided — three days before the class — that I was overthinking it. This is not about style rules, not about grammar, not even about punctuation.
This class is about storytelling.
Writing a memoir is nothing more than putting your life into words, spinning a yarn on a page, sharing memories you want future generations to treasure. It’s about finding a style of writing that fits your personality, then telling your story.
It doesn’t have to be your whole story — from childhood to last night’s pot roast… just selected chapters.
It can in fact be whatever the writer wants it to be … a lifetime of memories, selected slices of life’s highpoints or a series of unconnected stories that together weave a broad tapestry of experiences.
Here are a few insights I shared with the writing class at Meadow Lake.
Write what you know. You experienced it. Tell it your way, not how the history writers would write it.
The lead or introduction is important, but don’t get hung up on it. Jump over it and write your story. The lead will come, but it may be the last thing you write.
Tell it the way you would share a story with a favored grandchild… not eye-to-eye, but heart-to-heart. Imagine yourself side-by-side on the dock, enjoying the stillness of a lake at sunset, listening to the crickets and enjoying the evening breeze when that little voice asks, “What was it like? Were you scared?”
A memoir is not a diary. It doesn’t start with breakfast and end with bedtime. Pick a topic and get into it. Fill in the important stuff that made it worth telling, and end it with a flare.
The middle is important and moves the story along toward the end. Use vivid description to put readers at the scene with you. How did it look, feel and smell? Let readers experience it the way you did. Let them into the story with you. But don’t go down too many rabbit trails.
Edit and rewrite. But that can come later. Tell your story first; clean it up afterward.
If it’s fun, make it fun. If it’s sad, make it sad. If it’s boring, leave it out.
Don’t make it too hard.
And finally, just get started. Don’t overthink it.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Next Wednesday, at 3 p.m., he will again be at Meadow Lake, presenting an “Open Mic” program on “A Life of Storytelling in Words and Images.” Come join us.