Earlier this month, I sat among twenty women in a beautiful garden on the banks of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, a volcano in the distance. The beauty of the scenery didn’t distract us from the task at hand—five days learning from writer Joyce Maynard how to become better writers. While the workshop, Write on Lake Atitlan, focused on memoir, the sessions provided valuable information no matter the type of writing. Over those days, Joyce worked through the essays we’d submitted in individual sessions. After a couple of days, she depended more and more on workshop participants to identify some of the common mistakes we made in our lessons on writing.
Here are some of the lessons I learned:
- Short sentences are powerful. We often rely too much on strings of word to convey a thought or move a narrative forward. Joyce shared the advice of Verlyn Klinkenborg, who wrote an entire book on short sentences. His advice: remove connectors like ‘if,’ ‘and,’ and ‘but.’ Pare down words instead of adding them. Rely more on direct language. Avoid being evasive. Construct sentences that focus on simple words choices. I found this advice particularly helpful, as one of my weaknesses has been overwriting.
- Avoid clichés. Clichés are well-worn words and phrases—like ‘apple of my eye.’ Creating shorter sentences requires more attention to the words we use. A cliché, a form of lazy writing, takes the punch out of those short sentences we aspire to write. Our work improves as we search for unique words to substitute for those clichés.
- Pluck out those ‘to be’ verbs. In revision, I try to weed out every ‘was’ or ‘were’ unless there is absolutely no other alternative. Often, the process is simple—as simple as ‘flipping’ the sentence. “The only sound in the room was the beating heart,” flips to “The heart beat the only sound in the room.”
- Find a ‘container’ for your story. Don’t try to make it about everything. Choose the elements that fit into that container that you can name—e.g., “my mother’s decision to remarry”—and leave out everything that doesn’t fit.
- Be mindful of story arcs. Most writers who study the craft understand this. A story isn’t that this happens and this happens and this happens. Instead, the arc begins with a situation, followed by an event that results in a change or has an impact, and ending with the changed situation. An essay contains the entire arc. Larger works are made up of individual chapters that add the pieces to the arc with a tease at the end of each chapter to keep the reader reading.
- Put yourself in the story. As a fiction writer, I had resisted the idea of writing a memoir. After a few days in the workshop, I started to rethink my resistance. Even though I don’t deny that I include parts of myself in what is largely a fictional protagonist, I often prefer to act as observer in personal essay, telling what I know of the stories of others. I’m working on adding my own story to the larger story of an essay.
I may never take that step of writing a memoir, but there’s no doubt that my writing following the workshop will change for the better. As with my other experiences on that beautiful volcanic lake, the learning comes with a dose of mystical inspiration.