Last week, I shared my HippoCamp flash session takeaways. But those were just a few of the conference gems I collected. This week, I’ll share some highlights from three of breakout sessions.
Lara Lillibridge: Let the Fragments be Enough: An Exploration of the Segmented Essay and Micro Memoir
I first heard Lara read from her memoir, Girlish, during the debut author panel at the 2018 HippoCamp Conference. This quirky coming-of-age book about growing up in a lesbian home is written in the third person and begins with an ingenious crossword-style prologue that introduces her main characters. Between 2018 and 2020, Lara wrote and edited five books. Then the pandemic hit, and her writing life crumbled.
During her session, Lara talked about how the micro form calmed her internal pressure to produce by giving her a form that’s enjoyable, achievable, and perfect for our distracted brains and overtaxed hearts.
Here are some of Lara’s golden nuggets:
- Flash pieces must have arcs, but not every fragment has one.
- Flash and micro word counts vary by publication.
- Your title is the first sentence, so make it count.
- Sometimes the short, fragmented form is the best way to emulate an experience. For example, an episodic structure might be a good fit for memory.
- Fragments can be stitched together to create a story, inserted between essays in a collection, or published as stand-alone pieces.
Here are two of the micro essays Lara mentioned:
She also gave us a list of books to explore, including:
- Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
- Notes from My Phone* a self-portrait in her twenties by Michelle Junot
- 300 Arguments: Essays by Sarah Manguso
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On by Gary Soto
Dave Pidgeon: Photography for Writers: A Crash Course on Visual Storytelling
At the 2018 HippoCamp Conference, Dave took headshots for fellow writers. Now, he’s a full-time photographer with a thriving business.
I was curious to see what Dave would suggest for those of us who can see something interesting on the page but not necessarily through a viewfinder. I could fill an entire newsletter with my technical notes around f-stop speeds, aperture size, and your photo’s histogram, but his most valuable tips link photography and storytelling.
Early in his presentation, Dave shared the following analogy with us: light and shadow are to a photograph as character and setting are to a story.
To capitalize on these elements, you must
- Control what you see
- Remember that light attracts attention and shadow invites curiosity
- Use emotion and motion
- Think three-dimensionally
He also invited us to come up with a personal set of CPRs, or consistent, predictable routines that can help you think through your scene before shooting it. Here are two of Dave’s CPRs:
- Choose three backgrounds
- Shoot some closeups, some photos at a medium distance, and some wide shots
Here’s how to use Dave’s sage photography advice when writing: Control what the reader sees so you can effectively slant your scenes. When doing so, use your characters’ light and dark traits to navigate situations that create story motion and emotion.
Diane Gottlieb: The “I” in Narrative Nonfiction: How to Tell Others’ Stories Without Taking Over or Getting in the Way
A few recent conversations with other writing instructors and publishing industry folks have confirmed the following: the most marketable memoirs are about your story and something else. That something else could be how your life experience intersects with key historical events, or perhaps how your story intersects with another person’s.
While I work with memoirists navigating this territory, I also work with narrative nonfiction writers whose sole focus is other people’s stories.
If you’re planning to tell someone else’s story, here are a few questions to consider:
- When telling someone else’s story, should you insert your “I?”
- If you choose to do so, when should you use it?
- What are the stakes for inserting it?
Diane says the “I” is always on the page, even if the word is never used, so you must know its purpose and ensure that your “I” gaze doesn’t overtake the story.
She used In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s famous true crime novel, as a prime example of how the desire to tell a great story can cause us to bend narrative nonfiction’s primary rule, which is to always tell the truth. The ending of Capote’s book includes a poetic scene that happened only in his imagination. Choosing to create something that reads better for the sake of art might make you sound good, but it can also diminish your credibility and disenfranchise the people you’re writing about.
Diane shared three guiding principles each narrative nonfiction writer should use:
- My/Stakes: When writing about someone else, share your stakes up front by answering the following questions:
- Why this story?
- Why now?
- Why me?
- Where and when did this story take root?
- What’s driving me to explore this material?
- How/Know: After you’ve written something, ask yourself how you know it’s true? If it’s not verifiable, it doesn’t belong in your manuscript. Diane uses the following litmus test to check her work. If it sounds too much like a novel, it probably contains something unverifiable.
- I/Serve: Narrative nonfiction is an act of service to the reader and those you write about. As you’re writing, think about how your story serves the larger narrative, the people you’re writing about, and most importantly, the reader.
As you read through these tips, what do you want to incorporate in your writing life? Are you interested in trying the micro form? Could you explore your story in a more visual way? What role is the “I” playing in your current WIP?
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