3 Writing Lessons from Ken Burns’ Mark Twain

Mark_Twain - BP

PBS television is a great resource for anyone interested in the works or lives of authors.  If you are an early riser, or good at setting a DVR, you can watch Terry Tazioli on Well Read interview authors such as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), or Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) about their latest works and creative process.  American Masters has profiled Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) among others this year.

Last month I watched a reshowing of Ken Burns’ documentary on Mark Twain.  I recommend this compelling portrait of one of America’s foremost authors.  It reveals Twain’s monumental life along with his more personal, sometimes heartbreaking, experiences.  You’ll discover why his books continue to be read the world over as significant literary works.  After watching the film, I wondered what lessons specific to the writer can be drawn from the presentation.  So, I watched it again and discovered three takeaways.

1. Notice the details of people, places, and things

Writers tend to be natural people watchers, but how close do you look?  Do you notice the way people hold themselves?  The way people comb their hair or wear their hat?  Do they speak slow and steady or fast and jittery?  What about the places you go?  Are there smells in the air?  A certain color to the grass?  Sounds drifting in from someplace close by?  What’s interesting about the things around you?

If you stick to what is easy to see, you run the risk of giving the reader only the mundane.  The details provide little sprinklings of spice you can use to create more compelling narratives and characters.

2. Explore unconventional publishing methods

Twain’s Innocents Abroad published as a subscription book in 1869.  Sold door to door by salesmen, literary critics rarely bothered to review these works.  Both ePublishing and self-publishing have started out with similar low regard from established literary circles.

By going the subscription route, Twain got his books into the hands of the masses.  People who didn’t frequent or have access to bookstores could purchase his book causing sales to flourish.  In time he was promoted as “the people’s author.”  Going the traditional route for publishing is an option.  At the same time, keep an open mind to other opportunities that can also land you an audience.

3. Write about what it is to be human

We live in rich environments for storytelling.  You may think your life uninteresting, but it is a human life filled with people and experiences to which many can relate.  Add to that the social issues going on around us and you have fertile ground for your imagination to comment on the human condition.  A writer conceives from this bounty something that is magical, thought provoking, or revolutionary then wraps it up in an entertaining package.

Writers can take sides on social issues to influence people’s thinking for the betterment of our culture or ourselves.  Even the lightest works can help people see more about themselves and to understand significant things about our journey through this world.  Ultimately, that is the genius of Samuel Clemens’ Mark Twain.

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