I am writing to express to you my admiration for your essay “Luffing,” which I stumbled upon while exploring Literary Latte this past week. As a 21-year-old college senior with a family that is comprised of an enthusiastically outdoorsy father, an exceptionally indoorsy mother, and a charismatic younger brother, your essay that ostensibly discusses sailing on Lake Erie is a piece that has wholly captured my interest, in that I can relate pretty well to it.The exploration of the relationship dynamics within your family is fascinating, and you just write it so well. You let readers into the struggle that is present, “half wishing for there to be plenty of wind, the other half wishing for none at all,” and you pulled me in with this feeling of being stuck in the middle. I appreciated the peek into your relationship with each of your parents separately, as well as the lens through which I got to see the relationship your parents seemed to have together.I wondered if you would be willing to give me a bit of advice as to how I can take such simple details in my own writing of my own stories and make them more prominent and more noticeable. Sailing and water and wind were such lovely parts of the metaphor that you were alluding to, and I want to learn how I can take the little things and turn them into more emotionally significant things. I’m also curious about where you go to start – where is your ideal writing environment? Finally, how frequently do you pull pieces from your own memory in order to further explore a story, a relationship, or a moment in time?
“Luffing” was such a lovely piece to experience, and I’d like to learn, from one accomplished writer to an aspiring other.
Thank you so much for your kind words — I’m so glad that “Luffing” resonated with you. Writing about family can be so difficult, but I think it’s worth it when you know that the experience about which you’ve written really connects with someone else’s. Makes us all feel a little less alone in the world, you know?
To your questions (and please forgive the list format, but I want to make sure I’m doing my best to answer them):
– On details: I had a mentor in my MFA program who always said, “Specific writing is good writing” — meaning details are what make a story sing, especially if they are images or themes that can carry double meaning. I think everyone has their own way of finding details to include and highlight in their prose, whether it be from imagination or real life moments — but for me (because I’m a creative nonfiction writer), everything comes from observation and memory. So I journal a lot, make lists of things I notice or remember, and do free-writing exercises that excavate details from my memory. My advice? Get a lot of books with interesting writing prompts, journal a lot, and be mindful in your revision process. Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe. Also, read other writers who are really good at metaphoric details. I read a lot of Lia Purpura and Abigail Thomas. Poetry, too. I think that’s a really good way to develop an eye for distilled language.
– On starting: For me, inspiration starts with a daydream or an idea sparked by something I’ve seen or read. I find that I’m really sensitive to contrasting images, or things that are unexpected. That always seems to make me want to explore. My ideal writing environment? Well, it depends on where I am in the writing process. If I’m just beginning something new, then I must have a journal and I must be in a calm place — either alone on my back porch, or writing anonymously in the din of a crowded coffee shop. Once I have something good on paper, I’ll type it into my computer and just go from there. So I spend a lot of late hours in my home office, after the kids have gone to bed!
– On memory: I am always pulling pieces from my own memory to further explore the subject of my work, whether it be my own family relationships or big-picture things like connection to place or social justice issues. So again, I try to work with a lot of prompts that are specifically designed to open my mind and re-create my experiences so that I can get them down on paper. Some resources with good writing exercises (and these are mostly for creative nonfiction writing):Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis, Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.
I hope I’ve been able to answer some of your questions. Please feel free to follow-up if you have more. And thanks again for the note — you made my day!
Mary Heather Noble