Sunday, February 28, 2010

Advice Is Where You Find It

By Alex Raley

I recently attended a lecture by Claudia Brinson, a senior lecturer in English at Columbia College. A journalist for 30 years, Brinson’s accomplishments include an O. Henry award for her short story “Einstein’s Daughter” and a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her State newspaper colleagues for Hurricane Hugo coverage. What I remember most clearly about Brinson’s writing as a journalist is that it read like a good story, perhaps even a section of a novel. Nevertheless, its purpose was to report.

As she talked of her approaches to journalism, I realized that she was giving advice for all writers without regard to purpose or genre. High on her list is to write for the readers. As you write, keep in mind what the readers would want to know. Put them in the center and help them see and know what you see and know. Also important is to do thorough homework. Know the facts and figures that surround what you are going to write about. I suspect that when we begin writing fiction we are too often guilty of beginning the writing without thorough preparation.

Brinson cautioned us to observe in detail the surroundings of an event. She told us of an interview with a well-known politician in his home. She observed that the room’s bookshelves were filled with religious books. She learned that many persons in his family died early deaths. He felt that he was living on borrowed time. This information from observations and questions gave her a unique insight as she pursued her story. You may ask how this relates to fiction writing, but I suggest that we might consider constructing in-depth knowledge of our characters before we begin writing our story. We might even do a scenario of the home or place of work of a character to give him a firm setting. This could help as we develop that character throughout our writing.

As Brinson read portions of her articles, we became well aware that the stories had an emotional impact on her, as well as the listeners. During the question period of the lecture, she was asked how she handled emotions during her writing. She admitted to us that she often had deep feelings about situations as she pursued her stories, but when she sat down to write, she put her emotions aside. In writing fiction, we often work with stories that are rooted in some specific event we have experienced. We should be careful to take Brinson’s advice and put our emotions aside as we write. Perhaps we do that best when we write what readers want to know rather than what we want to tell.

I did not attend Brinson’s lecture for a review of writing skills, and I suspect that she did not intend to give such a review, but there it was, clear as a bell. Have you had such an unexpected experience? They just happen, don’t they?

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