Memoir Writing Tips: Concepts from Classical and Now Modern Music

by Matilda Butler on May 19, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #150 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

From Classical to Modern: Tips and Ideas for Writing from Musicians

I hope you’ve been following my blog posts on this week. I’m the guest editor over there, following Kendra who was the guest editor the previous week. This week I shared Gail Straub’s mythic memoir journey — the journey she took during the writing and publishing of her memoir Returning To My Mother’s House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine. You’ll find the five phases of her journey, phases that she takes from Joseph Campbell’s work, on SheWrites.

On this site, I delved more into Campbell’s take on each of the five phases. Then yesterday and today on both SheWrites and WomensMemoirs, I’ve explored concepts from classical music and Roman literature that can provide new ways of exploring and improving our writing. This final blog in the series explains how a piece of modern music, composed by Dan Becker, gave Kendra and me an exciting new concept that we eventually named Writing Alchemy and that is now our new book: Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep.

Modern Musician Points Way to New Writing System

Kendra and I had been talking for some time about a new approach to writing, but we were struggling for the right concept. We tired of hash and rehash and wanted a fresh approach. Although we tried to keep this work on the front burner, it kept slipping to the back. On one of Kendra’s visits to my home—I still lived in California at the time—my life partner treated us to an evening concert in San Jose’s Le Petit Trianon, the performing art center housed in what may be the best example of classical architecture in that city.

We parked across the street and as we walked toward the building, we admired its six fluted columns topped with ornate Corinthian capitals that support the roof of the lovely two story theatre. Once inside, we picked up our Will Call tickets and hurried inside so that we could hear the pre-concert lecture.

That evening the Ives Quartet was debuting a new piece they had commissioned, and the composer, Dan Becker, was present to talk about his work. He explained how he deconstructed the elements of his composition into their most basic forms—rhythm, harmony, melody. He wrote the piece once just using rhythm. He had the quartet play the piece for us just as they played it for him after he first wrote it. Then he took the element of harmony and wrote the music just using harmonies. Again, he had the quartet play the piece, originally for him and now for us. And finally, he took the element of melody and wrote the piece using just it. The quartet again played the piece for him and for the final time for us.

Then fully understanding each of the deconstructed elements he went away for the fourth time and composed the piece that we heard in its world premier that evening.

Originally, Becker called the three pieces “Flour,” “Water” and “Yeast” believing that when he combined them in the final and official composition that he intended to call “Time Rising,” he would see the elements come together—rising just as bread does. And, just as bread is more than flour, water and yeast, so would his piece be more than his deconstruction of rhythm, harmony and melody.

Kendra and I looked at each other when he finished speaking and mouthed in unison, “That’s it.” If you’ve ever been to a casino when a gambler hit a super jackpot and the alarm bells assaulted every ear drum in the place—well that’s what it sounded like inside our heads. We knew in that instant we’d found our solution, or at least the beginning of our solution. It took some time before we had Writing Alchemy fully developed and even longer before we had taught it multiple times in order to test and refine it. But the idea was conceived that evening.

Becker told us that he later changed the name of the three pre-pieces (or what we call pre-writing in our system) to “Sky,” “Wind” and “Wing.” He thought those more appropriate for a music metaphor, just as he called the final composition “Fly” rather than “Time Rising.” In the final analysis, Becker was the springboard that moved us away from one more amalgam of writing tools and suggestions and to a revolutionary new writing system that puts you, the writer, in complete control.

Not long after Kendra left for her home in Maine, My partner and I drove to Ashland, Oregon, home of the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The ideas that Kendra and I had been discussing took their next leap forward during that time. Although it is now obvious that the five elements of writing are character, emotion, dialogue, senses, time and place, it wasn’t that clear in the beginning. We had several of these elements in place by the time Kendra left. However, watching King Henry IV, Part I in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre followed by a backstage tour where all the magic and business of the theatre were discussed, I fleshed out the five elements and called Kendra immediately.

Once back in California, I put together a brief overview of our concept in a few PowerPoint slides and introduced Writing Alchemy to my local students. I asked them to apply this new system while writing their next assignment. It worked; every student saw dramatic improvement in her writing, including students who had been in my classes for an extended time period. Our mission had been defined. We expanded the depth of the material drawing on Kendra’s background in both history and writing and my background in the social sciences and writing. We refined our approach and taught more classes — both in person and online.

An Idea Becomes a Book

Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep is the result of teaching, testing, and refining our method with 100s of students. We created the Writing Alchemy system to help our students and coaching clients improve their writing; we wrote Writing Alchemy, the book, in order to share it with people like you.

Our mission is to teach you to use Deconstruction to unleash your inner writer and build a bridge between what you already know about writing and the story you want to tell and your ability to execute. Writing Alchemy will make you deliberate and purposeful in your work and confident in your choices.

Our book is now available for pre-order and we’ll soon have copies. Over the coming months, we’ll blog about Writing Alchemy. We continue to develop new material to supplement the book and to help you use this system in all your writing.

More About the Five Elements

I mentioned above that we focus on the five essential elements in writing. Of course, there are many aspects to writing. So much that it takes to write like a pro. Here are just a few of the other elements that go into good writing: Theme. Message. Voice. Plotting. Narrative. Style. Story Structure. Grammar. Point of View. Motivation. Alignment. Explicit v. Implicit Characterization. Topic Sentence. Opening Paragraph. Ending. Transitions. Metaphors. Similes. Rhythm. Vocabulary. Research. Organization. Spelling. First Draft (getting. it all down on paper). Revision. Proofing. Critique.

You’re probably looking at this list and saying to yourself, “No wonder my writing is falling flat…I’m not doing half this stuff.”

All of these are important. Theme, message and plotting, in particular, are key to your story structure; they’re also the topic of our next book — Structural Alchemy. In our current book, Writing Alchemy, we have chosen to focus on the five essential elements of writing. Do these well–integrate them into your writing with all the detail you can muster–and you will engage readers. Whether you are writing a memoir, a company biography, a keepsake for your children and grandchildren or the Great American Novel, you need these five essential elements of powerful prose to breathe life into your writing:

Characters developed with a precision of detail that gives birth to a complete three-dimensional person.

Emotions identified and so vividly expressed that readers empathize, understand, even believe they know the characters.

Strong Dialogue that communicates while moving the story forward and captures the tension, emotion and pacing in a scene.

Sensory detail that draws on all Five Senses to paint a scene so vibrant and alive that readers don’t simply picture it in their mind–they see, hear, smell, taste and touch the author’s world.

A Time and Place described in detail to give a story context and verity and to show how the characters and story were shaped by them.

Applying these five elements is the science of making the essential connection with readers. Weaving them into your writing with attention to detail so as to make readers care, that is the art. Writing Alchemy is the easy and natural system for bringing the art and science together.


[NOTE] If you are interested in purchasing Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, it is currently (only until June 15) available for a special pre-order price.

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