It’s natural to want to put pen to paper to unravel a story, whether it’s your own personal story or something something you’ve conjured up in your head. Authors of memoir, fiction and poetry all share the creative process. Local writers shared how ideas can transform when put to paper.
Make it a memoir
Carrie Cariello didn’t consider herself a writer prior to publishing her memoir, What Color is Monday?, in which she shares stories of her family and particularly her autistic son Jack. The memoir began with one moment, when her family was on vacation and a stranger with his dog calmly invited Jack, who is terrified of dogs, to come over and meet them and pet the dog. That one moment was the inspiration for the first chapter of What Color is Monday?
“I was really not a writer at all prior to this,” Cariello said during a phone interview. “But [that] was kind of a turning point for me.”
“Memoir tends to focus on a particular circumstance, instance or experience in a person’s life,” Cariello’s publisher, Michael Charney, said. “And that would distinguish it from autobiography.”
Charney is an editor and publisher for Riddle Brook Publishing, an independent publishing house in New Hampshire. According to Charney, one of the keys to writing a memoir is to create a narrative arc that shows change in the character (or the author, in this case).
“Without that, it becomes a series of short episodes,” he said.
“That arc was tricky for me because my book started out kind of a series of essays that were slightly unrelated; they jumped back and forth in time,” she said. “That was something Michael was incredibly diligent about. As a writer, I’m not an editor. … I find it’s not inspiring, it’s not particularly creative but it's critical to a successful book.”
Now Cariello is a frequent blogger. She often gets her ideas while driving and will write them down when she gets home. What readers love about her blog posts, she said, is that like memoirs, they offer an inside look into another person’s life.
“I do think the reason it [memoir] is so saturated in the market is that it normalizes people,” she said. “We’re desperate for someone to say, ‘You’re living your life okay. … I felt very comfortable putting my book along with the others on the shelf.”
When one of her sons wrote a chapter in What Color is Monday?, Cariello told him to write all his thoughts down and then repackage it in a way that makes it interesting for someone else to read. That’s what makes a great storyteller, she said.
“I do find that writing is such a creative high for me,” she said. “What appeals to me about memoir is that I’m very willing to be vulnerable, and to let people have a glimpse into my life.”
Monica Bilson, chair of the New Hampshire Institute of Art department of creative writing, said that many of her students have a desire to write their own personal story but find it challenging.
They’re not alone. Take Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It started out as a memoir when Vonnegut wanted to put his own experience of World War II on paper. Instead he fictionalized his own story “to get some distance,” Bilson said, and added time travel and aliens to the mix.
Although Bilson said the aliens and time travel were also ways for him to deal with his PTSD, Vonnegut was able to create a fictional story out of his own experience.
“Sometimes the only way to get at the truth is through exaggeration and absurdity,” Bilson said. “That’s why we like comedy so much.”
Because there are so many places you can go when writing fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. Bilson recommends using writing prompts, like writing from your senses. For example, write about a location you remember from your childhood, but only write about how it smelled or how it looked.
You can also start with a basic outline, diagram or flowchart, either on a computer or using good old-fashioned pen and paper (Google “J.K. Rowling’s handwritten notes” if you want to see how Harry Potter materialized — almost as if from magic! — out of Rowling’s scrawls and scribbles.)
Regardless of how you get started, if you’ve got a good story to tell, the key is to just start writing.
As Stephen King said in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
“There really is that zone when you’re writing, and you don’t want to get away from it and nothing can distract you,” said Kyle Potvin, president of the New Hampshire Poetry Society. “One idea is leading to the next, and you come out with this line that’s unexpected.”
Poetry is known for its expressive nature, which means it’s a good means for telling a story, or even one small piece of a story.
Potvin said “some people have a line that comes to them and will go from there,” but you can also just start with an idea. And although a poem doesn’t have to rhyme, structure can be helpful in the creative process.
“Some people say you're contained and in a box, but I think there’s a lot of creativity that comes from that,” she said. “There are a lot of people who might like to just play with words and thoughts, and no desire to publish anything or show it to anyone. … Poetry can be really valuable there.”
Poetry can also be therapeutic. After battling cancer, Potvin and her friend Tammi Truax founded the Prickly Pear Poetry Project as a way for people to process the cancer experience through poetry.
Anyone affected by cancer (survivors, family members, partners, caretakers) can come together for group workshops to read and write poetry and to find an outlet for expression.
“I personally think that certain forms of writing speak to different people. You’ll probably know which form you’ll want to use,” Potvin said. “Some people may feel more attracted to a memoir or a short essay and others may feel more attracted to poetry. If you’re somewhere in the middle — try it. … I would love to write a novel, but I just write poems.”
As seen in the April 3, 2014 issue of The Hippo.