storytelling through writing: four tips

Every one of us has a story to tell. Some of us share stories in writing, either on blogs or in spiral-bound journals or in published, hold-in-your-hand memoirs. Others share stories through photography or through the spoken word. Some simply share stories around the dinner table, with family and friends. Others enjoy telling their story to their seat mate in the economy cabin of that Delta flight home.

I’m at the BlogHer Food conference in Austin, Texas, this weekend, and yesterday, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel called Principles of Storytelling. My co-panelists were women I’ve admired for their writing, both online and in print. Jenny Rosenstrach is the author of Dinner: A Love Story and the blog by the same name. Molly Wizenberg wrote A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, is working on a second book now, and she’s the woman behind Orangette. Rachel Matthews is a native Texan who writes the wonderful blog, A Southern Fairytale.

Rachel, Molly, me, and Jenny

Rachel, Molly, me, and Jenny
(photo courtesy of Brenda of

And then there was me.

I confess, it still feels like I was the odd one out on that panel. The impostor.  Like maybe the conference organizers picked the wrong blogger by mistake and then felt bad telling me. I had a lot of fun, though, despite my awkwardness. There was a lot of good advice passed around and the questions from the audience were wonderful.

I wanted to share with you four tips on storytelling through writing. These are some of the nuggets of information that I spoke about yesterday, and that all of us on the panel seemed to agree upon. If you have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments.

1. Read, read, and then read some more.

Read works by authors who are doing the type or style of writing you’d like to be doing. Read books – or blogs, or magazine articles, or poetry – by writers who inspire you and whose linking together of words makes your heart race.

One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. Do I want to be a writer of horror and suspense stories? Absolutely not. But, King is a master storyteller whose knack for pulling the reader into the pages of his books, right into the scenes themselves, is enviable. The Stand
is still my favorite King book of all time, the one I could read over and over again.

Neil Gaiman, a writer of science fiction and fantasy, is another author whose literary style captures my attention immediately every time I start reading one his books. The Graveyard Book was the first of his books that I read, and it’s still one of my favorites. His newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, comes out later this month, and it’s on my summer reading list.

These are some other books I’ve loved lately, engaging stories told by writers who know what they’re doing:

Great chefs don’t learn their craft in a vacuum. They develop their style of cooking by eating meals prepared by other chefs whose cooking style or skills they admire and respect. Similarly, writers learn from devouring the words of other writers.

2. Read about writing.

Nothing inspires me more to write than reading about how someone else does it. What is clear in these books is that writing is hard. Starting writing is hard. Finishing writing is hard. Publishing writing is sometimes harder. What is more clear is that we — you and me and anyone else who loves to write — are not alone.

I recommend these to you:

3. Take a writing class.

A couple of years ago, I found a coupon for an online writing class through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. The course was six weeks long, and the syllabus covered the basics of creative writing. I signed up, and I loved it. I enjoyed reading the weekly lessons, and I liked the challenge of the homework assignments. And though it made me incredibly nervous, I even appreciated the instructor’s critiques of my work.

A writing class is a wonderful way to brush up on the basics of writing, things we all learned way back in college but may have let lapse in our current worlds of abbreviated texting and 140-character tweets and Facebook status updates. Need to know how to create a believable scene or develop a character with whom your reader will empathize? Take a writing class.

4. Write.

Of these four items, this is the hardest for me, and probably the hardest for you, too. Writing requires that I sit down and, well, write. Putting words to paper – or screen, as it were – is not easy. All too often I don’t know what to write about, or when I know what I want to say, I’m not sure the best way to say it.

So, I practice. I write here, on this blog. I write in a journal, sometimes regularly  and other times, not so regularly. I keep a notebook of ideas in my bag at all times, a place where I can jot down little nuggets of memories or phrases or other gems that I hope will inspire those words to get out of my head.

I write, and I think about writing, and I stress out about writing.

And finally, at the end of all of the agonizing, I tell my story.

the scariest moment


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26 Responses to “storytelling through writing: four tips”

  1. 1

    You had a well-deserved spot on that panel! It was so lovely to finally meet you. Hope you get a chance to dive into that new Stephen King book soon!!

    • 1.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 8, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

      Thank you so much, Anna. I loved getting to meet you and Lisa finally. Travel safely home!

  2. 2
    Macaroni Mama — June 9, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    Great tips Merry Jennifer. Maybe I will start reading again.

  3. 3

    I’m sure you did absolutely wonderful! Your writing is amazing, and I’m excited whenever you have a new post up. You make it seem effortless. 😉


    • 3.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 9, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

      Thank you so much, Denise. Definitely not effortless, but thank you for saying that!

  4. 4
    Ali | Gimme Some Oven — June 9, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    You are such an inspiration! Thank you for sharing this, your candid thoughts on the panel this weekend, and your amazing recipes and stories week after week. You are making the world a better place in so many ways.

    Such a privilege to meet you this weekend too! I definitely look forward to staying in touch, and hope to get more time to sit down and chat more sometime soon! 🙂

    • 4.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 9, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

      It was so great meeting you, Ali. I would definitely love talking more in the future. (keep with that music!)

  5. 5
    Kathryn — June 10, 2013 @ 4:28 am

    I would have loved to be able to listen to your panel discussion – this post is inspirational enough so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in the room. Some really great advice here, thank you.

    • 5.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

      Oh, Kathryn, I wish you could have been there — but mostly so that I can finally meet you. 🙂

  6. 6
    Momo — June 10, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    Your seat on that panel was well-deserved and I think this post proves it! Thanks for being part of BlogHer Food ’13!

    • 6.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

      Thanks so much for having me, Momo! I had a blast on the panel – and at the entire conference.

  7. 7

    i have always enjoyed your blog and you are a big inspiration <3

  8. 8
    Beth Lee — June 10, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    I felt the same way as you last year but you know what? we both deserved our “place at the table” and each of us had very different and still very meaty and useful tips to share. Congrats on what sounds like a great conference and panel. I, too, thought the questions were excellent during my session. Brought out even more good stuff from the panel.

    Wish I could have been there in person. I’m sure you were outstanding!

    • 8.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

      Thank you so much, Beth! I wish I could have seen you, too. Maybe next year?

  9. 9

    You did well during the panel, it was lovely to accidentally meet you the night before and thanks for this post. MUCH better than the notes I took! 🙂

    • 9.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

      I loved how we ran into each other after that fortuitous introduction on twitter the day before. 🙂

  10. 10
    Amy at Kid Cultivation — June 11, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    I attended your session and found it so heartening and inspirational to hear about your writing process in the midst of a very full and busy “real” life. And if it’s any consolation, I was too shy and awed by you 4 amazing bloggers on the panel that I didn’t even introduce myself. I guess that’s why so many of us stick to writing. It’s much easier to be brave and confident on the screen! Thanks for speaking and yes, you belonged there.

    • 10.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

      Oh, Amy, next time you simply must come up and say hello! I would love to have met you in person. Thank you for being there!

  11. 11
    Paula — June 11, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    Great tips Merry-Jennifer. I’m glad you enjoyed the conference. I’m sure everyone who had the pleasure of hearing you speak were enriched by what you had to say.

    I think that even though you have taken a course and have signed up for another one, that you are a gifted and natural born story teller.

    • 11.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 11, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

      Paula, you have no idea how much that means to me. Thank you. xo

  12. 12
    jenny r — June 13, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    I think we left one crucial thing out at the conference: feeling like an imposter is absolutely vital to the experience. And as soon as we realize we ALL feel like that (I’m betting even Stephen King did when he first started) the sooner we can plow through whatever is holding us back. Great post! Great to meet you!

    • 12.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 13, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

      You’re probably right, Jenny. That’s one of the hardest things to get over.
      It was wonderful meeting YOU!

  13. 13
    Nutmeg nanny — June 16, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    Really great tips 🙂 wonderful post!

  14. 14
    Michelle — June 18, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    Merry-Jennifer, like so many others have already stated, I agree that you more than belonged at the table as a member of that panel. I’m no longer food-blogging, but I will tell you that there have only been about 3 or 4 food-blogs I continue to personally follow, and your’s is one of them. You inspire more of us than you may ever truly know with your real-life -busy-motherhood-spouse-Dr-daughter-friend stories that speak to our hearts, all while staying connected to the heart of the home, the kitchen. Brava!

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