‘Two years isn’t a long time in your life, but at age 20 it can be significant.’
That’s one of the comments I received in response to a survey I did last year of 180 ‘Chalkies’, conscripted Australian teachers who were sent to Papua New Guinea as part of their two-year compulsory National Service between 1966 and 1973.
Papua New Guinea flag
My survey of that 180 resulted in 73 returned questionnaires, a 40% response rate, which any researcher would be pleased with. Those 73 Chalkies provided such rich replies that I’ve been working for months (in between other commitments and travel) on pulling their story together.
Actually, I should say ‘our’ story, because I am also one of those Chalkies. And one of my dilemmas in writing the Chalkies story from those years was whether I was writing ‘their’ story (as an informed insider) or ‘our’ story. After listening to me present part of that story at an international adult education conference in the UK last year, a colleague persuaded me that it should be ‘our’ story. So now I’m in it too.
The advantage of having an ‘outsider’ read or listen to any story we write was brought home to me recently, when I read a short extract from the Chalkies account to two work colleagues. It was, I thought, a pretty interesting non-fiction ‘short story’, involving possible military intervention in a civil dispute that seemed to be getting out of hand, and a prime minister intent on getting his own way.
When I had finished reading the story aloud to my two friends, about 2000 words, one of them said, ‘So what point are you trying to make’? I was a bit taken aback. Wasn’t this a good story in itself, which people would be interested in hearing, especially as they may not have been aware of the machinations that went on at the time? My research had found that detail.
My colleague said he didn’t know how my story fitted with the rest of the book, but was I just going to ‘hang the story out there’ and let people make of it what they will. He asked me again, ‘What point are you trying to make?’
I didn’t have a ready answer but as I drove home from the meeting, I thought about his question. What point was I making? Why was I including this anecdote at all? How did it add to the overall story? I ruminated on this the rest of the journey, and came to a decision.
Back in my study, I scrawled on a square of paper: ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ and stuck it above my desk. Then I sat down at my laptop and wrote a heading: ‘What point are you making in this book?’, followed by my dot point answers to that question.
I then went to each draft chapter and typed: ‘What point are you making in Chapter 1?”, and so on. I then provided dot point answers to that question for every chapter. In most chapters, I thought I had made the point sufficiently clear; in a couple of them, I felt I needed to spell out more clearly the point of the chapter, and not just leave it ‘hanging out there’. I was able to shape the final chapter with the question in my head.
As for the anecdote that had started the process, I cut it back considerably, so that it had a sharper focus within the chapter it was part of. I think it now has a point.
So, I am arguing that the question ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ should apply to the whole book, and to each chapter. In this case it was for a non-fiction book, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t hurt for a fiction writer to ask, ’What’s the point I’m making in this chapter?’ as a way of keeping focussed and also distinguishing the discrete purpose of each chapter within a cohesive whole.
My Chalkies book is now a draft manuscript of some 68,000 words and I’m exploring publication options with my agent.
Until next time
What writers say:
‘And if a man would ever sit down and study his life in a practical good-sense way, he would … understand that nothing in his life ever ended. Things only changed and grew up into something else.’ ~ Richard Ford: A piece of my heart (Bloomsbury, 2006)