Author Archives: Amber Lea Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 8 — Balancing Story and Reflection

This is the eighth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 7.

What could be simpler to understand than the act of people writing about what they know best, their own lives? But this apparently simple act is anything but simple, for the writer becomes, in the act of writing, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation.

Sidonie Smith and Julia WatsonReading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives

If you’ve been following this 10-part journey from transforming memories into memoirs, you’ll have traveled from defining memoir and truth in memoir to triggering memories and learning how to write about them in ways that will move your readers. So far we’ve focused on the telling of events through scene, and you may have written a number of scenes using the tips and techniques recommended in this series. If we were writing fiction, scenes would be enough.

A novel moves from scene to scene, action to action (even if that action happens only in the mind of one of the characters). But a memoir contains another element — reflection — the writer’s observations, beliefs, meditations, and musings about what happened. In memoir, you paint your understanding of events.

As the quote at the beginning of this article implies, memoir, for the writer, is really a journey of investigation, an attempt to make meaning of and reconcile with life events and their purposes in her life. That process of investigation — the journey of the writing itself — must be transparent to your readers. After all, they too want to understand.

In memoir reflection can appear in many places and forms: sometimes it occurs in snippets in the voice of the narrator in time (the younger self in the middle of the experience); sometimes it takes up paragraphs as the narrator discusses his current understanding of what happened; and sometimes it is presented within scene, within dialogue and gestures, though this is less common than the first two.

For example, in my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I reflect both on my own experiences and my mother’s as revealed in her journals and letters. For example, in the chapter, “A Man’s World,” I write:

Everywhere we went my mother was the only woman traveling alone with children and without the protection of a man. I knew we stood out for this reason, but I was too young to understand my mother’s fears, how difficult it was to navigate the language barrier in each new country, or how concerned about money she was.

This passage highlights how my perceptions of events as an adult can reveal aspects of an experience I was unaware of as a child.

Here’s another example from Maya Angelou’s Even the Stars Look Lonesome. In this excerpt, she writes of moving to North Carolina after her divorce and buying a house in which to live. She reflects upon the healing that occurs in the shift from living in a house to living in a home.

This is no longer my house, it is my home. And because it is my home, I have not only found myself healed of the pain of a broken love affair, but discovered that when something I have written does not turn out as I had hoped, I am not hurt so badly.

~ TRY THIS ~

  1. Take out one of the memoir scenes you have written.
  2. In your journal, answer the following questions, as well as any new ones that arise while you are journaling.
    1. How did this event change me and influence who I have become?
    2. How has my understanding of this event changed between when it happened and now?
    3. Why did it happen?
    4. What lessons did I learn, if any, from what happened?
    5. If I could go back in time, what would I do differently?
  3. Incorporate some of your reflection into what you have written. You can incorporate it into the scene directly, using sentence starters such as “Looking back …” or “If I had known …”  Or you can write a separate paragraph including your thoughts about the event.
  4. Only incorporate reflection that illuminates meaning not already evident in the scene.
  5. Keep your reflections short and to the point. Too much reflection can feel like a lecture and bore your readers.
    Join the conversation.

Finally, please leave a comment sharing your challenges and discoveries about including reflection in your writing.


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 7: Creating Fresh Metaphor

This is the seventh in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 6.

In Memories to Memoirs, Part 6, I wrote about the importance and impact of fresh metaphor to the life of our stories. Not only does metaphor engage the imagination of our readers, it is key to our own writing voice. Because metaphor is the frame through which we understand concepts, it reveals where we grew up, where we live, and how we think; it is is both cultural and highly personal.

Most of the time, we use metaphor unconsciously. However, when we write — and particularly when we revise — we have the opportunity to use metaphor deliberately and with intention. We can create new, fresh metaphors that set the tone for and communicate the deeper meanings of our stories.

One way to create new metaphor is simply to have fun and play with language.

A Fun Metaphor-Creation Exercise

Select five of the following concepts and create metaphors by completing the sentences using concrete objects for comparison. After you’ve stated the basic metaphor, play with its possible extensions.

For example: A basic metaphor might be “Life is a basket.” If life is a basket, what does that mean? What kind of basket is it? Wicker? Wire? Wood? What does it hold? Is it a burden that you have to carry around with you, or is it something else? My life is an in-basket filled with events, interactions, and possibilities — I can choose what I take out and what I leave in. What else might the image of a basket contribute to a person’s understanding of life?

What happens if you choose something unexpected, such as “life is a cup of coffee,” or “ideas are raindrops”?

Now it’s your turn. Complete at least five of the following, or use concepts of your own:

  • Life is …
  • Love is …
  • Ideas are …
  • Hope is …
  • Faith is …
  • Death is …
  • Education is …
  • Parenting is …
  • A discussion is …
  • Happiness is …
  • Virtue is …
  • Consciousness is …
  • Kindness is …
  • Cruelty is …
  • Spirituality is …
  • Community is …
  • Security is …

What new metaphor(s) did you create? Share with us by leaving a comment.


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs Part 6: Writing in Metaphor

This is the sixth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 5.

In the previous installment of this series, we examined the strong verb and its importance to our story’s tone and pace. In this post, we’ll look at figurative language — metaphor.

What exactly is metaphor? Metaphor compares abstract concepts to familiar objects and is the mechanism by which we understand those concepts. Essentially, it helps us understand what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know.

George Lakoff, in his classic work, Metaphors We Live By, says that metaphor is the frame with which we construct meaning and through which we view the world. In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach goes so far as to say that metaphor is the “foundation of conscious thought” and “the source of all meaning.”

Bottom line: Whether we realize it or not, we use metaphor all the time.

Here are examples, borrowed from Lakoff, of metaphors we commonly use for the concepts of “time” and “mind”:

  • Time is money (we can spend it, waste it, save it).
  • Time is a moving object (it’s before us, behind us, the time will come, the time has arrived, in the time ahead).
  • Time is a stationary object (we go through the years, approach the end of the year, go further into the century).
  • The mind is a machine (he broke downmy wheels are turning, I’m a little rusty, I’m running out of steam).
  • The mind is a brittle object (easily crushed, fragile, snappedhandle with care, cracked up).

In both speech and writing, metaphor appears in many forms:

  • Symbol — In my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, tar symbolizes hatred.
  • Simile — He’s crooked as a bent nail.
  • Unnamed metaphor — when someone says, “My business plan is the foundation for all my actions,” he is comparing his business to a building, but the comparison is not stated directly.
  • Named metaphor — “She is the wind beneath my wings.”

The metaphors we employ in our stories are the heavy lifters of communication. (Notice how, in order to communicate their importance, I compare metaphor to strong workers?)

Metaphor puts images into your readers’ mind. It not only helps them quickly understand what you are saying without a lot of explanation, it sets the tone.

Clichés are simply metaphors that have become such a part of our everyday lexicon that we often don’t even know we’re using them — phrases such as dead as a doornail or pretty as a picture (similes, not metaphors, in these two cases), he’s a team player, they don’t pull any punches, she plays hardballthink outside the box, and back against the wall.

As writers, we want to avoid the use of cliché in our work (the exception to that rule is in dialogue, where the cliché is consistent with the character of your speaker). Instead, we want to learn how to incorporate fresh, unique similes and metaphors that illuminate rather than obscure our communication (communication=seeing). How can we achieve this goal without first knowing our underlying, most basic of metaphors and how we build upon those in the way we conceptualize experiences, events, and ideas?

To better understand how we use metaphor in writing, we have three tasks:

  1. Pay attention to metaphors in others’ and our own writing.
  2. Identify the basic, underlying concepts represented by those images and concrete objects.
  3. Identify creative ways to extend those metaphors (more on that in the next installment).

Reading Exercise

Reread a chapter or story by one of your favorite authors. As you read, underline the symbols, similes, named and unnamed metaphors the author uses. How do those metaphors enhance your understanding of the story? How do the metaphors affect tone and mood? Which metaphors strike you as particularly fresh and exciting? Which seem ho-hum?

Now do the same with a chapter or story that you have written. What objects have you used to provide images for ideas? How will your metaphors enhance your readers’ understanding of your story? How do they affect tone and mood? Which metaphors are fresh and unique, and which are overused? Which are cliché?

The more you read with attention to metaphor, the more you will naturally begin to generate more when you write. In the next installment, we’ll continue this look at metaphor and have some fun creating fresh, new images.

In the meantime, share one of your favorite metaphors — by any writer — in the comment box below.


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs Part 5 — Strong Verbs

This is the fifth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 4.

You have been working on ways to remember and write your life story vividly, with concrete and sensory details that draw your reader into the world of your story. Now, consider how the verbs you choose effect tone and pace.

In the midst of a story, when you describe a static object, you are in effect slowing or freezing time. When your character, Jane, stops to gaze longingly at the red shoes in the store window, your readers stop with Jane, seeing the shoes through her eyes. And while the shop and the window and the shoes are being described, nothing is going on but the looking and the wanting. Soon, Jane comes to a decision and walks through the door into the store; or she shuffles away, shoulders slumped; or she concocts a way to have them and calls her best friend to share the news. In any event, the action begins again and, with the action, description of the action.

Use Strong Verbs for Action

The verbs you use contribute to (or do nothing for) your story’s pace and tone. Consider the differences in tone and pace in the following sentences:

Jim walks along Main Street.
Jim strides along Main Street.
Jim ambles along Main Street.
Jim sashays along Main Street.
Jim patrols along Main Street.
 
In each sentence, Jim is moving along Main Street, but the verb used describes how he moves. It contributes to Jim’s character (how he moves says something about him) and pace. To amble is slower than to stride, and to patrol has a completely different attitude than to sashay.
 
Rule of thumb: if you find yourself using an adverb to modify a verb, you need to find a different, more effective verb for your character and story. For example, if you wrote, “Jim walked briskly along Main Street,” strode or marched or stomped might serve you better. The point is, use a verb that adds something — a feeling or an attitude and describes how the action is accomplished.
 

Never use a “vanilla” verb, such as walk or look, when another verb, such as ambled or stared would be more effective.

Use Strong Verbs in Description

It’s important to remember that description of an inanimate object does not need to be inanimate. The description can be full of life and have movement of its own. Strong verbs and precise adjectives act together to move your story forward in some way. 

The two following example passages slow the pace of their respective stories by describing moments in time, yet the descriptions themselves do not feel slow.

In her memoir, Sixtyfive Roses, Heather Summerhays Cariou writes about her experience with “primal therapy” in the office of her counselor.

So it was that I found myself shivering on the thinly carpeted floor in Ron’s tiny concrete office, my head filled with a white wind, an icy white wind that was whirling all through me, as if my body was a wide-open space. 

There is no action in Cariou’s sentence. In fact, it’s rather passive: Heather lies on the floor and everything happens to her. But the verbs are strong — shivering, filled, whirling. Cariou uses the image of icy white wind to represent the coldness of her emotion and wide-open space to represent her body. A combination of strong verbs and figurative language (which we’ll discuss more in Part 6) gives movement to the description.

Here’s a partial description of a road — Grand Avenue — as remembered from Bill Bryson’s childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. (The full description covers about a page and half.)

But when the road was being laid out sometime in the second half of the 1800s there was a heavy rain in the night and apparently the surveyors’ sticks moved — at least that was what we were always told — and the road deviated from the correct line, leaving the capitol oddly off center; so that it looks as if it has been caught in the act of trying to escape. It is a peculiarity that some people treasure and others would rather not talk about. I for one never tired of striding into the downtown from the west and being confronted with a view so gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter, and pondering the fact that whole teams of men could build an important road without once evidently looking up to see where they were going.

Think about how much is packed into the previous paragraph: There is no real action to speak of, yet his inanimate road deviatesleaves a capitol off center, and is caught in the act of trying to escape; the adverbs Bryson chose add an element of surprise: a view that is “gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter; we learn that the road was laid out in the second half of the 1800’s and is not straight due to a rainstorm (or so the rumor goes); and we understand, due to the author’s precise use of modifiers and adjectives, how he feels about the road.

Your Turn

Write a 250-500 word description of a person engaged in an activity that has discrete steps (washing a car, gardening, playing hopscotch, lifting weights). You’ll need to organize the flow of action as it occurs.

Now, examine your use of verbs and rewrite your piece in 3 different ways, substituting different verbs for each action or active description to create different tones and slow down or increase the pace of the action.

Share your experience: What did you learn by playing with this exercise? How will what you learned affect your writing and revising?


Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 4 — A Descriptive Vocabulary

This is the fourth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 3.

In Part 3 I wrote about the importance of including vivid details in your writing and gave you an exercise to trigger sensory aspects of your memories. Afterward, you wrote lists of these remembered sensory details and revised your scene. I have no doubt that your scene was much more effective and that including concrete sensory details went a long way towards bringing your story to life.

Take your writing one step further by transforming your description from the mundane to the excellent. How? By expanding vocabularies in three areas:

  • nouns
  • adjectives and adverbs
  • verbs

In this post, we’ll focus on using precise descriptive nouns and adjectives. In Part 5, we’ll discuss the importance of using strong (and precise) verbs, and in Part 6, we’ll launch into a discussion of metaphor and how it can take your writing to the next level.

So what exactly do I mean by “precise” and “descriptive”? I mean nouns that name an animal, plant, place, or object (hyacinth vs.  flower), adjectives that evoke mood and help to move your story forward as well as describe your subject (petite vs. small), and adverbs that, when used sparingly, add to the picture you are creating with your words (exceptionally vs. very).

Ways to develop a precise, descriptive vocabulary.

I. Learn to read like a writer.

Analyze  your favorite authors’ works — especially those of fiction writers — focusing on how they paint pictures with their words. What about their descriptions draws you into their stories and arouses your emotions?

As an example, I’m currently reading Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole. Proulx is a master of description. Opening the book at random, I can immediately find two good examples of descriptive passages:

On page 1, instead of writing something like, “It was a beautiful spring morning, the air filled with the earthy scents of desert shrubs and trees,” which might content writers less skilled than Proulx, she pulls us into the story with, “It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac.” (italics mine.) Notice how Proulx uses the word “roaring” as an adjective to evoke the feeling of that particular spring morning, how “green [is] in the sky,” and how the air is “spiced,” rather than “scented,” with specific and precise plant names.

Here is another example from pages 55-56. In developing the character of Francis Scott Keister, Proulx writes: “His handsome Santa Gertrudis cattle displayed rich mahogany coats and backs as level as the ground they trod. … The heifers were artificially inseminated with semen from champion bulls, turned out on newly sprouted winter wheat in the spring, carefully moved from pasture to pasture during the summer. Keister supplemented the grass with soy meal, beet pulp, molasses, sorghum and sweet-corn stover, corn, cottonseed hulls, beet tops, cannery waste, anhydrous ammonia, poultry packer by-products (including feathers), peanut meal, meat meal, bone mail, lint from the family clothes dryer.” (italics mine)

In this passage, Proulx names the cattle, as well as the exact type of wheat in the spring fields and the supplements added to their feed. And the adverbs used — “artificially,” “newly,” and “carefully” — are included because they add to Keister’s character portrayal.

Exercise:

  • Take five of your favorite books from your bookshelf, open the first and scan it for a particularly descriptive passage that strikes you as powerful. Copy it into a notebook.
  • Repeat this for each of the five books.
  • Take some time to analyze the writing for each of the passages. Highlight all of the adjectives, nouns, and adverbs. How were each effective in adding to the story the writer was telling? What, in particular, works for you?
  • Circle words you want to add to your vocabulary. To help you remember these words, write sentences using one or more of the words in your notebook and then make a point of incorporating those same words into your writing as appropriate.

II. Revise using a variety of writing resources.

I confess that I don’t understand writers who say they hate revising, because, in my mind if you love writing, you love revising. I’ll go one step further:  revising is writing. The first draft is not art, it’s a rough sketch upon which your art is based. Sure, some writers manage rough sketches that are pretty darn good to begin with, but they’re rarely the finished product.

Some of my favorite descriptive writing resources:

In addition to my standard Roget’s thesaurus and other online resources, my favorite resource for a descriptive vocabulary is — hands down — WritersHelpingWriters.com. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have compiled an incredible collection of thesauri for everything from colors to character traits and emotions.

Other online resources include a Flower Glossary; a Reverse Dictionary for when you know what a words means, but can’t remember the word itself; and a great resource for links that will help you research details related to a specific place and time in history.

Bookshelf resources to enhance description include:

Putting it into practice — Baby Steps:

  • Select an object. Set a timer for five minutes and, during this five minutes, focus all your attention on your selected object. Observe it carefully. How does the light play off it? What is its shape and color? Touch it. If possible, hold it in your hands. How does it feel? Is it weighty or light? What is its texture? Smell it. Taste it. Does it have a sound? Does it evokes a memory or feeling?
  • When the timer goes off, write a description of your object. Avoid bland, judgmental words, such as “lovely,” “beautiful,” “old,” “remarkable,” etc. These kinds of words are too general to be meaningful. Instead, use concrete details, such as smooth or slippery, and be precise — what kind of blue is it? Did the object remind you of something else? A memory or feeling? How did the object make you feel? Incorporate these details into your description. This is your first draft, so it’s okay to go with the flow. Write what comes to you.
  • Now revise your description using descriptive resources such as a color or emotion thesaurus or by incorporating words gleaned from other authors’ works in the first exercise.

Please feel free to share your description with us. In fact, it might be kind of fun to post both the first draft and the revised paragraph(s). Be brave — share your work!


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 3 — Remembering Vividly

This is the third in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 2.

In part two, we used map drawing to trigger memories about place and time in our lives. In this article I present another technique to release sensory details from the subconscious and bring amorphous memories into sharper focus before writing a scene of the event. I taught a condensed version of this technique in my workshop, “A Legacy of Story,” at the Story Circle Network conference in Austin TX this last weekend, and I call it “Remembering Vividly” because that is what it helps us do.

Before you begin, to help you understand the importance of recovering memories of sensory details, select a piece you’ve written recently. Print it out and highlight every reference to a sensory detail. Which senses are included? Which sense is dominant?

If you’re like most writers the dominant sense is visual. That’s because most of us write “by sight.” That is, we include what we see and, sometimes, what we hear. Rarely what we smell, taste, or feel (as in the sense of touch). If your writing tends to fall within this “mostly sight” category, you may fail to engage your readers.  If you want to write vivid memories, then you must learn to remember vividly — not just see, but smell, taste, feel, and hear those memories — as well as expand your sensory vocabulary.

Remembering vividly is best accomplished in a light meditative state, and the practice of remembering takes only from 5 to 15 minutes. Writing the scene will take another 15-30 minutes depending upon the level of detail you include. If you’re on a tight time budget (and who isn’t?), I recommend allowing yourself a minimum 20 minutes to complete this process.

Here’s how it works (read the following directions all the way through before beginning):

Remembering Vividly

  1. Choose a memory to work with — either from the piece you selected or a different memory. For best results, the memory should be a significant moment in your life.
  2. Find a quiet, low-lit place where you can relax and not be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable chair or find an alternative comfortable position, close your eyes, and take long, deep breath. With each exhale, release tension in a part of your body, beginning with your toes and feet and ankles and moving all the way up your body until you feel the tension in your scalp and brows relax. Continue to breathe regularly for a few moments.

    To shorten the time, take five deep breaths, releasing tension from your entire body with each exhale. Then continue to the next step.
  3. Keeping your eyes closed, focus inward on your memory as if it were occurring in the present moment. Where are you? What’s around you? Who is with you? What is the quality of light? Pay attention to all the details: colors and textures, sounds, odors (if you can’t detect odors, think about what odors or scents might be present, given your environment), and physical sensations. If there is food, what does it taste like? What is its texture in your mouth?
  4. Now broaden your perception by turning around in your imagination — slowly, in a full circle. Again, pay attention to all the sensory details.
  5. Stay in your expanded memory until you feel satisfied you have remembered as much as possible, take a few more deep breaths, and gently bring your conscious mind partway back into the room in which you are sitting. Stay in a semi-dream or meditative state.
  6. Feeling the memory about you, write a list of all the words and phrases that describe it: colors, textures, sounds, scents, tastes, physical sensations. Don’t analyze or begin to write about emotions — stay strictly focused on the senses.
  7. When you have completed your list, bring yourself fully into the present moment.

Write Your Scene
Now write (or rewrite) a scene of the moment as remembered, including as many of the words from your list as possible. Slow down, making sure to record every little detail, and give yourself permission to “go overboard” with your description. Writing the scene in present tense will help you stay focused on the actions and concrete details of your memory.

Finally, take a few minutes to write in your journal about this process and what emotions, discoveries, or revelations came to you as you remembered or wrote. Later, you may decide to include some of these reflections in your narrative. For now, I suggest keeping them separate.

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions. Did you try this meditative method for recovering sense-based memory? If so, what happened? Are there other techniques that have worked equally well for you?


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 2 — Mapping Your Story

This is the second in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 1.

One of the great challenges (and satisfactions) of writing memoir is dealing with fragmented memories. We may remember only a snippet of an event; we may be haunted by a key images or emotions but don’t remember enough of the context — surrounding moments, people, places, and conversations — to write about it. Or at least that’s what we think.

What I have found is that the context to all our important memories is there, stored in our minds and bodies; it only needs a little probing to be released. So today I want to share with you a technique I learned from Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories — a technique that has helped me and many of my students trigger and expand our memories.

Map Stories

Though we don’t often realize it, our memories are associated with the places in which the events occurred. Drawing maps of places you’ve lived, worked, played, and gone to school can expand memories in surprising ways, recreating whole worlds of experiences. By encouraging our minds to remember the details of those places, we unlock the details in each of those places’ nooks and crannies.

Try this:

Get a piece of paper, the larger the better, and colored pencils or crayons. If you don’t have colored pencils, a regular pencil will do the trick.

Now, draw a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in. Draw the streets and neighboring houses with as much detail as possible. As you draw, ask yourself:

  • What were the names of the streets?
  • Who lived where?
  • Where were my secret places?
  • Who were my friends? Where did they live? What about the friends of my brothers and sisters?
  • Where wasn’t I allowed to go?
  • Where did the good and things happen?
  • Where did the bad things happen?

Don’t worry about making the map perfect or to scale. Don’t worry about getting the lines straight. Allow yourself to sink back into the mind of the child that you were as you draw. As images come up, draw them. (You can use a symbol that you’ll remember.) Take time with your map, drawing surrounding trees, geographic details, and so on. You’ll be surprised by how much comes up. Powerful memories will surface that you didn’t even know you had.

Once you’ve finished your map write a story, starting with, “One day ….”

Wrote about what happened in that one place on that one day.

Go ahead. Write.

What’s Next?

Put your map story in a binder. Then draw a map of another time and place in your life: another home, your school, your favorite place as a teenager. Write that story and add it to your binder.

In the next post we’ll discuss Making a Scene.


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Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire