Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Creative Core

 CandaceFleming, author of Amelia Lost, and many other great books calls it the “vital idea.”

I’ve heard other nonfiction writers use terms like inciting incident, emotional trigger, creative spark, moment of inception, central mantra. I like to call it the creative core.

What is it?

It’s the heart of a great nonfiction manuscript.

It’s what a specific author brings to a topic, to a manuscript that no one else can.

It’s why a topic chooses an author, not the other way around.

It’s the result of an aha moment, and the source of passionate writing.

It’s what connects a topic, any topic, to a universal theme that everyone can relate to.

And according to nonfiction author Heather Montgomery, it’s what makes the best nonfiction books timeless.

Sound like magic? Well, it kind of is.

A nonfiction book’s creative core originates deep inside its author. Maybe it traces back to a powerful childhood memory. It might be the result of a deep-seeded desire, hope, belief, or disappointment. Here are some examples.

 Tanya Lee Stone wrote Sandy’s Circus because, as a child, Alexander Calder, was the only artist she immediately understood in a way that her father and sister seemed to understand all artists. Calder was her link to a secret knowledge that made her feel more closely connected to her family.

 DeborahHeiligman’s “nonfiction novel” Charles & Emma is so compelling because everything about who she is as a person drove her to write a book “in service to the love story” between Darwin and his wife. It's a book that only she could write.

Next year, I have a book coming out that traces back to the walks my father, brother, and I took through the woods near our home when I was young. The knowledge my brother and I learned on those meandering journeys and the closeness it made us feel to my father had a strong impact on both our lives. In many ways, I’ve been writing No Monkeys, No Chocolate since I was 8 years old.

How can a writer go about identifying the creative core of a work in progress? He or she must think deeply and ask questions that may have difficult or uncomfortable answers:
--What really prompted the writer to choose his or her topic. Was there an event--an inciting incident?
--Is there a connection to the writer's own life that needs to be examined?
--Does the author need to acknowledge a disappointment or betrayal in order to move on?
--Was there an aha moment filled with joy that the author can't wait to share?

Journaling can be an invaluable tool during this process. Writing about the moment of inception can help writers stay connected to it and the emotions it triggers.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, the best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. We write because we have something we need to say.


Deborah Heiligman said...

This is a great post, and it gets to the heart, I think, of what we are all trying to do--and that is write books that mean so much to us we can't help but convey that to our readers. I love that you say you've been writing No Monkeys, No Chocolate (GREAT title!) since you were 8. What is the pub date?

Melissa Stewart said...

Thanks, Deb. No Monkeys, No Chocolate is coming out in Fall 2013. I'm reviewing some of the final art now, which (finally) makes the book really seem alive to me.

Myra Zarnowski said...

This is a wonderful post. We teachers are trying to help children understand that it is an author's personal take on a topic that makes writing so original and compelling. Thank you for the inside scoop.

Unknown said...

Great post, Melissa. But I think that good writers also look for a way to own a subject that has been suggested by an editor (in the interest of making a living.) Good writers don't like to be plugged into a series with a formula. Too much of this kind of writing stifles the spark in an author that connects a subject to a reader

Anonymous said...

I love this post, Melissa. Only after I finally "got" this did I really start feeling successful as a nonfiction writer, plus it makes writing a lot more interesting and fun! Now, this is where I always start with a new project, and it's what I go back to whenever I'm feeling stuck. So powerful and true!

Melissa Stewart said...

Vicki, that's an interesting point. When I'm assigned a topic, I approach the book differently. The fun is putting the pieces together in a way that will be interesting and relevant to young readers.

The kind of writing I'm addressing in my post is different, at least for me. It's more about discovering that there is a puzzle and figuring out its attributes. What shape is it? Is it 2-D or 3-D or maybe even 4-D.