Good writing is about telling the truth. – from Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird.
Writing is not about achieving perfection. Writing is about telling the truth. How do we write the truth about people and events in our lives when to do so may hurt the very people we care about? The truth, for me, is what I personally learned from those people and events.
When I write about certain events or people, I tend to think about the subjects first as fiction, and I begin with the most traumatic thing and quickly make bullet points of what happened to build up to transformation. This makes for my story outline. From there I move into setting the scene and building the characters. How would I describe the milieu, the scene? Where is the conflict, and how were the characters changed in some way? To write creative non-fiction, I’ve learned to use the qualities that make good fiction. There’s good advice everywhere, even in some unconventional places. The following is from an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s 2000 book of stories, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, where he gives ‘rules’ for writers. Even though these 8 tips are directed toward fiction writers, they can apply to nonfiction as well. I keep these ‘rules’ (and others) close by so my conscious mind is aware of these types of issues as I write [comments in brackets are mine]:
- Use the time of a total stranger [your reader] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [Why should I care about this person?]
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things …. reveal character or advance the action [move the story forward].
- Start as close to the end as possible. [Time after time I hear editors tell writers, “in the middle is where the action starts …. make that your beginning!”]
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [To me, this is great advice, because a writer cannot write to please every reader, every taste, every family member.]
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on [what’s at stake], where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [Richard Bausch says, “Be a docent in your own museum.” Know your characters and your setting inside and out before you begin your story.]