Telling A Story

A Good Story

Seven-year-old Vilemina and I sat down to write a story. “I don’t know,” she began. “Well, I suggested, “Let’s think about what happened this week. What do you remember?” We talked about animals, made a list of what she’d seen. The owls in McGough Park, the squirrels who raid the birdfeeder, the alligators in Taylor Park. From a list such as that, ideas can take shape.

Over many years teaching the gateway writing courses at St. Petersburg College, I’ve had students engage in loose or timed free writing that often yields a seed idea. This process takes its own instinctive way and in time, becomes a discovery draft. With this foundation, student writers have a basis for more intentional work.

Vilemina and I followed a similar pattern, this time by talking out her ideas while I took notes. Once we were ready, I explained the basics of a good story. “We need a beginning, a middle, and an ending.” She nodded and we sketched out three rectangles on a blank sheet of paper to use as a guide. From here, the story took shape. One of my dogs, Maxie, became the main character; the conflict a hurt paw, the resolution, the author’s brother unwrapping a bandage once the vet gave permission.

Our next step considered audience. Who might be interested in the story of “Maxie and the Hurt Paw”? Dog-lovers? Family members? What would it take to get other readers interested? The answer is detail. I asked questions. How might Vilemina describe Maxie’s brindle coat? What did Maxie’s ears look like when she was listening? How did they move if she noticed a rabbit in the park? Adding detail lets an audience reconstruct the scene for themselves.

I’m often asked – by students or by those who read my work, how I begin, how I move forward with an idea. If poetry, a line or a phrase often leads me into a first draft, an experimental run of ideas matched to language that is verbally resonant and intentionally precise. In narrative nonfiction, I begin with memory, its emotional power, writing loosely until the subject and scope of ideas point to an audience. There are other ways to go. Many consider writing mysterious. It’s also a matter of prosaic industry. As with Vilemina’s story, the best approach is to sit down and begin. Something will happen.

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