Friday, May 3, 2013

Atina Diffley, Susan Hodara, Rachael Hanel, and Eric Utne--Four Great Writing Tips from Four Memoirists


I've had the privilege of getting to know four excellent writers through my book-writing classes. 

Atina Diffley is the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn:  Organic Farming Works (University of Minnesota Press) Susan Hodara is one of the authors of the recently released Still Here Thinking of You:  A Second Chance with Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing) and a journalist who covers the arts for New York Times and other publications. Rachael Hanel is the author of We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down:  Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter (University of Minnesota Press) and twenty other books.  Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader and is currently writing memoir for Random House with the working title Confessions of a Constant Seeker (on sale fall 2014). 

I asked each to share their favorite writing tip--something that has helped them during the process of writing their books.  They came up with four very different approaches (no surprise) and quite useful techniques for book writers at any stage.

Please check out their writing and enjoy their writing tips this week!


Your Unique Writing Style--Writing Tip from Rachael Hanel

Too often, I think writers hold themselves to high (and unrealistic) expectations.  We think that writers are expected to write a certain way.

But our writing styles are like our fingerprints--we each have a unique way we write.  Maybe we use a lot of commas.  Maybe we don't use any commas.  Maybe we have problems sustaining a story or essay beyond a few pages, or maybe we like to write in stream-of-consciousness fashion for twenty, fifty, or a hundred pages at a time.

It's no surprise that style is often referred to as "voice."  Just as our fingerprints are individual, so are our voices (both in speaking and writing).

In the early stages of drafting my memoir, many people told me "show, don't tell."  There's nothing wrong with this advice, and it's good to know what this maxim means.  But you know what?  I naturally "tell."  I have a journalism background, and I've always been an observer who tells stories.  It's hard for me to "show," and the results often sound forced.  During the revision process, I spent too much time stripping away the "telling" of my story because I thought it was the wrong approach.  After several more drafts, and several more years, I gained confidence in my own writing ability.  I learned you can show AND tell, or even mostly "tell," as long as it's done well.

I wish I had trusted myself more as a young writer.  I wish I hadn't been led astray by people who meant well, but who didn't really understand who I was as a writer and what my "voice" sounded like.  I wonder how much more quickly I would've drafted my memoir had I trusted myself right away.

I would be so happy if beginning writers trusted themselves from the start.  Listen to advice, consider the guidelines, but don't ever think they are "rules."

It's Worth Writing Poorly--Writing Tip from Eric Utne

If something's worth writing, it's worth writing poorly.  Ninety percent of the writing of even the best writers is unpublishable, i.e., it needs lots of revision, rearranging, and copy editing.

So . . . find yourself a good editor and take direction. 

When writing nonfiction, make a bold assertion, then back it up.  Too often writers bury their points where no one can find them.

And finally, if you want to make sure your writing gets published, start your own magazine!  (As my step-grandmother Brenda Ueland used to say, "Strength to your sword arm!"  And I would add, "Honey in your heart."

Before You Finish--Writing Tip from Susan Hodara

Before you deem a piece of writing "finished," take the following steps.  You'll be surprised by the changes you end up making before you're actually done.

1.  Walk away.  Eat some lunch, ride your bike, go to sleep--anything to take your mind away from the writing.  When you return, you will see anew--and likely find ways you want to revise.

2.  Walk away again.  Repeat this process until you don't find anything you want to change.

3.  Read the work aloud.  I do this away from my desk, to get further distance.  Read slowly.  You will hear things you didn't see on the page.

4.  Repeat #2.

There is a moment when we know the work is complete, when we've expressed what we set out to say in the best way we could.  But there are no guarantees!  You might reread your work the following week and find a typo, or a better phrase, or one more thing.

Retrieving Unclear Memories--Writing Tip from Atina Diffley

If I want to write a memory that is unclear or buried, I start by stilling my mind with simple deep breathing.  After I am calm, I visualize the part I can remember--noticing colors, sounds, and smells, focusing on the sensory elements.  It doesn't take long, a minute or two.

I start writing by focusing on the specific details of the visualization.  As I write, I allow my body to gentle rock forward and backward, and I continue to hold the visualization in my mind.  I find that often the visualization expands to the area around it, and the experience that happened, and the buried memory surprises me by flowing out through the writing.

If I get stuck or my self-critic slips in, I turn on the radio or put on a record and move my body. 

Eddie Rabbit's I Love a Rainy Night brought my memory of the first rain after the 1988 drought.  Rocks into Sand by Bill Kirchen inspired writing on the geological process of soil formation.

Often the answer is in the first song that comes on.