To improve your writing, get specific

My memoir writing workshop spring season starts up this week. (If South Madison is convenient for you, there are still a few seats in the house for Thursday 6:00-7:45, 8-week workshop.) I will share some writing tips here to complement the workshop content this spring. Today’s tip:

Improve your writing with specificity.

If you want your reader to hold in mind the same image, idea, or emotion that you are having, don’t send abstract words to do the job. Take “awesome” or “incredible.” If I use those words you know I was moved, but how? In what way? Moved to feel what? This is where concrete language proves its effectiveness.

Let me introduce you to the ladder of abstraction: it leads from abstract down to concrete.

  • Transportation
  • Vehicle
  • Car
  • Ford
  • Pinto

If I say “transportation” you know I’m thinking about how to get from point A to point B, but not much more. “Vehicle” narrows it down, as does “car.” If I choose to say “Ford” you can start to draw some conclusions about me–my social class, or my tastes, perhaps. But if I say “Pinto” a whole world of associations and connotations open up. “Cigarette lighter on wheels” is probably one of the first to come to mind. See what a difference a word makes? (Remember what Mark Twain said: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”)

Abstract terms refer to ideas and concepts; they have no physical referents. They rely on you and me having shared definitions to communicate, which means if we don’t come from identical backgrounds, something is going to get lost in translation. Concrete terms refer to objects or events. We can sense them. We can call up detailed memories of times we’ve sensed them in the past. Abstract terms change meaning with time and circumstance, but concrete terms remain relatively stable. Not only that–they are more interesting. They show–not tell. Compare “I support feminism” with “I carried a placard in a Take Back the Night March.” Which one makes you say, “That’s interesting–tell me more”?

To climb down the ladder, try clustering.

Clustering is a brainstorming technique frequently used for pre-writing. That means finding what you want to say and how you want to say it before you sit down to write. I recommend all kinds of pre-writing techniques because frankly, they make you feel like a better writer. Words comes more easily, one sentence becomes the next with more flow. And when you feel like you’re writing well, you generally ARE producing a better first draft.

Clustering allows you to note ideas as they occur to you, without imposing linearity. To cluster, just write the word you want to explore in the middle of a sheet of paper. (That word can be abstract.) Circle it, then free associate. Let a web of words spiral out from there, circling them and linking them as connections appear to you. Notice whether they are abstract or concrete–as if by magic, each chain will likely move down the ladder. When one chain of associations feels exhausted, go back to your central word and begin again. A word as simple as “brown” can have dozens of associations.


From Chapel Valley workshop, 2005


Clustering can feel like your brain is a popcorn-popper. It’s fun. Try it to drive your writing from abstract to concrete, to find the tangible expressions that move “transportation” to Pintos,  “brown” to mud pies and hot fudge sundaes,  “feminism” to richly detailed memories of events that show your values in action.

To write memoirs that bring others into your experience, feeling and seeing and  sensing alongside you, remember: specificity!

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Celebrate International Women’s Day!

Three years ago I blogged here about my personal connection to International Women’s Day. What started as a Socialist political event has evolved into a a celebration for women’s economic, political, and social achievements–in Europe, anyway. USA–not so much. Let’s change that! I invite you to revisit my Marcy 8, 2012 post for three suggestions to celebrate the occasion.

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The Dawn Wall and the Sunset Wall

By Sarah White

Earlier this winter I was captivated by the exploits of two young men free-climbing the south face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, known as the Dawn Wall. After 19 days on the mountain, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of the 3,000-foot rock, achieving the first successful free ascent of a notoriously difficult climb.


image from

Something about the camper challenge of it all appealed to me—sleeping in tents slung from sheer rock, climbing in only the parts of the day when the sun warms the cliff face, spending the rest of the time cooking meals over sterno and sending selfies to supporters in the meadow far below. The athleticism of those young men was impressive. Each “pitch”—a section between two belay points—had to be mastered. Sometimes one pitch took days. The boys would return to their tents, tape up their wounds, and will them to heal quickly for the next attempt. We admire athletes who compete at levels we only dream of.

A few weeks later, I went to Florida and spent a week with my 92-year-old mother. I seldom see her more than once a year, and she had broken a hip since my last visit. Her recovery was going well—she was as spry as the last time I’d seen her—but that’s not saying a lot. She struggles to cope with the quadricep strength she just doesn’t have anymore. Walking is going okay but her balance is iffy. My athletic brother got her a pair of Norwegian walking poles, which she prefers over a cane or walker. They serve her well, even if her Florida neighbors do get a lot of mileage out of them. “Going to the Olympics?” I heard them shout companionably when she ambled by, working those poles.

My mother is facing her own Dawn Wall. Or let’s admit, a Sunset Wall. Activities of daily living—cooking a meal, picking something up if it falls to the floor—these are her pitches. Walking the length of Walmart is a supreme challenge. When she rises from a chair, I want to hear an announcer cry, “And… she sticks the landing!”

Image from (NOT MY MOM)

Image from (NOT MY MOM)

Aging is not a team sport; like rock climbing, it’s a solo competition. But unlike the boys on the Dawn Wall, the elderly don’t have the option of opting out. There is no possibility of heading back to the meadow floor to try again some other year. They face certain knowledge that however hard it is this year, this month, today, it will be harder the next. One can only focus on achieving a personal best as one goes the distance.

Next time you see an old person slowly crossing a busy street, say to yourself, “Dawn Wall—fourteenth pitch.” Hear in your mind what the elderly mutter to each other—“Getting old is not for wimps.” Remember that youthful athleticism may be more appealing to watch, but our elders are the true athletes among us.



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Innovation Ate My Craft

By Sarah White

There was a time when “layout” was considered a skill and I was adept at it. Then innovation ate my craft.

As a layout artist, I could take someone’s images and words and make them into camera-ready artwork for printing. I pasted black-and-white components onto artboards, and then neatly printed my instructions on tissue overlays for unknown craftsmen to follow. They made printing plates from my artboards, then inked sheets of paper in just the places I intended and no other. Those sheets would be bound and finished into brochures or annual reports or posters or album covers or any kind of commercial communication, what the advertising trade calls “print collateral.” That was my domain, my realm, the body of knowledge I had carefully assembled. I was one of the fastest, neatest, and best.

My training began in the composition room of the “Indiana Daily Student” in Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1974. I reported to work in the late afternoon to help put out the next morning’s paper. The printing trade, which had changed remarkably little since the innovation of the Gutenberg Press in the 1540s, was at that time in the throes of transition from hot lead type to photo-composition. I was part of the new wave. My job was to set columns of body type on a glorified typewriter with magnetic cards for memory, and set headlines on a Compugraphic IV that required me to load different filmstrips for each font, then tap my words into a keyboard while watching a 60-character display scroll by. I ran cassettes of exposed paper through a chemical processor and hung the strips of headlines up to dry. There was no “WISIWIG” monitor and no desire for it.

A Compugraphic IV, circa 1974

A Compugraphic IV, circa 1974

When all the typing was done (I say typing to distinguish what we female clerical workers did from what the unionized male typesetters we replaced had done), I would leave my machines and help the paste-up people make up the newspaper pages. We’d coat the back of our galleys of type with soft wax, set them precisely on gridded white artboards, and burnish them firmly into place, ready for the printer’s copy camera that would turn them into negatives and subsequently, aluminum printing plates.

The night editor stood by to re-write a line if a story failed to fit. The proofreader scanned the flats for errors, for which I would typeset two-line corrections and, using the sharpest X-ACTO knife to hand, slice out the bad lines and mortise in the patches. Finally, the man smoking in the corner would box the artboards and drive them to a printer. It might be 9pm, or midnight.

This was a perfect after-school job for a student and I kept it for most of my college years. I enjoyed turning a pile of copy and photos into camera-ready copy, and it paid better than other kinds of clerical work. After graduation, I brought those skills to ad agencies where pasting up pages eventually led to designing them.

Paste-up as a craft was like carpentry but for girls. You had similar questions of construction, of procuring and cutting materials. You adhered to the same aesthetic of doing a job precisely, of getting each assembly right so that in the end, the entire structure is true, square, and beautiful.

And then there was the parallel craft, more artistic but just as precise, of creating designs for pages by making “comps,” shorthand for “comprehensive renderings.” We used magic markers to convey the impression of the page for client review, ruling neat columns of horizontal lines to indicate body text and hand-lettering type to mimic headline fonts to come. Sketchy color renderings showed what photos might look like. If one developed a charming style of “comping” one’s ideas sold better, so I pursued this craft just as assiduously as my paste-up.


In 1984 I became a partner in a graphic arts studio. That same August, the first Macintosh was introduced at COMDEX. The innovation that would eat my layout skills for lunch was just ordering breakfast.

The next year we bought a PC desktop computer for the fiscal side of our business, and a year after that layout artists began to whisper to one another that it was possible to set type from a personal computer using Pagemaker. Before long I bought a Mac and I began trying to maintain the typesetting trade’s exacting standards while working in early, buggy, software.

Apple Macintosh computer circa 1984

An Apple Macintosh computer, circa 1984

I became increasingly grumpy. Something fundamentally satisfying in my work was disappearing. More of the layout artists’ skills were sucked from the physical world into that vacuum on the other side of the computer screen. Last to go were the technical terms: “cut” and “paste” were reduced to metaphors.

Finally in 1993 I began transferring finished pages from my computer over the phone to the printer, instead of cabbing a stack of artboards across town. Innovation wiped the last crumbs of my craft from its lips and belched.


Then one day in 2005 I visited a Scrapbook Expo. When I walked into that exhibition hall full of craft supplies, I felt a shock of recognition and a tug of angry sorrow. Here were the colored markers, the X-ACTO knives, the self-healing cutting mats. Here were all my art supplies, my carpentry for girls, my lost craft.

These people were playing at being art directors, book designers, graphic artists. What we clerical workers had made decent money doing, what the type compositors and pre-press negative strippers had made solid blue-collar careers of, these scrapbookers were now pursuing as a hobby. I wandered that Expo feeling like dinosaur bones trapped in a sedimentary layer, one level up from the printing tradesmen.

By this time I had shifted to freelance writing, but I was still mourning the loss of the craft I had taken such pride in. It could seem small of me to resent the scrapbookers for enjoying in their playtime something I used to do for pay, but that’s how much it hurt to be reminded of all the computers had stolen.

Now, I’m having the last, sour laugh. Digital photography has eaten the scrapbookers for supper. Creative Memories and Archivers, the two leading players in the scrapbooking industry, were both defunct by the end of 2014.


I met my friend Jesse Kaysen back in those halcyon layout artist days. It’s her observation, not mine, that Gutenberg et al provided the foundations for a very different human race. Literacy—the power of words, printed and distributed—changed our relationship to God, to the law, to ourselves. Yes, there were some innovations along the way, but linotype operators were basically doing what Gutenberg did, just louder and faster.

The onset of phototypesetting ripped those traditions away from their historic context. Not only have the workers lost their jobs; the unions have lost their workers, and the middle class has lost its unions. The printed word has lost the silent guardians, the typesetters, who have been quietly ensuring legibility for hundreds of years. These are the things we dinosaurs talk about as we molder in our sedimentary layer.

We are still grumpy that innovation ate our craft. But if innovation teaches us anything, it is that where there’s a need, someone will come along to fill it. Something about layout was fundamentally satisfying enough that scrapbookers did it for fun. Who will be next to wax and cut and paste, and will it be for fun or for money?

With all the disruptive innovation in the publishing industry, I find it entirely believable that somewhere, a Luddite DIY squad is right now preparing to return the layout craft to the physical world, to revel again in the unique sensuality of T-square, X-ACTO knife, and wax. Maybe I should start a movement.

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Why should you write your family history?


Photos and documents inherited from my beloved Aunt Flosh, Muncie, Indiana


A recent article posted by the New York Public Library got me thinking about the many reasons writing our stories is important. I introduced this question at a memoir writing workshop last spring, and my writers’ answers surprised me. They fell into two camps:

We write to preserve and share what we know about our family tree–its roots and branches.

If you know me, you’ve heard me state my belief that the greatest gift you can give your loved ones is the story of your life. A resilient family narrative–one that conveys not just your triumphs but your struggles and how you overcame them–has proven to improve children’s and adolescents’  emotional health, happiness, and grit.

 We write for ourselves.

Writing about your life can significantly boost the power, clarity, and subtlety of your brain and mind. It can contribute to emotional, mental and physical health as we age. Expressive writing about your experiences can help you understand your current family dynamics, finding greater happiness as you heal old wounds (or even wound a few old heels). It can lead to greater perspective and even an increased sense of purpose in your life.

So which reason was the more popular with my writers? To my surprise, “I write for myself” was the overwhelming motivation.

What do you think?

Find the complete article here:

20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History


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Fifty Years, Part 2

By Paul Ketterer

Part 2 in a 2-part essay. For Part 1, click here.


The venue is appropriate. The VFW hall was born in the 1940s, formed into completion in the 1960s, and has been going to seed ever since in a gentle and quite sweet way. It is basic 1940s cinder-block construction with a thorough whitewashing on the outside. The signs show evidence of repainting, and though haggard and tired are legible. They are hardly necessary, as this is a neighborhood bar and on most Friday nights the full house includes no one who has not been in attendance many times before. It’s noisy, but that isn’t a problem, as most of what is said is ignored or immediately forgotten. Though the neighborhood has undergone some gentrification, or at least a spike in the value of housing, the clientele has remained firmly working-class with a tinge of desperation.

Getting to the entrance means running a gauntlet through what some elsewhere might term a “beer garden”. Here it is clearly just a few picnic tables for the utilitarian purpose of allowing people to drink while also obeying the state no-smoking-indoors laws. The breeze is not strong enough to purify and the eyes sting a bit by the time the door is reached. Indoors there has not been smoking for many years, but there remains a sensate reminder that at one time visibility (and breathability) was severely restricted. Or perhaps it is just what clings to us and the other patrons stacked up around the bar.

There are two rooms inside, plus bathrooms and a kitchen. The kitchen is inactive this evening, but retains the perfume of past fish-frys. There is a barroom to the right where the regulars are gathered. The bar itself is Formica, probably redone in the 1960s, as the rest of the décor seems to have appeared about then, from the beer signs to the bowling trophies. Modernity is served by posters revealing the playing schedules of professional sports teams. There seems much less fervor about those teams than can be found around the corner at the “sports bar”.

The second large room is of similar vintage, though void of décor, save several generations of picture of women, presidents of the VFW Auxiliary. The floor is scuffed and faded vinyl tile. The walls are paneled with sheets of plywood from the era when plywood was actually made of solid sheets of wood. A few folding tables are scattered around the room, surrounded by metal chairs. The general scheme is brown on brown, with here and there a tinge of gray or tan. While there is still daylight, the sun on the dusty windows adds a note of cheer.

The bathrooms are the same vintage and color, with stalls tight enough that anyone over 200 pounds will face a struggle. But all the plumbing works, and there are honest-to-goodness paper towels that dispense by pulling.

As bleak as the above description may seem, there is a familiar, homey feeling to the place that makes me comfortable, though I have never been here before. Most of my growing up was spent three blocks away, and on the other side of the earth culturally. I never even went to the Hut, the burger joint the other junior-highers frequented, as my parents felt it was a disreputable training-ground for the neighborhood bars similar to where I now found myself. That cultural and psychological chasm comes into play in the ensuing…

In a previous musing, I debated whether to attend the events scheduled as a celebration of the 50th reunion for the class of 1964 of Madison (WI) Central High School. On the side of going was curiosity, and the possibility of interacting with a few people who had shared some genuine good times. On the no side was fear of feeling the need for acknowledgement that had been crucial to my sense of self. I dreaded that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The battle between moved back and forth for weeks.

My presence in this venue declares my decision – I would attend one of the two functions; the less formal and presumably the less attended “Pub Crawl”. Previous reunions had indeed gone from bar to bar on the Friday night of the reunion weekend. Our advancing age made it more practical to stay the evening in one place. The appropriateness of the setting was due to the matching impressions formed by the attendees. Born in the 1940s, formed into completion in the 1960s, and going to seed ever since, in a gentle and quite sweet way. Among the knee braces, white and non-existent hair, wrinkles and age spots, the mannerisms and voices remained amazingly consistent.

About twenty of my classmates were already present when I arrived, and another thirty of so arrived as the next hour passed. We were issued name-tags on which to identify ourselves – a necessity and two-thirds of us bear no resemblance to what appears in the yearbook. Some of the others – God bless them – could have passed for thirty. I was amazed and gratified by the warmth of greetings, hugs and smiles and genuine “glad to see you”. The positives seemed to have grown, the negatives shrunken. There are a lot of very nice people in my past, for which I’m grateful.

Those long-ago days were lonesome, as if the emotional upheavals of self-doubt and fears were mine alone. In the ensuing years the same loneliness has emerged from time to time. As I encountered one after another of my classmates that evening, I began to realize that we had indeed been much more involved with each others’ lives than I had thought at the time. And in actuality, there were many further from popularity and success than I was. The lens from a fifty-year distance gives a far wider perspective.

The fact that my school was a quarter the size of the other Madison schools meant that I knew most everyone at least by name, and was known as well. It was pleasing to find that as we mixed through a fluid process of conversation in groups of three to five, that I recognized the names, if not all the faces, and could recall shared experiences from those long-ago days.

So, was my ambivalence of whether to attend justified?

No! Nothing such. There were no unfinished agendas. The exchanges of the night were quick and shallow. Marriage, children and jobs covered the range of topics. Yet it seemed understood that all of us had long and deep experiences in life, some mundane, some profound. There was no need to process them, to show off, to pity. I feel a great respect for those stories, content with not knowing the details, celebrating the richness of human variety.

The more formal gathering on Saturday remains a mystery because I didn’t go. If past reunions set the pattern, there would have been about one hundred attending. That would mean that almost twice as many would be absent. Among them would be the valedictorian and salutatorian, the leading athletes and success stories. Also absent would be many whom life had treated harshly. There is a DVD available shot at that event, featuring short interviews with almost everyone there. $34. Another decision.

The strangest part of the experience was that this event was not about the past, but the present. Old issues of life were irrelevant. It was not 1964, but 2014. Glad I went.



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Fifty Years, Part 1

By Paul Ketterer

Part 1 in a 2-part essay

Central High 1951, slightly before my time there

Central High 1951, slightly before my time there

Fifty years ago, I graduated from Madison Central High School. All that is left of the building is the arch formerly over the front door of the building, facing the 200 block of Wisconsin Avenue. The building is gone, and there is no Central High in Madison any more – has not been for forty-five years.

The barrenness of the site, now a parking ramp for the upgraded Madison Vocational and Technical Institute (Madison College) is an appropriate symbol for my public education experience. While by no means abusive, the fact that I was able to slip through the system in 67th class rank while doing no more than 15 minutes of homework a week shows how unchallenging the academics were. I did manage to learn a vast array of information, by osmosis from class time and much more from personal reading and interests. So much so that in the infamous PSAT and SAT my class rank was number one.

This disconnect was reflected in physical endeavors, as in pick-up basketball games I always did well, but did not make the basketball team. With one exception – in a one-on-one with our all-state center, I failed to even get a shot off. He either stole the ball or blocked my shotI ran well in private runs of five miles, yet finished dead last in every one of my cross country meets.

Socially, my perception is exemplified by an experience at the end of our 9th-grade year. The Loft has gone through a number of reincarnations in the past fifty years, but at that time it was the place to be for high-schoolers, mostly Madison East and Central though a few high-society West students would show up. A mass mailing went out to all finishing 9th-graders inviting them to join. Most got theirs on a Thursday, and the conversation on the bus on the way to school involved would they go and what would they wear. I had not received mine, and was certain that the invitations went to the popular kids, and I was not included. Mine did arrive on Friday, the day of the welcome party, and the Loft became an important part of the next two years for me. Telling was my interpretation – I felt invisible – no one knew I was smart, or a fast runner, or a kind friend.

There are some rational explanations for the invisibility. I was often at our cabin fifty miles away. The two summers after my 6th and 7th grade years I spent entirely there, as well as most weekends. My closest friends were country kids from the cabin area, and I was confirmed in the church local to that place rather than Madison. The church youth group there became important to me, as well as one on Madison’s west side, where my close friends were West High students. As a result, I didn’t have social time with locals other than after school. I was often not physically present in our neighborhood.

I found the world of reading much more enjoyable than most “reality” and spent hours upon hours untouchable by any around me. I was a brooder who was traumatized by nuclear proliferation, nightmaring several times a month about observing/being in an atomic explosion. Always afterward I felt out of touch.

College years provided a wondrous contrast — three of my grade and high school friends continued with me to the UW. I treasured those deepening relationships.

The context of this reflection is the opportunity to reserve a place at the Inn on the Park July 26, 2014th for only $29.95, including eats and entertainment. There is a “pub crawl” at the southside VFW the 25th as well, for $5. The question is: “Do I want to go?”

How have I been the last 50 years? Would anyone be interested? Fifty years ago they didn’t seem to be, in any way shape or form. I spent most of my career in the public eye, with much attention and influence, and with a dangerous, secret interior. About the public stuff people have plenty opinions, most of which I’ve heard, and in none of which am I the least interested. The interior is too personal, and healing too sensitive. It’s really none of their business.

Am I interested in their last 50 years? Only the three good continuing friends. One of them will not be there; with the other two I have had recent contact. I have some curiosity about the other invisible ones from grade school, the ones least likely to be there.

The last reunion, the 45th, took me right back to that first trip to the Loft.

“Am I dressed ok?” “Will anyone talk to me?” “What will they think?”

Should I go?

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