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Writing True Stories

Posted on: April 23, 2024

The author of "Writing True Stories," Patti Miller, contributed this opinion piece, in conversation with interviewer Andrea Barton.

Is Writing True Stories just about memoir?

It's about a much wider field that that! It's about true crime writing, nature writing, personal essays, biography, science - in fact creative nonfiction writing about any field. The material is not imagined, but we use all the techniques of good fiction to write great nonfiction.

What is your advice for someone who is just getting started?

I suppose I should say, buy Writing True Stories and do the exercises! But in essence, don't start with the overwhelming hugeness of writing a whole book. That can be paralysing. Start small. Write down a word, or image, or phrase for everything you want to write about. That will map out the canvas. Then start writing pieces. That gives you pleasure and practice. Imagine you're making a patchwork quilt - you can't sew the quilt until you've made pieces. That's the way to get started. Don't let your organising brain in first - that's using your intellect not your creativity. You can and should worry about how to fit it together and structure it later.

How do you help writing students who say, "I'm not famous, I can't write a memoir"?

To me, writing a good life story has nothing to do with being famous. It's not about your achievments; it's about your perception of the world. It doesn't matter if you live in your backyard in a country tow, or have been biking across Africa, you can write something unique and valuable no matter what you've done, how old you are or whether you are famous or not.

For example, someone like Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize winning American writer, doesn't write about achievement. Hardly anything happens in her books in terms of drama, but her detailed observations of the world and nature, using aspects of her experience, make her books fascinating.

This doesn't mean you don't need a good story to tell. Of course, you still have to think about plotting and structure. There's as much art and craft in writing a memoir as in writing a novel. In both cases you're creating a convincing world on the page.

Do you have any advice for memoirists who are worried about push back from the people they've written about?

In my courses, we look at the difficulties of truth telling if you're writing about issues involving others. People's emotional reactions can be distressing and it can make your life difficult.

I suggest you put everything you think you need in the first draft. Writing about the situation might take you out the other side and you might be able to resolve it. You can always take it out later.

Once it's written, you need to ask yourself: does it really matter? Do you need it in the book? If it will upset my mother, is it worth it? These are real questions, not just a way of getting out of it. On the other hand, what you write might be liberating, not just for you, but for your readers, who might be facing the same kind of conflict. Readers go to writers because we are truth tellers. We owe it to them not just to give the surface surgary version. I guess you have to have some guts. You have to be prepared for this and ask yourself: do I feel strong enough for this? Does it matter enough for me to risk all this?

What is one of the most common mistakes you see memoirists making?

There's a section on troubleshooting in Writing True Stories. One common mistake is putting stuff in just because it happened. If it doesn't work on the page, it might not be needed.

In first drafts we sometimes write as if journaling. It's good to get stuff out, but it serves the writer, not the reader. When writing in a journal we are simply 'expressing' our feelings and thoughts; when you write a book, you are building a 'space' for other people to inhabit. We use a lot of abstract words when we are 'expressing our feelings', words the reader can't smell, taste, touch, see or hear. To build a world on the page, you need to construct the illusion of a three-dimensional space for the reader to inhabit. Show the room, what people are wearing. It's the often-repeated advice - show don't tell. Use concrete detail.