Writing Tips from Rex Bowman

On Saturday, May 2, Virginia Writers Club hosted a discussion on writing with Rex Bowman at the Westlake Library at Smith Mountain Lake. Rex is a recently dismissed reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Forget the fact that Rex has been nominated twice (!) for the Pulitzer Prize. He still got the axe with T-D downsized its staff. Little do they know what they lost.)

Rex is the author of Blue Ridge Chronicles. He follows the lead of such great storytellers as Ernie Pyle, John Steinbeck with Travels with Charlie, and William Least Heat Moon with Blue Highways. Rex talked about writing. What he dubs his “great truths” reinforce what most of us who write try to achieve. In no particular order, here are some of the truths he discussed.

  • Landscapes don’t become interesting until you put people in them. How many of us have read lengthy descriptions of landscapes, places, interiors, and have fallen asleep because nothing is happening??
  • Write about ordinary people. I’d add, write about ordinary people in original settings. I don’t want stream of consciousness or gritty reality (Herman got up, peed, brushed his teeth, made toast and coffee — well, you get the idea. Do write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • Spend time listening to people. Everyone has a story. Listen carefully. Stories are material. Use what you hear shamelessly, but fictionalize the names, situations, etc. After all, you don’t want your friends to say, “Hey, you’re writing about me!” They will anyway, if the portrait is flattering. If it isn’t, you don’t want to be sued.
  • Use your own voice. It’s what makes you unique. At the same time, let reflections of other voices come through. You can channel these other voices without losing the purity of your own.
  • Be a storyteller, not a writer. Enough said. If the story isn’t compelling, no one will read it.
  • Use sensory details. This is a little more difficult. It’s nearly impossible to describe a smell, but it’s possible to use that smell to evoke emotion. Think the madeleine and Proust, but don’t go on for pages about the smell of a cookie and the memories it brings to Proust’s character.
  • The quality of language has to match the subject matter. This is esoteric. Imagine a thriller written by Jane Austen. It wouldn’t work. Imagine a steamy romance written by Tom Clancy. It too wouldn’t work.

    Overall, the meeting was excellent and well attended. I captured pictures for the local papers. Not all will make it into the paper, however. Keith, I did not send this along!
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