Last Saturday was the Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows in Victoria, MN — a wonderful day funded by Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The librarians who organized it were hoping to attract a mix of members from their established writing groups and people new to writing. They succeeded. An interesting and engaged group of people paid attention to each other, and to writing, all day.
I carry Minnesota writers with me wherever I go — in my head, quoted in my notebooks, passages copied into my calendar. Minnesota is awash with talented writers. When I teach, I read passages from their books — Alison McGhee, William Kent Krueger, Louise Erdrich, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Sutphen, Patricia Hampl. Because I was talking with other Minnesotans in Minnesota, I relied even more on local writers for this retreat.
But I was pleased that heads nodded at this passage by Grace Paley, who knew a thing or two about good writing. From her essay, “Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken”:
“It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of blood and money in order to be interesting to adults. That is — everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements, people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. — And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of a family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic.”
A good reminder, especially when writing memoir, to LET SOMETHING BE AT STAKE. Because something always is. In any good story, there is always something at stake. Something changes between the beginning and the end of the story. It’s the reason the writer needs to tell the story. It’s what keeps the reader interested. Whatever is at stake is what connects two human beings who might otherwise never encounter each other.
On Saturday, we were talking about memoir, a particularly personal kind of writing. But I maintain that all writing is personal. All good writing either asks a question, or answers a question. As long as we keep that question in mind as we write, we can’t go far wrong.