The Director of Columbia University's writing program and author of the new book To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction reveals a few ways to write a fresh and engaging story. 1) Be Bold (Even if You're Not) Regardless of how timid you may feel inside, you need to project an assertive tone in your sentences, conveying that you have a right to speak and that know what you're talking about. This may mean bluffing—both at the beginning, and maybe throughout one's writing life. One of the boldest openings is a confession of ignorance. You might tell people that you don't know everything or that you've forgotten some of the story. Surprisingly, instead of alienating your readers, this tactic usually makes them believe you more, because it lets them know you're a human being—imperfect, like all of us, but honest.
2) Make Yourself into a Real-Life Elizabeth Bennet Whatever you write, particularly if it's an autobiography or any kind of nonfiction, you would do well to turn yourself into a character. The reader needs to sense very quickly the real individual behind the prose—in order to like or trust the narrator of the piece. To start, you may need to take inventory of yourself, so the reader will have some idea of who is talking. For instance, what are your geographical roots, family background, ethnicity, social class, religious training, sexual preferences, political affiliations? Not that your entire identity can ever be explained by membership in this or that one category, but at least the sum of them helps define you—if nothing else, then in your opposition or refusal to identify with any of these assigned labels. What are your pet likes and dislikes? What are some of the crucial experiences in your life? Certainly, this is the heart of memoir or personal writing.
Now comes the "characterization" part of your character. You need to dramatize yourself. Paradoxically, this may mean putting on a mask, emphasizing just those aspects of your personality that throw you into sharper light, that make you seem a little more odd or idiosyncratic—in any case, not completely typical. The easiest way to do that is to single out those parts of your personality that are most vibrant, or even disparaging. Self-mockery is a perfect example. If you can laugh at yourself, you will find it easier to see yourself as a character.
3) Take the Contrarian Position It's sometimes a good idea to go against the grain of accepted thought, simply because it takes the reader by surprise and engages him or her in a stimulating, feisty relationship. (It also helps to build the author quickly into a character—see number 2.) To advocate for Mom, apple pie, world peace or universal brotherhood can be pretty bland. Try airing a more antisocial or counterintuitive position, just for the fun of it. Some models to consult in this technique are Laura Kipnis' "Against Love," Witold Gombrowicz's "Against Poetry," Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation," Joyce Carol Oates' "Against Nature" or my own "Against Joie de Vivre."
The other way to be contrarian is to praise something that usually inspires distaste. William Hazlitt's "On the Pleasure of Hating" is one such topsy-turvy example. Think of something ostensibly negative—disappointment, envy, chagrin, obesity, air pollution—and make a case for it. Of course, this defense of the indefensible can be done ironically, as in Jonathan Swift's classic "A Modest Proposal," which purports to argue in favor of eating babies as a solution to overpopulation.
4) Don't Forget Your Inner Adult When writing about your past, don't be afraid to reflect on the way you were, from the standpoint of the way you are now. You don't have to pretend that you're still 9 years old or stay within the child mind: You can avail yourself of the perspective of acquired wisdom over the years and move back and forth in the narrative between the younger person you were and the older person you've become. This means you don't have to tell every story entirely through scene and dialogue. You can forget about that "show, don't tell" business. Do tell. But do it frankly, thoughtfully and, wherever possible without self-pity and with good-humored detachment.
5) Bring in the World Even if you are writing a memoir, and telling what you feel is just your own private story, there are ways of bringing greater relevance and resonance to the tale by hitching it to a broader perspective: historical, psychological, sociological, theological, whatever. You begin to see yourself as part of a larger pattern, and this will take you to the library, where you can gain new insights.
Research also helps to keep the material alive when you are starting to get sick of yourself and your story. If you start out knowing all the answers, your resulting writing will appear stale. But if you engage in an exploration, a need to get answers to questions that are still unresolved, there is a much greater chance that the writing will come alive. And research can certainly assist in any such exploration.