I wake to a cold winter morning. I crawl out of bed and peer through the frosted window into dark. The weatherman was correct: a thick coat of white covers the ground. It’s deep. No walk this morning, I think. I make coffee and sit upright on a sheepskin rug at the center of my living room. I sip. I strike a match and light a thick white candle resting on a dresser in front of me. The room glows yellow. I hold a stick of sandalwood incense to the candle’s flame until it glows yellow too. Then I blow out the flame and place the smoldering incense into the small blue vase that once held my mother’s ashes. I watch the column of smoke rise, curl, and then dissipate, filling the room with a smoky fragrance.
“Hey, Google, play ‘Puja’ by Krishna Das,” I say to a small speaker resting on my dresser.
“Braaaaaah-ma. Viiiiiiish-nu. Shiiiiii-va,” the speaker groans the Hindu names for God. I sit up straight and hum with the spare...
Writing a memoir or narrative nonfiction book requires a wide range of skills. You've got to be able to do it all: organize thoughts, structure chapters, report the facts, and, after all the big-picture stuff, you must also pay attention to the smallest of details such as grammar and punctuation. It's a big job, but it's very doable with focus, inspiration, hard work, and stamina.
That said, in book writing, one skill trumps all. If you want to draw an audience and make a splash in the world, you must tell great stories.
In today's blog post, I want to share a powerful tool that I use in my writing, which will help you write your very best memoir or nonfiction book. I call this tool The Magic Formula of Storytelling.
Here's what the Magic Formula looks like: V + C + S = A Great Story.
What in the world is that, you ask?
Let me break down the meaning behind all these letters and symbols.
V stands for vulnerability....
How I Coached Jon Krakauer to Write the Story that Only He Could Tell
Last week, I posted Part I of the story of my involvement with "Into Thin Air." That post told the behind-the-scenes story of the days during and immediately after the storm that killed climbers during the 1996 season. Today, I'm posting a short blog essay about the process of coaching Jon Krakauer to tell the story about what happened on Everest. To this day, Krakauer is a dogged journalist and talented writer. Editing him was a highlight of my seven years working as an editor at Outside. I know Jon wishes he'd never gone to Everest. I understand why. However, I'm grateful to Jon and Outside magazine for giving me the opportunity to have this experience.
Here's my latest blog essay:
I can still hear the buzzing and burping of the fax machine as it started to spit out Jon Krakauer’s first draft of “Into Thin Air.”
It was early June 1996, a few weeks after the infamous storm on Mount Everest...
Sending Jon Krakauer to Everest was my idea. After the news broke, I spent the better part of a day wondering if I’d put him in a frozen grave.
IT WAS THE WORST STORY IDEA idea an editor could come up with, let alone assign to a real human being. That’s how I felt on Saturday, May 11, 1996, the day I heard Jon Krakauer had disappeared while reporting for Outside on the growing phenomenon of commercially guided trips up Mount Everest a story I’d conceived and helped make happen by dealing with an endless stream of logistical headaches. None of that mattered when I heard Krakauer was missing in a deadly high-altitude blizzard. Had I sent him to his death?
Just 24 hours earlier, of course, I’d considered myself a genius. On the morning of May 10, Mark Bryant, Outside‘s editor, made an announcement at the daily editorial meeting in our Santa Fe office. “I have news from Jon Krakauer’s wife,” he quietly told some two dozen...
As a book writing coach, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to help my clients. Sometimes ideas come to me while watching Netflix.
I recently watched Bruce Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix. Springsteen’s playing is rousing. His storytelling, more so. But the show’s true gift is watching Springsteen unmask himself. He bashes myths about himself that he spent a lifetime creating. He even speaks about his struggles around mental illness. A fascinating moment happens ninety minutes into the two-hours-plus show when Springsteen talks about the magic that happens between members of a rock band. I suspect he’s talking more broadly about the magic that happens when we enter a relationship with another human or when we create art. Here’s a quote: When you join a band, “there is a communion of souls, and a quest, the quest has begun, and adventure is undertaken, and you ride shotgun. The principles of math get stood on their...
Writing is more like yoga than you might think.
Both disciplines require learning specific rules and vocabularies. Yoga has its 8 Limbs, one of which is asana, or the physical poses that most Westerners consider to be yoga. Each asana asks the yogi to hold the body in a specific and precise way. By focusing on the mechanics of the pose and sitting in the uncomfortableness, we see ourselves in a mirror. We learn things about ourselves.
Writing–crafting sentences out of symbols composed of curved and straight lines–is similar. When we write, we see ourselves in a mirror and learn things about ourselves. Things that we couldn’t see before we did the writing.
Both disciplines can lead to waking up from the trance that afflicts us all when we get consumed by the demands of work, home, and society. When we do yoga or write, we experience ourselves in deeper and more subtle way. This isn’t spiritual mumbo jumbo. We actually become more human.
I want to tell you about a book that, each time I open it, makes me a better writer. You probably haven’t heard of it, or of the author, Ted Solotaroff. It’s not a best-seller like Bird by Bird or a popular favorite like Stephen King’s On Writing. In fact, I’ve never seen another copy of this essay collection other than the coffee-stained, dog-eared one I own. But this book—just one essay in it, actually—is my savior. It’s my savior during dark nights of the soul, when I lurch, when I desire to say something meaningful and truthful, when I wish to say it in MY own unique and original voice.
I bought my copy of A Few Good Voices in My Head at a used bookstore in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood during my graduate school years. I don’t recall the shop’s name, but walking its aisles was a Saturday afternoon ritual, especially during the dead of a brutal Chicago winter when the snow flies...