Monday, August 18, 2014

THE SOURCE OF STORIES: Writing from your experience and imagination

So far, we've looked at where to find the stories, how to begin them, and how to tell them.  
Today we'll look at a few other important elements in crafting our stories.

1. Write in layers

An interesting story or essay needs more than one story line or thread.  It needs depth, resonance, transcendence.  Layers will give you that.

2. If you want to write genre fiction, study the genre.  Then, use it as a vehicle to explore what you want to communicate to your readers.
3. Integrate both lobes of your brain: the right and the left, the creative, artistic side with the rational, logical one.  

4. Plan the plan, not the outcome.  See where the writing takes you.  You can outline and plan ahead, but don't let that restrict you.  Let the story flow and tell you what it wants to be about.

In the next post, I will offer you a few exercises to find out what you can write and how to write. Another way of looking at writing stories and essays.  Stay tuned.

Saturdays from 10 to 12 pm - starting September 20
The Newberry Library, 60 West Walton, Chicago
To register, go to

Friday, August 8, 2014


  • the most important sentence in any essay or story is the first one.  First sentence induces the reader to go to the second and so on – until the reader is hooked.  This is the lead.
  • How long should it be?  No pat answer.  But beware that readers want to know very soon what’s in it for them. 
  • The lead must do real work:  details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he or she ought to read it.  But don’t dwell on the reason.  Give the reader a little more.
  • Continue to build.  Every paragraph should amplify the one before. 
  • the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem right.
  • one rule for the nonfiction writer: when you’re ready to stop, stop.  If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the exit.
  • A few sentences should wrap things up.  They should encapsulate the idea of the piece and conclude with a sentence that jolts us with fitness or unexpectedness. 
  • One thing you can do is to bring the story full circle.  The sense of symmetry is gratifying to the reader. 
  • Another thing to do is to use a quotation.  Look through your notes and find some remark that has a sense of finality or it’s funny or unexpected. 
Open to all genres - writing and feedback in a relaxed and encouraging atmosphere
Starts Tuesday September 9 - 6 to 8 pm - every other week - 6 sessions
Location: Lincoln Park (write for exact address) - free street parking
Fee: $25/hour - If you register before August 26 - $50 discount
Email me for more details

Tuesday, August 5, 2014



Before you start writing your story or essay or poem, take a few minutes to answer the following three questions to keep you focused:  
who am I? 
why am I writing this?
who will read this?

Then, you can begin.  
 The subject of a story or essay is always a question:  for example, What is it like to be homeless in the 21st century in the richest country in the world?  What will we find in the Gulf of California?  How will I survive my family’s illness?  Find the right question and you find a worthy subject.  Then the answer will matter.  It will matter to you and therefore to your readers because passion is contagious. 

You define a subject twice: once before you write, again when you are writing it.  Allow for changes.  

So – how do you keep the reader interested?  Metaphorical connections.   In the best nonfiction several subjects are interwoven around the main arc and the lasting value comes out of the connections.  Two or three or four subject together are more profound and complex than one.  The reason?  Metaphor.  Each element of the story reflects the other, offers insight into the other.  For example, in Terry Tempest Williams’ book Refuge the suspense over the fate of migrating birds mirrors the suspense about her future dealing with cancer. 

The third question: who will be reading this?  There is the practical answer, especially if you write for particular magazine.  But the better question is: why should anybody be interested in reading this?  There are three kinds of readers:
-          the reader who will never be interested and will always disagree with you
-          the reader who knows everything and agrees with you
-          the reader who neither agrees nor disagrees and may have never given much thought to your subject
You write for the third reader.

Always take the subject beyond the obvious and trite, into new territory, and remember when you announce the subject you make a promise.  Your task is to deliver on that promise.

The next decision is point of view. 
First person point of view:  in this point of view you are the writer and the main character. 
If there is another person observing as well you can use the first person plural. 
One of the dangers of the “I” narrator is that it might take over when the story is about something or someone else. 
Third person point of view:  if you want to stand back for an overview and deal with more characters and more descriptions this is your point of view.
Third person has less immediacy, it’s more impersonal. In CNF the writer however has less latitude than in fiction because he’s limited by the facts available. 
Multiple points of view:  it’s difficult to handle this without confusing the reader.  If you’re going to do this keep in mind whose story you’re telling and use the appropriate grammatical person for telling that story. 
Starting SEPTEMBER 9 - 6 to 8 pm - every other Tuesday - 6 classes
Lincoln Park area - write for exact location - free street parking provided
Fee: $300.00 -  If you register before August 26: $250.00