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Turn Your Diary into Dollars
Keeping a diary or journal primes the creativity
pump, and those of you following Julia Cameron's advice in The Artist's
Way, jot daily. Diary entries can be honed into saleable manuscripts, so if
you're not recording your life, you might want to start now.
by Beth Fowler
Here's what you need to know to break into this
increasingly popular field of literature.
Q. Who's making money publishing stuff from
A. Pulitzer prizewinner Dave
I'm-not-making-this-up Barry, Miami Herald (http://www.miami.com/herald/special/features/barry) columnist
and author of numerous nonfiction books; Annie Dillard(http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~sparks/dillard/bio.htm), also a
Pulitzer recipient for nonfiction; Writing for Dollars! (Issue 04101)
contributor Kathryn Fay with 450-plus personal experience articles sold; and
multi-award winner William Least Heat-Moon (http://www.heat-moon.com) are
among the multitude of writers turning diary entries into dollars.
Q. Who buys nonfiction personal experience
A. Publishers of memoirs, autobiographies and
themed anthologies, newspapers and magazines of every category including ones
that don't specifically solicit readers' stories, and literary journals like
Granta (http://www.granta.com) and Creative Nonfiction
Journal (http://www.creativenonfiction.org) buy manuscripts. CNJ editor
Lee Gutkind wants essays with "purpose and meaning beyond the experiences
related by the writers. Good essays embrace a larger audience. They strike a
Q. What's "creative nonfiction"?
A. Creative nonfiction encompasses true stories
in which authors incorporate scenes, dialogue, evocative descriptions and other
techniques fictioneers use.
Q. What can I write about that strikes a
A. Unforgettable encounters, life's milestones
(birth, adoption, illness, death), disasters, work relationships, any aspect of
human experience. "You have to be willing to use everything. Everything that's
interesting," Truman Capote told Patti Davis, according to her autobiography,
The Way I See It.
Q. Any guidance on how to write true
A. Booker prizewinner Margaret Atwood said, "The
only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never
be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date.
Otherwise you begin excusing yourself." Dig into Bliss: Writing to Find Your
True Self by Katherine M. Ramsland, A Walk Between Heaven and Earth: A
Personal Journal on Writing and the Creative Process by Burghild Nina
Holzer or Pencil Dancing: New Ways to Free your Creative Spirit by Mari
Messer for inspiration to write in your journal.
Q. How can I record material with sales
A. Try these techniques:
- Timely notes become a goldmine when you set
out to write creative nonfiction. So when an event is imminent, record your
fears, hopes, misgivings, expectations, preparations, likely scenarios. Then
write about the event as it unfolds and the aftermath.
- Write how you discovered a truth about life,
yourself, a parent, the ways of the world, a natural law, animals, aging, anger,
and anchovies. What insight did the discovery reveal? With this insight, what
new direction did you take?
- Write stories recounting when you were
inspired, shocked, convinced to change a long-held opinion, or profoundly
- In Your Life as Story Tristine Rainer
suggests writing about a problem, your struggle to resolve it, and the resultant
transformation or realization.
- Note witty, wise, wacky, wild and weird
tidbits you think up and hear.
Q. How do writers structure diary entries into
A. A reader complimented creative nonfiction
writer Helen Garner for turning "a little bit of nothing" into a story. To turn
nothings into the favorably reviewed Half Baked in Taiwan (http://www.xlibris.com/HalfBakedinTaiwan.html), I used
- Condensing time highlights cause and effect
and makes a long story short. You could condense an argument that developed over
a series of lunches down to one meal. One setting is less confusing and frees
authors from setting new scenes. Condensed time creates dramatic tension that
communicates theme better than flabby stories do.
- Rearranging events shapes material into a
beginning, middle and end or an incline with a denouement on the tail. Shape is
also achieved with emphasis, word choice, rhythm, sentence structure, dialogue
- Reorganizing nonfiction material
chronologically, spatially, thematically, topically and combinations thereof are
- Knowing that readers enjoy recognizing
characters when they reappear in later scenes and that a crowded stage becomes
unmanageable, I combined people with similar dramatic roles into one
- Incorporating advertising jargon, newspaper
excerpts, book passages and colorful snippets from other sources helped me
illustrate points, capture unique aspects of place, re-create atmosphere and
bolster impressions with evidence. To vary voice and point of view, I
occasionally cast myself as listener as others told their stories.
- Ruthless pruning, chopping and transplanting
Q. Where can I learn how to polish diary
scribblings into salable gems?
A. Pore over Nancy Davidoff's Writing from
Personal Experience: How to Turn Your Life into Salable Prose, Gay Talese
and Barbara Lounsberry's Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of
Reality, Bill Roorbach's Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of
Truth, Lee Gutkind's The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and
Selling the Literature of Reality. Click on Goucher's Master of Arts in
Creative Nonfiction at http://www.goucher.edu, visit Pitt's http://www.pitt.edu/~bahst29/pubcnf.html and surf Gotham
Writers Workshop at http://www.write.org for education programs. Choose "silent
mentors" whose works resemble the way you'd like to write. Analyze why the
writing appeals to you, how it's structured and the fictional techniques
employed to make truth shine. Candidates for silent mentors include Anne Lamott
(Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son's First Year) Lewis
Grizzard (If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I'm Gonna Nail My Feet to the
Ground) Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence), Peter Matthiessen
(The Snow Leopard) and contributors to reputable periodicals such as
Atlantic Monthly, Salon and New Yorker.
Q. How "warts and all" should I
A. Expose your warts. (Readers will empathize
with you.) Edit as though people mentioned will read the manuscript in your
presence and will recognize themselves. Read about defamation of character at http://www.dancingwithlawyers.com/freeinfo/libel.shtml. If in
doubt, cut it out.
Q. What else?
A. Write with the reporter's unbiased
thoroughness. Rewrite with the storyteller's flair. Let story be refracted
through personality. Target appropriate markets. You will have succeeded if
readers can distill the universal from the personal.
One small event for a human: One great read for
humans. Thats creative nonfiction. That's turning your diary into
© Copyright 2001, Beth Fowler
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