Elizabeth Berg: How I Write

The author of The Story of Arthur Truluv, Night of Miracles and more, provides insight into her writing style.

Elizabeth Berg
Author Elizabeth Berg. Photo by Teresa Crawford

A prolific writer, Elizabeth Berg is the author of many best-selling novels, including Durable Goods, Joy School, and Oprah’s Book Club pick Open House. Her latest, Night of Miracles, is a follow-up to her popular 2017 novel The Story of Arthur Truluv, though readers can also enjoy the book as a standalone work. Her novels have been published in 30 countries, and several have been adapted into movies for television; she also hosts intimate one-day writing workshops for writers. In 2018, she received the Illinois Literary Heritage Award from the Illinois Center for the Book. Although Berg’s plots vary, there are certain constants to be found that appeal to her readers: Love, loss, hope, compassion, and humor all can be found in her narratives.

Story ideas

Oftentimes at readings, an audience member will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” This question perplexes me because I find life so interesting and complicated and rich with material. Maybe it helps that I tend to focus my books on “ordinary life,” but I can take a trip to the grocery store and come back with ideas. It’s a matter of keeping your eyes and your ears – and your heart – open. I subscribe to the idea that writers write about the same things over and over, in different ways.

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Themes of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness

Many people know that I was an R.N. before I became a writer. The themes that you mention are certainly part of being a nurse, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t appreciate the physical and spiritual care given by nurses. In some respects, I feel that I’m still nursing: I want my work to comfort people. When I first started getting published, an editor told me that my essays were consistently the most-read pieces in the magazine. She said, “You have the common touch.” I do have a lot in common with my readers. And that comforts me.

 Whether good writing can be taught

I think that writers are born, not made. They tend to be people who feel things strongly and to notice details others might pass right over. They have a way with words, of course. Mostly, though, they seem to have a need to get what’s inside them, out, whether it is published or not. I do think innate talent is important, but writing techniques can be taught. Writing exercises can inspire and can lead to essays or stories or even novels. Also, most writers need encouragement – a little can go a long way. Having an audience can provide a sense of legitimacy, too, even if it’s only 10 people sitting around a table, as they do in my workshops.

Choosing to write a sequel

When I wrote The Story of Arthur Truluv, it was to escape from the news and the terrible times in which we are living. I wanted to remind myself of the inherent goodness of people and of the worth of kindness. Writing it put me in a different “head;” I actually woke up happy again. After I finished the book, I missed the fictional town I’d created. So I did a second book about Mason, called Night of Miracles. And then, since the newspapers continued to make me want to pull my hair out, I went back to Mason yet again. The third in the series, The Confession Club, will be out this year.

Crafting dialogue

I love listening to people talk. Eavesdropping is my school for dialogue! As writers need to read to be better writers, they need to listen to people talk in order to write good dialogue. Notice accents and colloquialisms. Ellipses. Tone. Obfuscation. Defense. Openness. Malapropisms. Vulnerability. Bring a notebook to a cafe and write down what you hear. (Discreetly!) Practice writing dialogue where less is more; give your reader credit for being able to read between the lines.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.