Post #49 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
I’ve never considered myself a poet. I don’t write in verse. And seldom do I even choose to read poetry. But Sarah Kay, a 20-year-old spoken word poet, has me reevaluating the genre.
Sarah’s shown me how artfully a gifted storyteller can integrate the five essential elements of writing–character, emotions, dialogue, five senses and time and place–into a small amount of space. And how, when well-crafted, just a few vivid details make all the difference. For although she tells her stories to an audience, she is actually using the five elements to help her show listeners her thoughts and memories.
About Sarah Kay
Sarah is a remarkable young woman with boundless energy and an insatiable hunger for everything the world has to offer. She was so young when she first began attending New York’s Bowery Poetry Club, her parents had to accompany her. And at 14, she was the youngest poet in the 2006 National Poetry Slam. She has performed at the Cannes Lions Creativity Festival, the Def Poetry Jam and been featured at the Tribeca Film Festival and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. She has traveled the world performing and teaching, sharing and listening to stories.
This remarkable young woman is eager to experience every thing and every one. She wants to share and hear every story as if to make the world and everything in it part of her world.
Sarah is not a poet of the rhyme and meter variety. She is a poet for her insight and ability to capture her thoughts, her family, her life in a few well-chosen words. More than a poet, Sarah is a storyteller.
I first discovered Sarah Kay this past Mother’s Day when marketing guru Seth Godin shared a link to Sarah’s 2011 TED Talk, “If I should have a daughter…” I was transfixed by the clarity of her storytelling and her ability to put so much of herself and her experience into a 15- to 20-minute performance.
Inspiration for the Memoir Writer
Below I’ve posted Sarah’s performance at TEDxEast. Although most of her work will open mental doors for the memoir writer, I feel this performance is particularly useful. She tells the story of her parents, her baby brother and herself in slightly under 20 minutes. And yet the listener sees the family, understands its essence and feels the impact of 9/11 on this New York family.
Listen as she develops her characters, integrates time and place (a strong element in her work), shares emotions, paints vivid scenes rich in sensory description and uses her voice as a sort of narrative dialogue with the audience. But most of all enjoy. Think about the pleasure her stories provide.
The Secret of Show Don’t Tell
If you’ve spent much time on Women’s Memoirs, you know that Matilda and I have just finished our book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep (Memoir Edition). In it we take students of writing deep into what we call the five essential elements of writing. I listed them above, but they bear repeating: character development, emotions, dialogue, sensory description, and time and place.
Like all writing teachers, we tell our students to show don’t tell their stories. We also find that this is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Oh, every writer has heard this phrase since high school English class. But what does it mean? More important still, how do we do it? Show don’t tell is a bit of a conundrum. The concept is easy enough to understand, but writers continue to fall into the trap and tell their stories until one day the light goes on.
I know the frustration firsthand and I’ve seen it in students’ writing too many times to count. So allow me help you by letting you in on the secret–the secret that Writing Alchemy teaches with tools and exercises that will ease your way: Detail. The secret to showing is in using detail to paint a powerful word picture that readers can see in their own minds.
Through detail your readers will transcend the written word and become part of every scene you write. They will come to know what’s important about your characters. They will feel your emotions and practically laugh and cry with you. They will see each scene as clearly as if they are standing by your side witnessing the action in real time. That’s all it takes to show the reader.
Sarah Kay does this better and in fewer words than just about anyone I know.
Writing Alchemy Prompt
Yes, I promised you a prompt. Listen to Sarah’s TEDxEast presentation several times. Make a list of her every detail about character, emotion, sensory detail and time and place. I deliberately left out dialogue because she uses her spoken-word technique as a sort of narrative dialogue.
Now take a scene from your memoir writing–a very, very small scene–and try to make your story come alive through the details. But one word of warning: Select your details carefully. It’s not the inclusion of detail that makes this work; it’s the inclusion of the RIGHT details.
We’ll post more articles about Writing Alchemy in the coming months. Have you placed your pre-order yet? Until June 15, you can save $10 by clicking here.
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