Friday, October 13, 2017

For Writers: One Way To Be Better at Anything

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Judging by the popularity of how-to blogs and books, we love our numbered lists: Three ways to improve your love life. Seven things to do before you die. Five steps to break a bad habit. (The lists of course are short—no one wants to read about the fifty ways it takes to lose stubborn belly fat.)

Being a fan of the bottom line, I’m going to contribute my one way to learn almost anything. Unfortunately, it’s not an original idea—learning theorists expound on it, and pet owners swear their animals do it. The instructor at the first writing workshop I attended was the editor for our local news journal. She gave us this advice: "If you're going to read one book, read Rick Bragg's news stories, Somebody Told Me."

One book? News stories? I was expecting her to recommend a list of how-to books every writer needs. Although I had never heard of Rick Bragg, I immediately went out and bought his book.

By the end of the first paragraph, I was not only in love with a style of writing of which Rick Bragg is a master—narrative journalism—but in love with the art of writing itself. I realized one way I could glean a wealth of knowledge about writing was to observe and model someone who did it well.

By observing how Bragg leans into the human element of a story, into the small daily details that make up ordinary lives, I learned that nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and emotionless. I learned to watch for relevant details, and I was inspired to use literary elements like metaphor and powerful sentence constructions.

For example, here’s a passage from a news article Bragg wrote about a tornado that tore through a town, killing twenty people, six of whom were children:

This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song "Jesus Loves Me" has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept but a destination.

Yet in this place . . .

Talk about showing, not telling. Not only does Bragg’s use of imagery link people and place, but so does the way he empowers the text with parallel construction—the repeated "this is a place."

One of my first assignments at a newspaper I wrote for was to interview a well-known local judge. Nervous and intimated, I rehearsed stiff, contrived-sounding conversations in my mind. But a few minutes into the interview I remembered how Bragg pulls out details. I looked around the judge’s office.

This is a place where decisions are weighed and fates decided. This is a place where laws are laid, where jails are assigned or freedoms granted. Yet in this place . . . My eyes rested on the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and shelves lined with as many family pictures, folk art duck decoys and personal memorabilia as ponderous law tomes. Yet in this place a very personable man sits.

Immediately I was free of the somber and pretentious expectations I had placed on myself and was able to write a human-interest article about the warm and sincere man behind the bench.

I’ve often modeled this same parallel structure, this is a place . . . this is a place . . . in classes to help students capture the essence of a place they are trying to describe. Now let’s look at a passage from Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis:

The new house is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.

Modeling Lewis, Cada McCoy, a writer in one of my classes, came up with this:

I am the product of a man, grounded in Catholic faith and the poor dark soil of his traditional South, and a woman, Northern, Protestant, rich with education and refinement. I am most profoundly the product of the wise, beloved, dark-skinned nanny who shaped my earliest world.

Now, I’m not suggesting we all go out and assemble our favorite lines from other authors. However, observing and modeling those whom you admire, letting their ways of expression be an inspiration and guide to expand your own is one powerful way to learn almost anything.

Next month we’ll look at how passages from Bob Goff’s Love Does and Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s Same Kind of Different As Me can help us elevate our personal narratives to a more universal level.

But for now, if you decide to have some fun modeling the above passages, feel free to share them because This is a place where . . .


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


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