Keys to conveying experience

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas, which are especially relevant for writers who are trying to build scenes:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.” And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

I recommend Writing with Power, an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)


Filed under audience, editing, essay-expository, narrative, scene, working method, workshopping

3 responses to “Keys to conveying experience

  1. Beth Sears

    Hi Richard,

    I’m working on a memoir about living in Australia. We’ve been back in the US for almost a year now and already the memory of ‘place’ is fading. Elbow’s advice to ‘re-experience’ is so helpful. I was trying to remember a scene where I met my Mom in the local bus station and just wrote without editing myself. It worked! Thanks for the post. I always find your research unique and informative.

    • Thanks, Beth. I found his theories incredibly helpful, too. I’m heavy into scenes, and am really seeing their magic, but his tips on how to deepen them—and the importance of using just crucial details—have been instrumental in my being able to make better scenes.

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