Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's a Jigsaw Puzzle: Acquiring the Elusive Pieces of Writing - Diane Coleman

The Truth About Islam and Cry of the Heart and Quest of the Mind were co-authored with Dr. Anees Zaka, founder of the Biblical Institute for Islamic Studies in Philadelphia. Anees is EASTERN and he’s MALE, so we’re about as different from one another as two people can get.

Yet when we work on books together, we have this “mind-meld” thing going on. Really. I can’t count the number of times that one of us thinks of something and the other e-mails the exact same idea almost simultaneously.

The two biographies, It All Began with a Number Two Lead Pencil and Bruno-isms: A Profile in Uncommon Sense, were written primarily from hundreds of hours of recorded interviews of people from all walks of life, from plumbers to financial analysts to a state senator.

And as I’m sitting here wondering how to describe these projects, all I can think about is jigsaw puzzles.

Writing a book-length memoir or biography is a lot like putting together jigsaw puzzle. Books are made up of pieces, but the pieces are far more elusive. They are sensory and fleeting—scenes, songs, smells, textures, flavors, words. Especially words. You have to collect a lot of them from a lot of sources and then figure out how they all fit together.

If you are serious about writing a memoir of your overseas experience for a broader audience, your journal, as good and deep and insightful as it is, cannot supply all of the hundreds of pieces you need for a book. Differing points-of-view and background information give texture to any story. I mean, really, your observations are great, but don’t you like it that there are FOUR gospels?

So, as a first step, maybe you ought to think about …gulp!… interviewing other people.

Don’t panic. It’s really not as scary as it sounds. In fact, it is actually a very “piece-ful” process (groan…I know, I know…I couldn’t resist…).

Your interviewee list includes people you interact with on a regular basis, those with whom you have a personal relationship, plus individuals with special insight or information to add depth to your story. We’re talking about co-workers, team members, national friends and officials, organization leaders, etc.

Don’t be nervous about asking people if they will agree to be interviewed. Most people are really flattered to be able to contribute to a book and some are downright eager! But you’ll also get a few who will be reticent and drawing them out can be a little tricky. I have found that conducting the interview in an informal setting or doing it jointly with one of their friends or colleagues often helps.

Remember that interviewing is basically just a structured conversation. With practice, you’ll get the hang of it. But afterward, extracting and organizing all that verbiage can be overwhelming. As I stumbled and bumbled my way through this process, I developed a few little techniques that turned out to be lifesavers for me. I hope they will be helpful to you too.

More about that next week.


Linda said...

I look forward to more of your insights. Thanks for today's inspiration.


Jamie Jo said...

Reading this makes me think of an idea I once had, which is to include my children's perspective on the same events. My adult children would certainly be fun to interview. On my personal blog, one of the best "pieces" is the comments my one son added. He's a much funnier person than I am, but less likely to put the story on paper. Thanks for the inspiration!

d- said...

@ Linda - Thanks!I'm sure hoping it will be helpful!
@ Jamie Jo - Oh, your kids' insights would be fantastic! Their memories are sure to put a great, quirky (and, in all probability, wincingly accurate) new twist on everything!


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