Opening Salvos # 13 by Matilda Butler
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
An Opening Sentence Indelibly Inked in Our Minds
If you follow this Opening Salvos blog, you know that I focus on effective ways to begin a memoir. My writing and business partner, Kendra Bonnett, and I regularly interview memoir authors to get their perspective on multiple topics, including openings. As soon as I saw the date for today’s SCN Telling Herstories post, my mind immediately turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's opening sentence in his message to Congress asking for a formal declaration of war. There are many ways that he could have started that speech. Yet the carefully crafted beginning was so effective that many of us can recite it from memory 68 years later.
In pursuit of effective openings, I continue to seek multiple answers to the question, “How do you write in a way that gets the reader’s attention, that makes her want to know more, that causes her to turn the page to see what you are saying next?” That’s really the point of this blog and as you’ll see that the end of this post, I’ve recently gotten some new perspectives from award-winning author Sue William Silverman.
More To It Than Just Openings
Effective openings, of course, are just that. They are important, but even the best written opening will only hold a reader’s attention for a couple of pages. Writers have to deliver compelling content page after page. How can you take a story, any story, and tell it in a way that engages readers? That’s the question that students ask us frequently. Even those who are writing for their family tell us that they don’t want to create a boring memoir that their children and grandchildren won’t even read.
It’s the question that my business partner, Kendra Bonnett, and I have been asking ourselves directly and indirectly over the past seven years, first as we wrote our collective memoir (Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story) and now as we teach women’s memoir writing classes and regularly blog on our website: womensmemoirs.com Sometimes we get a glimpse of what it takes to write effectively, such as using the five senses. We tease out that particular writing element, hold it up to the light, research it, develop writing materials, and teach it. Each time we do this, we see improvements in our students writing, but we know that just like effective openings, a single element is just a part of the whole. But what is the whole?
In the spring this year, Kendra drove out from Maine to spend a month with me in California. We do this once or twice a year, a time of joint teaching, planning the coming year, and developing new products. A major focus for 2009 was better ways to teach writing. Lots of ideas, but nothing seemed to really answer our question. We had even come up with a concept for a book about writing although it seemed too derivative of what had already been done. Several weeks into her stay, we drove to San Jose for a concert, a rare and well-earned evening of relaxation. We arrived an hour early so that we could hear the composer discuss his composition, which would be publicly performed for the first time that evening. During the lecture, he described and demonstrated the deconstruction of the piece into its three basic elements. About three-fourths of the way through his presentation, Kendra and I turned to each other and whispered in almost the same words at the same moment, “That’s it. That’s what we’ve been looking for.” Both nodding, we went back to listening to the composer. I suppose Louis Pasteur would listen to our story and repeat his line that “chance favors the prepared mind.”
Kendra and I spent the rest of her stay developing our new concept for effective writing, an approach that we will present in our SCN Stories from the Heart V pre-conference workshop in Austin on Friday February 5, 2010. Our writing approach has come a long way from our aha moment. We have now elaborated the concept, researched the elements, found examples in the writings of bestselling and well-known authors, developed materials about what have become five elements, taught the approach in many courses and have students regularly using this approach in their memoir writing. We have seen writers produce professional quality work as soon as they embrace our technique. In addition to teaching students how to use it, we are finishing our book that fully explains and exemplifies our approach, a book entitled Five Magical Elements that Turn Your Words into Gold: Secrets of Writing Alchemy. For more information about our SCN pre-conference workshop, Click Here.
An Invitation to Join Us and Others in Austin, February 5-7
We invite you participate with us in Austin as we join with keynoters Heather Summerhayes Cariou, author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir and Mary Gordon Spence author of Finding Magic in the Mundane, and a group of 27 incredibly talented memoir writers, teachers, coaches, and editors who are bringing their ideas to Austin, February 5-7 to share with you in a vibrant and insightful series of workshops.
Before You Know It, You’ll Be Writing from the Heart
Give yourself and your writing a holiday present by signing up now for Stories from the Heart V. The SCN early-bird registration discount is only good until December 15. Click Here for more information about the conference and to register before the conference fees increase.
Back to Opening Salvos
Of course, this is Opening Salvos for December so I want to give you two presents — both audio interviews with well-known memoirists. The first is a link to our interview with Susan Wittig Albert, known to you as founder of Story Circle Network, author of multiple bestselling series including The China Bayles Mysteries and The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter among others, and the author of Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. If you are engaged in writing your memoir, or thinking about beginning to write, you’ll want to listen to Susan describe both her experiences with writing her memoir and her advice on how to handle various aspect of memoir. Click Here to go to Susan's interview.
My second gift to you is my just completed interview with Sue William Silverman in my Memoir Moments series. Kendra and I conducted a longer interview with Sue about her memoirs, but in this recent interview, Sue and I focused on memoir openings. In her interview, you’ll learn how your opening helps to create a portal into the experiences you want to describe. Especially important are her comments about "giving details an attitude" so that they help to convey your emotions. Click Here to listen to Sue William Silverman’s interview.