Freelance Blog + writing

Writing Lessons from The Help

As I mentioned last week, The Help is one of those rare books you want to savor but also can't put down. Author Kathryn Stockett is a masterful storyteller, weaving together three distinct points of view and gradually building the dramatic tension. You'll find a thorough deconstruction of the novel's storytelling devices and plot structure over at StoryFix. (Or you can watch the movie trailer above to get a feel for the setting and the key players.) I'm not a fiction writer, so I won't dwell on plot points or narrative style. Instead, I'd like talk about The Help's themes and how these apply to writers of all stripes:

  • Not every writing assignment will change the world.
    Skeeter, a newly minted college grad and aspiring author, scores a gig writing the cleaning advice column for the local newspaper. Although it's not her dream assignment (and she knows next to nothing about cleaning), Skeeter knows she needs to start somewhere, so she finds a maid to offer expert advice and wisely writes the column in batches. That allows her to focus on meatier topics while still meeting her deadline and keeping her newspaper editor happy. I think many, many writers can relate to Skeeter's situation, as we've all had to tackle less than thrilling assignments on occasion.
    The Lesson: Treat every assignment, however boring or tiny, with respect. And if you aren't knowledgable about the topic, find someone in the know and pick their brains.
  • Often, publishing success is all in the timing.
    Sensing that racial tension in the U.S. is about to reach a boiling point, Skeeter's book editor tells her to submit the manuscript by the end of the year. Skeeter works feverishly (on a typewriter, poor thing) to meet her deadline and manages to publish the book just as the Civil Rights movement is making headlines. Although not the friendliest figure, the book editor also shows how mentors can open doors, in publishing and other industries.
    The Lesson: Look for emerging trends and see if you can peg your article or book release to current events. Also be on the lookout for mentors. Even people who aren't especially warm and fuzzy may be able to help your career if you stay in touch as Skeeter did.
  • The truth does not always set you free.
    Skeeter and her subjects know they are playing with fire by sharing stories about working for white women, but they do it anyway. (And Skeeter demonstrates tremendous sensitivity and patience in the way she builds trust with reluctant interview subjects.) Even though they try to mask the identifies of the colored maids and Skeeter publishes under a pseudonym, they still catch some heat for telling it like it is. (It's interesting to note that in real life, Stockett's family's maid sued her for allegedly using her name and likeness in the book, a move that caused a rift between Stockett and her brother.) I bet most writers who've published an especially candid personal essay or a memoir can relate to the conflicting feelings of needing to tell their story but also fearing the consequences.
    The Lesson: Telling the truth will not always make you popular. If you're writing something that sparks controversy or makes people uncomfortable, you'd better develop a thick skin and be ready to face the critics. Still, as Skeeter discovers, you might also find support in unlikely places.
What do you think? Did you read The Help? Were there other lessons or themes I've missed? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Writing Lessons from The Help + writing