Buy Now


Back To School
Outdoors Unlimited, February/March 2014
Thanks to grant money from OWAA’s 2013 John Madson Fellowship, I participated in an online creative nonfiction* workshop through the University of California at Berkeley. Students had half a year to complete the assignments for each of the course’s modules, which covered memoirs, essays, reviews, and interviews. All the assignments required a more personal style of prose than I was accustomed to using and excavating my own life for thoughts and experiences I didn’t realize still loitered in memory. For me, the value of the course wasn’t only in the new tips I gleaned but in reacquainting myself with some old writing truths I had been neglecting. Here are just three of the many lessons I found helpful:
1. Use Sentence Fragments Sparingly
Most writing gurus allow for occasional well-placed sentence fragments when you want to emphasize a point, with occasional being the operative word. However, if utilized too frequently, my instructor informed me, “they become annoying” (ouch). I had been unaware that I had slid so deeply into this questionable realm until it was called to my attention. After recasting several sentence fragments into their complete identities with both a subject and predicate, I saw how their cohabiting the same statement clarified its meaning. When I revised my longest essay, which housed five of these undesirables, I retained only the most compelling—a not-so-grand total of one.
2. Avoid Long Quotes
We all know quotes make our stories sparkle and add the dimension of sound so critical to readers. However, readers don’t always need to be given those sentences in the same sequence we acquire them through interviews. Replicating an entire portion of conversation can be overkill, as I discovered. One profile I wrote included a 10-line quote split by one attribution. The instructor commented, “Break up that long quote and draw our attention to parts of it.” The ideas within the quote were worth communicating but not all in the same paragraph. When editing the piece, I found places, which would otherwise have gone quoteless, where many of these lines fit perfectly. I also noticed from the course reading that the tightest quotes were often the most effective. For instance, in the essay “Beekeeper,” Sue Hubbell engagingly employs a minimalist approach with snippets such as, “Shore am” and “You the sweetest thing in Missouri?” I have to admit in my 20-plus years of writing I have rarely used a pithy two- or six-word quote. Now I look for them.
3. Don’t Rush Your Endings
After receiving feedback on my first few writing assignments, it became clear that my conclusions were not measuring up to the words that preceded them. Overall, the instructor liked the leads, hooks, and bodies of my stories but she consistently found fault with the endings. Some came across like I was “trying too hard” while others “lacked closure.” When I stopped to analyze why this problem kept recurring I got my answer. Since I start over from the beginning whenever I continue working on a story (it’s a good thing I don’t write novels), I’m constantly tweaking leads along with what comes next. By the time the finish line becomes visible I’m typically focused more on wrapping things up quickly than in wrapping them up rightly with a seamless transition followed by one or two artfully crafted paragraphs. Without knowing my M.O. the instructor had detected it. Although I have always tinkered with conclusions to try and make them memorable, it’s been years since they received the same careful attention bestowed on the previous sections of each story. Consequently, I spent untold hours polishing the ending of my 2700-word final project until it reflected the humor and insight I was aiming for. My efforts were rewarded with, “Great quote; good placement. An excellent piece!”
Other Impressions From My Class Notes
•   Read more and read more widely to be inspired by the work of other writers.
•   Read more critically and consider why you do or don’t like a piece.
•   Give yourself lots of time to complete assignments.
•   Take some risks and have confidence in the ideas that come to you.
•   Don’t hesitate to start over if you aren’t passionate about your subject. As my instructor said, “Good writing tends to come from intense personal interest.”