Tag Archives: memoir writing tips

Accountability

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By B. Lynn Goodwin

Writing is a lonely business. Sometimes. Other times it’s a joyous celebration with friends or a slog through one’s own unique valley of despair.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not on a writing team at the moment, though that might be an interesting project if the subject matter was right. Since I work alone, though, it’s up to me to keep myself motivated.

Lately, my husby has helped. He became my accountability partner last night when he asked, “Did you put in two hours on the memoir today?”

“No. Not today.”

I got up and got in the car by 9—okay 9:10—so I could give my journaling workshop for the Family Caregiver Alliance over in Menlo Park at 11. Then I was going to find a Starbuck’s on or near the Stanford Campus, but frankly, I was too exhausted, so I got in my car for the long trek home, and when I got here I was so tired I fell asleep for an hour and a half.  “I didn’t get it done because of the workshop. I don’t mind your asking though.”

I never mind accountability, except when it makes me feel small or irresponsible. I won’t mind if he asks me tonight, but he won’t because I already e-mailed him that I put in two hours. I might not have done that without his asking me about it last night.

If you don’t have an accountability partner right now and you need a little encouragement, here’s my question: “What did you write about today?” If the answer is nothing, think about your reason. You know I’ll understand. Why not post an answer below, and then you will have written today.

If you need a little encouragement, here’s something I shared yesterday in the journaling workshop, where I encouraged caregivers to vent, rant, process, discover, and find peace. I offer them to you, because every time I read them, I remember the value of what we all do.

Why Write?

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”  — Gustave Flaubert

“For many of us, writing is a form of prayer, and when our lives become too busy and we don’t give ourselves time to write and develop our writing, we feel diminished.”    –Sheila Binder

“We cannot live through a day without impacting the world around us – and we have a choice: What sort of impact do we want to make?” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall 

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”  – Thomas Edison

“Words, like eyes, are windows into a person’s soul, and thus each writer, in some small way, helps to enrich the world.”   –Mark Robert Waldman

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.Samuel Johnson

“A birddoesn’t sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song. — Maya Angelou, poet

“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  —– Edith Wharton

BlynnP B. Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice,http://www.writeradvice.com, and the author of both You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and TALENT (Eternal Press). Her blog is athttp://blynngoodwin.com. Goodwin’s stories and articles have been published in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; Good Housekeeping.com and many other venues. She is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

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Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get … Continue reading

Are You Lying By Omission?

It came as a surprise to me years ago to learn that NOT saying something could be considered lying, at least according to my stepmother, whose opinions on things like that mattered when I was in high school. “But I never said I did [fill in the blank]!” I’d protest, when she confronted me about something that could result in my being grounded for the weekend. “That’s right!” she’d say. “You’re lying by omission.” It was a done deal. I was grounded.

Older now and pretty well traveled around the block, I have to defer to the wisdom one of my favorite writers, Russell Baker. “As memoirists,” he wrote, “we are the editor of own life.”

We have to be the editor of our life when it comes to memoir writing. And we’re well practiced.

In storytelling, which we do every day (“This morning I saw…” “Last Saturday I went to…”), we unconsciously choose what to put in and what to leave out. And when we write from life, we do the same. We include what’s needed for the shape of the story. Where does it need to be begin? We dramatize situations by creating scenes, with descriptive, usually sensory details that help listeners feel they are there, in the present time of the story. If we go off on a tangent with related but nonessential information we can lose a listener the same way we can lose a reader by including more than the story needs.

When we’re writing, we’re not lying by leaving out certain parts of a story; we’re making conscious, artful choices. Don’t tell my stepmother I’ve gotten really good at it (!).

So what do you do with this question of lying by omission or wisely and artfully choosing what to leave out for the strength of the story, among other reasons. Are you lying when you don’t tell the whole truth? Is it expected of you as a memoirist?

What to put in and what to leave out has so many facets I’ve decided to tackle it in this blog in small bites and give attention to each one. I’ll look at the tough subject of writing about a living relative, the question of including details of sexual encounters that were especially significant to you, sharing family secrets, revealing truths about yourself for the first time.

If there are other subjects related to writing the truth you’d like to bring up, write it in a comment here or contact me through my website with the question and I’ll be glad to reply or explore it in detail in another blog post.

The bottom line for all truth telling in memoir:

1) Never write with the intention to cause harm (e.g., to get back at someone or shock someone).

2) Consider journaling to flush out and free fiery emotion that deserves a voice but may skew your story or reveal something you’d rather omit. Write it as a piece of memoir once you have more clarity. Include emotions, but don’t use the memoir to vent.

3) Don’t shock with big news about you or a member of the family. If you can, have a conversation with the person or people who could be negatively affected by new information instead of handing them a paper or a book you wrote and letting the story say it for you. The conversation can be a side benefit of writing memoir.

4) Interview yourself when you hit those hard spots instead of relying on your pat response: “I don’t tell that story.” Pause for a few moments while you’re writing. Take a walk or another kind of solitary break and consider the angles. Ask yourself questions like What could the benefit in writing this be? Could anyone be hurt by it? Do I need to protect them from knowing my truth? Is that more important right now than my writing this story/telling my truth? Can I tell the true story without laying out all the painful details; can I summarize, be more general and still be fair to myself and my story?

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Read more on truth telling and good writing tips on my website blog @ www.suzannesherman.com. And for a peek at what’s going on with my new new book about girlhood through a century (“100 Years in the Life of An American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010“) visit the Facebook page for the book @ facebook.com/100yearsinthelife.

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Dialects in Dialog

Q: I grew up in Kansas, but my favorite granddad is Texan, and he had a strong accent. A friend read a story of mine recently and liked it but said the dialog seemed contrived. But it was real, it was just like he sounded. How do I give the sense of him without sounding like I’m making it up? The Accent’s Real

A: Dear Real Accent: The trick is to capture the sound of someone. Just like we don’t use all the words someone has said because it would be way more than we need for dialog in memoir (or fiction, for that matter), we need to pick and choose where to drop in an accent. You don’t want to be heavy-handed about it; a sprinkling goes a long way.

Here are some tips for writing realistic dialog that doesn’t slow the read.

At the top of the list: Avoid overuse of phonetic spelling.

Don’t fill in with lots of repeated vowels to give the sound of an accent. Instead, use expressions the speaker would have used and let that reflect their true voice.

Take a look at this example:  “Ahh ain’t goin’ there tennight, noooo way. Doncha git it?”

It’s tedious to read words spelled phonetically, it takes too much effort, especially when dialog has some length. Phonetic spelling will have your readers turning pages and not because they can’t wait to read more. Improved, the sentence above could read: “I ain’t goin’ there tonight, no way. Do you get it?”

Southern accents can be strong with a lot of ending consonants dropped in speech. “It’s hotter’n blazes out there, kids. Ahm goin’ ta stay in heah, you kin bet on that.”  Improved, it could be: “It’s hotter than blazes out there, kids. I’m stayin’ inside, you can bet on that.” Do you hear the accent in the second version? Find the words that carry the voice, and count on your reader for getting a good sense of someone by what they say as well as by their actions in a scene you’re re-creating.

Regional or racial turns of phrase — even cliches — can go a long way in good dialog. “What? You think I’m made of money?” my grandma said, snapping open her pocketbook with a frown I’d seen a thousand times. “Take it, take it. Have a good time for me, that’s all I ask.” Is this a grandmother from Connecticut? Louisiana? Probably not. She sounds like a New Yorker to me, with some roots in Eastern Europe.

And don’t forget, a well known non-English word here or there can add the flavor of a person, too. With that, I’ll say adios.

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Have a question about memoir writing? Email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net. I’ll do my best to help.

And be sure to visit Facebook.com/100yearsinthelife for updates on my new book, “100 Years In the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010” (publishing spring 2013). All “LIKES” of the Facebook page are appreciated! And the photo contest for the book is coming soon. Ten winners will be published. See my website for more, www.suzannesherman.com.

Blah, Blah, Blah

Q: How do I avoid a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” approach to my memoir and still include all the significant events? — “Blah, Blah, Blah”

A: Dear “Blah, Blah, Blah”:

It’s all in how you shape it.

Think of how we live. This happens and then that happens, and then something else happens. Right? But it’s not a story unless it’s shaped into one. Let’s look at how to shape a story. Here are some writing tips.

1. Beginnings Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Where do you start a story about an incident or a part of your life? It’s good to start close to the incident or time you’ll cover. You may like to begin in the action of a scene, use a line of dialog to jump into scene and follow it with background/context. Or ask a question. No matter what, your opening line should attract a reader’s interest, not be laden with facts and information. If you think the facts belong up front, still work to keep that first line engaging.

When you read over your first draft, ask yourself these questions: Is the first paragraph a warm-up I used to get in the mood to write? Does the story really start in a later paragraph, not the first one? Is there a great first line buried in the middle of my story? Make the changes you need to make to write an opening that engages a reader and creates the opening shape to the story (or chapter).

2. Focus You should be able to answer the question, “What is this about?”, in a sentence when you get to the end of a short memoir. When you review your first draft, ask yourself that question. Did you start the story close to the point the subject, or focus, of the story begins? Is there a climax, or dramatic height, to the story? If so, did you give it the attention it needs or rush over it? Have you kept to a single well-focused incident (or a few well-focused incidents) or do you go all over the place with tangents that could distract from the focus? Can the tangents be new, separate stories?

3. Feelings Feelings add emotional impact and help a reader know you better. Have you described feelings with dialog, narration, or dramatized actions to convey your feelings and the feelings of other people in your story? Have you told about and shown feelings when it seems right to?

4. Redundancies Redundancies bog down writing. Read your piece over to see if you have you repeated yourself in the same sentence or later in the story. Keep the most effective version and be ready to revise if it’s needed. Sometimes combining what you’ve said about the same thing in two places is perfect in that one right spot!

5. Dialog Dialog brings a story to life. It takes a reader into “real” time (the present time of the story), helps bring a story to life. Dialog also communicates a lot about a person if it conveys how they spoke, what they’d say in a given situation. Check to see if you’ve used dialog. If you haven’t, see if you can illustrate a scene with just a spoken line or two. Dialog should always help move a scene forward; only use words that add something – not everything we say moves a scene. Pick and choose what’s needed. (In real life we can get away with a lot of “blah, blah, blah” but in writing, every word has to matter.) And try to express the speaker’s personality when you can with what they say. Ordinary words like “said” are best for noting the speaker. Avoid adverbs (she said sadly), directing a reader about how to interpret words, use the language in the dialog and actions surrounding the dialog to convey that message instead.

6. Details Sensual details (colors, shapes, smells, sounds, textures) make a story more immediate and real. Details add a sense of veracity that generalities do not: you were there. And sensual details bring the reader in by creating emotional impact. Will the reader “see” your story? Will they “hear” the street sounds outside your window? Have you used precise language, avoided vague adjectives (like “beautiful,” “wonderful,” “nice,” “pretty”)? Can you replace vague adjectives with specific, descriptive ones so the reader can have her own impression? Have you used identifying details (type of flower, drink, cookie, dress, music)? Are there descriptive details — colors, smells, textures, sounds, tastes — you could add without overloading and appearing forced? You want to sound natural while you paint a word picture. If you’ve included smells, have you described them as well as you can? Are there details you could add or some that could be taken out?

7. “Trim the Fat” Are there portions that don’t contribute to the overall impact you want? Do nonessential words slow the reading and lessen the impact of sentences? Refine, refine, refine. It will pay off for you and all of your readers.

8. Ending Does your story drop off suddenly and unintentionally? It should not. Does it summarize what you’ve just written about? This would be another form of redundancy. Does it reveal an epiphany or a deepened understanding of something or someone that happened because of the incident described in the story? Reflection is essential in memoir. Give your story a clear and compelling finish. It’s as important to leave a reader feeling interested and satisfied as it is to appeal to a reader’s curiosity at the start.

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Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send it to me in a COMMENT to the blog post, or email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net.

There’s more about writing and memoir at www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on submissions to my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a Girl: True Stories of American Girls 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And I’m offering two consecutive one-on-one programs at Story Circle Network, so check out the SCN September class schedule and sign up to get my personalized help with whatever you’re writing.

What Really Happened?

Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send it to me in a COMMENT to the blog post, or email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net. Visit my website, www.suzannesherman.com, for more.

Q: I’ve heard of showing versus telling, and I’m really stumped. I used to write stories that were event-based: what happened. Like when I picked up Jimi Hendrix at the airport when he was just getting really popular. I described what we talked about, where we went, what we did. How do I balance narrative about events as I create my chronological path with writing about who those events made me and how I felt about it then and now?  — How Do I Show What Happened?

A: Dear How Do I Show What Happened?:
I like your example about picking up Hendrix. A significant event in your life, a stand-out on your personal timeline. It was probably sensational spending time with a star. But it affected you long after. That is information you would have to tell readers. Without your telling it narratively, readers won’t know why one thing led to the next and they certainly won’t know how you were affected by an experience.  And in memoir, reflection is essential.

In a novel, one event leads to the next, characters develop along with the plot through plot complications, conflicts, and resolve of conflicts. In a life story, particularly one you’re writing chronologically, events may not lead one to the next because you’re not following as tight a plotline. But every event you write about should have a reason — for you — to be written.

Try writing up a timeline (see my SCN post How Do I Shape My Memoir?). Look at the events you included on it. Can you answer the question: What did I learn from this at the time? How did it affect me? Did it shape who I became (or am now)? As you write each story about your life, include that reflection. Write it in.

You could think of good memoir as having three key parts:

1. Narrative, or “telling,” which provides context and a sense of continuity, which links, leads in, and paints the broader strokes of time passing and scene changes;

2. Scenes, or “showing,” which bring the story to life with details from the time you’re describing in narrative. As the writer, you get to go there again in memory and draw from experience (with a touch of imagination) and bring a sense of presence to your reader;

3. Reflection, where it fits. Some stories won’t need your reflections — what it meant to you/to others/its affects then and later. But many could. Be sure to always ask yourself this question when you’re writing: How did this affect me? Your feelings will deepen the story, make it realer, even remind you about or help you realize the event’s value.

Memoir is mostly the story. The story is the base. Reflection is an important spice. Reflection can come at the end of a story/chapter or it can be intermixed. Example: You write about driving in a car with Jimi Hendrix. You’ve described him and all the rest from that day. Your reflections can come in the middle of that story, like: “I’d never been asked to do anything this exciting before, and with the adrenalin racing through my system for every minute of those three hours I had the feeling I never wanted to do anything ordinary again.” At the end of the story you might conclude with another reflection, something like: “Sleeping didn’t come easy that night, and it wasn’t just excitement over what had just happened. I couldn’t have named it then, but I was changed. I would understand more about how this day affected me years later, all I knew now was I liked living outside the box, I wasn’t as shy as I’d always thought I was, and I wanted more new experiences in my life.”

Reflect before you write about an event and while you’re writing it and chances are your reflections will fall naturally into place, balancing your narrative, as you write about what happened. Memoir is your opportunity to see in, to connect the dots, and to share about it as you share about yourself in the stories of your life.

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There’s more about writing and memoir at http://www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a American Girl: True Stories of Girlhood 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And this fall I’m offering a one-on-one program through Story Circle Network, so check out the September class schedule  and sign up to get personalized help with your writing.

Your Stories Can Become a Book

Two of my longtime memoir students brought a copy of their new books to class last week. Both used a different company to self-publish, both wrote beautiful, meaningful books, both had different goals in putting their stories out in the world. Both of their experiences, too, have good lessons for us all. I describe Sharon’s experience in this month’s blog. September’s blog will tell the story of Ernest’s journey, with I Should Have Smelled the Roses, written for friends and family about his travels and experiences. Ernest used CreateSpace.com (Amazon’s publishing company). Sharon went with iUniverse.

Sharon Porter Moxley’s goal was to write for her own pleasure and to expand her understanding of this time in her life and how it affected her over the years.  She also wanted to write for family and for the wider world out there, people who could enjoy her unusual story. In July 2012 she published Among the Silent Giants: A Young Girl’s True Adventures and Survival in a Wild Country. The publishing company saw the book’s potential right away, gave her the Rising Star award before the book was even printed, offered her a redo of the cover (on their dime), and provided valuable marketing assistance and social media marketing advice only granted their “rising stars.”

Sharon’s story describes life as a child in an area called “The Lost Coast,” on California’s rugged redwood-studded north coast, in the late 1940s in first-person present tense. It is a story of being an adventurous only child in logging country, where culture is divided into “the bar people and the church people.” A captivating story told in a convincing, fiercely independent child’s voice, I looked forward to hearing the stories week after week in the seven years Sharon was in my class. At that time she called the book she envisioned, “Somewhere On the Lost Coast.”

This is an excerpt from her memoir’s back cover:

When Sharon Porter was a gutsy, precocious kid, she lived in the giant redwoods of Northern California, high up in a remote logging camp called Whitethorn. Told from young Sharon’s point of view, Among the Silent Giants is a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, and often unexpected narrative of her adventures and struggles coping with life in and around the camp and gaining a sense of her identity. On her horse Stardust, she explores the timber country, fishes, traps, and hunts for food in mountains with the big, ancient trees so quiet and still that she believes they have spirits in them. Sharon grows up fast and is tested by adult prejudices-and occasionally violence-against Native Americans, Chinese, and “city slickers” The larger-than-life members of her family boast brains and wit but are trapped in poverty and drink. Their carefree unconcern and benign neglect test Sharon’s mettle to fend for herself early in her life. At other times, her impractical mother inadvertently challenges her to take on an adult role to protect and save both of them. In the rough-and-tumble, vanished Americana of the logging camps of the 1940s, quick-witted, scrappy Sharon grows and brings to life a nostalgic time of this country’s more simple, natural, and wild self.

The lessons to keep and share:

(1) Sharon chose a focus for her memoir, a time period with a distinct beginning, middle and end that showed her development as a character. The story  had narrative arc, as it’s called — the character developed and grew because of circumstances that brought her from the beginning to the end of the story. By writing about a specific period of time Sharon gave herself a manageable chunk of time to handle as she turned truth to art.

(2) Sharon was open to finding the subject that moved her the most and set aside other topics that interested her so she could buckle down and get this done. She starting writing in her late 60s and has lived a long and varied life. In 2005 she started off writing her partner’s story of tracing her ancestry in post-war Hungary. Within two months she changed her mind about writing that and decided to explore part of her own story. She knew the couple of years she lived “somewhere on the Lost Coast” were extraordinary and influenced the rest of her life in ways she was only beginning to realize. This is where the energy was for her, she realized, where she found the spark that would fire up her creativity and inspire her to write a true tale readers would want to follow.

(3) Sharon learned to create a book from a series of separate stories. Once she finished the story, which ended with moving away from the Lost Coast at eleven years old, she read through all of the stories and put them into chronology so readers could easily follow along. Each week she came to class Sharon had brought stories of up to 1500 words, the weekly length limit for the class. Each had its own title and each involved a separate anecdote. She didn’t write chronologically and there was overlap of information. When she finished the first draft of the entire story she read it over and wrote stories to fill in obvious missing pieces. Then she read the entire memoir again and added details to show time moving — mentioning seasons and weather, and using words like “two weeks later…” or “the next month.” In these and other ways she wove a gorgeous quilt from patchwork pieces. The book now has 21 chapters.

If you have an e-reader you can download the e-book version for only $3.99 using the link, above. Or you can buy the book. Whatever you do, remember when you read this book that it started with a gut feeling she had a story to tell and a continued belief that others would be interested in her story. (More on that next month, when I blog about “Why would anyone want to read about me?” — the nagging inner critic who tries to discourage us from telling our stories — and share one person’s story of overcoming it.

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There’s more about writing and memoir at http://www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a American Girl: True Stories of Girlhood 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And this fall I’m offering a one-on-one program through Story Circle Network, so check out the September class schedule  and sign up to get personalized help with your writing.