Helping Hands for 2018

You may recall that I am enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction class at the VMFA Studio School this spring. The first day of class Amy Ritchie Johnson distributed a page of books labeled “resources” and “writing craft.” Resources turn out to be books she considers to be well-written examples of the the variety available in creative nonfiction—ranging from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans to a couple of local blog writers.


Under writing craft, the first book listed is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986) by Natalie Goldberg. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, pretty much anywhere, you’ve probably come across Goldberg fans. Writing Down the Bones is now out in the 30th Anniversary Edition. Yep, it’s been around that long—and is still relevant as ever, including writing advice and get-going exercises.


helping hands 2018 also natalie goldberg
If Writing Down the Bones is already an old, familiar friend, check out some of her other books. Consider her memoir and poetry. But if you really want to focus on writing craft, you can do that, too.


old friend wild mind natalie goldberg
So, I wasn’t surprised to see Writing Down the Bones on the class booklist. But seeing Ursula K. Le Guin there knocked my socks off.
steering craft 21st century guide sailing sea story
Apparently this book first appeared in 1998. This is now the 2015 edition. Le Guin labels the book “a handbook for storytellers—writers of narrative prose.” And it is just that. As you can see by the chapter titles, she’s organized it by the nuts and bolts of saying what you mean.


helping hands 2018
Although the topics sound mundane—if not actually boring—the book isn’t. Each section has excellent exercises and variations, and a very informative discussion of the topic. The extended sailing metaphor wore on me a bit, but the book is a very manageable 140 pages.


selected books ursula k leguin
Although I read some of her fiction decades ago, I never knew of her as a writing teacher. She died recently and this is her only book on the craft of writing. Buy it!
helping hands 2018 anne lamott
I’ll mention just one other book on the recommended list. I’ve had Bird By Bird on my shelves forever but haven’t read it. Maybe this year.


poets writers inspiration
Last but not least, consider this bi-mothly magazine for writers. This is the January-February issue and could be useful all year with the 52 IDEAS TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY IN 2018. You can see from the cover what the main topics are for this issue. In spite of the focus on poetry, much of the magazine is of interest to virtually everyone.


Lots of the contents never age, but the classifieds section is the exception. Calls for submissions and contests can be time sensitive.


Bottom line: there are a lot of helping hands for our craft. Take one or two—or more!

True, and Partly Factual

As you probably know by now, I collect books the way a magnet collects iron filings. Whatever you want to do with your writing life—or with your life in general—there’s a book for that! And probably a class as well. Do an online search for writing classes in your area and see what comes up! Some have a modest fee—or an immodest one! Check local libraries and retirement communities, which in the Richmond area often offer such instruction free.

Just now, writing memoir is popular, especially among older people. One of the points stressed in the recent James River Writers Conference panel on Compelling Characters was that even villains are heroes in their own stories. People want their hero stories known. So there are lots of classes on memoir writing, and books as well. These include Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away; Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions; Lisa Dale Norton’s Shimmering Images; Frank P. Thomas’s How to Write the Story of Your Life; and Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir.

Favorite memoir guides

Every writer’s heard the advice, “Write what you know.” And what do you know better than your own life, right? But memoir is supposed to be as thorough, true, and factual as the writer can make it. So memoir isn’t for everyone. And so far at least, it’s not for me. Of the dozens of short stories I’ve had published, none is memoir.

On the other hand, most of them are memoir-based fiction. Such fiction still tells a true story, but is based only partly on “what really happened.” There are fewer helpful books in this area—on my shelves, at least—but two recent favorites are by Meg Files and Robin Hemley.

memoir favorites
Write From Life by Meg Files and Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley

I’m working on a collection now titled Almost Family. As you might gather from that title, I include other people’s lives in my writing, too. One of my earliest publications was “The Pig Sticker.” The factual part of that story is my father and uncle butchering hogs. The true but fictional parts are everything else. In actuality, I was the toddler throwing my rag doll into the horse watering trough. In story as written, I was older, helping my mother and aunt with butchering-day chores and overhearing conversation that never happened. You can read that story here on my website. In Different Drummer, several of the stories are memoir-based, including “After The Fair,” which draws on three different women’s lives for the factual parts.

Different Drummer is memoir-based fiction
Different Drummer

Takeaway for writers

It’s perfectly legitimate to use bits of your real life or the lives of those you know in your writing. This is true whether you are writing memoir, essay, fiction, or poetry. As Susann Cokal told the audience at a past JRWC, “People will always look for you in your writing. If you write a mad, passionate sex scene that takes place on top of a desk, people visiting your office or study will look askance at your desk—and may even ask whether that’s the one.” To spare me—and my family—I like being able to say, “But it’s fiction!”