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TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 15

Last year I learned a simple way to express the vital truth written below: every good piece of writing is about the thing, and then it’s about the other thing. There’s the story on the surface, and the deeper, more universal story below. My students have heard it a million times: What is this story REALLY ABOUT?

Make it matter
One of the most common sentiments of beginning memoir writers is, “Who’ll be interested in MY story? I’m not famous or interesting.” That was the attitude of Grace in Step 1, presenting what she thought was a boring, mundane saga of adoption, which I heard years ago and have never forgotten. Think of high school teacher Frank McCourt, who decided to write a memoir of his Irish childhood. He didn’t know if his story would interest anyone, but he had a moving tale and told it well, with detail, dialogue, humour, and skill—and also, considering what a painful story it was, with great compassion for his hapless parents. Angela’s Ashes became a huge bestseller (suggestion—read it).
The beautiful irony of our work is that the more honest, direct, and passionate we are in telling our own stories, the more our readers will connect to us. This is hard to believe, but it’s true, no matter how specific your story is to you, how quirky and unusual. My parents were not alcoholic or Irish, but because McCourt wrote with truth, wit, and daring, I connected on a deep level with the rich humanity in his tale. I don’t have a sister, but because Grace told her story with such genuine emotion, I understood something new about the power of the loyalty and concern we feel for our own flesh and blood.
This kind of writing means telling the small story so well, with such focus and heart and skill, that the big story inside it will shine through, though sometimes we don’t even know what the big story is. If what you choose to write doesn’t matter to you, the writer, it won’t matter to your readers. Trust your important stories and trust your voice to tell them.
To become better writers, we must work on two fronts. On the one front, we need to summon the courage, depth, and honesty to dig up and recount our most important stories. On the other, we must develop the patience, humility, and dedication to learn the craft and technique of good writing, so that we tell those vital stories well. Craft and courage—that’s all you need. If you have lots of courage but no craft, people will be eager to read your honest tales but won’t be able to penetrate your prose. If you have lots of craft but no courage, your stories will flow beautifully with rich vocabulary and good structure but may not find readers, because nothing is at risk.
Risk is key. Something must be at stake. Otherwise, why should we care? (Risk is an important topic; see Step 37 and on.)
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
robert frost
The literary non-fiction writer recreates the narrative so that it becomes resonant. She uses her imagination, but the story is based in fact and emotional truth. She tells her own truth so fully that she enables her readers to remember theirs. An honest story opens others to the possibility of their own humanity. It opens us up, teaches the heart how to manoeuvre and think. We touch a human, visible part of each other when the story rings true.

from wayson choy’s notebook



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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