MY CLASS IS called Writing What You Know. Based on that simple adage to “write what you know,” the message tucked into the course title is complex, and requires nothing less than chucking the Big Bang notion of reality TV, talk radio, and many best-selling memoirs, and instead learning to go small.
It’s in the small moments that life is truly lived. Lessons from the “large moments” are hard to absorb and rarely learned. Consider a quarrelling couple coming back together. Only in movies does the lavish trip to Paris or the uber-bracelet rejoin an exhausted pair of people. In life, one night someone laughs again at another’s joke, another passes the peas and includes a touch of fingertips, and life together begins again.
Not long ago, Martha Stewart Living sent me to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to interview Janice Longone, the first designated Curator of American Culinary History. This is someone who relates human history through an ice cube—or a bag of coffee beans, tea leaves, or salt—using edible vehicles to roll out our tale. The kind of person writers need in their lives, she makes you think outside prescribed methods of narration.
In the basement of the William L. Clements Library, at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, we looked over a mere handful of the more than 20,000 items—including books, menus, magazines, and advertisements—she had recently donated. Among the most comprehensive private collections of such material, it represents “enough material for 1,500 Ph.Ds.,” she said, while regarding an intricate early-twentieth-century menu and dropping into our chat the word “realia.”
“What is that?” I asked, rolling the word around to nail its tricky pronunciation – re-AL-ee-ah.
“Small stuff. Collectibles. Isn’t it a lovely word?”
This ethic—the small stuff, the true collectibles, realia—is how to tell the tale. In writing, as in life, simplicity succeeds.
See a typo, a grammar flub, my (ever-present) overuse of commas? Point it out, and I’ll throw you in the pool for a monthly free book giveaway. Which book? One of mine – your choice – all of which were professionally copy edited, thank goodness.