From my notes on the craft of writing short, personal essays, here are some of my favorite pieces of advice from the three-day conference:
1. Biological distortions of memory can unlock emotional truth. Ways to write around blocked or discarded memories: Use “I don’t remember…” then pick up with what you do remember. Hint at something early on that you barely recall, then later on articulate it in further detail. Writing can be fragmented to mirror clipped memories. (from Wendy Fontaine’s ‘Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails’)
2. There are acceptable lies. You can exaggerate as long as it’s obvious to the reader (and you can stick in, “It may only be my imagination, but…” You can change names to protect others; use composite characters to conceal identities and simplify the narrative; play with time to combine 10 vacations into one, for example, to focus on emotional truth instead of chronology (just be honest about it); and sketch around dialogue to highlight the punch-in-the-gut moments you can’t forget. (from James Stafford’s ‘Lying to Tell the Truth: Being Creative with Your Nonfiction)
3. Give yourself permission to have a thick skin. When you write about others in ways they won’t like, “They’re gonna get pissed. There’s no way to avoid that,” says Jesse Waters. Along the way, use humor to be self-deprecating in your writing and make sure adverbs and adjectives aren’t only negative. (from Waters’ ‘Family, Friends and Foes: Writing About What You Know You Know’)
4. Draw a map of a significant place you’d like to write about. Places serve as anchors for memories and deeply emotional connections. Landscapes inspire, allow for great reflection, and contribute to the lore of a community. (From Matt Skillen’s ‘Starting with Place: How to Leverage the Special Spaces in our Stories’)
5. From Gutkind: “What’s the story that will lead to the point? It’s not so much about the point. Think cinema.” And from Friedman: “Keep calm and write more.”
Oh, and the next time you’re at a conference, see if they serve chocolate chip cookies with chocolate milk between sessions.