10. What are the advantages of writing an experience into a story? If you’re a writer that’s simply what you do, it’s the juice of your writing, your own experience even if covered up with the veils and masks of fiction.
But for those of you who are not looking to be published, but want to write to express yourselves, it’s emotionally satisfying, healthy actually, to write out an experience, especially a traumatic one.
Dr. James W. Pennebaker wrote a wonderful book about this called Opening Up. He had tested the immune systems of two groups of his students who wrote twenty minutes a day for four consecutive days – one group wrote about superficial subjects, the other group wrote about an extremely stressful event in their life. Blood samples of the students were taken before writing, after the last session, and six weeks later. Dr. Pennebaker found that the students who wrote about painful, traumatic events showed heightened immune function and also paid fewer visits to the university’s health center in the following weeks. There was another study on writing reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association - people suffering asthma and rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about traumatic events showed clinically relevant changes in their health compared to a control group.
I conduct a writing workshop at the Wellness Community www.wellnessandcancer.org) a place for people who have cancer, or who are close to someone who has cancer, and I’ve found over the years that writing out their stories is cathartic – especially when they read what they’ve written aloud. There’s such identification and connection. It’s different than talk therapy. And amazingly, more laughter than tears. I certainly don’t believe writing can cure cancer but it sure can make the journey through it easier.
The Wellness Community workshop inspired my last book, Writing Out the Storm: Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury. I’d intended for the book to be just about the workshop, what everybody wrote and the poems and bits of memoir that I’d found to inspire them. But I couldn’t get the book to jell. Finally I realized I had to include my own story of having breast cancer because that’s part of what I’d talk about in the workshop and it would give a narrative to the book. I didn’t really want to go back to that scary corner of my life, but once I started writing I was amazed to discover how I was letting go of the experience by going back into it in a deep and honest way. (The paradox of writing about trauma.) I also found some humor in it.
11. What specific courage does a writer need? The courage to be honest. To not fudge the truth because you’re worried what people will think. And again, the courage to keep going even with negative criticism and rejection of your work.
12. Do you think the amount of courage required to write a memoir is also necessary to write a novel? It probably differs for everybody. I personally find writing memoir or personal essays easier and require less courage because the story is basically there and I pretty much know the boundaries to what I’ll reveal (i.e. I won’t write really personal stories about my kids, stepkids or grandchildren that could embarrass them in any way.) Everything else in my life is up for grabs.
But writing a novel – I don’t think any kind of writing is harder and requires more courage. You live in a parallel universe, sometimes for years, when you write a novel. You have no idea if it’ll sell. You’re just sitting at your computer day after day in your bedroom slippers hoping someone will want to read about these people and stories you’re making up.
13. What is the most common mistake that aspiring memoirists make, and how would you suggest they guard against it? Worrying about what other people will think. You just can’t focus on your mother’s reaction or what your spouse will think while you’re trying to write the truth. Let it rip – you can always go back and rewrite or change names.
14. As a rule, are memoirs more or less ‘truthful’ than biographies? This question has stumped me ever since I first read it. It’s a whole philosophical discussion of what’s truth - perceived or objective reality? The subject of a whole essay. Would anyone like to venture an opinion on this one?
15. How is it that one small book (Courage & Craft) can address the process of writing both fiction and non-fiction? The process of getting started writing is the same for both non-fiction and fiction.
16. What are the 5 characteristic of well-crafted creative writing? I could write a number of versions of this. But I’ll go with my current thoughts.
One – Clarity: It doesn’t confuse people. (This sounds so obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of writers who think they have to be clever or coy or literary which just leaves the reader in the dark.)
Two – Form: It has a beginning, a middle and an ending. The beginning draws readers in and the ending is satisfying. This holds true for fiction, memoir, personal essays, autobiographies, and stories for kids. Occasionally a writer who’s a genius ignores this, but most of us aren’t geniuses and can’t ignore it.
Three – Emotion: It’s emotionally charged and the reader cares what happens to the protagonist. We either cry or laugh or are scared or feel something.
Four– Meaning and connection: It’s about people or situations the reader can connect to. Either a story we enter into with the author for entertainment, or a subject or emotion that we too are dealing with or want to learn about, or can find humor in. It is not a story about the author gazing at his or her belly button. In some way the writing connects to the rest of the world.
Five - Language. The author cares deeply about words and their power. No overblown adjectives or adverbs (and only those absolutely necessary for information.) No flabby cliches. The author loves language and hones and rewrites every sentence. The author has read The Elements of Style.
Please hit the Comment button if you have any thoughts or alternate answers to any of these questions.