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Welcome to Shaping Your Story!
We know there’s a lot to read here, so dive into our guidance at your own pace — absorb it all in one day, or tackle parts of it throughout the week.
If you’d like feedback on posts you publish, be sure to use the #shapingyourstory tag so others taking the course can find you, or visit the weekly Community Pool thread here and ask for constructive criticism; a new thread opens each Monday.
Week One: What’s Your Angle?
What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.
— Rebecca Solnit
They say that there are no new stories. In fact, author Christopher Booker suggests that every story ever told is a variation on seven basic plots. So, how do you differentiate your story from every other comedy, tragedy, memoir, quest, or rebirth? The answer is in the specific angle you use to tell your tale.
Consider Eric and Charlotte Kaufman’s story.
- According to CNN, the Kaufman story is a dramatic US Navy rescue. The Kaufmans’ storm-damaged boat is far out at sea — three weeks away from medical attention — when their baby becomes seriously ill. Legions criticize the Kaufmans for putting their daughter’s life in danger simply by being so far from land and modern medical facilities.
Same topic, distinct angles: Think about how people from all walks of life tell tales on a single topic. In the New York Times‘ column, Modern Love, you’ll read a mix of stories about love, relationships, and marriage.
What’s your take on a topic?
Ira Glass tells Eric and Charlotte’s story on This American Life, but from a very different angle: Eric and Charlotte are experienced sailors. They’re similar to many families who routinely make the same sea crossing with very young children. A series of mishaps forces Eric to call for help to ensure their baby’s safety. Calling for help, Eric and Charlotte knew they’d lose their boat — their family’s home — and all their belongings.
Anyone can tell a story using straight facts — the who, what, why, when, where, and how — of a story. What makes for the most interesting writing and the most interesting reading is discovering a new angle from which to tell that story.
Writer Rebecca Solnit on stories:
- “Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
Consider Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. In the book, she examines her somewhat fraught relationship with her mother through boxes and boxes of apricots harvested from the tree outside her mother’s house. Solnit could have just stated that her mother was a difficult, jealous woman. It’s much more interesting to consider a relationship through the metaphor of a box of fruit. Solnit writes:
Sometimes a story falls into your lap.
Once, about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There, they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed…The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother’s tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer where a new round of trouble began.
To gently nudge your muse:
- Is your story simply about a childhood trip to the beach, or about how your perspective on your dad changed when he taught you how to swim that day?
- Is your story about a fight you had with your best friend, or about how you learned that in giving in, you’re really gaining?
- Is your story about the drudgery of taking your know-it-all, impoverished father-in-law out for lunch each week — or that sometimes love and duty are the same thing?
- Is your story about the chaos and culture shock of traveling to Vietnam, or about how much you need and crave the growth that traveling offers?
- Is your story about the fact your mom was often mean-tempered when you were a child, or that you’re terrified that you’re exactly like her?
Finding your angle
Finding your angle can be the most challenging and rewarding aspect of the writing and editing process. Here are some ideas to help you find your angle in a piece of writing.
1) What makes you you?
Which elements of your experience and unique perspective couldn’t possibly be present in someone else’s story?
Canadian author David Bergen recalls overlooking the unique story angles that were right before his eyes as a young writer:
- At the age of twenty, having published nothing, and having had little guidance in my reading, I decided that I wanted to write. I was driving a feed truck that winter, making runs to the Canada Packers in Winnipeg where I picked up meat meal, ground-up bones and meat that would be mixed in with grain, which would then be fed to layers and broilers. The smell permeated my clothes and my nostrils. As I waited in line behind other truckers, I decided to use that time to write.
- Looking back, I should have been writing about the characters I met at Canada Packers, about the stories they told, spoken in great vernacular, about their lives, which were so different from mine. These were men who were in their forties and fifties and had worked at the same job for years. I was young, working a temporary job. I had my whole life before me. I was aware of these men, but didn’t see them as subjects for a novel or a story.
2) What original details do you see in your story?
Collecting original details:
- “If you ask a group of people to write about the contents of their closet, each person would likely approach the same subject from a different angle.” Adair Lara offers more tips to help you find your specific angle and gather the details you need for your story.
In Solnit’s case, the apricot tree (and one-hundred pounds of its fruit in various stages of decay) was the original detail that makes her familiar mother-daughter conflict unique. For Canadian author Lisa Moore, original details she collects during her day form what she calls the “glimmer of a beginning.”
Something might coalesce, a story charged with the significant, shimmering detritus of a single day, the flotsam of dreams and flux of crowds, intimate moments with strangers in elevators, errant lusts, the crunch of a peanut in a curried prawn dish. The thick scent of the organic oil of oregano I’d bought to fight a cold, a dense furry smell still clinging to the hotel glass I drank it from, just before dawn, a long way from home.
3) How can you mine your personal history for just the right angle?
Finding fodder in your own life:
- Dig into memories of “magical” childhood adventures.
Tap into your inner world of dreams.
- Think about the experiences that have moved, affected, or changed you.
Recall fleeting, unexpected encounters.
- Consider your peculiar passions, esoteric interests, and pet peeves.
In Seeing, Annie Dillard begins her essay by recounting a story from her personal history — her childhood delight in hiding pennies for others to find. She expands that idea into writing advice to us all, to always be on the lookout for the small treasures that surround us.
When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.
After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.
It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny?
If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.
But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.
4) Once you’ve got detail, look even closer — a new angle may be waiting to surprise you.
Identifying new angles in the familiar:
- Revisit old diary pages or letters and compare past you and present you.
- Research an event you once attended to gather big picture details and to place yourself within it.
- Compare notes with others who were also there.
- “Build up” a memory with outside sources — then see where and how your perspective fits.
- Take a page out of Amy Tan’s book. She finds new details by looking closely at familiar items.
I try to see as much as possible — in microscopic detail.
I have an exercise that helps me with this, using old family photographs.
- I’ll blow an image up as much as I can, and work through it pixel by pixel. This isn’t the way we typically look at pictures — where we take in the whole gestalt, eyes focusing mostly on the central image.
- I’ll start at, say, a corner, looking at every detail. And the strangest things happen: you end up noticing things you never would have noticed.
- Sometimes, I’ve discovered crucial, overlooked details that are important to my family’s story.
- This process is a metaphor for the way I work — it’s the same process of looking closely, looking carefully, looking in the unexpected places, and being receptive to what you find there.
- When you consider an event in your personal history, try to immerse yourself in the memory: what did it feel like to be there?
- What emotions did you have, if any?
- Thinking about this event years later, have your perceptions of that event and the emotions around it changed or evolved? It’s perfectly okay if things feel nebulous or you’re not sure where a thought or memory might take you. Revision takes time and perseverance. The important thing is to keep at it.
5) Consider using an object as a way “in” to the story.
Writer Andrea Badgley suggests that objects hold their own stories — that any object can be a talisman infused with meaning.
Objects are evocative; they hold stories…
Take something small, and concrete — a thing, a noun — and use that as a starting point.
- You may simply want to describe the object: what does it look like, how does it feel, does it have a scent, a flavor, does it make a sound?
- Or you may want to use an object as a focal point to expand into something bigger. I wrote about rolling pins once, and a cookbook another time, and both led me into old kitchens, and musings of grandmothers, and recollections of favorite family meals. A piece on pie led me into my son’s Buddha soul. You never know where you might end up.
- Show us where an object leads you.
What objects are most important to you, that you keep from move to move, refusing to throw away? WordPress.com editor Krista has a chipped, yellow ceramic teapot that sits on her fridge. She never uses it to make tea. Her husband hates it. Why does she keep it? It belonged to her grandmother, who has long since passed away. Every time she sees that teapot, she sees her grandmother’s smile and remembers her easy laughter.
- What objects speak to you and what do they say?
Using an inanimate object might be the way to find your unique spin on a universal story.
Sometimes, the struggle to find the right angle becomes part of the story itself. Consider Wendy Rawlings’ love story on Bending Genre, in which she struggles to find the precise angle from which to write about her romance with an Irish man.
And now, over to you.
- Choose any piece of writing you’d like to improve and reread it.
- What’s your angle?
- What’s your spin?
- Which original detail is a doorway into your story?
- How can you approach this topic or issue or tale in a way that shows your imprint and your experience?
Worry not if the angle isn’t immediately apparent to you. Editing takes time and thought. Writing often needs to sit and steep, just like the best tea. If you’d like, set this piece down for a while. Take a walk and return with a fresh mind later today — or in a few days. You never know: the perfect angle might come to you while you’re in the shower or doing the dishes.
If you’re not interested in working on a personal essay or piece about you, you can still apply these ideas and techniques to other forms of writing, or if your subject is someone else.
Also, remember that there are no official assignments this week, and you don’t have to publish anything on your blog (unless you want to!). If you’re not sure you’ve pinpointed the angle for the particular piece you’re working on, or have questions about the ideas in this workshop, ask your peers — they may think of an angle that never occurred to you.
Week Two: Intros and Hooks
– What makes a great opening?
– Translating the big question
– From question to angle to hook
– How not to get started
Dandruff shampoo commercials don’t lie: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.