Writing lessons – in a New York minute

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During recent travels I not only saw some fabulous sights, I also learned a few writing lessons, in some unexpected places….

New York, New York. It’s my favourite city in the world and I recently returned from a visit there accompanied by my husband and son, both first time visitors to the Big Apple. We had a blast.

We saw three showsThe Adams Family, Promises Promises and A Life in the Theatre — toured the Guggenheim, the Met and the MOMA (yes, my son is long-suffering), went up the Empire State Building and walked the magnificent High Line in Chelsea (thanks to the subscribers who recommended it).

And, believe it or not, I also managed to absorb five lessons in writing! Funnily enough, these lessons were delivered faster than a New York minute…

Lesson #1 – Don’t feel obliged to go looking for more space. We stayed in a teeny tiny apartment (the kitchen was only a hallway) and our bedroom was so small I had to leap into bed every night thanks to the radiator at the foot of my side of the room. Our son got a pullout couch in the so-called living area (a cubicle that would feel spacious only to a telemarketer!) But guess what? While I wouldn’t want to live in such small square footage, permanently, it was fine for our needs. All we did was eat breakfast there and crash at night.

Similarly, when you’re writing, don’t always think you need a big house. A mere 350 words may be enough to convey your point. At other times you may require 500 or even 750 words. But don’t assume that bigger is always better. Be frugal. Use your words carefully — as if you were paying New York rental prices for each one of them!

Lesson #2 – Always remember context. On the evening we flew into New York, one of the flight attendants leaned over to show us the sights. Eventually, she asked us where we were from. When we told her Vancouver, she leapt back in mock horror. “What an expensive city!” she exclaimed. “Yes,” my husband responded dryly. “Practically as pricey as Manhattan.”  When you are writing, always consider your audience. Remember, they may have a different perspective and if you are trying to convince them of something, you need to understand their point of view.

Lesson #3 – Fit in as much as you can. At 2 p.m. one weekday afternoon, we experienced a subway crush unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. (Why? At that time of day? I never did find out.) We climbed into the car and all of us had to suck in our breaths before the doors would close. But we fit! Similarly, when you are writing you may feel overwhelmed by the facts and ideas you need to jam into a reasonably small article. Don’t despair — just be determined to make it work. Suck in your breath, cut unnecessary words and figure out how you squeeze more ideas in there. Yes, you can do it!

Lesson #4 – Try again later. We didn’t eat fancy meals while in New York but I had my heart set on one restaurant: Momofuku, in the Village. I’d read a profile of the chef in the New Yorker and desperately wanted to give the place a try. On the day we spent wandering through the Village we arrived at the restaurant’s doors exactly when my 16-year-old son hit full caloric meltdown. Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn’t going to open for another 30 minutes. Being the gracious mother (and endowed with a strong instinct for self-preservation) I agreed to go elsewhere — but I extracted a promise we would go back again the following evening. We did and my son described it as the best meal of his life. The message for writers is simple: If at first you don’t succeed with a piece of writing, try try again.

Lesson #5 – Have a heart! The best thing about seeing The Adams Family (a mediocre musical with a lame plotline) was the chance to witness actor Nathan Lane in person. I’d only seen him in movies, where, to me, he comes across as unbearably hammy. But in person, he is brilliant. He pours himself, body and soul, into his performance and even the most cheerless melodies sound moving and the lamest dialogue, sincere and heartfelt. He is magnificent. He exceeds the material in which he performs. Similarly, as a writer, you need to be passionate about what you are writing. The reader should feel as though you really care (and never that you’re just being paid!)

New York, New York. I can hardly wait to go back — even if only for the writing lessons!

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