I work for a college. I write probably anywhere between one to three stories a week, many of which are profiles about faculty, students, or alumni. I write so much of this content that it’s become routine, and while it’s good to have muscle memory and to be able to crank out quality work quickly, it can feel sometimes like I’m just going through the motions. Like I’m following a formula: Start with a catchy quote, add in a lede, don’t forget the nutgraf, marketing message/narrative, marketing message/narrative, marketing message/narrative, end with a strong quote.
Formulas aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Structure makes things readable. New York Times bestsellers and Hollywood blockbusters are the stuff made of formulas (e.g., Taken vs. Stolen—OK maybe not the best example of quality work, but there you have it). Our job as writers is to help the reader forget about the writing and get immersed in the story—and that’s exactly what happens when you have a solid structure in place. So I’m not totally against using a formula.
But I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting ways to start and end my stories, and sometimes the formula just doesn’t cut it when I’m trying to capture the essence of the person I’m writing about or the message I’m trying to tell. Plus, following a formula can feel soul-sucking. And especially in the creative nonfiction world, it’s hard to share meaningful stories about life when your work doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an authentic place.
To counter this, sometimes I find that I need to fall back in love with the writing process. Reading helps. For pleasure, of course, but at times like these, it’s also to hunt for new structures I can use to tell my own stories. Whenever I read someone else’s brilliant work, it helps breathe new life back into my own. Here are some takeaways I learned from my last hunt.
Metaphors can provide a starting (and ending) place for your story.
I admire this piece by Abby Norman about healthcare in America for its use of metaphor. Norman starts her story with a personal experience, about how she drove two hours in a snowstorm so she could get an MRI using her health insurance before the end of the year. In describing her illness, she uses the powerful image of a wolf:
“It’s almost as though my brain and body have some kind of rivalry I have to untangle. A bloodthirsty ouroboros. I can’t seem to satisfy both. Just when I think I’ve got one figured out, the other lifts its head and screams. It’s like that parable with the wolves: the good and the bad. The one that wins is the one you feed. Except I don’t know which is good and which is bad. Or if any are bad.”
She ends the story by coming back to that image:
“I didn’t care which wolf wanted to curl up in its den for winter, and which one wanted something to drink. I turned up both my palms in surrender and waited for them to tear me limb from limb.”
We can’t be sure Norman set out to write with that image of a wolf in her mind, but this is a trick I now use when I have a topic I want to write about but am not sure how to begin. I ask, what images or comparisons can be used to explain the feeling or message I want to convey? This exercise always seems to spark creativity—the metaphors that come out of it can be surprising! Right now I’m working on an essay using entomology to examine the complexity of friendships…
Never underestimate the power of the practical.
In this story from Brown Alumni Magazine, the writer opens with an astronaut (a Brown alumna) debating which instrument she should bring with her to space—a saxophone, flute, or piccolo?
For those of us who aren’t rocket scientists (literally), this helps provide an easy entry point into the story (everyone has at one time struggled with deciding what to pack for a trip) while also giving us important descriptive clues about the background of the person being profiled (she’s an astronaut, and she can play three instruments!).
For those who have read about mindfulness, or about how to stay present in the moment, you’ll know that physical cues are often used to bring the mind back to the here and now—through a pinch on the palm, by examining objects in the room, focusing on breathing, etc. Turns out this is also a useful way to begin a story—by focusing on the tangible details before trying to paint the rest of the picture. I’m going to try this the next time I am grappling with writing about a complex topic. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time—what are the details that will resonate with everyone?
In “Life and Death Inside the Kitchen,” the writer does something similar by relaying details to make history sound current:
“If you really want to wow your guests at your next big dinner party, stop looking for recipes on Facebook and food magazines and start studying the tips proffered by ‘Triumphs and Trophies in Cookery, to be Used at Festival Times.’”
She goes on to give one of the recipes:
“For example, bake some pies, but instead of filling them with meat or fruit, try live frogs. Then, midway through the meal, cut open the pie.”
Doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s because the collection of recipes was published in London in 1660. The details are what draw us in and make us want to read more about the history. There’s power in relaying the practical.
Write about one moment.
Flash essays are some of the best pieces to read when you’re craving inspiration because they always pack a punch. Have you read After I Glimpse the Phenomenal Blurb on Page 153 by Charnell Peters in the last issue of the magazine? (Wow.)
In it, Peters starts with the moment when she read a footnote.
“We move to page 154. The walls moan like a grandmother who has walked up too many steps. Then they settle back into their braces. No one else seems to feel the shift when we flip past the gray call-out that details…”
Time seems to stop. Of course, this story is about something more than reading a footnote, but we have to begin by reading it to end where Peters wants us.
“The footnote is not about wrists in East Africa or period blood spilled in slave ships or stomped jaws in Civil Rights marches or Sunday pressed hair burned up with the bodies or baby bellies full of babies or vaginas gaped open in rape or bodies decaying in poverty or minds that look at words and just see letters or shoulders stuffed in jail cells or crack-rotted teeth or mouths forming all the wrong black things.…
“I dug for seventeen years to find this one statistic in a textbook. With no footnote. I’m at a full stop. The class spills on to somewhere else. I can’t go with them. It took me so long to get here.”
Think about the moments that stick out in your memory, when time stopped and you couldn’t go on. Why? What was significant about that moment? There’s your inspiration, no formula needed.
What articles have inspired you recently? Leave a comment, we’d love to hear.
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