Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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5 Ways to Find Your True Story's Heart

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash
Writing true stories is about more than reporting the facts; it's about creating art from real life. In memoir and personal essays, you want to go beyond what happened and into what it means.

In my upcoming online workshop for The Writer's Center, we'll explore writing techniques for moving beyond "just the facts" and into the beating heart of your true stories. Details and registration for "Write into the Heart of Your Story" are here. Class begins Monday, March 5, 2018.
Here are five ways to find your story's heart: 

1) Create meaning, not morals. 
Give your readers enough meat of the story and its implications to help them understand why the story matters. But don't turn a story into a Sunday School lesson. Nobody likes a moralizing know-it-all. (Trust me, I know; I've been one.)

2) Use details.
Great stories include details. But not too many. Or too few. And only the important ones. All presented in the best way. Yikes! So how do choose which details to include? Details should create texture and interest, and they should focus the readers' attention on what matters. Be selective: Don't try to capture the whole world at once, not even when you're writing true life stories.

3) Cross the personal-universal bridge.
Even when you're telling an intimate story about a unique experience, readers should find something in it to relate to as fellow humans. But again, beware of moralizing here! Don't build a literal bridge that points out the obvious or talks down to the reader. Oddly enough, the more specific your details, the more universal your story can become.

4) Stay focused.
The focus of a story determines the meaning, the details, and the bridge. I usually don't know a story's focus until I've written a large chunk of it. Only after sketching out and connecting ideas do I find a story's heart. I've rewritten essays many times before I found their real essence. A story can contain a lot of seemingly disparate elements, but you need to know how they fit together. If you don't know -- at least on some intuitive level -- your readers won't know either. Keep writing until you find that focus and fit.

5) Be True.
That's "True" with a capital "T." This may be the most important point of all. Your story needs to feel authentic on the page, in your mind, and in the eyes of your readers. I've written stories that are technically true by dutifully capturing my thoughts or the true-to-life details of a scene. But the scene fell flat and veered outside the heart of the story. Annie Dillard says it best in her essay "Notes for Young Writers": "The work's unity is more important than anything else about it. Those digressions that were so much fun to write must go

We'll explore these tips and more in the online class, Write into the Heart of Your Story (begins March 5. 2018). You'll learn how to use the building blocks of creative nonfiction to write stories with texture and depth. You'll also learn how to deal with some common challenges that hold us back when writing true stories.



Upcoming Online Classes

I'm teaching two online classes this spring for two great organizations. I'm excited to be teaching my first online class for The Writer's Center, based in Bethesda, MD. And I'm happy to again teach Flash Essays for Creative Nonficiton's online classes. Registration for both is currently open. 


Write Into the Heart of Your Story
March 5 - April 1, 2018
The Writer's Center online classes

 Writing stories from your life is about more than recording a series of events; it's about creating meaning and connection with readers. Whether you're writing personal essays, memoir, or blog posts, how do you write beyond what happened and into the heart of a true story? This course will give participants a treasure trove of techniques to improve their writing, deepen their stories, and connect with readers. Through close reading, writing prompts, and creative exercises, participants will learn how to use the building blocks of writing personal stories, how to create texture and depth in those stories, and how to deal with common challenges that hold us back in our writing.

This 4-week session is part of The Writer's Center online classes. Details and registration ($195) are available here.

Flash Essays 
April 2 - May 2, 2018
Creative Nonfiction online classes

Some experiences beg us to write about them, but we often feel overwhelmed when trying to capture the whole story at once. In this class, we'll explore the art of flash nonfiction and short essays—pieces that tell a complete story in no more than 1000 words. Life is made up of moments: big showy ones and small quiet ones—many of them infused with deeper meaning. Sometimes we can easily articulate a moment’s meaning, but often we can only make sense of it peripherally. In a flash essay, the moment and the meaning must be distilled to their purest essence. Through a series of writing exercises, participants will generate a list of potential essay ideas and identify key details and imagery to help them dig into the heart of those stories. Students will also write up to five flash pieces of varying lengths.

This 5-week class starts with my popular One-Moment Memoirs curriculum and then expands into other aspects of flash essays. Full details and registration are available on Creative Nonfiction's website. Price: $260 if registered by March 12; $310 after March 12.



Free Writing Resources

Exciting news! We're offering a new free membership option in The Word Cellar Writers Guild, the online resource center and community for writers. 

You can sign up right here (no credit card required) and get instant access to resources such as writing prompts, author interviews, interactive podcasts, and community forums where you can connect with other writers. You'll also be able to participate in our virtual Book Club read-along/write-along. (Our current selection is poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, and it's such a fun and inspiring book, whether or not you're a poet.) 

I created The Word Cellar Writers Guild for writers who crave more creativity, more community, and a deeper understanding of the craft of writing. My hope is that it feels like your favorite café, bookstore, library, book club, workshop, online class, and writing retreat all wrapped up in a beautiful virtual home where you can learn, share, and be in community with fellow writers. 

We've offered monthly and annual memberships since 2015, and I'm happy to now offer free "guest memberships" so you can see what we're all about. Come on over and join us! 


Moved to Stillness

My attention span is shot. I find it hard to read a book -- or even a whole article or essay some days. Writing is no better. I write a few paragraphs and I'm bored, restless, distracted (or willing to be distracted). I need to reclaim my mind. My focus. My sustained attention. 

I've been daydreaming about churches, chapels, cathedrals. I have a complicated history with organized religion, but lately I feel the pull to hushed, holy spaces, the kind with wooden pews, stone floors, vaulted ceilings, and preferably candlelight. I don't want to attend a service. I want the silence. 

The author Pico Iyer wrote, "A chapel is where you can hear something beating beneath your heart." 

What beats beneath one's heart? Blood? Breath? Gravity?

Whatever beats beneath my heart -- this is what I crave. I'm seeking silence, solace. The solitude that is not loneliness. Some sort of solution for the way the world seems to be caving in on itself everywhere I look. I'm seeking a personal solstice. Solstice, from the Latin solstitium, meaning "standing." 

To stand. To be still. There is a stillness that beats below your heart. And beneath it all, some story, some song.

I crave a chapel because I'm heartworn and weary. Because I see no separation between the mundane and the holy. Because the world is so beautiful and so terrible. Aren't we all just seeking divine comfort? If I could sink deep enough into the solstice chapel of my own heart, perhaps I could sustain my attention, find sustenance there, be moved to stillness.


Self-Care for Writers (Free Call, Dec. 4) 

Self-Care for Writers: Free Community Call
Sunday, Decmber 4th
4:00 - 5:00pm (ET)

RSVP here

It seems that so many of us writers (and other creative types) are struggling right now. We may feel weighed down by political issues around the world. The holidays may be a time of grief or stress for us (even if they’re also mixed with joy). The roar of social media might make our heads swim. We might be wondering how to stay focused or inspired in the midst of what feels like so much sadness and discord.

I'm feeling the strain, too. One thing that helps me is staying connected to other writers and artists. 

So I'm hosting a free call this Sunday (December 4) called Self-Care for Writers. It's open to everyone at no charge. Let's come together for a simple hour of creative support and encouragement. 

Live Call: Self-Care for Writers
Date: Sunday, December 4, 2016
Time: 4:00 - 5:00pm (ET)
(That's 1pm Seattle; 4pm NYC; 9pm London)
Location: By phone
Details & Registration

I'll share some creative self-care tips. We'll have time to swap ideas and stories and spend a bit of time writing together. This will be a friendly and low-key call, designed to soothe our spirits and inspire our creativity. All writers, artists, and creative types are welcome. 

Full details about the call are available here. This event is presented by The Word Cellar Writers Guild, but you do not have to be a member to attend. This call is free and open to everyone. The more, the merrier. I really hope you can join us.