Shaping the Personal Narrative: Northwestern Summer Writers Conference 2103


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Check out this slideshow from my two-hour workshop at the 2013 Northwestern Summer Writers Conference on essay and memoir writing. Michele Weldon is an author and essayist and has taught journalism on the graduate and undergraduate levels at The Medill School, Northwestern, since 1996.

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Shaping the Personal Narrative: Northwestern Summer Writers Conference 2103

  1. 1. Shaping The Personal Narrative memoir, essays and blogs Michele Weldon Northwestern Summer Writers August 2, 2013
  2. 2. Part One: The Writing Nitty Gritty  How and why to write personal narrative  My promise to you and your writing goals  The rules of engagement in this workshop
  3. 3. Climate supports the explosion of personal memoir, autobiography, anecdotal journalism, personal essays, opinion.  Intense cultural preoccupation with true personal stories.
  4. 4. But tell no lies.
  5. 5. Blog, essay, chapter, book.  Every piece of writing should be excellent.
  6. 6. You cannot be a good writer without knowing good writing. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.
  7. 7. A writer can successfully adopt different writing modes.
  8. 8. You must decide on one option at a time.  Is your story an essay?  Is it a blog?  Is it a column?  A chapter?  A book?  PICK ONE AND PROCEED.  You can change your mind after you are done.
  9. 9. Who would read about your life? “I am the only truth I know.” --Jean Rhys “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style. But as we move along, you’d do well to remember, we are also talking about magic.” --Stephen King
  10. 10. The leap of faith: Three years of stolen moments leads to book #1.
  11. 11. It’s not your whole life. It’s a part of it.
  12. 12. Basements and file cabinets are full of unpublished memoirs.  Just telling a story is not enough.  Tell it well.  Must transcend the immediate.  Must offer genuine connection  Authenticity
  13. 13. How old are you?
  14. 14. The personal is universal.  Who else to tell your story but you?  “No one ever died from writing it down.”—Natalie Goldberg  You own your own story.
  15. 15. “You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.” F. Scott Fitzgerald Start with personal essays for magazines to test the waters.
  16. 16. Weldon’s Rules of Writing:  Fear interferes.  Write the talk  Get out of your writing space  Observe keenly  Keep reporting, researching, polishing  Dare to take writing risks
  17. 17. Life is a road trip. Look out the window. Where do you fit in?
  18. 18. Writing Assignment # 1: Be creative and fresh.  “No one can write well by rules, especially those who cannot feel or think or see.”  --H.L. Mencken What is your memoir/essay idea? Give a one-sentence synopsis.
  19. 19. Separating life from art.  Beyond a chronology  What is larger truth?  What does experience say about your place in the world?  Can others relate?
  20. 20. Beyond navel-gazing.  “The writer’s fundamental attempt is to understand the meaning of his own experiences. If he can’t break through those issues that concern him deeply, he’s not going to be very good.  Robert Penn Warren
  21. 21. In the You Tube, Twitter, MySpace culture of personal story as epistle, just telling what happened is not enough.  “We have personal blind spots. It’s understandable, if mildly tedious, from people waving around pictures of their kids or wanting to pore through snapshots from their vacations or sit through their home movies of the family washing the dog. From a writer, it’s unforgivable and probably unpublishable.” – –Ansen Dibell, Plot
  22. 22. Is it a memoir or just a memory?  “What you need to ask yourself about any story idea, is whether it’s something that’s too personal, something that’s very important to you, but would justifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.”  Ansen Dibell
  23. 23. What does it mean to anyone else? WHY?
  24. 24. Writing Assignment # 2:  What is your story really about? One- sentence no more than 12 words.
  25. 25. The craft matters.  “You can write about anything and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved.”  Tracy Kidder
  26. 26. How you write as important as what your write.  Word choice  Sentence length  Pace  Music of the writing.
  27. 27. Believe in the value of metaphor.  Create verbal imagery  Be original  How would you describe  this sky?
  28. 28. Use all your senses.
  29. 29. Channel the passion.  “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language which will be the most seductive and compelling element in your style.” – Kurt Vonnegut –
  30. 30. No excuses writing.  Writing is talking on paper.  You’re not wasting paper.  Your story is worth your time.
  31. 31. Readers are rubber-neckers.  They will stop and look, but you must answer: – What does it mean to me? – Why should I care? – So what? – How is your story more compelling than any other?
  32. 32. So what?  You need to tell the truth  Others want to know  Others need to know  Others should know  The truth is bigger than you
  33. 33. Recognize good writing.  Authentic  Compelling  Poignant  Precise  Clear  Moving 
  34. 34. Find the magic.  “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”  Toni Morrison
  35. 35. Report the details.  Interview  Research  Find the answers to the fuzz  “A writer does not explore anything by staying inside, safe from the beetles and the rain.” --Nelson Algren
  36. 36. Good writing and reporting can never be divorced.  Good writing comes from abundance, not paucity.  You want to have more information than you can use. You never want to have too little.  Over-report, but never over-write.  Learn to love a full notebook.
  37. 37. Have faith.  “We are not all celebrities, we are not all supertalented, but in one way or another, we are all witnesses. Reality defines our vision of the world. And what we have seen, we must tell others.” – --Roman Milisic
  38. 38. What’s The Big Idea?  One-sentence active-voice declaration of what you intend to write about.  Not too broad, not too narrow.  Writing Assignment # 3: Translate first two assignments into Big Idea.
  39. 39. Out of your body and onto the paper.
  40. 40. Good writing is fully dimensional.  Write in layers. Go back.  Revise.  Let it breathe.  Take stuff out.  Put stuff in.
  41. 41. Be undeletable.  Commit writing that is clear, lyrical, eloquent, compelling.  No clutter  Not too much, not too little
  42. 42. Writing people remember.  Reliable is better than predictable.  Fresh is better than rehashed.  Use your own voice.
  43. 43. What is hot?  Move beyond a retelling of events, chronology  Create “Aha!” moments for readers  Deliver clean style and reliable information with different levels and approaches  Give readers what they need and want to know, and also what they don’t want to know, but should.  Give them something to talk about  Offer a personality with your byline
  44. 44. Solid storytelling using narrative techniques  Expose details not widely known  Anecdotal, personal approach  Sublime description and use of metaphors  Perform a clichectomy in all stories  Liberal use of quotes, dialogue  New point of view
  45. 45. All of it told in your own voice.
  46. 46. “Voice” as a writer means: 1. Word choice 2. Approach 3. Structure, Cadence 4. Tone 5. All of the above
  47. 47. Start with a roadmap. A plan.  Bring it into focus. You decide the view.
  48. 48. How you tell the story matters. What will be the thread of continuity?  Will it be a source/character?  An event?  A place?  An idealogy?  A lesson?
  49. 49. Who are the characters?  Conflict? Development? Transformation? Path? Change?
  50. 50. Make us love them or hate them, but make us feel something.  How you describe makes all the difference.  What you describe.  What characters do.  Give back story.  DO NOT OVER EXPLAIN. ASSUME NOTHING.
  51. 51. Refrain from the use of “I.”  Your presence should be implied, not overt.  Let the characters speak, not you.  Show the facts. Don’t preach.  Do not mar the view.  Remember appropriateness.  You are a fly on the wall not a gorilla in the middle of the room.
  52. 52. What is the action?  Nothing is fabricated or embellished.
  53. 53. Make a timeline.  You can start in the beginning, middle or end. But it has to make sense.  You can have flashbacks.  The story has to have an arc. Can not just be a collection of anecdotes.  Need resolution, change.
  54. 54. Scenes or perish.  A cinematic, digital society requires vignettes, scenes.  Add dialog.  Add action.  MAKE THE STORY MOVE.
  55. 55. FIND A LIVE ELEMENT!  Event  Follow character at work, hobby, practice  Go to a site  Observe, witness  Show examples
  56. 56. Each scene, chapter builds on the previous. Bridges to action Connections to character No Volkswagens up the mountain No dangling declarations
  57. 57. How will you build your story?  What will you use?  What will you not use?  Will your story be functional?  Will your story be unique?  Will your story stand up over time?
  58. 58. Internal dialogue is OK.  But not too much.  Let others talk.  Show. Demonstrate. Exemplify.  No long strings of rantings and ravings.
  59. 59. Organize the structure.  Brainstorm  Outline  Map  Schedule your writing
  60. 60. Learn to love a good outline.
  61. 61. Get it out.  You can’t shape a sculpture until you begin working with clay.  You can’t make a cake until you start mixing the ingredients.  You can’t remodel a house without the basic structure.  You can’t tell your story until you put down the words.
  62. 62. Getting to the writing: Be quiet.  Have a writing place  Set aside time  Be free of criticism  Respect your own voice  Writing is an intellectually and emotionally athletic event.
  63. 63. Tell yourself no lies. Tell it in your own voice. Use your words. Be authentic.
  64. 64. Live the contemplative life.  “Life is a succession of lessons that must be lived to be understood.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson  “We are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.”  Maya Angelou
  65. 65. You need more.  “Talent isn’t enough. You need motivation and persistence, too, what Steinbeck called a blend of faith and arrogance. If you don’t have it, don’t be a writer.”  Leon Uris
  66. 66. Writing Assignment # 4  Describe the next page.  Use metaphors. Risk with the language.
  67. 67. You have permission.  This is not a graded assignment.  Tell it how you want to tell it.
  68. 68. Dare to write.  Once you express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it. Then you can change the world.”  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
  69. 69. Write first. Edit heavily. Market last.
  70. 70. Mistakes erode your credibility.  Proper names  Correct data  Correct addresses, abbreviations  Proper AP Style, Chicago Manual of Style  If you use real people with real names, GET PERMISSION.
  71. 71. A journal is to journalism what blog is to memoir.  People will not pay for your informal musings.  Show off your craft.  Anyone can anytime anywhere publish their reminiscences.  You want yours to be coveted.
  72. 72. Just as in journalism, editors want you to be clean.  If your copy doesn’t require an overhaul, the publisher will like you.  If your copy is clean, the reader will trust you.  Your byline is your brand.  Fix your own copy before you turn it in with a re-read and a rewrite.
  73. 73. Never let your readers say, “I don’t think so.”  If you don’t know, ask. Report, research.  If you aren’t sure, look through your notes or fact check against original source.Find out the specifics.  Clear writing means never having to read the sentence twice.  Don’t use punctuation to get you out of a jam.
  74. 74. Consider your writing like a dinner party. Keep the food and conversation flowing.
  75. 75. Narratives have a beginning, middle and end.  As in all nonfiction, this narrative begins with a bang.  Organize, outline, structure chapters, pages, grafs and sentences with transitions and care.  Vary sentence structure.  Consider the story arc.  NO CUTE ANDY ROONEY ENDINGS!
  76. 76. Great journalism– and memoir-- according to Carl Sessions Stepp: Storyline: a great idea Surprise: compelling material Style: engaging writing
  77. 77. FIND A LIVE ELEMENT in every chapter.  Events show, don’t tell  Follow character at work, hobby, practice  Go to a site  Observe, witness  No sitting around drinking coffee
  78. 78. Every good chapter and every memoir needs a shifting focus. Move the aperture.  You want close-up, medium amd long shots.
  79. 79. No endless rants. They get dull.
  80. 80. Everything must have a news hook.  Link your memoir to cultural trend, event, anniversary. It can’t float in space.
  81. 81. Vary the types of experiences for the reader.
  82. 82. Don’t just stop.  Is the ending as powerful as the beginning?  Did you run out of gas?
  83. 83. Write because you have to.  Writing is like fingerprints  One sentence at a time  The best stories are rewritten “Be yourself. The world worships the original.” Jean Cocteau
  84. 84. It’s been done before.  “I take pen and ink and write my mind.” – William Shakespeare
  85. 85. But not by you.  It’s all been said and done. But you have not said it or done it. So try it.
  86. 86. Trouble.  “The trouble is if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. You can’t risk anything as a writer, not a new kind of lead, not a bold question in an interview, not a different visual approach in broadcast or online, if you don’t have the confidence to try.”  Erica Jong
  87. 87. Criticism is not personal.
  88. 88. Write to save your life.  Preserve your memories.  Value the sanctity of your own story.  Regain control through your words.  Tell stories you need to tell.  Write something wonderful.
  89. 89. Rewrite because everyone must.  SFD by Anne Lamott  Let the cake cool and frost it  You are more brilliant at some times than you are at others OR  Sometimes you are less brilliant than at other times
  90. 90. Know what your story means.  Understand its place in literature and the culture.  Be able to explain it in one sentence.  Be able to promote it.  Stand up to your truth.
  91. 91. It’s about the craft, right?  Always work to get better.  The fame and fortune is a by-product.  The joy is in the accomplishment, not the applause.
  92. 92. Writing Assignment # 5:  Honestly, what do you want to accomplish with your writing?  Hint: It must be about more than you.
  93. 93. Your story matters.
  94. 94. Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace. The soul that knows it not, knows no release From little things: Knows not the livid loneliness of fear, Nor mountain heights when bitter joy can hear The sounds of wings.” --Amelia Earhardt
  95. 95. Writers write.  “If I knew I was going to die, I would type faster.”  Isaac Asimov
  96. 96. Writers need other writers.  Share with other writers.  Look for support, not a makeover.  Respect your voice  Respect other writers  Collaborate
  97. 97. Amy Tan on creativity. (5:59-7:58) 
  98. 98. Work with an agent.  Send out 20 queries  after studying Jeff Herman’s Guide.  Write the proposal using Michael Larsen’s Guide.
  99. 99. Do everything your agent says.  They do know best.
  100. 100. Then do everything your editor says.
  101. 101. Eating my words on self-published ebooks.
  102. 102. Your writing has been born.
  103. 103. Support your baby with social media.
  104. 104. Start this writing today.  Write before the idea leaves you  Write to remember  Write to move forward  Write to honor yourself  Write to validate your feelings  Write to understand the past  Write because you must
  105. 105. Writing Assignment # 6:  What is the first thing you will do toward making your memoir a reality?
  106. 106. Follow me. I will follow you.   linkedin,facebook