CRAFT LESSONS: Ten Favorites

Craft Lessons

More than two years ago, I began posting essays devoted to the craft of writing. To kick off 2022, I offer this tidy collection of craft lessons that I think best suit the needs of all writers, no matter the genre or length, or deadline. May your writing go well in the new year.

  1. Why I Write, and Why You Should, Too.
  2. Tune Out USuck FM and Free Yourself to Write.
  3. Do the Writing Only You Can Do.
  4. Eight Steps to Better Interviewing.
  5. Finding Any Story’s Heart with Five Questions and 70 seconds.
  6. Five Ways to Build Memorable Characters.
  7. Braiding Your Narrative to Tell a Complete Story.
  8. Writing with Your Nose
  9.  Best Writing Advice: A Roundup.
  10. Gulp. And Go.

Craft Lesson: Keeping a Writing Workshop’s Spirit Alive

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve attended dozens of writing workshops. I’ve taught at some, while at others, I sat in the audience, scribbling furiously as craft tips tumbled from the lips of accomplished writers and editors.

I’d come home, pockets crammed with business cards, piles of handouts, scraps of paper with jotted emails and reading lists, a notebook bulging with quotes and a contact high from a day or weekend surrounded by inspirational talk about my craft.

Invariably, however, the excitement would wither and I’d forget the great lessons I learned. 

The other day, I came across a column I wrote for Poynter Online after a National Writer’s Workshop in Hartford in 2003. Until the early aughts, Poynter teamed up with newspapers around the country to stage these weekend-long gatherings that brought writers and speakers together to share crucial lessons about writing and editing. Reading over the piece, I realized that keeping track of a speaker’s central message could keep alive the spirit of those heady two days. Here are ten lessons that stuck:

1. Identify an ambition. For Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down” and other best-selling narrative nonfiction, the secret of success lies in his habit of thinking big and doing stories that scare him. Try his method and pick a story “you’re not sure you can do.”

2. Figure out what your editor wants. “Editors are looking for ways to say yes,” said Debra Dickerson, who told the story of her rise from sharecropper’s daughter to best-selling writer. One easy way: ask your editor what she wants from you.

3. Put a snatch of dialogue in your next story. “Dialogue makes you feel like you’re actually there,” said literary journalist Walt Harrington. Start listening — and writing down — what people say to each other, whether it’s two council members battling over a proposal or two kids talking about their favorite Harry Potter “Bertie Bott” jelly beans. You can do the same with physical description, a scene, or any of the other elements of storytelling.

4. Dig out your copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lynn Franklin advised writers to do what scientists do: “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism in a southern town is full of lessons about how to write about characters and place; John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” can teach you how to foreshadow and William Faulkner’s short story “The Barn Burning” is rich with lessons about symbolism, rhythm and pace.

5. Think like a storyteller. Ask the kinds of questions that Lisa Pollak, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, poses to herself:

• Who in this story has something at stake?

• Who is most affected?

• Who is nobody paying attention to?

• What about this story moves me? (Pollak’s favorite)

6. Get in the game. More than one writer this past weekend asked “How do I break in … on a magazine, writing creative nonfiction, the job market, writing a risky personal story?” There’s only one way, and that’s to take the first step — submit a story or a pitch — and not be deterred when you get rejected. Rejection is part of the writing life, and may not have anything to do with your story; your piece may really not meet a publication’s needs at this time. One Hartford speaker, small press publisher and novelist Ira Wood, counseled against heeding criticisms in rejection letters: consider rewriting only if you see a definite trend in editors’ responses. So write that pitch, finish that story even if you worry no one else will care or pick a subject that interests you and start reporting.

7. Become a document freak. That’s what helped Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Kiernan, who teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, share the award for explanatory journalism with her colleagues while at the Chicago Tribune. Follow the paper trail–court records, police reports, transcripts–and then mine them for the details that are a storyteller’s gold.

8. Stop introducing the person with the camera as “my photographer.” R-E-S-P-E-C-T for your newsroom’s other craft disciplines, said Poynter’s visual journalism leader Kenny Irby, is the key to better collaboration and news storytelling.

9. Pick a perennial. Want to take a stab at the kind of riveting storytelling that Oregonian Pulitzer winner Tom Hallman Jr. talked about? Lower the risk by volunteering for one of those assignments journalists grudgingly have to write about every year (post-Thanksgiving shopping day, the day-after Christmas stampede to return presents, the circus comes to town, etc.) and use the occasion to try a narrative — a story that follows a store manager, or a bored husband, a circus first-timer. (Make sure you file a sidebar with the obligatory numbers, Chamber of Commerce quotes, etc.).

10. Before you write, ask The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle’s four focusing questions.

  • What’s the point?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Why is this story being told?
  • What does it say about life, the world, the times we live in?

Add one more: What is my story about in a single word? When you’re done, you’ll have a theme for your story and will likely have the first draft of a nut graf that sums it up for your reader.

The next time you have the good fortune to attend a writing workshop, take good notes. After the bloom fades, the lessons that captivated you but that you may have lost track of are there again for the picking.

Craft Lesson: The Transformation of Documentation

Craft Lessons


When I started reporting for a tiny daily newspaper in 1972, a notepad, pen, manual typewriter, camera and a landline telephone were the only tools I had to collect information for my stories.


Those analog days are long gone. Today, a panoply of new information sources and outlets cram the reporter’s toolbox as well as prosecutors. We saw it with the prosecutions of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrectionists whose own videos, text messages and emails were used to confirm their guilt.

We see it regularly in stories where journalists, especially during the COVID 19 lockdown, had to use their ingenuity to report stories from their homes.

To illustrate a family riven by a mother who bought into post-2020 Presidential election and QAnon conspiracies, Washington Post reporter Jose A. Del Real, unable to travel, relied not just on traditional phoners, he “also mined digital communications, sifting through hundreds of anguished Facebook posts, emails and text messages the siblings exchanged with each other and with their defensive mother,” I wrote in a Nieman Storyboard annotation of the piece. “Del Real uses them to build an escalating series of scenes, giving his story a revealing, epistolary quality, reminiscent of 19th-century letters between families and friends.” 


Jason Fagone, a narrative writer with the San Francisco Chronicle, went a step further. In “The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.,” he spliced his three-part series with eerie conversations, generated by a web robot powered by a supercharged artificial intelligence program, between a man grieving the death of his fiancee and her A.I. chatbot.


Mitchell S. Jackson won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his story in Runner’s World about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery who was killed running while black in a Georgia suburb. Jackson, a novelist, created a vivid reconstruction by culling a New York Times visual investigation of smartphone videos of the murder taken by one of the three white men accused of murdering Arbery.

Of course, journalists have been mining public databases for decades and continue to use these digital warehouses to buttress shocking investigations. (I used one in the late 1980s to expose the dearth of arson convictions in Rhode Island when I worked for the Providence Journal-Bulletin.)

But social media, smartphones and the lightning speed of the Internet often outpaces such time and labor-intensive projects now.

This new brand of journalism signals an important warning to today’s journalists. If you’re not constantly moving beyond traditional information sources and searching for innovative new ones, you’re cheating your audience of journalism that reflects a landmark transformation of documentation that has revolutionized storytelling. And you’ll be left behind.

Craft Lesson: Write Around the Margins

Craft Lessons

Finding time to write is a constant challenge in most writer’s lives. Except for the fortunate few whose bestsellers keep them afloat, most of us search—and often—fail to find free moments for dreaming of ideas, structuring, composing, and revising the stories that are closest to our souls.

 
As an inveterate listener of The New York Times Book Review podcast, I was heartened the other day to read the Review’s editor, Pamela Paul, touch on the subject in a recent interview.


“I don’t get to write during the day because my day job is overseeing book coverage…and editing,” she said. “That means writing is squeezed into the margins of my days.” Along with motherhood, hers is a full life, so it’s interesting to see what borders exist that enable her to find time to write books. She’s published several, the most recent being, “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”


“Pre-COVID,” Paul said, “I did most of my writing on the train to work. Initially, I persuaded myself that I would only need to work one-way. That delusion was quickly dispelled by reality, and when I’m writing a book, it generally takes up much of the weekends as well.”


Paul also writes essays or short pieces for her paper and those are written “in a fury of inspiration. It spills out quickly and prevents me from sleeping.”


But what if you commute by car, are already kept up at night by your baby’s squalling, or simply need a good night’s rest to function during the day? What if much of the weekend is taken up by chores, family time, dates, etc? Where can other margins be found? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Set the alarm an hour early to write while the rest of the house is asleep.
  • Pass on lunch with colleagues to eat at your desk and use the rest of the time to work on your novel, short story or essay. 
  • Carve an hour or two for yourself on the weekend, which leaves the rest of the 48 hours to accomplish everything you couldn’t do during the week. 
  • Write in short bursts. It’s amazing how many words you can type in 15 minutes if you lower your standards and remarkable to see how quickly you can generate a rough draft ready for revision.
  • Finally, take a hard look at how you spend your days. How many hours do TV sports consume? Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok?  How much time spent binge-watching “Squid Game” could you devote to writing?

If you’re too wiped out at the end of the day—I get that—at least try putting down your phone and take your draft—either on your laptop or better still, a printout—to the couch or your favorite chair and start marking it up. This sort of task switching, I’ve found, is energizing. Afterward, I can’t wait to make the changes. 


Just as margins exist on all sides of the page, so do borders of time in our lives. The smart writer looks for—and takes advantage—of them.

Craft Lesson: Persuading kids to talk

Craft Lessons

Any reporter who has tried to interview young children knows how laconic and reluctant they often can be. Even open-ended questions designed to initiate conversations are answered with “Yes”, “No,” “I don’t know,” or worse, silence. But there’s hope.

For nearly a decade, John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter for The Washingon Post, has perfected the art of persuading children to share their experience and thoughts about a fraught subject—their devastating experiences with gun violence as victims and witnesses to mass shootings and those traumatized even by a single death. In 2018, Cox was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a portfolio of his stories on the topic. He is the author of “Childen Under Fire: An American Crisis,” a new, disturbing, but must-read book for gun owners and parents. In a recent interview, he shared his techniques with me.


The first time you meet a kid they tend to go one direction or the other; either they desperately want your attention and want to talk to you and will say anything or they don’t want to talk at all. They’re very shy and standoffish and pretty closed up,” Cox told me.


“I talk to them like an adult. I explain who I am and what I’m doing and why,  that I work for a newspaper and I’m here to tell their story if that’s okay with them.”

Cox often likes to talk to kids “in the spaces where they’re most comfortable, which is frequently in their rooms because they want to show you their toys and the things they like the most. I’ve always used things like making sure my eye level is not higher than theirs. I don’t want tobe above them physically, I don’t want them to think I’m an authority figure because I’m not. And I want them to know that they can always stop talking about something if they don’t want to talk about it.

Repetition is another key technique, he said. The more he shows up, the more relaxed the children become. That’s his approach to reporting: “always show up and keep showing up…because good things happen in the reporting process when you’re there, and you’re there again and again and again.”


Cox recognizes that reporters believe children will be recalcitrant subjects, but he’s found the opposite. “Ultimately, kids love attention, like any of us. If you’re sincere, and genuine in your interest, they can sense that and they’re often willing to open up, even about the hardest things they’ve been through.”

Craft Lesson: Devote yourself to outlining

Craft Lessons

There are many ways to find the order that is right for your story. 

Make a list of what you want to say.

What piece of information should be at the beginning?

What piece of information should be at the end?

What belongs in the middle?

Ask the questions the reader will ask and put them in the order they will be asked.

Assign values to quotations.

Then there is the outline , the writer’s tool that summarizes the main points or important details before you write your story. It’s a map, a guide.

I’m not talking about the type, festooned with Roman numerals, that your teachers demanded during your school days. Yucck! But when the story, especially, is narrative nonfiction, an outline allows the writer to pull back from the mass of notes, interview transcripts, scenes, quotes, statistics, observations and other material collected during the reporting phrase.

If your interest is fiction, before you write a novel or short story, the outline lays out the important scenes before the drafting begins.

Whichever method you choose, ordering is a crucial part of the writing process.

I recently encountered an extreme method of outlining from a writer who describes herself as a “devoted outliner at the start.” Lizzie Presser is a reporter for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. I Interviewed her about her story, “The Black American Amputation Epidemic,” one of two pieces that won the 2021 National Magazine Award for public interest,

I asked Presser to unpack her writing process as part of an annotation for Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates the art and craft of narrative nonfiction. The resulting conversation amounted to a master class for anyone interested in that challenging but immensely rewarding form and the art and craft of the outline. 

For this story,” Presser told me, “I printed out hundreds of pages of interviews and transcribed scenes and tried to read through them within 24 hours so the material was fresh in my mind. I usually outline on a computer, but in this case, there was so much that I wanted to use that I started cutting up paragraphs and quotes and details and laying them out on the floor. This is the most difficult and the most exciting part of the process for me. I’m trying to craft a narrative with suspense at the same time as I’m trying to construct a logical argument. Once I’d laid out my outline on the floor, I left it there for weeks as I tried to write through it. I would move pieces around on the floor to see how changes would play.”

Granted such efforts demand time — in Presser’s case, she spent a total of two months to report and write her story–that may be beyond the reach of many writers. Still, there’s no reason why you can’t try a limited approach for a daily story or a takeout due in a week. Whatever your deadline, Presser’s approach to outlining longform stories is inspirational and instructive.

More importantly, it contains lessons of value to those who practice as well those who aspire to model such excellence. Even if you lack the resources Presser had, there are nuggets of methodology that you can still apply to your next story.

At the very least, you can devote yourself to outlining, choosing which approaches to take that best suit the time and reporting you have collected. Even on deadline, outlining can map a story that enables readers to understand its meaning and message through a coherent structure. 

CRAFT LESSON: Braiding your narrative to tell a complete story

Craft Lessons

More and more, as I read and closely study excellent narrative nonfiction, I’m struck by how many talented writers rely on braided structures, moving smoothly between two or more storylines.

 Another term for this approach is digressive narrative. This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re detours, sometimes quick, other times lengthy, from the primary story arc.

I became aware of it after binge-watching Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” This must-see network political series, which ran for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatized the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.

Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. In a Feb. 2020 essay for Nieman Storyboard, I focused on one telling example: the attempted assassination of President Bartlett and the severe wounding of his deputy chief of staff. The plot digresses to follow the creation of an upstart campaign that launched an obscure New England governor into the White House. (The story features links to the episodes on YouTube along with the scripts for the two-parter. I also showed how novelists use digression, using J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

I also found, producing annotations for Storyboard, how many narrative nonfiction writers also digress from their primary story arc, braiding multiple storylines to tell a complete story.

Here are two examples of braided narrative nonfiction worth studying. 

The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I. ” by Jason Fagone of The San Francisco Chronicle. The story tracks the situation of a grieving man who decided to try a unique Artificial Intelligence program to have a “conversation” with his dead ex-fiancee. “Jessica” is transformed into a chatbot that responds to prompts. Fagone braids the couple’s backstory, and a programmer’s quest to program video games that generate emotions, along with a remarkably accessible guide to the world of A.I. and its possibilities and potential pitfalls.

Her Time,” by Katie Engelhart, published in the California Sunday Magazine, tells the extraordinary story of an Oregon woman’s underground journey to die on her own terms before dementia left her unable to take the needed action when she was ready. Engelhart braids that with the history of the right-to-die movement and the contentious debate about whether patients with dementia should be allowed the legal right to die, with assistance, before they are deemed incompetent.

Not everyone, as I wrote, is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in 2020 at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on digressions, as you can on any writing technique. But used judiciously and with skill, they can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth examining. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or “The Jessica Simulation” and then experiment with your own stories.

GUEST CRAFT LESSON BY SUE HORNER: FIVE WAYS TO HELP MAKE NUMBERS MAKE SENSE

Craft Lessons

“Adding whipped cream to millions of Starbucks Corp. drinks emits 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet.” – Eric Pfanner, Bloomberg News

If you’re going to use numbers to make a point, be sure you’re helping make those numbers make sense. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Do the math, and give numbers context

“Over a period of between 40 and 70 days, a lake formed, growing to more than 0.5 cubic kilometres in volume – as much water as it would take to fill the Houston Astrodome more than 400 times.” – Andrew Findlay in Canadian Geographic

Researcher Jake Hofman says perspective helps people recall unfamiliar numbers, estimate numbers they hadn’t seen before, and detect errors in “potentially manipulated numbers.” Instead of saying “Americans own almost 300 million firearms,” for example, he suggests, “To put this into perspective, 300 million firearms is about 1 firearm for every person in the United States.”

2. Make a large number understandable by comparing it to something known

“The travel and hospitality sector lost almost $4.7 trillion in 2020 – as much as if all 7.9 billion people in the world threw $595 straight into a garbage bin.” – Ann Handley

“To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds. Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” – IBM


3. Make a small number or size understandable by comparing it to something known

“Above all, atoms are tiny – very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.” – Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year.” – Kenn Kaufman, via ScienceNews


4. Show significance without actual numbers

“[The alligator gar is] a toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse and heavier than a refrigerator.” – Tammy Webber in the Toronto Star

“A new calculation shows that if space is an ocean, we’ve barely dipped in a toe. The volume of observable space combed so far for E.T. is comparable to searching the volume of a large hot tub for evidence of fish in Earth’s oceans.” – Lisa Grossman, ScienceNews

5. Make time relatable

“[Sir Richard Branson’s] round trip, from New Mexico to the stars and back, will last about 90 minutes, or roughly what it takes to drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls.” – Vinay Menon in the Toronto Star

No matter how well you’re able to help readers understand numbers, try to use as few as will get the job done. “Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs,” says Roy Peter Clark. “Readers don’t learn that way.”

Sue Horner loves being the “go-to” writer for small communications teams who need writing that has warmth and personality. A full-time freelance writer, she launched Get It Write in 1991 and has used her experience as a corporate communicator to help companies connect with their employees.  She is particularly known for turning complicated, dense information into readable and understandable content for feature articles, newsletters, profiles and more. Clients appreciate Sue’s ability to find the human angle in any story, capture the essence of a discussion and provide a fresh perspective on a routine subject.

Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

Like countless others, my heart went out to the victims and families and friends of those who lived and died in the shocking June 24 collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Fla. I also had in mind the reporters who descended on the scene and faced the painful task of interviewing survivors and the loved ones of those dead or still missing. 

In my two decades as a newspaper reporter, I became well-acquainted with that aspect of the job. At one point, if you’d asked me about my beat, I’d have replied, “Death.” 

More times than I can count, I was dispatched to write about those left behind after the unthinkable happened: a child killed by a school bus, the high school friends of a classmate killed during a failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue the American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries, the bride-to-be caught in a crossfire between police and a desperate parolee. My father had died when I was ten, and that often proved an effective way to show empathy for people I imposed on at one of the worst moments of their lives. Death binds. 

When I was teaching at The Poynter Institute, a reporter once emailed to ask about the appropriate response when a subject breaks down and begins to cry during an interview, a common occurrence.

“I’m not a very touchy-feely person,” the reporter said, “so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

“Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends.”

For help, I touched base with Joe Hight, then managing editor of The Oklahoman and no stranger to covering trauma in the news. 

As a reporter and editor, he covered the first mass post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the aftermath of killer tornadoes. 

He was also president of the executive committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s “a global network that brings together journalists, educators and health professionals to improve media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy, as well as the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

As reporters increasingly face emotional interviews after what seems like an unending cycle of mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events, Joe’s advice remains timely. 

“You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview,’” he counseled.

“Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

“Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.”

I wish that Joe’s wise advice had been available to me as I sat with friends and family who were grieving a loss. I’m grateful, though, that it may offer help for reporters who find themselves, as they inevitably will, in that situation someday. His tips:

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the interview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you okay?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s okay to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.

​​

Guest Craft Lesson: What postcards can teach writers by Jacqui Banaszynski

Craft Lessons

Postcards have always held a special place in my life. If I were a collector, postcards would be high on my list. Not for the initial image, but for the act of sending and receiving, and the magic of storytelling involved in that action.

When I send students off into the world or reporters on assignment, the one thing I ask is that they send me a postcard. I’m always delighted when one follows through. I love seeing the images they choose, being introduced to their handwriting (a rare thing these days) and being enchanted by the mini-story they’ve chosen to tell me.

Because that’s another huge value of postcards. They are the perfect venue for practicing the craft ~ and purpose ~ of storytelling.

For years, when I traveled, I would send at least one postcard a day. I’d usually write at day’s end, perhaps at a bistro over a glass of wine, or maybe mid-afternoon over a coffee. My goal was not to say “Hey! I’m at the Parthenon!” But to instead share a moment or scene or experience from that day. To tell a story.

The ritual of putting pen to paper caused me to slow down and reflect on my day. To enter that mental/emotional story space that writers occupy.

Knowing I would write reminded me to report ~ to pay closer attention to the world as I moved through it. It caused me to be on alert to the little dramas that played out around me ~ to note the particular blue of the African dusk, the disorientation that came from staring at the stars in the southern hemisphere, how a table of Romanians kept guard over their too-drunk friend. (And yes, to find a post office and a stamp.)

Knowing the writing space was limited ~ maybe a 2×2 inch square ~ took the pressure off. The blank page/screen can seem endless and intimidating. A 2×2-inch postcard square? Hardly.

The reality of that space limit helped me focus. Verbs had to be active. Descriptions spare. Detours eliminated.

Writing on paper instead of the computer meant I had to accept my first draft and then let it go. No do-overs. (In daily news parlance, hit the SEND button!)

Knowing I would be writing to someone I cared about me made me care about what I wrote. It became an investment in a personal connection. I wanted them to see what I saw, to feel some of what I felt, to wonder a bit at my wonderment.

And that means I had to draw on the craft tools that writers employ to create story magic: scene, description, action, metaphor, dialog, sensory detail, tension, emotion.

All in a 2×2-inch square.

I carried this practice forward to classes and workshops. I once had students write a postcard a day for a month. Another time I had workshop writers pick someone they wanted to thank ~ maybe an inspiring teacher or the editor who gave them a chance or the brother who paid their rent one desperate month in college (Thank you, Jeff.) ~ and send that person a postcard. Capture their relationship and gratitude in a 2×2-inch square.

Of late I have transferred some of this practice to Facebook. When I’m overseas, I make it a mission to post a true story each day ~ what I think of as a nano-narrative. It still teaches me what, as writers, we all need to learn, relearn and practice:

  • Pay attention to the world around you. Slow down. Open yourself to experience. See with your eyes, your mind and your heart.
  • Find the center of a story. Develop a moment, a character, a scene, an experience.
  • Choose words that are vivid and precise, evocative and metaphorical.
  • Lower your standards and learn the value of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft.” Quit thinking at some point and write.
  • Write ~ deeply and personally ~ to someone you care about. Then learn to care about everyone who might read your writing.

Here are two of my nano-narratives from trips as evidence of all of the above. They are far from perfect. Just little stories.

Romanian Retrospective 14 (10.15.2012) Breakfast in Socodor, far western Transylvania. This was served the morning after a huge welcome dinner the night before. All made at Simina Mistreanu’s mother’s village farm or that of the neighbors. The tomatoes were picked that morning, served with the dew still on them and sweet as apples. Cheese and bread were delivered fresh by neighbors. Large plate of fat-back served with enthusiasm, but I said my health insurance would be cancelled if I indulged.

CHINA DISPATCH 9 (July 11, 2009) ~ I was prayed awake by chanting. Drifted over to the Daci Monastery next to the hotel, paid 3 yuan (45 cents) and entered an oasis of peace. Hundreds of women had shed shoes and purses, donned brown robes from a common laundry basket, and wound round and round the temple through a maze of prayer cushions, chanting in a low, meditative melody as an elderly monk rang a small brass bell to keep time.