Tuesday, August 30, 2011

All Our Sundays . . . A Prompt

As our September 10 read-around at Wellington Square approaches, I think of this prompt:  All our Sundays were mostly alike.  I liked it so much, I used it in my new memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, which is about my writing life. I  encourage you to try it as a prompt for our read-around.  This is a good life writing exercise. For more information about the read-around: http://www.susanweidener.com/p/circle-read-arounds.html

All our Sundays were mostly alike.  Dad and I walked to the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion at Valley Forge Military Academy.  As we stepped inside the chapel, we saw a blue and red stained-glass window depicting George Washington.  He was on one knee, praying in the snow at Valley Forge. 
Since Dad was dean of the academy, we had our own pew in the back of the chapel. My prayer was that the cadets wouldn't notice me.  They marched in formation down the main aisle, stopped, waited for the command. “Be seated!”  Six hundred cadets sat in unison, heels clicking, sabers smacking against gray wool trousers. So many boys, all in rows in front of me!  I studied the back of heads, buzz cuts, profiles.  As they marched out at the end of the service , I felt their eyes glancing my way. I wanted to disappear under the wooden pew.  Even though Dad thought I was pretty, I knew better.  I favored big hats with brims that shielded my face so the cadets couldn’t get too close a look.   
When I went home, I dreamed of falling in love, but feared love would never come my way. My mother's lamb roast permeated the house, along with Maurice Chevalier singing, "I'm glad I'm not young anymore . . ." playing on the stereo.  It was true.  It wasn't easy being 16-years-old and filled with longing and a lack of self-confidence, wondering where it would all lead someday. 

As I sat in chapel Sunday after Sunday  with Washington praying above my head, I never would have imagined that one day I would meet a man, not a Valley Forge cadet, but a former West Pointer . . . just a short walk from that chapel . . .  or that he would forever change my life with the words, “I fell in love with you the moment I saw you.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good Reporting Makes Good Storytelling

My parents, Andrew and Gertrude, circa 1940.
As a member of the Fourth Estate for almost 30 years, I learned the importance of economy of words.  I also learned how to get to the heart of the story, how to interview people and pay attention to details.  Good reporting is crucial not just in newspaper work, but in crafting your book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.

In the end you can save a lot of time and energy by concentrating on how you want to organize and tell your story. Do the research, the "legwork," as we used to call it in the business and you are on your way.

Gathering information for your story is key.  What exactly does this mean?

Take the time to sort through old photographs, records and other memorabilia in order to paint an accurate portrait of your subject.  I have begun doing this with photographs of my parents when they were young and in love, studying the style of dress, the smiles that tell a story in themselves.

Interview people about your subject and then grab onto the best quotes to liven the story and keep it from being flat.  They don't call them "sound bites" for nothing.  Not that I am advocating sound bites in terms of picking up something the person said and taking it out of context, but using it as a springboard to capture reader interest and expand from there.

Observe your subject . . . his or her gestures, facial movements. Listen to the sound of his voice, his unique intonations.  Work with all your senses when you go about bringing the person "alive" in your writing. 
What year did the person die?  What were the circumstances surrounding his death?  I heard a lovely and tragic story the other day about a person who died before his time, but the writer forgot to mention how old the person was at the time of his death.  These are details that can make or break your story.

What time period are you writing about?  What was a defining or seminal moment of the era?  Historical context adds to the flavor and is key to the story's atmosphere and mood.

Keep it tight.  Don't use 20 words when 10 will suffice.

When I was a journalist, I interviewed people from all walks of life.  I found that getting to the heart of the person's story meant asking the compelling questions, the ones I felt I would want to know the answers to if I were reading the story. It meant approaching people with an open heart and mind.  It meant understanding motivation, what drives a person to do what they do and putting that in context with their accomplishments, their goals, their backgrounds.

Some people can report and some people can report and offer a beautifully compelling portrait. Everyone is a study in contrasts, good and bad, strength and weakness. Nothing is black and white. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stay With the Line You Can't Finish . . . A Prompt

Consider this verse from poet David Whyte:  "Stay with the line you can't finish . . that's where the shame is that's blocking the revelation."

And so I offer up the writing prompt.  Stay with the line you can't finish...

In my memoir, I wrote of the shame I felt when I yelled at my terminally-ill husband.  "What good are you as a father?  I wish I'd never met you!" And in the following scene, I tell John, "I didn't mean what I said. It's just that I can't bear to live without you."  Writing about my shame led to the revelation of the depth of my love for him.

At yesterday's Circle we spoke how writing comes with risk-taking. We also spoke how empowering writing is because it lets us find and hone our voices; it allows us - permits us - to relive a memory, hold it, examine it, and understand it through the structure and form of the written word. 

Shame blocks revelation, which blocks the "truth" of our stories.  I refuse to feel shame because my words threaten some and lead to condemnation.

"I have walked over these roads and found them living," Ezra Pound said. 

Take that walk today with your writing.  Stay with the line you can't finish . . . and see where it leads.  You might be surprised.