Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Story: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.
In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”
I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.
Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.
Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.
Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”
Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.
Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.
Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.
Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.
Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.
Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.
Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.
Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”
In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”
Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.