March 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
I started writing for a building and construction magazine recently. My first assignment was to interview a painting and drywall contracting company. I can feel you yawning right now! It’s okay, I yawned too. I also rolled my eyes—a lot—and considered backing out. But I had been wanting to turn many years of ghostwriting and publishing articles for architects who couldn’t write into publishing articles with my own byline. I had to start somewhere.
I took the job…and ultimately fell in love with the assignment. Not just because I had the privilege of getting to know a small, personable firm full of people who love what they do and have held on through many ups and downs in order to continue doing it (something writers know a lot about) but because it taught me two valuable lessons that I could use for my other byline aspiration: writing and publishing creative nonfiction. I will share these lessons with you now, and if you’re reading them here on the Brevity Blog, I guess they worked!
Lesson One: Find the nugget.
Lately, everything in my own life that I had been excited to write about—things that had truly seemed like fun and interesting stories—had started to sound boring and trite. How many more stories about cancer or a kooky aunt or the death of a relative could the world handle? Hadn’t we heard it all before? And yet, there those stories were every time I picked up a literary journal. Why? Because the writer found the nugget—the small speck of gold that instead made the cancer story about a mild-mannered person finding gumption after being diagnosed, or the aunt’s kooky habits as a way to avoid her deep fear of sadness. Because in the end, the cancer or the kookiness were just the catalysts for much more interesting stories.
Likewise, no one would have wanted to read my article about the painting and drywall company if I had written about painting and drywall. As I prepped to interview them, wise words from past CNF workshops fluttered around my brain like helpful fairies.
Why would anyone care about this story?
What is this story about?
What’s interesting about the characters?
I jotted down some questions to ask the owners at the interview, but more importantly I armed myself with the best tool of all: my ears. We all have ears and they’re free. Even if, as writers, we sometimes only have our own voices to listen to, the same rules apply.
Lesson Two: Listen. Listening is how you find the nugget in the first place.
I do actually have a kooky aunt, kooky in a good way and one of the funniest people I know. What I love most about her is her knack for brilliant storytelling. She can come home from the grocery store or the doctor’s office or my grandmother’s house with a story that will bring you to your knees laughing. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she wanted to, she could have had her own version of Prairie Home Companion or given David Sedaris a run for his money. She is able to do this because she listens. Intently. To everything around her. Then she latches onto the tiniest but most interesting detail and that becomes her story.
I took that lesson to the interview, and a common thread emerged about this tiny company’s ability to survive for the past 18 years. By remaining nimble and flexible, they’d kept the company afloat in changing times. I gathered up their best anecdotes and most interesting quotes and wrote “Small but Mighty.” The company was thrilled with the article and the editors were too. I quickly received three more assignments before the magazine finished out the season: a story about a road safety and traffic signage business, one about a construction company, and finally, one about an awning manufacturer that I titled, “The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings”—because when the owner told me his story, beaming with enthusiasm for the work he did, I discovered it truly was such a world.
We all have creative colorful stories to tell, despite the ruts we sometimes encounter. So, the next time you’re thinking that you’ve got nothing interesting to say, stop yawning and remember lessons one and two. When you listen, you find the nugget—and even painting, drywall and the awning guy become fascinating stories to tell.
Julie Flattery is a playwright, filmmaker, and author of creative nonfiction essays. Her story, “Mighty Mouse” was recently accepted for publication in Meat for Tea and six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM Theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design.