Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life


Last month I attended a really great workshop led by Amy Lou Jenkins at UW-Madison’s Write by the Lake Retreat. One of the things we talked about was our “writer’s toolbox”, and Amy had us spend sometime writing down some of the things a person might find in our toolboxes.

Mine, as did most of the other writers attending, contained some expected items. I can write a grammatically correct, complete sentence. I love verbs and know how to use them. I understand parallel structure. I know when to use passive voice.

But Amy encouraged us to think beyond the expected to what we know about our weaknesses as writers as well. For instance, I possess a complete and total inability to proof my own work. I cannot spell without a dictionary, and for me, spell-check programs are dangerous things. Because I have over 15 years experience writing for scientists and clinicians I have developed a wonderful ability to tell the story, the whole complex story, in the first two sentences of what I write. That’s not a great skill if you are trying to suck your audience into a longer work, but it does keep you from being overly flowery with the adjectives.

Next Amy encouraged us to think about what our life experiences bring to our writer’s toolbox. My toolbox contains 15 years of professional editing and writing experience in the life sciences. My toolbox also comes equipped with an intimate and almost unparalleled knowledge of worm sperm as a result of my dissertation research, although how I will ever use that in a story, I don’t know. I did learn to fly an airplane before I learned to drive a car, and I am currently living through the creation of the connected age: I have seen Al Gore invent the internet, and I have witnessed the evolution of the phone from wired receiver to wireless wonder.

It was fun to hear the other workshop writers read what was in their toolboxes. I learned a lot about them. Some of them knew what it was like to lose a spouse or a child. Some of them had a toolbox that was filled with memories of an amazing Scottish grandmother. Some of them had a toolbox filled with experience of years as a special education teacher.

Their toolboxes were amazing. They had so much in them to write about; so many stories to tell and share with the world. The attendees of this particular workshop happened to be all women. Women with stories to tell. Amy talked about the fact that women are the primary consumers of literature. We buy most of the books and read most of the newspapers and magazines, but we don’t publish most of the stories, which is sad, because we have some powerful stories to tell. And our voices need to be heard.

One of the things in my toolbox is this: I didn’t get a chance to learn all of my mother’s stories before she passed away, and my daughter will never hear her voice. I at least had some interaction with my grandmothers, and letters and poems from them—their voice in writing. But my daughter will hear my mother’s voice, except through me. Unfortunately, as true as I try to be to Mom’s voice in the telling of her stories, my voice will always be layered on top. That is a great loss.

So, look in your writer’s toolbox. What’s inside? Have you shared all the wonderful things inside? Record your story; write it down; write a letter. Or, let someone else write your story for you. Your voice is important, and we need to hear it.

©2010 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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