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.
Last spring I, along with others, took a Lenten break from social media. When I returned, I wanted to know more about my presence on social media, including my blog. That’s when I turned to Frances Caballo and engaged her to check my social media sites as well as my website.
The results of Frances’s assessment provided good information, both positive and some not so positive. Eager to see what I could do with her suggestions, I moved ahead full tilt. And as reported in this post, I noticed some rising numbers and growth changes.
Frances even provided a schematic or schedule for posting to the social media sites I use. I have worked hard at prescheduling using Buffer and Hoot Suite. Of course, before you start scheduling, there is the step called curation, which also takes time. After curating and prescheduling, I felt an overwhelming strike against my writing time. Not only against my writing time but against my ability to keep up with certain blogs where I believe my community contacts are strong.
As a result, I’ve learned some things about myself. Most of them I already knew; some of them I didn’t realize until now.
1. I don’t like numbers, and I dislike counting them even less. I never liked math in any form growing up. I still don’t care for math which leads me to my newest discovery about self: it’s all about numbers. Not only do I not like numbers, I like analyzing and counting them even less.
I have heard all the arguments about numbers of followers, social analytics, and platform building. But I’m not sure I agree totally with their arguments. It seems those who enjoy social media and do well at it, and therefore accumulate the necessary numbers for a proper platform, are number lovers and counters. They enjoy the thrill of the chase. Everyone seems in the big race to see who can get the most followers, friends, likes, shares, and on and on and on. None of this holds any great interest for me.
I want to spend my days writing, not counting and analyzing numbers.
2. I’m an introvert who does not like crowds any better online than at a social gathering. Yes, I am an introvert. I’m happily married to an introvert. The good news is I can make myself “perform” at a social gathering doing the mix and mingle dance, but I don’t like it. My husband says I’m better at this than he is. On social media, the party or gathering includes people who follow you who have no profile info posted, the ones who want to sell you Twitter followers, SEO and marketing experts, software application outlets, and the beat goes on. I equate these to the dinner hour marketing phone calls we receive. I prefer to spend any time I have beyond writing communicating with those writers and readers I’ve come to know blog-to-blog outside the confines and requirements of social media. Lately, I feel I have lost touch with these fellow writers. And yes, spending time with them means I’m safely hidden away in my writing corner at home with my laptop and my kitty.
3. Lest you worry about me socially, I do have a few writing friends I gather with personally here in Portland and workshops I enjoy attending. Through the time social media extracts from my days, I had less time to spend with these people. I quickly learned I preferred being with these few than with the masses on social media. Sometimes it’s over lunch, over coffee, or browsing one of our great bookstores in Portland. We talk writing, share our work, and even give time over to fostering friendship between us. It’s the way I like to do business and friendship.
4. Some of the time I spend on social media detracts from my continuing education in the art of writing, and I consider ongoing education prime to my efforts. With the writing community available to me here and just down I-5 South, I have so many opportunities. It is often difficult to choose which one to take advantage of first. There are multiple Meetup Groups for writers in Portland, as well as Willamette Writers and Oregon Writers Colony, with Indigo Editing and PDX Writers offering workshops and classes, and people like Gigi Rosenberg, author and artist coach, who have found Portland to be the place they want to craft and teach (more about Gigi in #5 below). With all these entities offering so much, how can I spend time on social media and not increase my knowledge of my craft? Personally, I can’t, and I won’t.
5. A short time ago Gigi Rosenberg wrote an eye-opening and inspiring blog post, Be Your Own CEO. This post made an impact on my feelings about how I spend my days. In the post, Gigi talks about one of the assignments she gives when coaching artists. The assignment comes in two parts as you’ll see when reading her post. I decided to work through the assignment, knowing already what the answer would be. Mine is the same as Gigi’s. And this is what she had to say:
For me, the one thing is to finish this revision of my memoir. Everything else in my life needs to support that one mission. Because I am the CEO of Me, Inc., and what I say, goes. …
Everything else is going to revolve around that one thing I want. Because I want it and I’m the boss of what I want.
Now, I know what you’re saying: That’s pretty selfish. Not really. We all want something, and most often we want it badly. So badly we are willing to do almost anything to get it. Why shouldn’t a writer, musician, artist, aspiring doctor or lawyer, other professionals, star athletes not do the same?
6. None of the above have mentioned my life outside of writing. In order to cram everything into a 24-hour period with 5-6 hours of sleep each night, I have ignored my husband, necessary work on our small businesses, cleaning our home, cooking at my best level for two meals each day, making proper time for personal devotionals and prayers, forsaken my music participation with my husband, and for the most part have given up my love of needlework (quilting and knitting). Cutting out these things meant I had enough time for social media, the blog, and some of the book. Nothing about that seems quite fair, at least to me. There should be an hour or two each day to enjoy another creative outlet. And I’m going to do just that. Let’s not forget we should all be committed to our health and physical well-being, and I’ll admit I’ve been neglectful of mine of late.
7. The decision is made, and no one can change it. I am going to spend the bulk of my waking hours writing–my memoir, short creative nonfiction, blog posts. Also, I will take back my domestic duties (which I enjoy) and clean my home, do the laundry, and cook decent meals and in good weather help Farmer Meyer with the outdoor work. I intend to make sure nothing is left undone about the two small businesses Bob and I run. Church and daily prayer and devotion will take a greater priority. This is what I want to do, and I choose to do it.
I know there will be naysayers about the time needed for social media. Others will debate whether or not a person has to count numbers or not. Some will argue that I’ll never sell a single book without platform based in a grand social media presence. Even more will disagree with the time I spent on social media providing enough time to pick back up the chores at home and the things I do for others. And there may be some who will find something to say I haven’t even thought about yet.
They are entitled to their opinions. That’s why we choose to do all we can to keep this country free. However, as we used to say when we were kids, “Nobody is the boss of me!”
No, I’m the boss in this office, and I get to choose what priorities I set. I’m also allowed to choose which tasks I don’t need or want to do, especially if I find them hindering my best efforts in my chosen creative outlet, writing.
I hope you’ll find a moment to join in discussion and conversation below.
If there’s one thing all writers agree on, it’s that writing is TOUGH. The road to publication twists and dips as we learn the craft, hone our abilities, create stories we’re passionate about, fight discouragement, educate ourselves about the industry…and then start the process all over again as we realize there’s room to improve. But you know what? If you are like me, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yet, sometimes it’s nice to get a helping hand.
Finding a good writing book, a helpful blog, a mentor or critique partner to share the journey with…these things are gems along the writing path.
And guess what? Maybe there’s another resource waiting just up the road called One Stop For Writers.
One Stop For Writers is not writing software, but rather a powerful online library that contains tools, unique description collections, helpful tutorials and much more, brought to you by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the authors of The Emotion Thesaurus and Lee Powell, the creator of Scrivener for Windows.
Could One Stop For Writers be the writing partner you’ve been searching for? Visit Writers Helping Writers this week and see, where Angela, Lee and Becca are celebrating their venture with prizes and some pay-it-forward fun.