Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

Writer’s Workshop: Introductions

Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.

Writing is no different.

A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.

Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:

My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.

This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:

  1. Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
  2. Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
  3. Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.

Ultimately, the introduction became this:

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.

There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.

Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.