As a writer, it’s crucial to stay green… to keep growing… to keep your craft fresh. If you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to keep getting the same results. Of course, if you’re Stepehn King or Jodi Picolt or Chuck Palahniuk, that’s not a problem. They sit down at their desk, and brilliance flows from their fingertips. For the rest of us, however, we have to change things up now and then.
I thought about this recently. In the summers, I teach a graduate class. It’s full of teachers who want to write. Too often, they find themselves bogged down by lesson planning and grading, along with teaching. Educators expect their students to write creative pieces. Teachers taking the time to be creative--to write memoirs and essays and memoirs? Well, it doesn’t happen too often. In this class, it happens every day for sixteen days, and the stuff that flows onto paper is inspiring.
I co-teach the class. At the end, we publish an anthology. Each of us chooses a piece to include. Usually I pick a memoir vignette, or a free verse poem. This summer, I wanted to try something different--something that would require me to stretch, and would also be something I could use with my middle-schoolers. But what would be something different?
A tree that's still growing is green. I try to stay green.
Googling “unique formats for writing” brought up an article that included this one: telling a story through footnotes. The point? Have the footnotes help tell the story. It was different enough to be appealing. Once I chose the format, the real challenge began.
I wanted it to be seamless. I wanted my audience to read the text on top, then read the footnote, and have the footnote connect to the next part of the text on top.
My first draft stunk. It sounded more like an encyclopedia piece. I’d decided to write about my journey as an author. In the piece, I got mired in the history that surrounded my recently-published book. Too much of the word count was spent on the facts that served as the foundation for my historical fiction. It dragged. It was lackluster and not engaging at all.
So, I switched gears and wrote about writing my book. But this time, I just wrote about the journey itself and not so much about what the book was about. The inspiration. The awful first draft. Getting it edited and getting told, “Your story sucks.” 2 Starting from scratch. Getting it edited (again). This time, getting, “Your story sings.” 3 Sending out over 140 queries. Getting despondent. Taking a risk and approaching my editor-turned-publisher. Getting a yes. Becoming a published author.
When I focused on just the journey, the piece flowed out. And it’s definitely different.
When I share this piece with my middle-schoolers, I’m confident that at least some of my students will enjoy the process of writing asides via the footnotes. I know that some of them will have fun injecting their voice into their writing by using footnotes.
And I know that when they try this "unique way to format a story," they'll be stretching and growing as writers...
... which is what we all want to do.
1 My book is about a massacre, and my first draft had no tension. Imagine--a book where hundreds of people get murdered, where 10,000 people are immediately homeless because their homes get looted and then burned down, where airplanes are dropping kerosene bombs onto people… and there’s no tension. My first draft stunk way more than those left-overs that have been shoved to the back of your fridge for the past two months.