Writer’s Workshop: Compelling Non Fiction

I was invited by my friend Julie to attend a writer’s workshop tonight on Bainbridge Island (put on by Field’s End), where I enjoyed a taste of small town quaintness. We packed into a little room in the library – where suspendered old men shuffled noisily about the room as they refilled their coffee cups – to hear Jim Whiting speak on writing compelling non-fiction. Jim mostly covered the topic of Lead-Ins – those ways we grab the readers’ attention and keep them reading. He also covered elements of editing, such as transitions, rhythm, layout, and sentence structure.

What I came away with in the discussion that followed the hour long lecture, is that historical, factual, or biographical accounts need not be dry and boring. Even though we are not writing something that is invented, we are still telling a story, and we have an obligation to be good storytellers.

I think about this often in my writing, especially as it pertains to moving out of the blogosphere and into the print market. Blogs tend to have cult followings. I know my faithful readers (well, the COMMENTERS, anyway), and I know why they keep coming back. But when I think about venturing into the wild blue yonder of book publishing, I shrink in self-consciousness, wondering why on earth anyone would care what I had to say.

But then I attend a workshop like this one, and I am reminded that there are bad ways to tell a story, there are good ways to tell a story, and there are great ways to tell a story. If I am a great writer, and tell a great story, others will be drawn into my narrative. The things I struggle with and write about are universal – anger, depression, parenting, friendships, marriage, etc. If my storytelling is compelling, and relevant, and filled with perspective, it will not be boring.

The idea of perspective is what I had always missed in my writing when I was younger. I was a Just The Facts girl – struggling to put events into chronological order and worrying about time lines. You all are lucky I am not writing an autobiography that begins, I was born in 1971 to parents who blah blah blah.

Or perhaps you would not continue coming back to This Pile if that’s how I wrote.

I think sometimes the facts aren’t always the important thing when telling a story. I’m not suggesting we lie about what actually happened, as in the case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, (which came up in tonight’s discussion). Only that in telling a story of historical or factual significance, we are adding our own perspective, our own observations, our own interpretation of experiences. A good writer can write about making cookies with her mother and eloquently describe the fact of baking cookies, but a great writer can use the element of baking cookies with her mother to draw the reader in to a complex mother/child relationship.

(I made that cookie making thing up all by myself – was that great writing?)

As an example, one of the ladies in the room spoke about her sister having a completely different perspective on their childhood that she did, and she wondered what the truth would be if they each wrote her own account of growing up. And to me the answer is… EXACTLY, because each would write from her own perspective and her own experience.

It was a very enjoyable evening – bookended by relaxing ferry rides, and made complete by a pinkish sunset and the smell of the salty Sound. It was also a great boost to a lull in my writing motivation, so THANKS JULIE! I look forward to more lectures in the series.

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