By Amy Renshaw
This summer, I had the pleasure of hanging out in a log cabin with a group of skillful nonfiction writers in a residency program organized by the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. Over the course of a fun weekend, I learned a few things.
1. It’s pronounced SEAR-IN-NAY-KUH.
It means “siren of the sea,” according to fishermen from Uruguay. I’m not sure why the fishermen have a language that differs from people with other occupations, but I did feel pulled away from my mundane responsibilities to focus on writing. However you pronounce it, it’s an alluring concept.
2. Everybody struggles with first drafts.
Author and former UW-Eau Claire professor John Hildebrand shared early drafts from essayists E.B. White and George Orwell, and we compared them to the finished versions. Studying only perfected, final drafts is like trying to learn construction by only looking at finished houses, John said. The key is to keep working until you’ve built the best piece that you possibly can.
3. Put more of yourself into your work.
Nonfiction is telling the truth, but there are lots of ways to tell it. Bring in your own opinions, describe things in your own words, study photographs to get visual impressions, and make your work uniquely original. Even a biography that’s been told and retold dozens of times can take on new life with a fresh perspective.
4. Provide interesting context.
It’s the privilege of the storyteller or historian to be able to see the big picture. If your subject lived through wars, persecution, or social upheaval, spell it out. Talk about the location, culture, and setting of the story.
5. Help readers to envision the characters.
A few words describing each person who’s named in the piece can enable the reader to form a clear mental picture. If the person isn’t key to the story, don’t give a name. In a memoir or personal essay, remember that you’re a character, too.
6. Recognize the value of feedback from others.
Hearing what works and what doesn’t work from supportive people who care deeply about writing is immensely valuable. In addition to the group at the weekend residency, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild website offers connections to writing groups in a variety of genres and styles.
7. Read your stuff out loud.
At Cirenaica, one evening featured a reading that was open to family and friends. Beforehand, UW-Eau Claire professor Allyson Loomis shared helpful tips. She suggested reading at a slower pace than usual, practicing ahead of time, and timing your performance (5-7 minutes was the target length that evening). Allyson also encouraged including a “potato chip”—one tasty idea that makes the audience think or laugh.
8. Less is more.
Most writers were urged to consider cutting out early pages or paragraphs, or even chopping off the ending, to focus on the compelling action in our stories. Preparing for the reading on Saturday night was a useful exercise in trimming the excess.
9. It’s never too late to start.
Some members of our group were from the retired set, and their stories were fresh and appealing (one person wrote about riding a bike around his Oahu neighborhood during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941). We all have memorable experiences that others will enjoy hearing about.
10. Cold oatmeal tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Seriously. Mix uncooked oatmeal with milk, yogurt, fruit, and nuts, and put it in the fridge overnight. It could fuel your genius.