Good morning! Today’s Thursday Quick-Write shines a light on nonfiction – something our guest author Laurie Ann Thompson does beautifully. Laurie is the author of BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS and EMMANUEL’S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH.
Writing From the Heart: Putting Yourself Into Your Story
I worked on draft after draft of the text that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream—a true story about a man from Ghana with a disabled leg—for six years before I landed my agent and two more years after that before the manuscript finally sold. I’d done all my research and had written a competent biography. People read it and enjoyed it. But the most common feedback I received was, “Good writing. Unfortunately, there’s just something missing.”
At various points along that bumpy road to publication, I will admit that I occasionally became discouraged. During one particularly low period, my well- meaning husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you—an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin—writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to drop it and move on.” My first reaction was OUCH, but then I started to wonder… maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why did his story affect me so deeply? Why did I feel it was important for children to hear? Could I convey that in a meaningful way?
It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask in order to come up with a brand-new draft that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts in the right order, but what was missing was heart—my heart. I’d been so focused on writing the truth that I’d carefully removed my own feelings from the page. But isn’t real emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth to share with others? When I finally sat down and got clear about my why for telling that story, the how to tell it best revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it wasn’t a story about having a disability. It was about being counted out, challenging an unfair and discriminatory system, and making the world a better place. With that in mind, the heart of my story became clear.
Since then, I’ve used the same approach for every book I’ve written. For example, for my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, my why was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing where to begin. For my simple picture book, My Dog Is the Best, it was how important my canine companions have been to me throughout the years, despite their various idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Readers may take their own, different meanings from my books, of course, but they won’t be able to until I’ve purposefully injected the proper bits of myself into the books first.
This all feels like it should be obvious to storytellers, yet clearly it took me years to figure out, and even then I only stumbled upon it by accident. In my school visit presentations, I recommend making every single writing assignment uniquely relevant to you, the author, by finding a way to tie it to your own personal interests and concerns, and there’s always an audible gasp of excitement—from students and teachers alike. And just last week a well-published author whom I admire greatly was discussing her struggles with her current work in progress. When I asked what her why was for writing it in the first place, she said she’d never thought about it that way before but couldn’t wait to apply it to her next round of revision!
So, in case it wasn’t obvious to you either, here’s an opportunity to get good and clear on your why and put the missing pieces of you into your work.
Prompt 1: Go somewhere quiet and calm your mind. Turn off your busy brain and focus on your deepest emotions. Think about your current work in progress, if you have one. If not, think about something you’ve already written for Teachers Write. If you haven’t started writing yet, just think about why you want to write in the first place. Now journal for ten minutes about the following questions:
Why must you tell this story?
What are you really writing about?
Why do you care so much?
What meaning are you trying to create for yourself?
Optional: Once you’ve completed that exercise, go back and look at your work in progress to see if there are ways to put your most authentic self more prominently into your story. Is the work achieving what you’re really wanting it to? Where can you make adjustments that will reveal a bit more of your innermost heart?
Prompt 2: You can also use this basic concept to brainstorm new story ideas!
Write down a list of things that make you feel any kind of strong emotion: happy, sad, scared, angry… you name it. Think about why each item on your list makes you feel the way it does. Is there a story there? Make a document or folder where you can store these kinds of ideas whenever and wherever the emotion strikes!
Whatever you choose to write, feel free to share a paragraph or two in the comments today!