Benefits of a Writing Workshop

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I have become distracted. Somewhere along the way my original purpose for writing this blog lost its way and, instead of writing about writing, I’ve used this space for sharing some of my writing projects, such as memoir writing and social history. But hopefully I’ve remained faithful to the whole idea of writing stories – my stories, your stories, the stories so many of us like to read because we can relate to them.

This morning I attended a two hour creative non-fiction writing workshop, the writing I spend about half of my writing life doing. This was the first writing workshop I’ve attended for a few years. I came away with more than I expected.

A writing workshop ideally offers us opportunities to write, to put into practice what we’re focused on. Yes, I came home with a piece of new writing developed at this morning’s workshop. But I came home with even more.

Perhaps even more stimulating was the contact with other writers, all writing different stories, all having something valid to say, most of whom I’d never met before. I enjoyed being exposed to different styles of writing and discussing them. I also listened to how each writer faced challenges in their writing lives.

Writing tends to be an isolated task. A writing workshop brings us into contact with other writers. For me this was more powerful than the piece of writing I produced.

If you have the opportunity to be part of such a session, grab it. There’s something quite powerful about thinking about and talking about writing, while producing the start of a new piece of work and receiving feedback.

Have you had similar experiences?

Writing Memoir – How Do You Remember So Much?

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For the past few years my major focus has been writing memoir, recording aspects of my life in the 1950s and 1960s. By capturing small snippets of my everyday life, I’ve been able to preserve memories from the past. The above photo certainly is my first recalled memory of going swimming, something that became a major focus of my teenage years.

After the publication of my 1950s school memoir, ‘West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s’ many people asked me, “How do you remember so much?  I’d forgotten all those things”. I don’t think my memory is any better than other people, but I’ve trained myself to recall incidents hiding somewhere in my brain. I also discovered the more I write my memories down, the more I remember.

I think one of the most important things is to keep your memoir writer’s brain switched on at all times. Almost anything you do in everyday life can be a trigger to memories from a previous time in your life. You need only to be receptive to the triggers around you. A supermarket queue can prompt memories of grocery shopping in earlier times. The doctor’s waiting room can prompt memories of childhood sickness.

One powerful trigger of my own memories is talking to other people. As I wrote my school memoir I engaged similar aged people in conversation about their own school days. Often they’d remember something I’d forgotten and so yet another memory surfaced. Other people love to share their past and once they’re aware you’re working on a memoir project they’re usually happy to compare notes of similar experiences. This adds depth to your own memories. I’ll certainly be talking to many of the people in the swim team below as I work on my latest project, the story of our local swimming baths in the 1960s.

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Old photos also enable memories to be recalled.  When you look at an old photo try and recall as much about the occasion as you can and write your memories down. Ask other people who may remember the photographed event about  their memories of the occasion.

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Reading other material, both fiction and non-fiction from the period being written about is another way of bringing memories back, reminding you how people behaved at the time, giving authenticity to your writing.

Always think of yourself as a memoir writer and keep your mind open. You never know when a little detail will present itself to you. Write remembered incidents down as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter if anecdotal stories are written out of order. There’s plenty of time to organize them and improve your writing later. The important thing is to start writing. You’ll be surprised how easily memories start flowing in.

Do you use other ideas that act as memory triggers? Be sure to share them with us here.

Reminder to Myself – The Need for Consistency

I’ve been reading lots of sound blogging advice lately, information worth reading. Some of the advice was new to me and contained a few things I need to get my head around here in this blogging world. Other things I was familiar with, but had allowed to drift into the back of my awareness and needed to be reminded of. I am grateful for both kinds of information.

One thing I still need to establish  as I start out on this blogging life is consistency in my posting. Saying it has been a crazy year is just an excuse. My posts so far have appeared more as an element of surprise, dropping unexpectedly out of no where. For this reason I’m grateful for the followers who read regularly and to those who pop in here from time to time.

Next week I start a new job, with consistent hours, so I know what I’m doing when. This will provide me with more time and energy for writing, including blogging. I enjoy following blogs with a daily theme to their posts, so readers know what to expect when. I’m going to try and do the same, though this may be a habit that takes time to become consistent. My initial aim is to become more consistent in the regularity of my posts.

I’d love to read others thoughts on this need for consistency. I’m sure, if I can achieve it, this will be worth attempting. Please share  any tips you may on how you achieve this.

Dead Ideas Sent to the Morgue

Sometimes things are meant to be, or not meant to be as is the case for me right now. I went to bed early tonight, tired after an early start to a busy day.  My brain, however, had other plans. Elusive Ideas swirling above me all afternoon in a game of tag now decided to come close enough to be caught. I turned on the light, grabbed my pencil – my preferred writing tool – and the notebook I keep beside the bed for such moments.Sleep wouldn’t come until those ideas were captured.

Ping! Without warning the room plunged into darkness. Why hadn’t I listened when I told myself to buy a couple of new spare light bulbs today? I refused to be defeated and grabbed my laptop sitting beside the bed for such middle of the night emergencies.

For some reason, when the light went out it did so in more ways than one. The ideas laughed at how daring they’d been to tempt me into full wakefulness and ran away to hide, leaving me sitting staring at a blank computer screen.

I could do a little research, perhaps find out something about the morgue that sat on the site before the old swimming pool was built in 1917. Have you ever tried to find out about morgues long since closed? The lights were definitely out on that idea. Google shook its head and refused to part with any information about morgues in my part of the world. Maybe I need to establish one for dead ideas.

So, here I sit, wide awake, tapping away at the keyboard lit only by the light of the screen. I may as well make use of my time. Next I’ll check out a few recent blog posts before trying to drift off to sleep again. Light bulbs will definitely be on my shopping list tomorrow.

One Mistake is One Too Many – Check Your Facts

In my recent 1950s school memoir, I made a small mistake. But even one small mistake is one too many. This mistake involved a date only one person would notice. I wrote a year date incorrectly, giving one person longer at school than the average person. Most people wouldn’t pick up the error, but my brother did. He wasn’t impressed.

A quick phone call during the writing, to check with him when he left school, would have eliminated the error. I chose to think I could work it out for myself. That choice, while not too harmful, was a bad choice.

One thing I’m learning, as my writing turns more toward creative non-fiction, is the need to get my facts right. Simple phrases, while seeming to add my personal touch to the story, often need to be altered. For example, I recently started a sentence in my work in progress on the trees of my district, “Since the beginning of time ……”

Whoa! I can’t write that. How do I know the trees of the once magnificent forest had been there since the beginning of time? I don’t and neither does anyone else. The realisation enabled me to change the whole paragraph and, I believe, give me a far better piece of writing.

Writing creative non-fiction is a new venture for me and is proving a fascinating challenge. I can’t make anything up, but I’m enjoying telling a story my own way. I’m enjoying the research involved, even for such a short piece as 1000 words, such as the tree piece I’m working on.

At the moment I’m reading and researching more than I’m writing, all for the sake of 1000 words. This is definitely proving to be worthwhile. The facts need to be right. I’m not a historian. A reader out there is bound to have more expertise than I do.

The message then is to verify all the facts, make sure they are the truth. The way I’ll choose to write the story is slowly taking shape in my mind. But I need to remember, one mistake is one too many – I need to check my facts.

What do Roast Beef and Writing Have in Common?

Last night I hosted a family dinner and, as the weather has been cooling in anticipation of winter, I decided to cook a roast meal. This is always an easy way to feed a large group. Others had the responsibility of providing the befores and afters. I started early in the afternoon, knowing if I rushed my piece of meat would become dry and stringy. We’re in the middle of the TV MasterChef series here in New Zealand at the moment, so I felt the need to prove my personal cooking skills had benefitted from my time spent watching the programme.

Roast beef hasn’t been on the menu for awhile, so I decided to look to the internet to brush up my skills. I read and followed the instructions for cooking a roast to perfection and admit I wasn’t the only one delighted with the outcome.

This morning, still gloating over my success as I read a few blog postings over coffee, I became aware of how cooking roast beef is similar to producing a piece of writing. Here’s my advice for a succulent and flavoursome feast – with apologies to the creators of the original advice at http://www.themainmeal.com.au

Roast – or write – from room temperature. Interpret this as letting your idea sit in the temple of your mind a short while, as the project  adapts to the task ahead. Let your idea test the room temperature before you rush in with insufficient understanding of how you’ll proceed.

Pre-browning and seasoning – brainstorm your writing ideas before you start. This will keep your juicy ideas within the framework of your writing, helping the writing to stay focussed and not lose any of its potential impact.

Size up your roasting dish – establish the best fit for your writing, whether this be short story, poem, novel or maybe a short blog piece.

Heat the oven to suit  – having decided what shape or form your writing idea will take, flesh out your idea with a little more brainstorming.

Test for doneness – writing may not respond to tongs or thermometers, but it does benefit from being read through thoroughly. Ask questions to see if the piece says what you intended it to.

Rest the roast before carving – don’t be in a hurry to submit your work for publication. Let it sit awhile. Return with a fresh mind and make any necessary adjustments.

Season for extra flavour – sprinkle a little detail throughout to add to the flavour.

Follow this advice and you’ll produce a written feast enjoyed by the guests for whom it is intended.

Happy cooking , er, writing.

Opening Closed Doors in Your Writing

Some time ago I came across an exercise in a writing book that involved pausing in front of a closed door, thinking about both the door and what lay on the other side in detail. The idea intrigued me and I tried a couple of times, but the doors were always too familiar and I was in too much of a hurry. However, the idea of closed doors as a feature in writing stuck in my mind.

Without realising  I’d already used this feature in my published book, West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s. The first chapter, ‘The Door Opens,’ starts like this:

“I stood as a four year old on the concrete steps, the wooden door closed in front of me. Tomorrow I’d be five and my school life would begin. The building seemed like a barrier in front of me, not at all friendly. I clutched my mother’s hand. Mum smiled down at me.”

On the last page I wrote,

“Six years earlier a little girl stood at the school door, ready for the next chapter of her life to begin. Now the time had come to close the door and open a new one.”

Doors are important in our lives, both literally and figuratively. We are forever opening doors and experiencing whatever is on the other side of a closed door. The door can be real, revealing something unexpected on the other side, or could be in our mind, leading to new opportunities.

I’m now more aware of how authors use doors in their writing when I read. Such an easy little trick adds detail, builds anticipation and delays suspense. Imagine your character pausing at the door of a familiar place, placing his hand on the handle and using senses to consider the moment.  What will turning the handle and opening the door mean for the rest of the day?

The character gets time to think about what lies ahead. The writer has an opportunity to flesh out the character with a little, showing readers what drives them. The pause doesn’t need to be long, a few fleeting seconds can reveal a lot.

Why not try this trick yourself, with both familiar and unfamiliar entrances. As you reach to touch the handle of the closed door, think about what this means for you. Capture the brief moment in your mind before you enter. Build suspense about what lies ahead.

Now try the same with one of your characters next time they open a door to enter a room or building. Let their eyes take in all the detail, reveal their thoughts  as they touch the handle. Let whatever’s on the other side be revealed slowly as the door opens, or maybe so quickly it has an entirely different affect.

If a barrier holds you back with your writing, imagine it as a door. Go through the same process of pausing, considering and opening so you can move forward.

Opening doors in your writing may seem such a little trick, but it can be an effective addition to a scene when the moment calls for it. Why not try it?