Memoir and therapy and you

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Memoir is all about you. Writing one is, anyway. In the process of creating these stories about your history, you’ll uncover aspects of yourself. Not pretty, some of these will be—if you’re lucky, and fortunate enough to be brave about telling on yourself.

dog-therapyOne of the universal cautions about writing memoir is the role of therapy in creating it. Endless introspection isn’t attractive. There’s a saying in the movies when a stage play is brought to the screen. The tactic is to “open it up.” Parts of The Odd Couple got exterior settings in the film, for example. Opening up a memoir means letting other people into the story and being aware of their emotions. Not just your own.

That being said, memoir writing is the most personal storytelling you will do. You have the potential to examine what happened in your past and put things into the spotlight that were shadowy. Memoirs can also identify the habits and beliefs you didn’t understand, even as you practiced and followed them. One great resource to lead you is Writing Life Stories, by the novelist Bill Roorbach and therapist Kristen Keckler.

Are you narcissistic, or bipolar? I’m a bit of both, habits that can rob you of joy and love, and also get you published and elected. Own what you are and use it. If you put enough work into a memoir, you can understand your conditions and disorders with a bighearted love and compassion. Now go tell some secrets.

Memoir disclaimers might involve murder

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elegy-coverIn the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.

On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.

A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds

This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.

He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”

Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”

Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.

A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

How to Hear Your Voice in Your Writing

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VoicesVoice is harder to teach than it seems. It’s about hearing yourself. That’s why the Amherst Writers methods I use in my workshops are so good for discovering your authentic voice. When you read your fresh writing out loud as we do, in a safe and supportive space, you can hear what rings true. You’ll hear the clear, un-compromised notes from deep in your heart.

Hearing your voice can give you confidence to create something like bathos: that juicy anticlimax when you go from the deep sentiment of your heartstrings to something plain, like the taste of sliced cheese. First the heart, then a simple sentence.

We work toward hearing the styles of our voices. There’s authentic Original Voice, the one we’re raised with and hear as it tells our childhood’s stories. Then there’s Natural Voice, used for our reports on our own life and the facts of our world. Finally there’s Costumed Voices, the ones we prepare for showing off the characters in our stories. Everybody speaks a little differently. Making these voices distinct is a skill worth polishing.

Why is that Original Voice so important? Once you can feel how much comfort your voice gives you, it becomes less painful to write out all of that suppressed trauma. Trust the words you remember from your childhood, Pat Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others. Her Amherst method textbook has a chapter all its own devoted to voice. There’s a good book by Ben Yagoda, the Sound on the Page, that teaches about voice, too.

When you write about something you care about deeply, you are likely to choose your Original Voice. Use simple language, most of us will. The Original Voice transports us to a place where we can forget to be afraid. Abraham Verghese broke into the world of letters in 1994 with his memoir My Own Country, but he’s come to better known for Cutting for Stone, a novel starring a character with many qualities in common with the author.

In The Sound on the Page, Verghese was interviewed about voice and style and said this about writing nonfiction and memoir.

To me, finding voice is about confidence. I struggled when I first started writing nonfiction. I had to speak as myself. There had to be a sameness and a tameness to my voice. And I had to learn that this ione of the great advantages of nonficton: when something is true, you automatically have the reader’s interest, because we’re all inherently curious about things that really happened.

Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment

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Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.

 

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Journalism Supplies Emotional Skills For Stories

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reporterNot everyone who writes for a career has a writing degree. It’s common to see the letters MFA, for Master of Fine Arts, behind a name of an instructor or an accomplished writer. But there’s another degree — really a set of practices and studies — that delivers compelling writing. Bloggers, who tell stories all the time in great numbers, are starting to rely on the skills of a degreed journalist. The thinking is that journalism, as practiced by a professional with experience, gives you a great storytelling voice. The reporter’s.

Over on the Write to Done website, a handful of tips help writers become better earners while practicing their craft. Once you go beyond the joy of writing for the experience of creation — what I call The Writing Life — you can graduate to a Writing Career. You don’t have to pursue a career, of course. Becoming a writer who earns a living with their storytelling is the entry to a Writing Career.

Journalism skills, in the voice of the reporter, are the Number 1 talent in the Write to Done article. It says, in part

#1. Draw them in with story.

Many writers feel their job is to merely convey information, and so that’s what most of us do: We put numbered lists and ultimate guides on our blogs, or enumerate the benefits of our copywriting clients’ products in a brochure — and then sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in. Oops. The fact is, no matter what kind of writing you do, your job is to connect with readers by telling stories.

Sure, those stories will convey information, but they will also help readers understand your info emotionally as well as logically. Pick up any women’s health magazine and you’ll see articles that lead off with an anecdote about a woman who survived a dread disease. Scan through a business publication and you’ll notice stories of entrepreneurs who increased their profits through the downturn, or hired homeless people, or succeeded despite going up against big box stores. Parenting articles are rife with anecdotes from real moms.

You can use the same technique in your web pages, blogs, and books. Instead of listing your client’s amazing qualities in a brochure, tell a story about how their product improved someone’s life. Rather than writing “just the facts, ma’am” in your book or blog post about time management tactics, weave a story about a hopeless case who turned his life around by learning to manage his time.

Using storytelling techniques like journalists do will not just teach your readers, but make them care about what they’re learning.

The idea of making someone care about your writing is important. It gives your stories emotional weight, heft, and leaves the reader sticking to what’s being told. The journalist’s craft — really, an art considering how few words we get to use — can be supplemented by extended work in setting, and in dialogue. Most journalism doesn’t build scene as extensively as fiction, or creative non-fiction. But the exemplary writing does. It’s the kind that can sell an app, or make a reader cry. Journalists have something call a nut-graf, the paragraph in the story early on that lets the reader know “why should I care?” Journalists set the stakes early in their brief stories. Early stakes is an essential part of good storytelling. You can read a lot of literature where the stakes are hidden, or not even considered, in lieu of the beauty of the language. Beauty is essential, but not at the expense of story — if your writing will be memorable.

Memories make up memoirs, and that’s another place where storytelling becomes essential. A mid-grade memoir, one that won’t find a wide readership, is going to be bogged down by too many details and too little emotion. It takes the structure of a story, illustrated by memorable places and lively scenes and drama, to make an exemplary one. Good journalism is easy to find in places like the website longreads.com.

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