Every Life is a Story
By Stephen Legault
FRW editor note-- this week, we are very pleased to share a post by renowned writer and conservationist Stephen Legault, from Canmore, Alberta (see bio below). Thank you, Stephen, for sharing your wisdom with us.
For the last few years, I've been tricking people into thinking I know how to write. I've even convinced them to pay me, and via a reputable institution in Alberta’s Bow Valley, to teach them how to write.
While I've published fifteen books since 2007, if you were to ask any of the publishers and editors I have worked with, they would likely confirm that "Legault doesn't know what he's doing." Of course, by extension, that would mean they don’t either.
False modesty? Maybe. But the reality is, I don't know much about the craft of writing, at least not in any technical sense. To say I can't spell would be an understatement. I don't understand even the most basic rules of grammar. Before teaching a class on the basic editorial structure I had to google "passive voice" to remember it's not just what I use to get what I want when talking to my teenage boys.
If I can’t spell, and I don’t understand the basics of the written English language, what business do I have teaching courses on novel writing, memoir writing and creativity?
Not much. There is one small thing that allows me to step in front of a class and share with them what I know about the written word: the belief that through writing we can unlock the clues to the human condition. Just that, and maybe a misguided belief that through creativity we can become who we are truly intended to be in this disquietingly brief life.
It turns out that might be enough. I started writing when I was an angst-ridden teenager, composing dark, probing poems under streetlights, petitioning the indifferent universe for answers to my youthful quandaries. At the time I was trying to sneak through a high school senior English course while not reading any of the assigned novels, but skating by on my verbal discussion skills. If you know just a tiny little bit about human nature you can pretty much lead any high school English class discussion, even if you don’t know the plot of the book being debated.
Get through it I did, though when my teacher caught on that I wasn’t reading the books she booted me from the class for three weeks. That was too bad, because it was spring and the weather was nice, and I was taking a lot of pictures in those days…. Somehow, I made the grade and passed with 51%.
That was the last time I took an English class. Thirty years later, I am teaching writing. The universe, it turns out, does have a sense of humour.
What exactly does someone such as me have to teach? My instruction generally focuses on two things: how to structure a story so it will be immediately familiar, but unique, and how to examine our internal depths to make our stories bright with insight and understanding.
The first is pretty straightforward. The second is anything but.
It turns out that storytelling – which is really what writing is – has been perfected over the last few thousand years so that the basic elements of an engaging tale are well known. The overall structure of a story is as familiar as our favourite movie, comic book, novel, or play. I teach the Three-Act Play structure, but caution my students that there are myriad variations on this model. The purpose of following it, or any other structure, is to create a sense of comfort in the reader, to assure them that they are in good hands and that the writer will guide them through a series of stages that while familiar, may also provide surprises, upheavals, and even clean breaks with the protocol.
When I teach these structures, I emphasize above all else that once you are familiar with them, you should feel free to break them when necessary, or even just for good clean fun.
Along with this narrative arc instruction, we talk about the seven basic plot-lines that nearly all books, poems, movies, and theatrical productions follow, such as overcoming the monster, rags to riches, and the quest.(Booker, Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots, Why we Tell Stories, 2004, Bloomsbury Academic.)
It turns out that not having a sense of how to structure their writing is one of the things that keep beginners from attempting a longer project. It's not too difficult to pound out a thousand or fifteen hundred words – I'm doing it right now! – but fifty, sixty or even eighty thousand can be daunting.
Once they have the narrative arc of their story dialed, we spend a class or two filling in the outline of their work. I'm a bit fanatical when it comes to outlines. Without an outline, I can waste so much time trying to figure out what comes next, and who these strange characters are, that I could otherwise spend puking out words.
For my most recent effort – a small book called Taking a Break From Saving the World – I
didn't start with an outline. It was a disaster. It was a deeply personal book and was only supposed to be about thirty thousand words, so I didn't think I needed an outline. I figured I could just take a run at it, and plow through chapter after chapter using my familiarity with the subject – burnout and recovery – and the laws of physics and momentum to pound it out. In the end, I had to reverse engineer the whole book and create an outline after I had a first draft pilled on my desk like a heap of useless garbage.
There’s a lot more to structure than narrative arcs and outlines, but it’s a solid start for anybody looking to pen something longer than a letter to the editor. More than one of my students over the years had told me that learning this was worth the price of admission, so I guess I do have something to offer.
What interests me about teaching, however, isn't these mechanical aspects of writing. As it turns out, human beings are most susceptible to personal insight, deep contemplation, and even brushes with enlightenment when engaged in the act of writing, and other forms of creativity. I'll use a common example that occurs every time I teach my memoir writing course – Every Life is a Story – as an example.
Did you know that of the nearly eight billion people on earth, not one of them doesn't have a story? It's true. Walk down the street in your town or city, or pass them on the trail and consider that every single soul you meet has the most extraordinary tale to tell about their lives. They may not have gone to the moon or the Olympics (I have no idea why I'm using these as examples) but they have likely faced terrible odds, suffered loss, overcome seemly insurmountable obstacles, fallen deeply in love, been betrayed and betrayed others, made contributions grand or ordinary, and generally struggled to get dressed and out the door each day.
This discovery happens near the end of every five- or six-week session. We start sharing our stories. People will read a few lines, a few paragraphs, or a few pages of what they are working on, and suddenly someone you may have sat next to on the bus and not thought twice about is telling you that when they were twelve they climbed out of a boarding school window in Switzerland and made their way home to England on their own.
This writer had cancer just two years ago and thought they wouldn't see their next birthday, and this writer made a fan belt out of a gazelle to escape being eaten by lions when their Range Rover broke down. We keep a box or two of tissues handy in these classes.
This is when writing becomes the doorway through which we walk to a deeper understanding of the complexity of other people's experiences, and in doing so, take their hands as companions on the journey to understanding our fragile existence. We become the same, but utterly unique; each a part of the fabric of experience that weaves together our humanity.
As it turns out, my role as an instructor isn't necessarily to teach people the importance of proper spelling and grammar – though it is important if you don't want to cost your publisher an arm and a leg on editorial – to open up a space where we can come together to discover our singular place in the community of life in this ephemeral world. That space can give a budding writer the consent they didn’t know was needed to fathom the depths of their own lives for the words to explain what they are living for, and how, and why.
It's not a trick after all. It's just that writing is so much more than adding one word to the next. It's adding one life to another, until we learn that every life, no matter how they are lived, is worth a story.
Stephen Legault is a political strategist, organizational development consultant, and communications expert who lives in Canmore, Alberta. He is the author of fifteen books, and more than 250 newspaper and magazine stories. Visit with him at www.stephenlegault.com.