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

Writing true stories is about more than reporting the facts, it's about creating art from real life.

And art isn't just about capturing what happened. It's about making sense of what happened. It's about asking the big (and small) questions, looking for meaning, making connections, and digging deep.

Here are five ways you can write beyond the facts and into the heart of a story. 

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.) Trust your readers to figure things out, but don't make them do the creative equivalent of quantum physics to understand what the story means. 

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 you tell how many and which details to include? It's different for every writer and for every piece of writing, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Details should create texture and interest within a story.
  • Details should focus the readers' attention on what matters.
  • Details should add to the artfulness of what you're writing. 
  • Think about frame your paragraphs as you would frame a photograph. 
  • Use spectacular and specific details to draw in readers and immerse them in the world you're recreating.
  • 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 True 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."

This is another one of those things that you learn by doing. The more you write, the easier it will be to decipher what's True -- and to sacrifice anything that doesn't serve the story. (Try to get your hands on Dillard's short essay. It's some of my favorite writing advice. You can find it in Issue 15 of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction.)

Want to learn more about writing into the heart of your story? We'll explore each of these points in more depth and learn others in Write into the Heart of Your Story. The next session starts Saturday (February 1). 

This online class gives you a treasure trove of proven techniques to help you become a better writer. You'll learn how to write with more depth, more clarity, and more power, so that your stories connect with readers.

Course topics include: 

  • Understanding the two essential building blocks of stories
  • Using imagery and metaphor to create meaning
  • Choosing and "slanting" details to create connection with readers
  • How to use (or bend) writing "rules" to capture emotions in words
  • Dealing with common writing fears and challenges that hold you back
  • Embracing your personal quirkiness to enhance your writing

Registration for this 4-week class is $49 and includes 12 writing lessons, inspiration, resources, and an online community. Please join me for a month of learning and writing into the heart of your stories. 


Letters to My Muse

Tucked in a cubby on my desk, I keep a small envelope, just big enough to hold index cards. Inside that envelope are handwritten letters to my muse.

A few years ago, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert on this Radio Lab show explaining how she talks to her muse as though it's a real, live entity. I latched on to this idea and have been writing little pleas, prayers, and thank-you notes to my muse ever since.

Whenever I hit a rough patch in a piece of writing, I write a short letter asking for help. I remember to mention with gratitude any special creative moments or favors the muse has recently bestowed upon me.

Even as I write these little letters, I feel strange and silly.

And every single time, I almost immediately find a way through my creative roadblock.

In grad school, I struggled to write a certain paper for months. When I finally wrote to my muse for help, I saw the way forward a few days later. What had been a blind, jumbled mess of half-assed ideas came together into a beautiful whole.

I wrote my most recent letter a few days ago when I had a contest deadline and  had almost no idea what I was going to write just a few hours beforehand. Not the most ideal way to enter a contest, I know, but something clicked and I eeked out an essay that I like just before the entry window closed.

Call it coincidence. Call it a personal mind game. Call it voodoo. I don't care what you call it. For me, it works. Every time. And every time, I'm amazed by it. Amazed, and so thankful.

I really should remember to do it more often.

Learn & Write: Online Classes

I share more tips for tapping into your creativity in The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Processes. The next session of this online class runs March 15 - April 11. When you understand your unique creative process, you'll be more relaxed, more prolific, and more consistent in your writing practice. Join me for this 4-week experience of fun and experimentation to create a writing life you love.


Before The Writing Life, join me for Write into the Heart of the Story (Feb. 1-28). This class gives you a treasure trove of writing techniques and skills to improve your writing, enrich your stories, and connect with readers. Writing the stories of your life is about more than recording what happened. Join me to learn how to create meaning and connection with words.


It's Tomorrow! One-Moment Memoirs Writing Workshop

Life can feel like a blur when we're busy living it. Likewise, the stories from our life can feel blurry or overwhelming when we try to write them. I created the One-Moment Memoirs writing workshop to give you a process to cut through the clutter and focus on your stories, moment by moment. The live workshop is happening tomorrow (January 24), Noon-3pm (EST).

 And if you can't make it live, no problem: Everyone who registers will receive a recording of the calls. 

(UPDATE JAN. 25: The call recordings are now available. If you register now, you will receive all class materials, the recordings, and access to the online class community, which will remain open until Feb. 21.) 

I love the above quote from Annie Dillard. It reminds me that days add up to a life, which encourages me to make time for what matters to me. One of the things that matters deeply to me is writing, but I often struggle to make time for it. I can't control everything about my days, but I can consciously choose to come back to the page again and again. I can create a writing practice and do my best to stick with it. I can capture the moments of my days, and the days of my life, in words. I invite you to do the same: Make time (tomorrow or another day) to write. Make time dive into the stories of your life. Make time to tell them. 

About One-Moment Memoirs

January 24, 2015
Noon - 3:00pm (EST)
(a recording will be available after the live class) 

If I could give you one thing to help you tell the stories of your life, it would be the unique step-by-step process that I share in this class.

One-Moment Memoirs (OMM) is a series of writing exercises designed to help you discover and write the stories of your life. This hands-on workshop will help you take a relaxed, yet focused, approach to telling life's big and small stories in bite-sized pieces. 

In this hands-on class, you'll be guided through an easy step-by-step writing exercise that is designed to help you discover your life's "writable moments" so that you can start writing immediately.

All of the course details and registration for OMM are over here. I would be delighted if you joined us. 

What People Are Saying About OMM...

"This was so much fun! The writing prompts in OMM helped me to come up with new angles on stories I've been wanting to tell but haven't quite known where to begin. I'm excited and inspired to go write now, for sure. " (Liz Lamoreux

* * * 

"I am not a writer, but I do have a story. Jenna uses simple prompts that speak to the ordinary person who wants to warm up their story journey. I always seem to be tense when I first sit down to write, but using the prompts and Jenna's encouragement, I could feel myself opening, and the words began to flow. That is what I love about Jenna and how she shares her knowledge. OMM is a happy way to get back to your story." (Kelly Barton, artist)

* * * 

"All my life, I've wanted to write, but I was either too confused about where to start or too frustrated after just a few paragraphs. The process you teach in OMM has enabled me to move past the confusion and the frustration. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can tell my story. This process is amazing! Thank you so much for this!" (James S.)



How to (not) be alone with your writing

A few months ago I posted a list of ways "to be alone with your writing," meaning ways to overcome resistance, including  turning off distractions, making friends with your fear, and shifting your mindset from writing as a challenge to writing as a gift.

It can be hard to be alone with your writing. We writers know the potential terror of the blank page. We know how maddening it can be to stay with a story when we don't know where it's going or how we're going to get it there. We know the temptation to stop writing, to avoid it, to busy ourselves otherwise and elsewhere. But we also know that if we can just stick with it, there are good things to be had.

Today, let's talk about another way to "be alone" with your writing. I call this one:

How to NOT be alone with your writing

1) Co-working 

Last week, I had an appointment with a local writer friend. We met at the library, found a quiet spot near the windows, exchanged a few bits of conversation, and then sat side-by-side in silence for several hours, writing. I wokred on an assay I'd started writing -- and then abandoned -- last January

There was nothing inherently special about the library or the day of the writing date. So why did I get back to an unfinished essay that I'd let languish for 12 months? Because I made a commitment to show up, and I didn't want to let my friend down. Because my friend was writing, so I felt positive peer pressure to do the same. Because I was outside of my normal environment, which made the moment seem important, and I wanted to honor that by doing what I said I was going to do.

(Note that you don't have to have local creative friends to do this. You could have writing dates via Skype, the phone, or with beginning and ending check-ins via email or text messages.)

2) Collaboration

When I created Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, the whole process was rooted in collaboration, from the six women who contributed words and images to the anthology; to the colleagues who helped me figure out the logistics of creating, printing, and shipping a 50-page book in just five weeks; to my friends and family who held my hand and talked me off the emotional ledge multiple times as I tackled this new kind of project. In so many ways, we do much of our creative work on our own, but we don't have to go it alone. Creative collaboration can take many different forms. Think about who you can collaborate with to create something new or to help you see your vision through to completion. 

3) Community

Being part of a writing community connects you to like-minded people and also exposes you to new ideas. Having a creative community (online or in-person, local or long-distance) can help you to fill your creative well and inspire you. It can be a place to commiserate with others when the going gets rough, to celebrate with others when the going gets good, and to cheer each other on. If you're a writer (or you want to be a writer), being part of a writing community connects you to other writers, to what's happening in the world of writing, and to the writer inside of yourself.  

4) Classes

Taking a writing class or workshop can be one of the best ways to not be alone with your writing (so that you can be alone with your writing). In a class, whether it's online or in-person, you can connect with other writers, which gives you a writing community and the potential for collaboration and co-working. You'll learn new writing techniques or practice familiar ones, which gets you out of your old internal monologue of "I can't write" or "I never make time to write." Being part of a class can spark connections -- with other writers, other ideas, and within your own writing. Learning can light up your work at any stage of your writing life. One of the reasons that I love to teach writing classes and workshops is that sharing what I'v learned always leads to new learning and inspiration.

5) Commitment  & Connection

Each of the ideas I've listed above comes back to commitment and connection. I wish I were better at keeping the commitments I make to myself alone. I wish I didn't need external deadlines or motivating circumstances to be "disciplined." (Actually, I dislike the word "discipline" and much prefer the word "enthusiasm.") But the truth is that I do need those things to write. I could waste time railing against that, or I could create a writing life that works for me. Yes, writing is usually a solitary act. As a writer who also works from home, I can turn into a bit of a hermit when I'm not careful. Reaching out to stay connected and committed is one of the best things I can do for my creative work. 

Don't be alone with your writing. Join me for these upcoming online writing classes. (Each class can be taken on its own, but they also build upon one another. You can sign up for two and get the third free.)

One-Moment Memoirs (January 24*)
Tell the stories of your life, moment by moment.

Some experiences beg us to write about them, but we often feel overwhelmed when trying to capture the whole story at once. In OMM, you'll work through a series of writing exercises designed to help you discover and write the stories of your life moment by moment. This live, virtual workshop will help you take a relaxed, yet focused, approach to telling life's big and small stories in bite-sized pieces. Learn more and register.  (*a recording of the live class will be available)


Write into the Heart of Your Story (February 1-28)
Learn writing techniques to create meaningful, memorable stories.

This class teaches you proven writing techniques to strengthen your writing and improve your stories. Write into the Heart of Your Story gives you a treasure trove of writing tools to write with more depth, clarity, and power so that your work connects with readers. Learn more and register. 

The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices (March 15 - April 11)
Create a writing life you love.

When you understand your unique creative process, you'll be more relaxed, more prolific, and more consistent in your writing practice. You'll also have much more fun! You'll experiment with your creative process, examine writing as a process of discovery, and practice living the writing life you crave. Learn more and register.



What is a "One-Moment Memoir"? 

What is a one-moment memoir?

It's that moment when you're washing dishes, and you see your own hand holding a little metal bouquet of silverware, and for a second you think it's your mother's hand. 

It's that moment when you hear the loud summer buzz of cicadas, and a line of poetry floats into your mind, begging you to capture it for later.

It's that moment when the watermelon you're washing in the kitchen sink whispers "carpe diem" to you.

It's that moment before the kiss, before the phone rings, before the car crash

It's that moment when you fall asleep on the floor with your lover during a rainshower and years later you wonder if you dreamt the whole thing: the rain, the nap, the lover – all of it. 

It's that moment when the sun slants just so, or the clock ticks too loudly, or you hear church bells ringing on the wind.

One-moment memoirs are those moments big and small, those moments that matter, those moments that you want to live inside of, or make sense of, or share with others. 

Our lives are made of moments.

Even the huge, earth-shattering events are composed of individual moments. And sometimes a seemingly small, quiet moment sticks with us for our whole life because it was infused with something deeper, something more.

Sometimes we understand and can articulate that meaning, and sometimes we can only see its importance in our peripheral vision.

Writing deeply into one moment can help us to find the meaning within it – and to convey that meaning to others. 

This is the kind of writing I love to do. This is why I write essays and blog posts and flash nonfiction. This is why I write the stories of my life, one day at a time, one moment at a time, sometimes one breath at a time.

And this is why I created the One-Moment Memoirs Writing Workshop, to help you write the stories of your life, moment by moment. 

Capturing the significance and intricacies of our life in words, and committing that to the page can be a daunting task, I know. It can feel overwhelming to decide what to reveal and what to conceal, which details to include and which to leave out. It can be hard to convey the depth and breadth of our life stories so that our experiences connect with our readers. 

I want my writing to resonate with others. I want people to read my stories and feel a spark, a recognition, a sense of surprise or a sense of "me too." I want to make art from the matter of my life. I want my words to reach into your heart, your mind, the center of your being.

And I want you to do the same with your words, your stories

Is this grandiose? No. Or yes. I don't know, and I don't really care. If you love art and music and books and films.... If you create art or music or books or films... Then you know what I'm talking about. We engage with with art because it reaches us or wakes us up or soothes us or simply makes us feel alive and well. And I think we create art of all kinds for the same reasons: to wake up, to soothe, to feel alive and well. As artists and writers, we want those things for ourselves, and we want them for the people who engage with our work. 

One-Moment Memoirs is for you if...

...you need a new way "in" to your stories.

...you want to write but are afraid/lost/overwhelmed.

...you love to write but want to try something new.

...you want to make sense of your life in words.

...you want to share your life stories with others.

...you want to find a way to write with more ease and more joy.  

So I'm asking you: What stories do you have to tell? About the family that you love. About the places that you've been. About the things that you've lost. About the secrets that you keep. About the experiences that make you laugh, make you cry, make you say "hmm...." What are the stories of your life? You can write them, moment by moment. And it will be fun and messy and enlightening and good. It's going to be so good. Will you join us? 

The live, virtual class happens on Saturday, January 24.
>>We'll set aside three hours together to learn and write and amaze ourselves and ask and answer questions.
>>We'll gather by conference call from anywhere in the world. (I'll have in-country call-in numbers for you, don't worry.)
>>You'll get a recording of the call to keep, so you can listen to it again (or for the first time if you can't make the live call).
>>I'll walk you through a series of fun, accessible, and surprisingly effective writing exercises.
>>You'll have a glorious hour of personal writing time to dive into one of the stories you've uncovered during the class.
>>We'll have a private online community to support each other.
>>You'll get a workbook with worksheets, resources, and inspiration.
>>You'll be able to choose to receive (kind, constructive) feedback on your writing (but only if you want).  
>>We'll play with words, ideas, stories, and possibilities.
>>We'll realize that writing can be fun and exciting.
>>We'll practice being brave.
>>We'll practice being in charge of which stories we tell.
>>We'll practice listening and letting that Something Else (call it The Muse or what you will) guide the way.
>>We'll make art from the stories of our lives.

Registration is open.
I would be thrilled if you joined me.
I think you'll be thrilled, too.

Class Registration:

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p.s. A note about the registration options: Want to go even deeper and wider with your stories? You can sign up for the Three Class Bundle, which gives you 3 writing classes for the price of 2: One-Moment Memoirs (January 24); Write into the Heart of Your Story (Feb. 1-28); and The Writing Life: Rituals, Rhythms, & Practices (March 15 - April 11). All of the classes can stand alone, but they also work together and build upon each other. Also, if you want feedback on your writing, you can add that to your registration. 

(psst...I like to give you options, and I like to let you keep your options open. If you register for OMM now and then decide you want to add the feedback or upgrade to the bundle, you'll be able to do that later. No worries. )