Whether you are beginning your memoir or have almost finished with that first draft, I hope the links listed below provide you with useful memoir writing tips. These links appeared on the Internet in recent days.
With autumn in full swing, it feels like a time for starting or restarting our writing projects. After working on a draft of my memoir for the last decade, I found the information tucked behind these links helpful.
I follow Jess Lourey on Twitter and via her newsletter. Her latest newsletter contained an article on the question, “Memoir or Fiction?” Lourey’s opinions in the short article are based on the completion of her latest novel and what she felt when she typed “The End.”
As I think about picking up my memoir manuscript and consider what next steps await me, I find myself reflecting over the words of other writers on the subject of writing memoir. The post you are about to read was initially posted on March 13, 2014. Yet, the comments made by Justice Sotomayor during her talk continue to strike me as the foundation we must keep in mind as we write our stories.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.
Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is to “[c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.
Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.”
She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:
To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.
As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.
I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”
At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes—you felt you were chatting with a friend. She possesses a contagious and spontaneous wit. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Justice Sotomayor exhibits a generosity with people that is humbling. Over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.
I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.
* * *
One last quote from the Justice:
Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.
Have you ever taken a substantial block of time away from your writing? Maybe a lengthy break away from your blog? Or has a family crisis interrupted the latest draft of your manuscript, and getting back to it seems impossible?
The last 20+ months for me have been what seems like a never-ending break from not only my writing but also blogging and social media, not to mention life in general. How do I recapture my momentum in those areas? How will I manage to return to what I was as a writer pre-January 24, 2016?
Initially, it didn’t seem so serious. Then the chronic pain hit with an intensity I couldn’t rise above. My pain management doctor, doing what he thought best, prescribed an opioid (more on this crisis in another post later). Literally, my head space didn’t cooperate when I wanted to write. It was as if I’d lost the ability to focus on taking my thoughts and putting them down in written form.
Now I am somewhat improved and working toward regaining physical stamina and strength daily. I also want to return to doing what I love most–writing, whether it’s on my memoir or a blog post or a simple Tweet. Some days these tasks are still hard. Too much brain time can be as tiring as physical activity.
Doctors tell me that the amount of inactivity requires an equal or greater amount of rehab to regain the physical strength and stamina. A reduction in mental activity over time will likely require similar rehab to regain flexibility and creativity.
What am I going to do? What could you do if confronted with this kind of downtime?
Let’s take a look at some options I’m attempting to use in my daily attempts at writing:
Accept that your writing habit has been disrupted. Like a runner who doesn’t run for three weeks, you are out of shape and so is your writing. That runner will run at least three weeks before regaining his stride and pace. Initially, your writing will seem inadequate or inept. Don’t be hard on yourself. Writing is going to seem harder. Ease back into it. Don’t try to pick up where you left off. This is going to take time.
Make drastic changes in your expectations. If you have been writing a certain amount of time (i.e., two hours, 60 minutes, etc.) each day, scale this back to a segment of time that seems stupidly easy. Say three to five minutes. The same applies to those who write a certain number of words per day. You will want to follow the same exercise. Set goals that allow you to hit the ball out of the park.
This is the hard part of this new goal. Take slow, easy steps in increasing your time or word count. Don’t move too quickly. Stick with your new goals for at least 10 days.This will ensure you experience feelings of success and motivation. Both are necessary to feel good about your writing.
Increase your goal, either timed or word count, slowly. This will likely feel painfully S-L-O-W. After the first 10 days increase by 50%. At the next 10-day mark add another 25%, and lastly, after yet another 10 days add the last 25%.
Understand that whatever you can write is better than not writing at all. So write daily. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s quote below. If all you can write is one true sentence, then accept that as your success for the day.
These are the five principles I’m putting into practice. I’m tired of struggling to find blog post topics and content. I’m tired of thinking about picking up my manuscript and beginning to rework it. I want to be actively engaged as a blogger and a writer.
I’ll keep you posted on my success in finding my writing groove, and I will share more suggestions of how I’m going about it.
Have you ever faced similar struggles? How did you cope with them and make a comeback in your writing? Sharing here may help someone else.
Maybe you’ve come across some of the posts asking the question: Have you considered giving up your writing?
In recent days and weeks, I’ve come across several posts, both blog and on Facebook and Twitter, asking similar questions. My blog plans have included this topic for some time, but the increased interest moved this post up on my editorial calendar.
LET’S GET SERIOUS–Have YOU HAD THOUGHTS OF QUITTING?
Perhaps like this rusty relic, an Underwood typewriter from the past, you sometimes feel battered, worn out, at a loss as to how to move on, and you just want to throw up your hands and quit. I think lots of us have.
Last week K.M. Weiland posted a similar question on Facebook. I was stunned when I began typing a comment with the word “yes” front and center! To be honest, I have considered giving up my writing. In fact, as recently as the last few days of 2016. And many times throughout that long and arduous year.
I happen to have a live-in cheerleader, however, my husband, Bob. He won’t let me give up. He too is a creative and in some respects understands the “enemy” when it comes near. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
What can cause a writer to give up?
In my case, I felt a heavy cloud of depression and unending conflicts from health issues. I’m certain these were talking over any desire I had to write and finish my memoir. How do I know this? Because as soon as I finished my comment on K.M.’s Facebook post, I turned to thinking about the remaining revisions and edits to my manuscript and discussions I’d had with a publisher.
However, there are many reasons causing us to consider setting our writing aside. Perhaps you have contemplated this decision in the midst of everyday burdens, health issues, and more. Note that K.M.’s Facebook post received 101 comments. You can scroll through and read about some of the reasons given.
reasons writers stop writing
The variety of reasons a writer might be tempted to stop writing is broad and usually personal to the writer. Here are a few:
Day job and its stresses;
Health issues–injuries, surgeries, PTSD and more;
Having and/or adopting children into the family;
Writer’s block, stuck and can’t get started, hiding muse;
Critique and/or writing groups;
Will the truth I am writing hurt friends or family; should I write my story.
Publishing aspect of sending your book into the world;
Marketing aspect tiring and overwhelming;
Lack of encouragement from people in the writer’s life.
Any or all of these things can interfere with your creative life. The one thing to remember is none of these is your fault. However, you are the one who can take charge and make a difference.
Recently, I’ve begun to think of scoliosis as a metaphor for my life. I’ve struggled to please teachers, employers, parents, boyfriends, husbands, twisting myself into someone I can’t be. I hurt when I do this, because it’s not natural. And it never works. But when I stretch my Self, instead, the results are different. When I’m reaching for my personal goals—to be a good mother, wife, friend and writer—I feel my balance return. And the sense of relief, as I become more the woman I truly am, is simply grand. [emphasis added]
― Linda C. Wisniewski, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage
What to do when the urge to quiT hits?
Take a deep breath, take a walk, meditate, listen to some music you love, read a good book. And think about nothing related to writing for a few moments.
Then, give yourself as much time as you feel necessary to rid yourself of any negative feelings you’re experiencing. It is important to overcome the negativity before attempting to write.
When you feel like you’ve hit that point when writing is something you want to do, try it. Find a quiet place, clear your mind. Try free writing or journalling. Write anything: your thoughts, your feelings, or ideas for a project. It doesn’t have to be structured. Just write.
Perhaps afterwards, in time, you’ll sense a desire to return to that project or outline or revisions you’ve been avoiding. I use the word “avoid” carefully, because we aren’t necessarily avoiding our work. Our lives are avoiding the work, and we are held somewhat victim by our lives.
Remember that rusty Remington typewriter above? Like that typewriter, a little refurbishing and refreshing is all we need to get our writing underway again. From rusty, shabby, unhappy, wandering writers, we can become the writers with initiative, motivation, a desire to write. Like the Remington here, we’ll feel shiny and newly energized!
I’d love to hear from you
Please leave your comments below. It doesn’t matter if you agree, disagree, or feel I’ve missed the mark. Let’s come together for discussion because though many say they would never give up their writing, many of us do feel that emotion. “Talking” about it may help.
Writing a good, perhaps great, memoir requires a map or recipe. Any good recipe has a combination of ingredients which in the end equal what the cook hopes to present to her dinner guests, or in terms of memoirists, what we want to present to the reading public.
While I’ve been resting and healing these past few months, I’ve had time to ponder the reworking of my memoir. What is it lacking? What have I left out? Could I have mixed those ingredients a little differently to get a better result?
Differences between memoir and other genre
The best way to review what ingredients are needed foremost is to look at how writing a memoir differs from other genre:
Memoir is, to the best of the writer’s ability, true. Drawn from a particular part of one’s life or an issue from which something is learned and can be shared with others, the facts are important in detailing scenes, characters, and places. Some facts may not be clearly remembered and in this instance, a disclaimer can be made to that effect.
Memoir is somewhat more difficult in creating the story arc than other genre, such as fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., because memoirists are dealing with reality and not the imagination. In imagining a story and putting it down in words, one has a bit more leverage than the facts of a memoir often allow. However, a clever writer has the ability to make memoir as interesting and readable as first-rate fiction.
The memoir writer has a story to tell, and he or she is the only one who can tell that story. It is the writer’s story to tell despite what might be believed or felt by others. In other genre, this is not the case.
Writing memoir requires having a sifter on hand or the delete button handy. Once you have chosen your theme, you must be careful not to allow stories to randomly enter the narrative of your work. Although a story or snippet has importance in your life, you must be willing to leave some stories out, especially those irrelevant to your theme.
Lee Gutkind in his book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, provides the following explanation of creative nonfiction which sets all nonfiction apart from other genre. A good memoirist will keep this definition in my mind.
The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as ‘true stories well told.’ And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about. (p. 6)
The five ingredients or components listed above will produce a good end result. This isn’t to imply there are not other components necessary in writing memoir. But I believe these are basic to the nature and quality of good memoir.
Of necessity is writing as much as often as you can. I recently met with a writing coach to discuss returning to my manuscript after almost a year of not touching it. We agreed that two hours each day, at my best time of day, five days per week would be adequate to accomplish the next phase of my memoir. Also helpful is an accountability partner or group. I am using the Facebook group, ROW 80: A Round of Words in 80 Days.
In addition to writing, you should read, read, and read some more–the memoirs of others, creative nonfiction essays, books on creative nonfiction writing. And don’t forget classes available to you on the topic.
What are you doing to keep your recipe for writing memoir balanced? Any suggestions to offer? Feel free to share in the discussion in the comment section below.
As I was working out a topic for this week’s post, I came across this one from May 6, 2014. Reading it, I am reminded that once more my memoir has thrown me a curve ball. I need to sort out what to do with this draft still waiting in the corner.
The two curve balls came from different directions and for different reasons. If you want to know more about the second curve ball, you can read a personal note to my followers and friends who subscribe to my newsletter.
Upon reflection, I believe my May 6, 2014 post may stand me in good stead when the time is right to begin inching my hands toward the binder holding my manuscript. I don’t think I’ll be rewriting so much as restructuring and moving things in my draft around to make my memoir more readable. The wheels are turning and never forgetting this draft, but the pull to go back and revisit this post left me with a need to share it with you once again.
Here’s the original post from May 6, 2014:
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE BOOK YOU’RE WRITING THROWS YOU A CURVE BALL
The drafting of my memoir began in earnest sometime the late spring of 2012. I had jotted down notes and memories plus digging through boxes of my mother’s personal papers for years. Folders filled with potential material for a book cover a work table.
Now, here we are approaching late spring of 2014, two years later. A few weeks ago as I was considering my progress and listening to my husband’s take on what I had written for one particular chapter, I felt like I had been hit by a tidal wave of emotion.
It was as if a tsunami had taken over the life of my memoir, and what came next threw me for a curve.
An epiphany in the form of a major change in direction left me wonder struck. Not so much because it was such a stunning transformation, but because it had stared me in the eye since the year 2000, when the seed germinated into thoughts of a memoir after moving my mother to Oregon from Tennessee.
Now, what am I going to do was the next thought passing not so silently through my mind. It was simple: Regroup, rethink, rewrite–the writer’s three R’s.
When I began writing my story of life with Mama, I sat down and started pounding out words on the computer screen without any thought for an outline or a plan. I knew the story I was writing and thought I needed no organizational scheme to get it done. So far, I believe I have a pretty good draft on that first turn. But this curve ball I’ve been thrown made me stop and take stock of the time I would have saved if I had gotten my writing act together first.
The first thing I decided I needed to do was spell out what I wanted to tell my readers and why. And I did.
I then moved on to think about outlining or story boarding. I vaguely remembered a post of Kathy Pooler’s on Memoir Writer’s Journey where Kathy talked about story boarding. Unable to find it, I emailed Kathy and she sent me the link, which is here.
As I sat and studied Kathy’s storyboard, it occurred to me that my favorite writing software, Scrivener, uses a bulletin board with index cards to act as an option to an outline. I rarely use it, but checked it out and below is an image of my current storyboard or imaged outline in Scrivener:
I think it’s going to work perfectly, and I’ve set about rewriting my first draft.
A good deal of rethinking went into picking up the draft and rewriting it. Was this worth making the book into a better story to share with readers? Would the rewrite get my point across any better? After all, I’d spent a goodly number of hours not only in writing but researching, retrieving and reading.
I decided the answer was a yes. I want to publish not just a good book, but a book people will refer to as a “really good book,” perhaps a “must read,” maybe even a “bestseller.” No matter the nomenclature used to describe it, I want it to be my best work product. So, yes, the extra time is worth the effort.
As I rethought the outline I’d come up with it, I could actually see the story unfolding in a much more cohesive fashion and with greater ease.
Rethinking taught me a great lesson: Rushing in headlong isn’t always the best route to take.
I am actually enjoying this “R” of the three “R’s” because I am sensing a better writing style, a tighter style. I feel the story coming together with less negativity about my mother, seasoned with a dash of her goodness here and there, because there was goodness in her. And at the end of her story and mine, I learn there was good reason for her parenting skills, or lack thereof. I think in the rewrite this will be more easily finessed.
Like schoolchildren sent off to learn their three “R’s”–reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, we writers can also learn from a different set of three “R’s”–regroup, rethink and rewrite.
We’re never too young or too far along in our writing to learn a little something or make a change in the direction we’re headed.
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