Sunday, July 29, 2012

embracing the essay

I'm still in recovery mode following the Mayborn Conference last weekend in Dallas! My brain is still mush. Never mind the fact that, due to weather related delays, numerous re-bookings of my flights and missed connections, I won an overnight stay in Detroit compliments of Delta, of course, I was sixteen hours late arriving in Dallas and two hours late for the conference on Friday morning. Mush.

If you write any kind of narrative nonfiction you should definitely consider attending this conference next year. For two days we were dazzled by Pullitzer Prize winning reporters, correspondents, film makers, and biographers including Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), and Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America), as well as a host of other award winning writers.

Interestingly, the theme of this year's conference was "Crossing Genres--Using Storytelling Techniques in Narrative Nonfiction." This is a stretch for reporters and the like who were trained to tell the facts and only the facts--who, what, where, why, when--and then, only if they could prove them.

My goal in attending this conference was to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could about writing the essay. The critique and revision workshop I attended on Friday did the job. Our group was moderated by author and freelancer Bill Marvel.

Bill Marvel

I've been asked to share some of what I learned from him, so I am posting the critique questions we were asked to respond to when we reviewed one another's work. If you are writing an essay, ask yourself these questions:

          --Does your opening or "lead" draw the reader in by teasing his interest, creating a mystery, a puzzle, or a question that in some way grabs and holds his attention?

          --Is the theme of your story clearly stated; that is, does it answer the question, what's this story all about and, more importantly, why should we care? Typically, when the theme isn't clearly stated, the story will start to meander in different directions.

          --Does the opening or "lead" of your story relate to its theme? Even when a lead is clever and well written, it has to connect to the main theme of the story or readers will usually stop reading. Every writer has an assumed "contract with the reader" to deliver what's promised. If the story doesn't deliver what the lead promises, readers typically feel violated and stop reading. 

          --Have you used specific, concrete details and facts that are fresh and relevant, or did you resort to vague or abstract generalities.

          --Does your story touch the reader emotionally? Does it provoke, enrage, incite, delight, numb, make us laugh, make us cry, or in other ways, move the reader on an emotional level? If the story doesn't engage us emotionally, we're not likely to keep reading no matter how good the writing.

          --Does your story deliver sufficient proof to make it credible? Put another way, does the story demonstrate that you have done your research? Does it contain telling details, facts, statistics, quotes, and other material from a variety of primary and secondary sources to validate the main themes and sub-themes of the story?

          --Does your story provide historical context that helps illuminate the current dvelopments and the characters who are acting or being acted upon by the current development?

          --Does the story have parts and a structure that fits together into a coherent whole, with a clear beginning, middle, and end? A well-crafted story makes the reader's journey both practical and
          --Have you identified and sufficiently developed the dramatic elements of the story: conflict, contention, confusion, and resolution?

          --Do the people represented in the story come axross as multi-dimensional characters or talking heads? Do they come across as human beings who think, feel, laugh, and cry? Or do they come across as flat, lifeless automatons?

          --Do you employ metaphor, scenes, dialogue, and other storytelling devices to make your story more vivid, to help it come alive on the page?

          --Does your story possess a lyrical quality? That is, does the story give the impression that you have considered the tone of the story, the sound of the language, the rhythm, rhyme, and pacing of the prose?

Each of these elements is important in the writing of cohesive, engaging, and compelling essay or narrative report. I'm already hard at work on my revisions. I hope this proves to be as helpful to you as it was for me.
"It always comes back to the same necessity:
go deep enough and
there is a bedrock of truth, however hard."
--Mary Sarton--
I'll be away on retreat next weekend, working on my faith, hope, and love.


  1. Sounds like you had a great conference. I've never tried writing nonfiction that wasn't a part of a grad class or something for work.

  2. Great summary stuff, sis! We're taking it with us for our conference. Thanks! Have a great weekend retreat!

    - Pete

  3. Thanks, Pete. Have a great time at Omega! So jealous...

  4. It definitely sounds like a great conference with a lot of excellent tips. :)