Friday, June 8, 2018

One Writer's Story of the Takeaway


by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Several years ago my memoir manuscript, Call of a Coward, won the nonfiction award at a writers conference. The following week, puffed with pride, I shared the first few pages at our critique-group meeting. To be sure, even if I didn’t mention my recent honors, I was certain everyone would be impressed with my excerpt.

Some were. One wasn’t. She happened to be one of the leaders—a woman far wiser in the ways of writing than I. She is also a gracious southern woman who doesn’t remember being so blunt, but this is what I heard and remembered, “I wouldn’t read this. What’s the takeaway?” 

Takeaway? I’d never heard of such a thing. I was a new writer who apparently had some talent and a personal story to tell, so why did I need a takeaway? And what was that anyway? I pouted all the way home. When I got there, I threw my manuscript on the kitchen island and declared I was finished. So what if I’d won an award, no one would publish a story that didn’t even have a takeaway. 

For the next two weeks, I circled that manuscript on the island as though it were tainted with plutonium. I notified the Lord I couldn’t and wouldn’t write anymore. To make matters worse, even though I salivate over long sentences, I write short books. What words could I possibly add to this this labor of love (torture) so that it would have takeaway? I wasn’t writing a magazine article on the four ways to bless the driver who pulls out in front of you, doesn’t use turn signals, drives five miles under the 30 mph limit, and waits a full sixty seconds after the light turns green before inching forward. No! I was writing a memoir for crying out loud.

One morning as I sat and stared at the computer, I got it—although I was writing a personal story, it wasn’t really about me. My story was simply the illustration of something bigger, something with universal appeal that would touch on emotions and ideas other people either experienced or desired to know about. Something they could take away for themselves.

So what did I want my reader to take away? As I re-examined each chapter with the reader in mind, my thinking went something like this:
  • What is the primary message of my overall story?
  • How do my experiences reflect that message?
  • What insights did I learn from the particular experiences I wrote about?
  • Do those experiences illustrate some human truths that would encourage someone else or help them make sense of their own world? 

By shifting my perspective, I was able to look at the incidents and vignettes for what they were—vehicles to carry a bigger idea, one that would resonate with the heart of my reader. 

And this is what happened:

A year or so later, after my book was published, I received a Google alert about it. I followed the link to a woman’s blog. She wrote about how heavy her heart had been as she reflected on moving with her husband and children to a foreign mission field—the cost of leaving family and friends and all things familiar. As she was wrapping up her home, someone gave her my book, which was about moving to the mission field, in fact, to the very same ministry she was headed! In her time of weariness, Kris, my new blogger friend, was able to take courage as she traveled familiar dusty paths with me. Through my story she faced our shared fears and received refreshment from the anecdotes of grace. Two ordinary women, half a country apart, sharing a similar journey, linked by a story.

Now, years later, she and her husband are running the ministry Costa Rica, and I am reading hernewsletters. We have come full circle. I had heeded the admonition to consider my reader’s takeaway and was rewarded with the privilege of falling into her story.

TWEETABLES


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.

17 comments:

  1. It's amazing how God sends just the right people into our lives at just the right time to deliver a message to us. Thank you as always Ms. Marcia for your wonderful insights. God's blessings...

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    1. Thanks, Jim. Yes. God is pretty good at that!

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  2. I couldn't help but smile when I read this. I was asked the same question by an editor at my first writer's conference regarding an article I submitted to his magazine and, like you, I'd never heard the term before either. Good article and good advice!

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    1. Hi Pamela, I'm guessing it's a lesson you "took away" and have kept in mind since!

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  3. What a great takeaway you’ve given us in this article! Thanks for sharing your story and encouragement.

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    1. Thanks, Jean. I'm hoping if nothing else, you've been inspired by it.

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  4. I really enjoyed your thought provoking post but still a little confused by the concept of a "take away". Aren't you afraid that your storyline will be bridled by trying to make it align to one particular take-away? Also, using some popular films, such as Star Wars or Gone With The Wind, how would you describe their take-aways? Thanks!

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    1. Jonah, I appreciate your confusion because the more I've thought about and looked into takeaway, the more questions I've come up with. Perhaps some others can offer more here, but a few thoughts: First, I think there's a difference between fiction and nonfiction. An article usually has a specific topic and concludes with a call to action, a challenge, an application. Did the reader learn something, understand a new view, be encouraged, entertained, given hope or understanding? Same questions go for memoir. Fiction still has a controlling idea--no story exists in a neutral zone without reflecting cultural beliefs or values--but it can have several takeaways. The writer has a reason for telling that story but the reader may takeaway any number of ideas. Star Wars explores all kinds of themes- Light/dark, God/Force, friendships, courage... Lucas may have concluded with a specific idea in mind, but he certainly made viewers think about what they thought. And isn't that the best takeaway?

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  5. Marcia - yet another timely and substantive sharing by you. Thanks for bringing good focus and clarity to a critical piece of crafting our works.
    Jay Wright
    Foothills Writers Guild - Anderson, SC

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    1. Thanks Jay, It's more involved than we can cover here, but hopefully people will be challenged to pursue this topic more.

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  6. Marcia, Speaking for myself I struggle with the idea of a takeaway. When all the dust settles, however it is the takeaway that is important. I loved Jane Eyre for that very reason. When she left the hope of happiness and love of her dreams because it wouldn't be right to become his mistress, because doing the right thing was more important than her personal happiness, I was as they say, blown away. A story needs those takeaways, and one story can have more than one takeaway, depending on the reader.

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  7. Donevy, I agree with you--the takeaway is important and sometimes elusive. I always tell myself fuzzy writing reflects fuzzy thinking. I also agree a story can have more than one takeaway and although the writer may intend something, what the reader takes away can be different.

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  8. Marcia, I love this. This is why I write. It's not about me, the writer, well totally. How can I help the reader with information, a smile, understanding through tears, etc. Reader first. What can I give them through this story? and its a hoot when you meet a reader who totally misses your point but God speaks something else to them. Remember, there's Another's hand in your writing. Thanks Marcia.

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    1. "Another's hand in your writing," Great reminder, Tim

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  9. I learned from Cindy Sproles' and Eddie Jones' devotion writing about hook, book, look, took where took is the takeaway. Good stuff, Marcia.

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  10. Thanks Warren--yes, devotions need the Took!

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  11. This is true, beautiful, and fun, Marcia. It was a blessing to "take away" the path together. I was beyond surprised to have a talented, famous author contact me. :)

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