Essentials for a Compelling Memoir

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Memoir is a story told with the author as the hero. But also told as the goat, buffoon and dupe. You see, a memoir needs to balance its heroism and sacrifice — easy enough to write in the first person — with the mistakes and flaws we observe about ourselves. Or have noted about ourselves by friends, lovers, and rivals.

I try to remind writers of memoirs they should be asking hard questions of themselves while choosing their material. (After all, it’s a memoir, so it’s selective. An autobiography makes sure that all the ground is covered over a lifetime.) The questions are

1. What are my flaws that are revealed in this story?
2. How am I being fearless in the writing of this story?
3. How am I being vulnerable in this section?
4. How can I be more fierce in drawing conclusions or showing the lessons?

Memoirs also unreel stories that a narrator is compelled to relate. But that’s not the most entertaining way to tell the story, in some instances. That can be the scene. One basic definition of a scene is a short period of time where people grapple with a task or a goal to be accomplished, a striving that includes conflict or struggle. And at the end of a scene something is resolved, and something is not. The unresolved yearning pushes our heroine — yes, the writer — into the next event or choice.

These scenes provide the open glens which are the complement to the dense forests of narration. The showing versus telling give-and-take in any story can gain the essence of showing, even during narration. Include specific detail, the more unique the better, in any stretch of narration. As they say in journalism to reporters, if a dog bites a man, get the name of the dog.

Hunt for fearlessness, fierceness, and flaws in your memoir writing. Telling has more than one definition. When an action is telling, it means it’s representative of a larger truth. Using this ideal, even your showing can be telling.

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Fiction opens eyes where journalism cannot

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David Simon

Utne Reader has named The Wire‘s co-creator David Simon as one of its 25 Visionaries changing our world. In the Reader‘s package on Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, you can follow a link to a 2009 interview with him by Bill Moyers. At the NPR website you’ll see Moyers ask Simon if telling a story in fiction, with characters in the HBO series, gets through to help address injustice.

I did a lot of jounalism, a lot I thought was pretty good. As a reporter I was trying to explain how the drug war doesn’t work. I’d write these very careful and well-researched pieces. They would go into the ether and be gone. Whatever editorial writer coming behind me would write “let’s get tough on drugs,” as if I hadn’t said anything. And I would think, “man, it’s just an uphill struggle to do this with facts. When you can tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

Simon went on to talk about part of that fiction success is the “delivery system of television,” but added that they got to “tell the story we wanted to tell.” When you see the words “Based upon a true story” at the start of any movie or book, that fiction is relying on facts — but they are chosen, because all art is about choices. What’s more they’re wrapped around characters, compelling people who act like the megaphones for the emotions and conflicts around any subject: public education, public safety, and yes, public health, like in Viral Times.

Newspapering can lead to fiction

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Some people come to the joy of writing fiction from a lifetime of non-fiction. Journalists write what’s sometimes called Literature in a Hurry. Most of us turn toward fiction as some point in our careers, and some stay in the land of invented story for good. Hemingway is the classic example of a journalist turned novelist.

There are good connections between the two types of writing craft, but even a non-journalist can benefit from the work of these dutiful scribes. In a recent issue of The Writer, writing teacher Ruth Moose talks about what makes a good short story. Even amid lots of generalities, the article gives some good advice about stories starting with an idea. Some, she writes, start with an article from the paper.

One way to jump start a story is to take from the newspaper an item of some small event that actually happened. Here you have your Who, What, When, and Where. . . you just don’t have the WHY. That’s where you, the writer, come in. You change the names and places and fill in the Why. Make up the characters involved from your imagination, then let those characters carry out your story. When your story is finished, even you won’t recognize the newspaper item that triggered it.

I have a file in my drawer that contains curious start points for stories, clipped from a paper’s pages. These days you don’t even have to go for the scissors, since so much journalism is online. When you’ve found your “lotto winner is identified as escaped convict” idea, you can just copy it as a file to read from your computer.

Are there copyright issues here? No. Copyright protects expression, not ideas. (Concepts are a gray area, but reports of public matter don’t enjoy such protection.) The important thing here is to understand that a good idea will spark work toward characters. Journalists offer up short story ideas every day. Look for the people in the stories and imagine their lives.

Storytelling, journalism live on The Wire

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Abby and I are reveling in the sweep and depth of HBO’s The Wire. It’s a piece of genius, 60 hours of entertainment that feels like reading a masterful series of crime novels. Or a week’s worth of old-school newspaper reports, what was once called “a series” and now is a rare breed indeed.

The creator of these connected, 1-hour dramas started as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, but after 13 years of crime articles David Simon aspired to say more than newsprint could carry about important issues. He wrote a non-fiction book in the late ’80s that became the blueprint for Homicide, another TV show. In The Wire Simon, along with his ex-cop, schoolteacher creative partner Ed Burns, takes on big matters like poverty, crime, education, graft, politics both good and bad. They have created a Book That Makes a Difference and plays out on your DVD screen.

In his closing letter after the series wrapped, Simon points out that The Wire was built on interviews and details with experts. Once upon a time, he asserts, journalism at its best told this kind of story.

For those of us writing The Wire, a television drama, story research involved dragging the right police lieutenants or school teachers, prosecutors and political functionaries to neighborhood diners and bars and taking story notes down on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. To be more precise with their tales? To record it and relay it in a manner that can stand as non-fiction truthtelling? Yes, that’s harder to do. But there was a time when journalism regarded that kind of coverage as its highest mission.

The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.

The lesson to take away here is the drive for details, usually accumulated through personal contact. Efforts to connect with resources in this way will make a story stronger, whether it’s drama or non-fiction or the creative non-fiction that blends both. (There’s also the lesson about journalism fundamentals being a sound foundation for fiction, but this old newspaperman will not wax on too long about that bromide.)

By the way, if you rent The Wire, be sure to turn on the subtitles. It adds a level of richness for a writer, or anyone who enjoys a good read.

Time changes stories

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There may be times when stepping back for awhile from a story or novel can provide a deeper understanding of what is vital to the tale. Up on the Web site for the literary journal Glimmer Train, the writer Erica Johnson Debeljak talks about writing her memoir twice, 10 years apart, first as journalism and much later as a novelization.

An honest writer of either fiction or nonfiction has to admit that the treatment of characters and situations — what is left in and what is left out — ultimately serves the meaning of the work, and that meaning can change over time. In other words, there is content (lived experience, impressions, imagination) and there is form (genre, story shape, the flow of words and sentences on the page), and the process of a writer funneling content into form will virtually always produce a different product depending on perspective and what meaning is being pushed to the fore at any given time.

She goes on to say this isn’t a viewpoint that non-fiction writers will embrace easily. But she “made changes in chronology and cold hard facts” while creating the memoir Forbidden Bread, the second life of her story.

More than a few writers in our workshops have worked on fiction based in life experience, or even a novelized memoir. Letting time elapse between drafts might help you if you’re working on such a story.

Novelist as journalist

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I’ve read two things of late which attribute a journalist’s skill to writing a novel, and vice-versa. Details, handled with care, are what link these two approaches to writing.

In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler creates a world of 2025 with almost no technology advances, but terrible declines in safety, water supply and food. In her novel she lays out a California with so much detail that some reviewers compared the writing to reporting. It’s a great read, easy to keep plowing through — and it even addresses some spiritual needs of a society in peril.

In The New York Times Magazine, novelist Alex Witchel uses the talents of a fiction writer to capture a dazzling portrait of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Lots of scene, peeking into the subject’s psyche. Verisimilitude, indeed. A thick, juicy chunk of creative non-fiction, with the emphasis on creative. (And if you haven’t seen Mad Men on AMC, watch. One blogger who writes screenplays calls the first season of this ’60s-era Madison Avenue ad-men drama “a master class in character development.”)

I come from journalism, so details and dialogue are old friends. Structure, though, is the real lesson which I work to learn and practice. Novelists, of course, know story structure but have to do their reporting in a newspaper’s brevity. It’s all writing, after all.

And you thought newspapering didn’t pay

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From the heady canyons of the Big Apple we hear of a huge buyout for an icon of a reporter. Okay, you may not have heard of Linda Greenhouse, but she’s been writing at the New York Times since 1968 and has been on the Supreme Court beat through five presidents and eight terms, almost non-stop since 1978.

Linda got a $300,000 buyout to leave the Times, which must cut 100 staff jobs and offered generous buyouts to get the ball rolling.

This took 35 years to earn, so you could argue that she’s had an $8,500 a year pension growing. Pretty good for newspapering that started in the 1970s. But the buyout is all about newspapers contracting their staffs, especially the top writers. Linda’s had the most durable tenure as a reporter covering the most important court in the US for one of the most important papers. There’s no glass ceiling on this job for this woman.

In the terrific New York Observer article about her departure, Linda was asked what her favorite Supreme Court story has been. It’s probably not a surprise that it came on the night the court decided who would be President, for the first time in the history of America:

On that fateful December night in 2000, when Bush v. Gore was decided, Ms. Greenhouse waited patiently in line in the Supreme Court press room all day. At a little after 10 p.m., when copies of the decision were finally handed out, she grabbed her copy and headed straight for a cab. Back at 229 West 43rd Street no one could make sense of it and TV reporters had already started announcing that Gore was victorious and a recount was headed back to Florida.

The Supreme Court didn’t offer the handy guide that it normally does—the decision wasn’t signed so absent was a small summary with a vote count as it does for most decisions—so reporters were actually forced to read the thing. While on a cab to the Washington bureau, Joseph Lelyveld had an open phone line for her and said, “We’re confused over here. Can you make sense of this?”

She had read a few paragraphs and it was pretty clear, even if the fine details weren’t.

“It’s obvious—it’s 5-4, it’s over, Bush wins.”

“Okay,” he said back. “You have 10 minutes to write it.”

And now, she’s got $300,000 to her credit for all those years or writing “literature in a hurry,” as they call journalism. She also wrote a book, Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey. And at the standard 8.5 percent royalty most authors get after an agent’s fee, the $15 paperback of this fine account of the Court she covered for three decades must sell 234,375 copies to equal her buyout.

A fellow has to wonder how long that kind of sell-through will take, compared to three decades of work that was paying $140,000 a year when she retired. She could make it; two of the top five current best sellers (other than the Bible) have covered George W. Bush.

Those best seller numbers don’t matter to this scribe. She loves academic work, so she’s headed to those ivory towers to study:

She said she wouldn’t disappear when she retired and had a few things lined up, though it’s mostly academic work, which she actually really loves. One piece will be for a journal named Constitutional Commentary.

“I’m not going to disappear. I’m going to keep writing and thinking and talking about Supreme Court,” she said.

If you’re newspapering, keeping writing those leads. It can lead to a big exit paycheck after, oh, 30 years or so.