I showed up in a church basement a few weeks ago to report a narrative story about a group of writers. I spent a few hours with them, listening as they discussed their stories with their teacher. I came away with a powerful story that you can read online.
But I also came away with a lesson that we can all use in our work. And it’s a lesson that will improve your writing.
Writing is a solitary pursuit. When we read, we see only the finished, polished piece. That can be daunting for writers beginning to dabble in narrative journalism. They don’t see the false starts and dead-ends. Most importantly, they don’t see the thinking that helped shape the piece.
I got that chance in the church basement. I watched stories come to life. In doing so, I was reminded that great narrative writing grows out of a feeling. A story is always about an emotion, not just a series of interlocking facts.
I’d found my way to the church because I’d heard about a fine arts academy for developmentally disabled men and women. In addition to choir and theater, the nonprofit school offered writing classes. Intrigued, I went to meet the writers and their teacher.
The students, who range in age from about 20 to nearly 60, deal with a wide range of disabilities. Some of them are mentally retarded. Others suffered brain damage at birth. A few are autistic. But trust me, all of them are writers.
“When the man from the funeral home put my mom in the black body bag and started to zip it up, I said, ‘Don’t cover her face. I don’t want her in the dark.’ He left the bag unzipped and waited for me to kiss her one last time and stroke her hair before he rolled the gurney out the front door. The door on the hearse closed almost without a sound. Bye, Mom.”
That excerpt was written by a 57-year-old woman who suffered brain damage as a child. Cheryl Adelman, the writing teacher at the Pacific Handicapped Artists, Musicians and Entertainers academy, said the author can hardly print her name, yet she has a wonderful ability to remember rich details that shape the stories of her life.
In story after story, I was moved by the purity of the emotion. Because of their limitations, not one of the authors fell into the trap of how to write. They didn’t latch onto a certain system or structure. And they didn’t procrastinate by reading book after book that promised to reveal powerful writing secrets.
All they did was write.
How many of us lose the purity of the emotion as we move from idea to reporting to structuring to writing? Are we writing for our peers, or the reader? Remember, our peers read a story much differently. Somewhere along the way, many of us lose the emotion and details that make the story come alive for our readers.
These novice writers are dealing with more obstacles than most of us encounter. yet they don’t have so many of the limitations that we impose on ourselves. They write with heart, from the gut, about what they feel.
For most of us, it’s the opposite. We have a template for a certain type of story. Or we “know” our editor doesn’t like “that” type of story. Our heart and instinct lead us in one direction, but we turn away. In succumbing to those thoughts we allow all emotion to be stripped right out of our stories.
Adelman’s students have terrible grammar and punctuation. Their handwriting can be little more than a scrawl. But that’s not what writing is about.
Adelman can fix those problems. And she does. But what she can’t do is supply the heart. That must come from the writer. She gets to that heart by talking with students, one on one, and helping them pull the stories from within.
Adelman reminds each student that it’s more powerful to show than tell. Use all five senses. She wants readers to hear what they hear, see what they see and touch what they touched.
“She was a good woman. She was a good baker. She made bread with yeast. And pumpkin bread with raisins and nuts. And banana bread without nuts. She was a good mom to all six of us. I’m second to the oldest. She’s been gone five years now. I miss her at different times. But especially when I smell bread baking.”
And this excerpt from another student:
“Who is the one that loves to eat, watch TV and work on the Jeep? Who is the one that loves to make me laugh and loves to sleep? The prisoner that is my dad. It will be five years till he comes back. Till then, the moon is out and the stars are bright, and whatever comes will be all right.”
We don’t have the luxury of having a teacher at our side as we report and write. So be your own teacher.
Before I left, I asked the students where the words came from. They struggled to explain, offering a shy smile and a shrug.
Others simply touched their hearts.
Now who’s the teacher?