By Jenna McGuiggan, The Writer’s Center Instructor
Writing true stories is about more than reporting the facts; it’s about creating art from real life. In memoir and personal essays, you want to go beyond what happened and into what it means.
Here are five ways you can write beyond the facts and into the heart of a story.
1) Create meaning, not morals.
Give your readers enough meat of the story and its implications to help them understand why the story matters. But don’t turn a story into a Sunday School lesson. Nobody likes a moralizing know-it-all. (Trust me, I know; I’ve been one.)
2) Use details.
Great stories include details. But not too many. Or too few. And only the important ones. All presented in the best way. Yikes! So how do choose which details to include? Details should create texture and interest, and they should focus the readers’ attention on what matters. Be selective: Don’t try to capture the whole world at once, not even when you’re writing true life stories.
3) Cross the personal-universal bridge.
Even when you’re telling an intimate story about a unique experience, readers should find something in it to relate to as fellow humans. But again, beware of moralizing here! Don’t build a literal bridge that points out the obvious or talks down to the reader. Oddly enough, the more specific your details, the more universal your story can become.
4) Stay focused.
The focus of a story determines the meaning, the details, and the bridge. I usually don’t know a story’s focus until I’ve written a large chunk of it. Only after sketching out and connecting ideas do I find a story’s heart. I’ve rewritten essays many times before I found their real essence. A story can contain a lot of seemingly disparate elements, but you need to know how they fit together. If you don’t know — at least on some intuitive level — your readers won’t know either. Keep writing until you find that focus and fit.
5) Be True.
That’s “True” with a capital “T.” This may be the most important point of all. Your story needs to feel authentic on the page, in your mind, and in the eyes of your readers. I’ve written stories that are technically true by dutifully capturing my thoughts or the true-to-life details of a scene. But the scene fell flat and veered outside the heart of the story. Annie Dillard says it best in her essay “Notes for Young Writers”: “The work’s unity is more important than anything else about it. Those digressions that were so much fun to write must go
We explore these tips and more in the online class, Write into the Heart of Your Story (begins March 5. 2018). You’ll learn how to use the building blocks of creative nonfiction to write stories with texture and depth. You’ll also learn how to deal with some common challenges that hold us back when writing true stories.