Monday, February 7, 2011

What's Your Story?

Today we are happy to share a post by guest blogger, Kathy Cooney Dobbs. A North Idaho freelance writer and poet, Kathy gives us some thoughts about telling one's story, the influence and importance of past writing techniques, and a look at some resources for writers.


My eighth grade teacher, Sister Mary Agnesine used to say, “Everybody has a story to tell, one that’s special and unique to them.”  I agree with Sister,  everybody has a story  they’d like to share with others. It may inspire or thrill, make one laugh or cry; give insight about a friend, family member, a person of history, or a particular time and place. Whoever writes a story, writes the story in their own style and genre—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir. The story may be a published manuscript, or unpublished; it may come to life in a newspaper article, magazine feature or internet blog. It can be told via letter writing, or in a journal. The important thing is to tell the story.

I’d like to say something more about the value of letter writing as I believe it’s a form of writing often overlooked in the 21st century, primarily due to modern technology—texting, tweeting and online chat rooms. Letters can give a detailed picture of one’s life and environment. If only a snapshot of a moment in time, letters document emotion, description and dialogue, and can even answer those journalistic questions of who, why, what, when and where.

In my basement is a box of letters from family and friends that I first began saving in the late 1950’s and have continued to do so through the years. When I reread the letters now, it’s as though I’m reading a biopic about those who are part of my life, allowing me to relive those old feelings of joy and pain, the happy times and sad times, the important and not so important activities of daily life. Sometimes it gives me new perspective about the person writing the letter, and the time it was written. I think of the famous letters of presidents and pioneers, and what we continue to learn from them, and about them, and the history of their day. Without letters as a way of storytelling, I fear future generations will lose much in learning about what came before them, and why.

For those of us who aren’t ‘Best Selling’ authors, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books today about improving writing skills, and hints on how to get published. I know, as I have more than a few lining the shelf in my study. Three favorites are, Pen on Fire by Barbara DeMarco Barrett, The Daily Writer by Fred White and Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan G. Wooldridge. I recommend these three authors, especially for those interested in writing memoir and poetry. Each gives good examples of narrative writing, and practice guides to help improve creative thought.

Another source I find myself returning to time and time again—one you won’t find in any book store, but one very instructive about how to write—is Voyages in English. Copyright 1958, published by Loyola Press, and coauthored by Reverend Paul E. Campbell and Sister Mary Donatus MacNickle, it is proving to be a wonderful refresher course in the basic principles of how to write well.

In Chapter two, “Studying the Paragraph” it states, “A paragraph, whether it is long or short, develops one main idea. Every sentence in the paragraph must relate to that one main idea or topic. A good paragraph can be divided into three parts: (1) a beginning sentence, (2) middle sentences, and (3) an ending sentence. The beginning sentence begins the paragraph, attracts attention, and gives a hint of what is to follow. It may also express the central thought of the paragraph. The middle sentences develop the thought introduced in the beginning sentence. The ending sentence gives the last detail, sums up the paragraph, or makes a personal comment.”

Another chapter, “Polishing a Paragraph” is a reminder that sentences can be improved by changing plain words to words that appeal to the senses or words that express exact meanings. Sometimes a writer can add variety to paragraphs and make them more interesting by occasionally inverting the word order. For example: The songs of a thousand birds came from every bush and tree (Natural Order). From every bush and tree came the songs of a thousand birds (Inverted Order).

While this may seem elementary to many, I’ve attended writing seminars in recent years where an entire afternoon was spent on parts of the paragraph, proving how to write a paragraph is still an important lesson writer’s need to learn.

Other chapters are “Writing Letters”, “Phrases, Clauses, Sentences”, and “Participles, Gerunds, Infinitives”. I must say the word ‘gerund’ makes me laugh, and think of some underground critter rather than a verb form ending in ‘ing’. About gerunds, an internet writers guide suggests using too many gerunds makes one’s writing seem passive. I try to keep that in mind, and not ‘ing’ too many of my words.

“Model Diagrams”, the final chapter, will only be of interest to those of us of a certain age who might recall homework exercises, or standing at the blackboard to diagram simple and complex sentences—the idea of the diagram being to show in graphic manner the relationship that exists among the various words that make up a sentence.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could properly diagram a sentence today, but I do know my first lessons in writing, taught by the good Sisters of Notre Dame, left a lasting impression on me, a love of the written word, and the belief everyone has a story to tell.


Kathy Cooney Dobbs is a freelance writer and poet who moved to north Idaho with her husband and son in 1992 from southern California. A member of the Idaho Writer's League, Kathy studied journalism at the College of Marin in San Rafael, California. She worked for the Pico Rivera News, Herald American/Call Enterprise newspaper chain, and the Los Angeles Times. Kathy's writing has appeared in a number of periodicals, including The Inland Catholic, The Idaho Register, The Senior Advocate and Spokesman-Reveiw. Her poetry has appeared in Write-On Poetry Magazette, and the Storyteller - A Writer's Magazine. Currently Kathy is working on a compilation of her grandmother's poetry and prose. You can read Kathy's blog, 2 lane highway at


Jennifer Rova said...

You made several good points. So many people say that they don’t know what to write but your emphasis and tips show us we all, no matter our background, lives full of adventure or ever day seemingly monotonous living, are interesting. It is so because each of us lives and sees the world differently. The tips on writing are “spot on.” I am always on the look out for good books on writing. As you said, there are so many books published on how to write that without a recommendation, one could not spend as wisely in time and money without a recommendation. Thanks for a great post!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks for the post Kathy. I also believe everyone has a story to tell, and thankfully, there are many ways folks can share their stories and express their creativity today that didn't exist all that long ago. Whether through traditional or nontraditional publishing routes, in print or electronic, it is great that so many options are available for writers to get their stories out to readers. Good resources for writers too.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Long time no see, Kathy! So glad you joined us for a guest blog. I too treasure a box of old letters written between 7 brothers and sisters (my father's siblings) during WWII, and hope to find a way to share them with my extended family. I guess it's up to those of us who love the written word to save those fragile pieces of the past. One way my family found to pass on a few simple written treasures was through a family cookbook we created that included family pics, poems, and even a great-grandmother's faded, hand-written recipe for her beloved Apple Betty. Could you share what form your current project is taking,Kathy? Any creative ideas for saving written family memorabilia for future generations? Anybody?

Jessie Gunderson said...

Great post. I am sad to say, I probably use too many gerunds. I'm giggling at the name too.

You've also inspired me to write more letters. I enjoy it and yet don't make it a priority. Isn't it fun to get something other than the sort of mail from our "friend" bill these days?


It's always encouraging when another writer makes a positive comment about our writing - thank you, Jessie. About letter writing, I don't know if you're of an age to remember how popular having a 'Pen Pal' once was. I can't quite recall how one even became a pen pal - perhaps through school. However, I do remember how exciting it was to go the the mailbox and find a letter addressed to me from someone in Dubrovnik !

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

I remember Pen Pals! (But I had to look up Dubrovnik.) Fun.