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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

A common mistake regarding this advice is to take whole chunks of life and try to turn it into a story. Even if you’re writing memoir, a whole chunk is indigestible and very often it is also flat. Thinking in generalities creates a distance from the reader because of the lack of detail.

We may say something like “I had an idyllic childhood.” But how did that look? What made it idyllic? Was it truly perfect? In my workshops I recommend Anne Lamott’s 1” picture frame as an antidote. If you want to show me your childhood was idyllic, pick a single example. Zoom in and crawl over every nuance of the scene like the ant mentioned yesterday.

This level of detail is useful in fiction because even invented characters and stories and scenes are made up of a variety of specific moments we have experienced previously. They are sliced thin and spread out over lots of stories and scenes, used in different contexts than we may have experienced them in reality, but because we are using real detail, they will have the ring of truth for the reader.

Employ a bit of creative license in memoir and combine this level of detail from two or three similar experiences into a single scene that underscores the illustration you are aiming for. Or use real sensory details from other memories and layer them into a memory that has mostly dialogue or emotion to bring it to life.

An actor portraying a character experiencing the death of a family member is encouraged to dig into their personal experience for a place to draw the emotion from. If the only death they’ve experience is the death of a pet when they were nine, they take that and extrapolate it into the emotion they are portraying. In fiction, we do the same thing. Even in fantasy, in a totally made up world, the characters (even the non-human ones) will experience recognizable emotions.

Writing practice is a good way to fill up your repertoire. Write about emotions and experiences and people. All of it will be useful no matter what you are writing.

“I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship's rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.” —Anne Lamott

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