That Strange Thing Called Writing, from Brian Doyle’s Talk in September

Notes From Brian Doyle’s Talk On Writing

Brian Doyle has pages and pages of books listed on Amazon, including Martin Marten, Mink River, Chicago, The Plover and more, and he needs no introduction from me. He introduces himself, educates, entertains, has us in stitches, has us almost in tears, reveals his feelings, his history and his stories, and then says he’s not a teacher and he doesn’t do seminars and workshops. If you missed this one, you missed a very special treat.

And at the end of his talk, he gave us some sourdough story starts. Why sourdough? Don’t think, write. Don’t think while writing. We’re storycatchers and our job is to catch the story. Take a line out for a walk, write, don’t plan the route across the keyboard, and see where it takes you.

Writing is a strange, awkward gift—a benign neurosis:

  • Teenagers might write for catharsis—what do I feel? Nobody feels like me… but
  • As adults we catch stories; it’s not about me; it’s about grace and substance and endurance and everyone else.
  • Every ending is a “now what?” not a “What about me?”

What’s the most important thing about writing? Learning what to leave out. Let the reader add the flesh. Don’t explain. Don’t plug all the plot holes. A story is a collaboration between reader and writer.

If we’re storycatchers, where do essays fit in? An essayist tells a story that’s big. A thousand books about 911 will tell you what happened. One story will place you there. Facts are small. News and information is small. Stories are big.

Questions from kindergartners:

  • How do you write so small all those words fit on the page? Remember, stories are BIG.
  • Do you know all the crows? Maybe people aren’t the only ones with thoughts worth writing down.
  • Is that your nose? Broken. Even a nose can tell a story.

Questions from junior high:

  • Why do you write? To get the girls? Well, it’s certainly not to get rich.
  • How do you become a novelist? Have some teenagers. Then you’ll know you can’t tell your characters what to do.
  • How do you become a writer? Get a job. You’ll never live off your writing.
  • Have you ever seen a miracle? The miracle of birth. There are miracles all around us.

Advice to writers: But doesn’t advice always switch people off? Tell stories. Don’t advise.

  • Don’t think, write.
  • Take an idea for a walk. Let the characters choose their own way. Then keep writing. Don’t stop just because they’ve chosen a different path.
  • Have some teens. Then you’ll know how it feels not to control your characters.
  • Don’t take things for granted. Words don’t measure everything. More words don’t measure more. Writing takes you to a shivering country where reader and writer stand together, without words.
  • Story is not persuasive writing – advice switches people off.
  • Play with language. Story matters more than rules.
  • Leave clues. Leave mystery. Leave things out.

Advice for editing:

  • Leave off the cosmic ending. You don’t need to explain things or tie up all the loose ends.
  • Leave out the elusive poetry. Philological genius is not narrative story
  • Remove any sermonizing.
  • Reduce explanation.
  • Remove yourself – even if it’s a personal essay, it should apply to everyone else. “I saw…” is great, but make sure everyone else sees it too.
  • A story is more than pretty images, no matter how well described.
  • Kill your adverbs, but not your adjectives.
  • Story still matters more than rules, but be clear. Don’t confuse, clog or congest your reader.

Questions from adults:

  • What sort of writer are you? Don’t get trapped by form. You’re a writer, not a poet, not a novelist. You write, and you write wherever the writing takes you.
  • What sort of writing do you do? Just have fun! Write lists. Write bathroom rules for sons. Write… If you don’t enjoy it, why are you writing?
  • How do you write? Take an idea for a stroll (along the keyboard). Find out if it wants to be an essay. Stop thinking. Just write.
  • If you’re not defining it by genre, what is writing? It’s is how we communicate those things we have no words for – like “What is love?” “What is God?”
  • Which comes first—story, symbols, theme? Keep typing, follow the story, figure the rest out later.
  • What if it’s not working? Writing’s meant to be fun. If it’s not fun, put it away. Don’t write if you’re bored. Come back to it later and it might be Mink River.
  • Where do ideas come from? There’s more stuff inside you than you know. You might have to let things out, let them go, take them for a stroll. If it doesn’t work, you can always throw it out. But if you don’t catch the story today you might miss your chance.
  • Why do you write? To connect to the reader. To ask “Don’t you feel this too?”

Questions from our group:

  • How do you fit a novel into a category? Don’t. If it’s good, the editor will read it without needing to know. Publishers will ask for categories so they can file it, books that it’s like so they can sell it, who’s going to read it so they know where to sell it. That last one is probably the most important.
  • How do you follow rules of punctuation? Don’t. Brian Doyle gets reviews where they ask if someone can spare him some a few periods since his sentences are so long. Do be clear. But don’t be bound by rules.
    • Note from your journal editors: You can disobey all the rules you want when you write and publish YOUR novel—every chapter is by the same author and displays the same author’s style. The reader soon becomes accustomed to the style, but…
    • In OUR anthology, ever piece is by a different author and the reader has no time to become accustomed to anything. The reason we impose a “house style” on your journal entries is to improve the reader’s experience.
    • e.g. we choose how to do ellipses, m-dashes, quotation marks etc in as nearly consistent a way as we can, so the reader knows what they mean on every page, so the writing is “clear” from page to page, and the reader keeps turning the page.
  • But you do need some commas and periods, right? Comma is a short pause. Semi-colon is longer. Period is a command—I said stop reading!
  • How do you do dialect? Why would you write something that’s hard to read? Keep it simple. Use a few special words or sentence structures. A little goes a very long way. Remember, it’s the story that matters, more than being lyrical, more than correct punctuation, more than dialect sounding exactly right
  • How do you do your research?
    • The web is your best friend, but check everything.
    • The libraries still have books.
    • Contact someone who knows. People love to talk. You might even be introduced as “the author…”
  • How do you market your books? Writing comes first.
    • Finished your book. Great. Write the next one
    • Find a publisher or d-i-y. Great.
    • Remember you can’t control sales, but you can make sure you keep writing.
    • Go to book stores, book clubs, etc. Book tours are dying out. Do book readings.
    • Get reviews.
  • What’s your most important piece of advice?
    • Writing’s not special. Just do it every day.
    • And write stories (catch stories) that matter.
    • Have fun.

A Writing Exercise, with sourdough story starts:

Our guest, Brian Doyle, entertained and educated us with a most excellent talk. Then we broke for snacks from Joe, drinks from Sheila, and a group photograph by Catherin for the journal.

When we reconvened, Brian offered us some “sourdough writing starts,” inviting us to actually spend part of our writers’ group meeting with pens and pencils in hand. Write, don’t think, was the theme. And the principal was, we never forget anything – we just misplace or misfile it. A random writing prompt can be the unexpected key that unlocks a treasure store. So here, for those of you who missed them, are prompts to that might hide your keys. Answer straight away, without thinking, from the top of your head.

  • What’s the best pair of shoes or sneakers you ever wore?
  • If you could rename yourself, what name would you choose?
  • If you had triplets, what names would you give them?
  • What’s the first sin you remember committing?
  • Who did you have a crush on?
  • What’s the most interesting face you ever saw?
  • What’s the first book that blew your mind?
  • What first addicted you to words?
  • What would be the theme of your collected essays?
  • What is Oregon to you?

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to choose one of your instant answers to one of the above and “take it for a walk.” Don’t think about where you’ll go with it. Just write.

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