Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Of Writing Advice, One-Liners, and an A Game.

Once I met with a writer who had asked me to evaluate her memoir-in-progress. It was time to return her pages and my report, and over coffee, maybe pass on some tips for moving on. I wanted to convey both encouragement and a realistic idea of the amount and type of work still ahead for her.   

It was mid-morning, and possibly because I had been awake until 2:00 a.m. watching old episodes of Downton Abbey working on another project, I worried that I wasn't saying anything particularly hlepful. But then she told me that something I had mentioned weeks before, just one sentence which I barely remember saying, had already been a big help as she worked on additional material; roughly this: "Your experience itself is not so unique, so just tell the story you can tell." Or something like that. I don't think it's especially brilliant, but I was pleased to have been of help.

This reminded me that so much of the useful, memorable writing advice I've gotten over the years, has come in the form of a one-liner. I can recall one writer I admire telling me, "Nice writing, but what is this really about?" Good advice, coming after several drafts in which I was spending a lot of time trying to write elegant prose, while avoiding writing about anything. 

Another mentor in a workshop once asked me to explain, out loud, something I had made overly obscure and complex on the page, and after I did, she simply said, "Okay. Now write exactly that." One author's offhand remark, tossed out during a panel at a writer's conference on creating the *I* narrator in memoir, has also stayed with me: "Get over yourself; you're not that interesting." Or something like that.

One more I remember was an MFA faculty member who had read a lot of my work, and reacted to a new, lackluster piece I'd written with, "If you settle for your B game, you may not get the A game back." Ouch.  But, she had gotten through, and to this day, I swing for an A game every time. I sometimes strike out, but that's okay; and if I knew more about baseball, I'd find a clever way of saying it's not the home runs that count, but a decent batting average. Or something like that.


kario said...

It is pretty amazing that we can't ever be certain which 'lines' we give to others will resonate the most. I love it when people share those verbal gems with me, though, and I can think about why they were important.

fullsoulahead.com said...

Love all these one liners! Thanks for sharing them.