Friday, November 9, 2018

Steal Like An Artist and Learn from the Best

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

I teach a class called Steal Like An Artist, a title I promptly stole after reading Austin Kleon’s book with the same name. We study examples of good writing, some to model, some to simply admire in hopes there’s such a thing as learning by literary osmosis. Although I know there’s a lot to learn from reading bad writing, I seldom use it as an example. It’s a philosophy I adopted a long time ago after reading a response Mark Twain gave to a question about his river piloting days.

I can’t find the interview, but my paraphrased memory of it runs something like this: When Twain was asked how he knew where all the hidden reefs and rocks were, he said he didn’t need to know where all the dangers were—he just needed to know where the deep water was. (And if Twain didn’t say that, it’s still an idea that’s served me well, both in life— can’t anticipate every danger and temptation, but can know the where the good way is—and in teaching.

Whether they write fiction or nonfiction, most of the class participants enjoy this sampler approach to learning. But apparently one woman wanted a straight-to-the-point approach. After class one day, she held both my hands and stared me in the eye. “I don’t want to read any books. I want you to tell me how to write my memoir.”  

Although in another class specifically for memoir, I will teach ways to approach and arrange her story, my single best advice will still be — read memoir. Read whatever genre you want to write in. 

Here’s an example of some of things a memoirist can learn from Growing Up by Russell Baker:

You need to discover the real story—the emotional story. Facts are not enough. 

Baker was already an established journalist when he decided to write about growing up in the Depression. He interviewed relatives and researched information. Pleased with his 450- page manuscript, he sent it off to his agent and editor expecting to hear from them the next day. After a month, he looked at it again and was so bored by page 20, he realized that although factual, it was no good, that he had missed the real story—the tension between his strong mother and him.In 1982, after Baker rewrote the memoir, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Once you know what it is about, string all your anecdotes, illustrations and scenes on that line.

Once Baker knew what his story was about—the strong influence of his mother—he was able to tell family stories, backstory, and growing up in the Depression stories without losing sight of his focus. 

Right from the start, he clues the reader about the “problem” he will be facing: a strong mom. (His father dies and she raises her children)

I began working in journalism when I was eight years old. It was my mother’s idea. She wanted me to make something of myself and, after a levelheaded appraisal of my strengths, decided I had better start young if I was to have any chance of keeping up with the competition. (Problem was he lacked “gumption.”)

Later, when he failed at that, but got an A on a school paper, his mother said maybe he could be a writer. “I was enchanted. Writers didn’t have to have any gumption at all. I decided what I’d like to be when I grew up was a writer.”

In transitions to his mother’s backstory, he doesn’t lose sight of her strong character, which is her driving trait:
My mother’s efforts to turn poor specimens of manhood into glittering prizes began long before she was my mother. As the oldest daughter in a family of nine children, she had tried it on her younger brothers without much success. When she married, she tried it on my father with no success at all.

In talking about himself, he references his “fatal flaw” as well as slips in some historical context.

I was born in {my uncle’s} second–floor bedroom just before midnight on Friday, August 14, 1925. I was issued into the governance of Calvin Coolidge. World War I was seven years past, the Russian Revolution was eight years old, and the music on my grandmother’s wind-up Victrola was, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Unaware of history’s higher significance, I slumbered through the bliss of infancy, feeling no impulse whatever to make something of myself.

Throughout the middle chapters,while relating episodes of a colorful cast of relatives, his mother’s doomed relationships with men and her struggles to make ends meet during the Depression, he keeps the camera’s eye on her determination that he make something of himself. Even when he flounders, she keeps her battlecry, “Something will come along.”

Baker’s book covers decades—right up to his marriage and own adulthood. (He does become a writer-yay Mom! although he thought English classes were boring and the classics were as “deadening as chloroform.”) 

He ends as he begins, with scenes of his mother, only now with a new appreciation and understanding. His story has gone full circle: with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A problem, a conflict and a resolution.

A perfect how-to do it story.


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.


  1. Wonderful post Ms. Marcia. Although, I must share with you that my journey to become a Christian writer has required a lot of "gumption." I can only second your emotion ma'am; to become the best we can be, we must learn from those who are better. God's blessings ma'am.

  2. I ask my clients to read Austin Kleon's titles and can not wait for his newest book to release. Great post! I would love to sit in on your class someday!

  3. Thanks Diana, Reading like a writer has changed the way I read now. Fun to read with an eye to how did they do that.