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!


Photo Credit: BasicallyAdvanced via Compfight cc


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?


Photo Credit: AlicePopkorn via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

I Never Gave Up My Dream

I never gave up on my dream. That is the key. All it took was the persistence to never give up.

Early on in my life I thought of myself as a journalist and creative writer, but after college I settled for something more practical–technical writing and editing in the aerospace industry. And while I was even able to convince myself that I would never be able to achieve my dream, it kept gnawing on me.

While I worked my day job as a technical writer for over twenty-eight years and in a few other jobs as a real estate salesperson, programmer, and fundraiser for non-profits, I took creative detours. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and knit. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs–where the writing was just a little less technical than my work in aerospace. I did anything to keep my creative juices flowing, until I could stand it no longer. I needed to reconnect with my passion to write.

It finally took a tragedy in my life to help me realize my dream.

When my son was diagnosed bipolar and our family was going through the emotional upheaval his illness created in all our lives, I started to journal. Writing about my son’s illness and later about his suicide death helped me put my pain on the page–the only place I could show my true feelings. Keeping my fingers moving either across the page on or the computer keyboard became my calming and healing balm.

I also took writing workshops. At first I felt insecure about my creative writing abilities because they had lain dormant for so long. That changed when I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition technical writer to creative writer: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” And that was okay. When a private instructor in Los Angeles taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

Once I got into the writing groove I never stopped. I had a memoir published culled from my early journal entries and poems, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir about Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. Even finding a publisher took perseverance. Sixty-eight rejection letters later I found the perfect small press to publish my book.

And now, I still write something every day. I journal and write poetry regularly. I write for my own blog, and I am well on my way to completing my first novel. Instead of worrying about my lack of creative abilities, I took the power within me to accomplish my dream. My son’s death gave me that strength and power.


For more from Madeline Sharples, visit her blog.

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.


Photo Credit: neonzu1 via Compfight cc

Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 1 — What is Memoir?

Our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness, Is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story.   ~Daniel Taylor

I believe that everyone’s lives, however “ordinary,” are filled with experiences that speak to universal human experience and are therefore interesting to other people. Today I’m beginning a ten-part article series intended to help you begin writing about some of these meaningful experiences in your life. Over the next ten weeks or so, I’ll discuss memory-triggering techniques and writing exercises to explore the stories your memories have to tell and (hopefully) help you get started telling them.

I know it’s  a busy time of year, and it might seem strange to begin a ten-part article just before Christmas, yet it’s also a reflective time of year —a time when we think back over what we’ve done and achieved during the previous year; a time when we think forward to the new year. If you have a little down time between now and the New Year, you might consider embarking on some memoir writing during the next few weeks. And if you don’t have time now, bookmark this post and come back to it when you do.

What is Memoir?

In its simplest definition, memoir is a written account of an aspect, period, or series of events from your life. An autobiography, on the other hand, is an account of your entire life. Memoir can be centered on certain people, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, and colleagues, or themes, such as marriage, divorce, death, and loss.

A memoir is an attempt to express your perception of the truth as remembered, while autobiography sticks more to the facts. Of course, it is important to remain as factual as possible in memoir, but because memoir is an accounting of memory — and memory is understood to be faulty and inaccurate at best — we also understand that memoir may express your experiential truth while, at the same time, not necessarily being factually accurate. (Did she really wear a red dress that day, or is it only the way I remember it?)

Writing about a sequence of events over a particular period of time, in an of itself, does not make a memoir. A memoir that is a story reveals or explores something about our humanity. It’s an expression of what matters about those events.

E.M. Forster famously said about plot (I’m paraphrasing): “The king died and then the queen died” is not a story. However, “The king died and then the queen died of grief” brings meaning to the events. They become story. Memoir applies the elements of story to your own life.

Truth in Memoir

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach writes, “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is. Beauty—of form, of language, of meaning—always takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.” (p13, italics mine.)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about truth in memoir. And we all know the story of James Frey, who became the poster child of what not to do when writing memoir. It’s never acceptable to fabricate events or exaggerate something beyond what we remember or know to be true in order to make something more dramatic or interesting. On the other hand, a child’s memories of an event may naturally be exaggerated, compressed (where several events are remembered as one), or in other ways untrue to the facts. In this case, the memories themselves are true. When a writer puts those memories to the page, she acknowledges the fact that she is writing from the child’s viewpoint. Her memories of events are part of her personal story, as much as the events themselves.

Journaling/Writing/Discussion Prompts

  • What, for you, is the essence of “memoir”?
  • Where is your personal line between “the truth” and “the facts”?
  • What kinds of research can you perform to assist with writing your memories?
  • If you find out that a memory is inaccurate, how might you still write about that memory as true?

Photo Credit: ZedZap. via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

The Grip of the Gripe: Shutting the Duck Up

I’m not a griper, at least not an out-loud griper. My griping is done in the privacy of my own little head–it’s all internal chatter. I get hooked into playing a Spiral Mind Game that keeps me in a swirling ain’t-it-awful loop. By the end of the day, it has successfully sucked the life out of me.

I lose my true aim, and feel like I should just give up. Ugh.

I know. Griping about a situation is a waste of time yet, there I was, doing it. I was complaining, grumbling, grousing, and, my favorite, whining.

“But I promised myself I would write daily. I’ll never get the draft of You’ll Never Find Us finished,” I whined in my journal. I thought I had paved the way to easy writing by reducing obligations and saying no to meetings unless they furthered my book and/or my health.

It sounded good at the time. Here’s the reality of it.

It has been a frustrating ride writing this book. Life still gets in the way. When I fell off the proverbial writing-wagon the chatter in my head kicked in almost instantly. It sounded like the quacking of a duck telling me: give up, you’ll never write the book, it’ll always end up on the back burner, you’re not good enough.

I needed help to shut the duck up.

And then the weirdest thing happened.

As I continued to journal, whining about the plight of my book and questioning my worth, who shows up on the page but a”voice” I’d never heard before. It was Big Mama: bold, full-bodied, with a loud mouth and very funny.

You know what she said? She said, “You need to let go of that garbage, girl. Get a grip! Stop listening to that quacker.”

Startled, I asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m your new best self. You already got enough crazy voices in that head of yours. You don’t need another one. You don’t need permission or anybody’s approval to write your book, and you sure don’t need to work your fingers to the bone proving your worth. You’re a worthy girl, you hear me?”

I told her I felt like I had a new spine.

“You’re my baby now and we’re gonna take baby steps when the crazies start getting to you. Got it? If they show up, just ask yourself, is this making me feel better about myself? If not, shut them up and start writing. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I wrote. “What’s your name?”

It was as if I could hear a big, deep belly laugh when she responded, “Honey, just call me Rita.”

I got a grip and plan to keep my aim true…and write that book. Rita and her sense of humor have saved me.

What saves you?

If you hear yourself repeatedly complaining about the same thing, I’ll send Rita your way and have her get in your face, or at least in your head.

Those other voices don’t make you smile. Rita will–if you’ll listen to her.


Jeanne Guy Gatherings
Explore~Reframe~Restory Your Life
Reimagining Your Life Through Reflective Writing
www.jeanneguy.com