Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)
Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?
Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?
“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”
Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.
“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…” Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”
“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.
Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?
Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?
“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description… and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”
Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?
“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”
Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.
What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.
How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.
Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.
Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:
- How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
- What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
- How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)
Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.
“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”
Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?
Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?
“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”
“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.”
Concrete = convincing… to a point.
Which sounds better?
“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?
“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?
Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.
“Seventeen long-forgotten, cheap, thin, old, wet, dog-eared, ink-smudged, blue-and-white-speckled Composition-style notebooks…”
While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.
Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…
Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”
“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”
Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?
A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.
I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…
“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”
Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?
What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”
We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.
Mom? How did you meet Dad?
What was it like before the Internet?
The day I got the good news about…
I remember where I was when…
The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)
What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?
We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.
(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)
These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.
(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)
Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.
Where are you?
What objects do you see?
Who is with you?
What does it sound like?
What does it smell like?
How do you feel in that moment?
Why is this glimpse so special?