Writing a Memoir: Options for Non-Writers

What many people do not realize is that writing your life story is like telling your story to a good friend who is there to listen and ask open-ended questions that will lead into the heart of your life. ~ Write Wisdom, Inc

Looking BackWe all have stories inside of us, life experiences that just won’t leave us alone. For years these untold tales, or maybe oft-told tales, roll round and round in our wee brains, knocking on our insides hoping for an outlet. As a writer I can transfer all those pieces of my life’s journeys into essays or poems or longer works of nonfiction such as a memoir. But what is a non-writer to do with those same kinds of stories of childhood turmoil, of battlefield memories, of love lost and finally won?

Write it: You might surprise yourself

JT Weaver is a good example of someone who was never a writer until he decided to leave behind a legacy to his children of lessons learned. In an interview with Diana Jackson at A Selection of Recollections he said, “When I was 15, I could barely read and write. I never took a writing course, so I’m largely ignorant of the literary arts, as was my father. When I decided to begin writing, I closed my eyes. In my mind, I built a fire, sat in a comfortable chair, and put on my father’s shoes. Then I told a story just as he had, only my story went to paper. I use the same constructs, the same tempo, and the same relaxed style. The words just flowed with ease. Not his words; my words, but his style, and his wisdom. Sure, this is my story, not his, but I could hear him telling each story as if he were sitting next to me.”

JT’s approach to writing his life stories has merit and is an excellent way for non-writers to approach penning their own – imagine you’re telling the story to someone who has never heard it before such as a future generation, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Or sit down with a friend, a cup of coffee and a tape recorder, and then begin the telling.

Hire a Ghostwriter

If you don’t believe you’re capable of writing your own story, hiring a ghostwriter might be your best bet. There are well over a million results in a Google search for ghostwriting services, among them are Gotham Ghostwriters, Ghostwriters Inkand the Association of Ghostwriters. Most ghostwriters don’t receive recognition for their work and many are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They get paid upfront, so if you hire a ghostwriter, you keep the copyright and the royalties. Another advantage to going this route is that the book might only take half a year to complete. The huge disadvantage is the price, which starts at about $12,000. You know all those celebrity memoirs (and celebrity cookbooks)? Ghostwriters are responsible, and they got paid good bucks, as much as $200,000. Do your research, though. I’m sure there are thousands of individual writers in the world not associated with a ghostwriting service who would work for a more affordable fee.

Collaborate with a Writer:

In some cases, you might be able to find a writer to write your story for you, someone who will trade payment upfront for a share of future royalties. This is the arrangement I have with AJ Jackson, the subject of This New Mountain. As her friend, I offered to write her memoir in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Finding someone to write your memoir without getting paid for their time and talent is a long shot but not impossible. The first place to start would be to contact a writing organization in your area. If your story is compelling enough, you might find someone willing to work with you.

I admit that these three options are limited, but the choice, to me, is obvious – write your own story. You can do it. Even if you’ve never written a thing. Even if you have no idea where to start. Begin with your most vivid memory or the one that had the most impact on shaping your life, and move on from there. Who knows your own story better than you?

Here are a few articles you might find useful:

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Characters

Magnifying GlassI love writing fiction and creating my own world and the characters that inhabit it. Some fiction writers study charts and reference books on psychology to make sure their characters are believable and multi-layered. Some writers base their characters on real people, often combining several people they know into one. But memoirists have an advantage over their counterparts – the characters who inhabit their story are real, with flaws and quirks already built in.

Here are a few truths and techniques that fiction writers use to create believable characters. In the case of creative nonfiction, applying them can add fullness to your “built-in” characters and create an emotional response in the reader. 

1.   Characterization vs. True Character

People become, in our minds, what we see them do. This is the strongest, most irresistible form of characterization. ~ Orson Scott Card

You can characterize a person by using a physical description of the color of their hair and eyes, how tall they are, etc. These traits help a reader visualize a person, but they don’t tell us who that person really is. We only truly understand someone by their actions and the choices they make. Author Joe Bunting says, “We remember characters because they do interesting things. We forget characters whose favorite food is pizza.”

2.   Reveal Characters Gradually

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph. ~ Suzanne Sherman

Information dumps of any kind, whether of a setting or a character, drag the story down. Give us only the information we need as we need it. Weave in details of physical description, personal history, and personality traits a little at a time to reveal the character as the story unfolds.

3.   Include Motivation

If you’re writing nonfiction, what your characters do (or have done) is a matter of fact, perhaps even of public record. What may not be as evident is why they did it. Introducing your readers to the motivation behind a character’s actions will give a nonfiction piece more depth and, ultimately for the reader, more satisfaction. ~ Scott Francis

The reasons why we do things can begin in childhood or at any point in our lives, and some things build on others – we might be shy adults because we were bullied when we were young, and shyness can affect our choices throughout our lives. A soldier might want to make his family proud and so faces combat with courage. A single mom goes hungry to make sure her children eat. Sharing the story behind the story helps us to understand the why of things without necessarily making us agree with a person’s choices.

4.   Show Change (or not)

We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value. ~ Jeff Gerke

There are basically three types of characters (and people) – those that change for the better, those that change for the worse, and those that don’t change at all. In our lives we will probably know people who fall into all of these categories. Change can happen to us gradually or come on like a lightning strike, or we can be stubborn and fight it to the end. Showing us how a person deals with change reveals that person’s character.

5.   Reveal the Familiar

Think about a novel or a favorite movie – when we relate to a character, don’t we get more involved in her story, don’t we cheer her on? This aspect of familiarity could involve habits and mannerisms like fingernail biting or stuttering. It can also be related to the human condition, our shared fears and struggles, and our motivations. When we relate, we get emotionally involved.

6.   Other Details that Add Layers

The goal is to make your readers feel something for your character. The more they care about them, the more emotion they’ll invest in your story. ~ Tom Pawlik

Here are seven more points to consider when revealing character, taken from Tom Pawlik’s article “The 9 Ingredients for Character Development.” The answers to many of the questions in this list might not make it outright into your story, but they can translate to the page through a greater understanding of your characters.

  • Communication style: How does your character talk? Does she favor certain words or phrases that make her distinct and interesting? What about the sound of her voice? Personality comes through our speech.
  • History (related to motivations): Where does your character come from? What events shaped his personality? Was it a loving family or an abusive, dysfunctional one? What led him to the career choices he made?
  • Relationships: What kind of friends and family does he have? How does he relate to them? Is he very social or reclusive or somewhere in between? People can be defined by the company they keep, so this can be a good way to define character.
  • Ambition: What is her passion in life? What are her goals? What is her unrecognized, internal need that she’s trying to meet?
  • Character defect: Everyone has an irritating personality trait. Is he too self-centered? Too competitive? Too lazy? Too compliant? Too demanding of others? He’ll feel more real if he has some flaw.
  • Thoughts: What kind of internal dialogue does your character have (for a memoir, this is the narrator’s voice)? How does she think through her problems and dilemmas? Is her internal voice the same as her external?
  • Restrictions: More than a personality flaw, what physical or mental weakness does a character deal with or try to overcome? After all, even Superman had Kryptonite. This helps humanize your character, making her more sympathetic and relatable.

In writing creative nonfiction, recognizing these fiction techniques and applying them to your “built-in” characters can help bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life.

Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers

thinker2Though a disclaimer is no guarantee against a lawsuit, most authors and publishers of fiction and nonfiction use them in an attempt to cover all bases, to have some claim to a defense just in case they are sued.

Penguin Books uses its own particular disclaimer: “Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.”

Writers of fiction have it easy. We’ve all read the disclaimer on a novel with some form of, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” But a disclaimer for a memoir is a different beast. Readers of memoir don’t expect what they read to represent a fictionalized anything – they expect it to represent the truth. And it should.

However, memoirists often face a dilemma when writing “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Others can be hurt, authors can be sued – but what if that particular truth is essential to the telling of one’s story? How much to reveal…the answer to that will determine if names, characteristics, etc. should be changed. Be upfront with the reader and disclose these changes, as I did in AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain:

  • This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of AJ Jackson’s memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

And if an author alters the narrative to make it more readable, those kinds of changes should also be noted in a disclaimer, as in these two examples:

  • Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual. In some cases I have compressed events; in others I have made two people into one. I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story. ~ Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone
  • For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes. ~ Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers goes on to list in detail the areas that were fictionalized including dialogue, characters and their characteristics, locations and time.)

Another problem a memoirist has to deal with is memory, which tends to be imperfect and fades over time.

Most nonfiction is written from memory and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken. ~ Melissa Donovan, “Six Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Using Dave Eggers’ memoir again as an example, we see how he deals with such flaws in memory when he writes:

  • This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real, are not products of the author’s imagination, because at the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of things….

Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway handle the issues of memory and retelling of dialogue in their disclaimer for Unsinkable:

  • The conversations in the book all come from the author’s recollections, though they are not written to represent word-for-word transcripts. Rather, the author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.

On The Book Designer website, Joel Frielander gives examples of disclaimers (for different types of manuscripts) in this post. Here is his suggestion for memoir and autobiography:

  • I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

Best-selling author James Frey, who came under fire when his own memoir was found to be partly fictionalized, said this in a Bad IDEA interview: “Memoir is whatever you want it to be, it’s a book based on your life. Obviously I’m not a guy who believes it should be factually perfect, and frankly I don’t think any of them are.”

I can’t help but think if Frey had included an honest disclaimer for his memoir from the beginning, he wouldn’t have faced the wrath of Oprah Winfrey or lost in a lawsuit when the truth did come out. Subsequent issues of his memoir included this:

  • This book is a combination of facts about James Frey’s life and certain embellishments. Names, dates, places, events, and details have been changed, invented, and altered for literary effect. The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.

If a writer strives to present their life as truthfully as possible and discloses any changes to the truth, a reader can’t ask for more.

What do you think? Are there times when a memoirist has the right to change the truth or should a memoir be nothing but the truth?

Bring Your Descriptions to Life

Janice Hardy has kindly granted me permission to re-post her article originally titled “5 Ways to Bring Your Descriptions to Life,” which is full of examples to help writers craft descriptions that count. Janice is one of my favorite bloggers and YA authors. Her blogging  goal is “to offer ways to build a solid foundation for your writing. To provide tips and advice you can take right from the posts and apply directly to your work in progress.” Though this article was written with a fictional point of view in mind, it is equally relevant to creative nonfiction. (This article was first posted on Writers on the Storm on April 13, 2012.)


Leaves Floating on WaterWhen you think about it, everything in a book is description, because the author is describing an entire story to you. But when it gets down to the actual details of what’s in that story, it’s not uncommon for things to bog down into the minutia of what something looks like. Looks aren’t nearly as important as the reasons behind why that item is there to be seen in the first place.

The bulk of your descriptions are likely to be in the setting. Describing the world, the locations your protagonist visits and moves through, the things they touch and use. But if you just throw them in there, they become as flat and lifeless as backdrops on a stage. Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it. You want details that breathe life into both your characters and your setting.

Making Details Come Alive

Let’s take a few random details in a scene. Rain, a clock, a restaurant, a window, pancakes, and an envelope. You might have a passage like:

The rain poured down the window of the restaurant. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes beside him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clocked ticked.

It’s not bad, but it has no life to it. The details do nothing to tell us more than what this scene looks like. Is Bob happy? Sad? Do you care what might be in that envelope? Probably not.

Now, let’s turn those same backdrop details into living details by thinking about:

1. Who’s doing the looking?

A Navy SEAL will look at things a lot differently than a scared girl. Take the knowledge and attitude of your point of view character into account when you decide what they see. Think about how they would describe something, not how you would.

Navy SEAL: The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.

Girl: Rain covered the window, masking the tiny restaurant with its blurriness. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.

Same details, but notice how different these are from the first backdrop one. There’s a sense of who the point of view character is and what problem they might be facing.

2. Why are they looking at it?

Sometimes you scan a room, sometimes you’re watching for something in particular, and sometimes you’re looking to escape with your life. Your reasons for looking impact what you see and how you feel about it. If your protagonist has no feelings at all about something, why is it in the scene? While not every detail has to matter at this level, using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable. It won’t just be details.

Example: It was still raining. Why did it always rain when these things happened? Bob sat at the table, a stack of “have to order or get out” pancakes beside him. The envelope lay next to it with just as much obligation on a single neatly folded letter inside. He glanced out the window and sighed. Stuck in a stinking roadside restaurant today of all days. Figured.

Can you tell Bob has to do something he doesn’t want to do? Does his pessimism and frustration come through? And all because of why he saw what was there and how he felt about it.

3. What is important to them?

People notice what’s important to them. What’s important to your protagonist? Both in general and in that scene. A girl obsessed with fashion might indeed notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist (or seem weird for your protagonist to care about) risks pulling the reader out of the story.

Example: Rain pattered against the restaurant window like tiny running feet. Bob sat at the table, smiling a dumb happy grin, the stack of pancakes beside him. He looked at an envelope again. How could one letter make everything so much better? The clock ticked and he hummed along with it. “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”

Any guesses as to what might be in that letter? The envelope and what’s in it are what matter to Bob, and the rest of the details are just there. But here, they don’t feel just there. Bob barely looking at them shows his preoccupation with the letter, and adds to hints as to what it said and his state of mind.

4. What is important to the scene or story?

Sometimes you need to put in a detail for plot reasons. Just tossing it in there might not be the best use of it though. Too obvious a description or too much focus is like shining a light on it for the reader. It practically screams “hey, pay attention here.” Maybe you want this, maybe you don’t, or maybe you want the clue to hide in plain sight for a surprise later. If something needs to be there and be seen, take a minute to think about how your protagonist might see it and how it can work with the scene, not just be in the scene.

Example: Bob slid into his usual booth by the window, watching the rain.

“What’s it gonna be today?” Sally asked.

“I think I’ll have the pancakes.”

“You got it, doll.” She tucked her pen behind her ear and turned. A pale blue envelope fluttered out of her order pad and floated to the floor.

“Hey, you dropped something.” Bob bent over and picked it up. Postmarked Columbia.

“What? Oh, that’s not mine.” Sally snatched the letter before he could read who it was addressed to.

“But I’ll toss it into the lost and found for you.”

“Uh, okay.” He glanced at the clock. “Put a rush on those pancakes, would you? I’ve got court at one.”

A longer passage, but it’s obvious the envelope is going to be important. So is that postmark. Could it have something to do with Bob’s court date? And does Sally know what it all means? The details help move the story and create interest in what’s going on.

5. What tone/theme/mood are you trying to achieve?

If you’re going for dark and creepy, describing bright and sunny is going to fight with your story, not help move it along. Small details can add to the emotion of a scene. They give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly, because the detail evokes a feeling in your protagonist. They can help illustrate your theme in subtle (or not so subtle) ways. They can foreshadow and even raise the tension by evoking something foreboding or mysterious. 

Example: Bob learned against the wall, watching the rain wash away what was left of his life. A photographer walked over his body in the restaurant’s doorway, shutter snapping the broken clock, the pancakes he’d never finish, the shattered window. The police paid more attention to the envelope clutched in his cold hand. Idiots.

I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake this for a comedy or a romance novel. The details are still the same, but they’ve adapted to suit the tone and gritty, sad feel of a guy seeing his own dead body. 

Details mean different things to different people. How you show those details to the reader helps the reader better understand not only what’s in the scene, but who’s in it as well. The right detail can instantly pique a reader’s interest and make them want to know more.

Don’t just create backdrops. Make your descriptions count.

Janice Hardy RGB 72Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books in the trilogy are The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall, from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Storyor find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Setting

“All description is an opinion about the world.” ~ Anne Enright

conceptSetting is integral to any story. Applying the methods to your memoir that a fiction writer uses to create memorable settings will strengthen the writing and draw the reader into your story.

However, creating a sense of place doesn’t mean heaping on details about scenery, clothing, or period decorations. As readers, we’ve all endured paragraph-on-paragraph or page after page of endless description, even from our favorite authors. And what was the usual result? We skimmed these passages or flipped through pages looking for the place the actual story picked up again.

Besides causing the reader’s eyes to glaze over, the main problem with detail dumping is that it creates a detachment from the point of view character (or the subject of the memoir). If a reader is engaged in the story, he can become disconnected when he encounters a high level of detail, because at that point the character isn’t the one speaking from the pages, it’s the author. Even if the surroundings are not essential to what’s happening in the rest of the scene, you still want the setting to be expressed through the eyes of your character – and no character will normally notice pages worth of detail about wall hangings (unless she’s a seamstress).

This naturally leads to the question, “How much detail is enough and how much is too much?” And the answer is…it depends. If more description is needed to understand or present the story, use more. If less is needed, then less. In other words, whatever it takes to serve the story – and knowing when to do either one often takes time and experience. But instead of dwelling on “how much,” determine why this particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. The answers to these questions will steer the writing and help to unveil the character’s life and world.

In the article “The How of Where,” David Rocklin discusses the difference between writing a setting that holds no meaning to you and one that bears witness:

Find a room…[that] holds nothing of your past life. You don’t know its contours, or how it looks on a cloudy morning. You can literally find one and occupy it, or find a picture and imagine yourself into it. Describe it. Tell the readers what we see. What we could touch, if only we were really there.

Now, describe the same room a second time. This time, give the room a story. This is where someone died. That chair was where a husband sat as his wife told him that she was leaving him. Out that window, a single mother watched a moving van pull up after losing the house to foreclosure.

What just happened? The room’s physical description changed, didn’t it? That’s not merely a bed. That’s not simply a street outside. The walls and their peeled paint have something akin to a voice. This setting isn’t just an edifice or a space anymore. It bears witness.

In many ways, writing fiction is much easier than writing memoir. In fiction, if you can imagine a place, you can create it, but a memoirist is expected to work with what she, or the memoir’s subject, has been handed in life. Even so, that doesn’t mean you’re limited only to what you remember.

Tracy Seeley writes in “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger than Me, Me, Me” that “even a little historical research can take you beyond the limits of your own memory” and “looking up events that coalesce around a certain date can elevate your story into something beyond the moment of a limited self.” Seeley has more to say about how research adds depth to your story:

The location of events matters. For every place has a multi-layered history and unique character. Everything from its geological formation to its climate, history and local stories has contributed to that character and even to who you are….

Digging into the history of a place can also help ground your story in more than your own past. For example, who lived in your house before you did? Was your subdivision once a dairy farm? A munitions dump? A town on the Pony Express line? What stories can you unearth about people who used to live in your town? Before it was even a town, who was there and what happened? And what does all of this suggest to you about the meaning of the place, and your story in it?

In writing the settings in your memoir, make your story immediate and real by using just enough sensory detail so we smell the hint of rain in the air, see the storm clouds rushing in, hear the crack of thunder, feel the wind and the lashing rain – and more than that. Why is this storm important to you? Did it bear witness to something in your life? What else might have happened in that same place and under similar circumstances in history? Let us experience your story through your eyes.

What are some of the settings you remember most vividly from your favorite novels or memoirs?

5 Tips for Retrieving Memories

The following is an article by Lisa Hase-Jackson originally titled “Five Tips for Retrieving Memories and Developing Your Memoir” and published in the July 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage.

footsteps 02Writing memoir is the ultimate in “writing what you know.” No one else has as much knowledge or authority on the memoirist’s life than the memoirist herself, and certainly no one else can fully understand or appreciate the complex nature of that life better. But along with this authority comes the challenge of collecting and effectively cultivating memories to create a comprehensive whole.

But memories are intangible and fickle, not to mention ephemeral. Ask someone about what they were doing on a specific date in their past and, unless that date coincides with a significant historical event or personal episode, they will likely draw a blank. But ask a person to recall the time they learned to ride a bike or to discuss their experiences with panhandlers, and suddenly they have memories to spare. Memories may also be triggered unexpectedly by events or conditions in the environment. Consider the moment when a childhood memory becomes suddenly clear while sitting among children at the playground. Or the way a scene in a book causes a similar scene from life to flash before your eyes.

Given the fleeting, transient, and unpredictable nature of memories, how exactly should a memoirist go about capturing them? While carrying a notebook is an important activity for all writers, even diligent writers will find it challenging, if not impossible, to jot down every meaningful moment and detail of her past while still leading a normal life. Fortunately, there are other approaches.

Because memories are encoded in specific ways, certain techniques can be employed to deliberately trigger them, thus giving the writer access to a wealth of material from which to develop her memoirs. Immersion, long recognized as a highly effective way to learn new concepts, is a technique that also works for retrieving memories. And while it is impossible to become literally immersed in the past — that is, one cannot go back and relive Woodstock — a kind of semi-immersion can trigger memories that may otherwise elude the writer. Below is a list of five semi-immersion techniques that have worked for many memoirists:

Revisit locations: Since environment is encoded along with material learned, physically revisiting a location of a past experience can trigger vivid memories. It’s amazing what small details force their way into consciousness given the right impetus. If physically visiting a place of your past is impossible because it is too distant or no longer exists, try visiting a similar space. For example, if your elementary school was razed, consider visiting your child’s or grandchild’s elementary school, which is probably not too dissimilar from your own. You will be surprised how becoming immersed in the world of a child will bring back childhood memories. Likewise, visiting middle schools, high schools, and colleges can effectively trigger adolescent memories of awkwardness as well as teenage and early adulthood angst. Revisiting these memories and experiencing their accompanying emotions may be difficult, but using them to develop scenes in your memoir will make for good writing, and ultimately, good reading.

Revisit the moment: Some physical spaces just cannot exist outside the moment in which a memory was created. For example, it may be nearly impossible to revisit that restaurant in South Korea, or any place remotely similar, where you celebrated your 30th birthday. With luck, however, you have photos and other mementos of the event which you have collected and preserved in a scrapbook (or shoebox). Take an hour to revisit these mementos and allow your mind to ruminate on the experience. Make notes about the details of these memories as they arise.

Recreate the moment: Memories involving other family members or that are linked with an event that occurred before you were born may require a little research. Consider recruiting the assistance of other family members and asking to peruse photo albums and scrapbooks they compiled. Chances are they will be thrilled to share the fruits of their labor with you. Further, the experience will likely spark lively conversations about the past — conversations that will help fill in details you are not yet aware of or have been unclear about for years. 

Recreate a similar state of mind or mood: One’s physiological state is also encoded with new experiences. For example, a student who drinks coffee every day before class will recall more information on test day if he drinks coffee right before taking the test. Similarly, when a person feels sad about something, it is easier for him to recall, with vivid detail, other times in his life when he felt sad; much easier, in fact, than trying to recall sad memories when happy. There are many ways to affect mood, including listening to music, meditating, exercising, napping, swimming, or ingesting mood-altering substances. And while I do not advocate irresponsible use of mind-altering substances, remembering Woodstock may be easier when drinking a beer late at night and listening to The Who’s Live at Leeds LP than when sitting in front of the computer in the middle of the afternoon drinking tea and willing those memories to come to mind.

Automatic writing: Automatic writing is an excellent way to immerse yourself mentally in your past and produces the best results when done in a slightly altered state, such as first thing in the morning before you’ve had your coffee or very late at night when you’re too tired to think critically. Other examples of altered consciousness are those that occur after strenuous exercise or deep meditation. Like free-writing, automatic writing involves writing down everything you remember about a memory nonstop for a period of ten or twenty minutes.

Remember, the difference between a good memoir and a great one is development. Utilize these easy, fun techniques to add vivid details and realistic scenes to your memoir today.

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson

Lisa M. Hase-Jackson holds a Master’s Degree in English with an emphasis in poetry from Kansas State University and is a trained Creativity Coach. She has over ten years of experience teaching narrative and nonfiction writing, facilitating workshops in a variety of genres, and supporting writers of all backgrounds and skill levels. Visit her blog at ZingaraPoet.net, which features poet interviews, writing exercises, poetry prompts, articles and poetry picks. She also has a website for 200 New Mexico Poems: 100 Poems Celebrating the Past, 100 More for the Future — a dynamic celebration of New Mexico’s centennial through poetry.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: A Compelling Opening

Writing a memoir asks for you to dig deep into your biography and come up with scenes that bring a reader into your world fully and inspire them to keep reading – something about you and your story is relevant to their lives. ~ Linda Joy Myers

Hook1One of the most consistent pieces of advice for fiction writers is to hook a reader immediately – if possible, with the first sentence, or at least in the next few paragraphs. If readers don’t feel pulled into the story within the first two or three pages, they may not continue reading. This is certainly true of an agent or publisher reading through their slush pile.

Memoir is a different genre and its readers don’t expect action-packed openings (which aren’t necessarily recommended for fiction either), but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story.

One argument against an action opening is that the story hasn’t had time to reveal the characters and who they are. There is no such thing as a story without a character, even if the character is a thunderstorm or a beating heart. And conflict is necessary, because character + opposition = story, but if conflict is introduced too early, it could leave the reader wondering, “Why should I care about what’s happening to the characters?”

Jane Friedman (in “The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings”) reveals the importance of including character in the beginning of a story with her list of three things she finds most compelling in a good opening:

  • A character we immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or who meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

According to James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure), there are two more things that the beginning of a novel must do besides (1) hook the reader and compel him to continue farther into the story; (2) establish a bond between the reader and the main character; and (3) introduce the opposition:        

  • Present the story world.
  • Establish the general tone of the story.

Your story world, or setting, will change as the story progresses from scene to scene or moves around in time and place. In the beginning, you should concern yourself with hooking the reader and drawing him in, and not bog down the story with paragraphs of exposition. Your setting could also be its own character or part of the conflict in your story – a parched desert that sucks the life out of you, constant rain that brings heaviness into your life, a bedroom whose tight space feels more like a dungeon than the child’s haven it should be.

It’s also important that your reader trusts you in the journey you’re taking together. You, as the narrator of your memoir, should establish the tone of your story so the reader knows what to expect. Through internal dialogue, word choice, imagery, etc. you will set the mood of your story. The mood will shift, of course, depending on the circumstances the character moves through, but the general tone should be consistent in the way you deal with the story. Will it be a more light-hearted telling, as in My Dog Skip by Willie Morris or the heavier-handed one of The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick?

You are the main character in your memoir. As important as revealing a character is to a novel, it is even more so to a memoir. Bring the reader into your story. Create curiosity and they will follow where you lead them.

Research the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of great novels or memoirs. What are your favorite, most compelling story beginnings?

Writing the Memoir: Consider the Consequences

soothing ripplesIn my post, First Steps to Writing a Memoir, I pose questions regarding purpose and goals that should be answered before committing to write your life stories. There is actually a fourth point to consider: Should you write a memoir?

How will writing and publishing your memoir impact you? Do you have the right to tell your story when it includes the part others played in it – portions of other people’s lives they may not want uncovered?

Here are some things to consider.

You will reveal things about yourself. You will do some major soul-searching, digging deep into your past. What you pull out may not be pretty. Are you ready to open the door on your own secrets? Are you ready to share the intimate details of your life and have others truly know you?

To write an effective, authentic, cohesive memoir, you’ll likely need to revisit or even relive the pain you’d rather forget. You can’t gloss over the tough stuff. You have to dive in, come clean and carry on. ~ Laurie Rosin*

You will reveal things about others. The old axiom that says, “You can’t please everyone,” is certainly true when you send your memoir out into the world. Not everyone will be happy with how you portray them. In exposing the part that others played in your story, you risk offending and/or alienating them. When these people are family or friends, you might want to ask yourself if telling the story is worth the affect it will have on important relationships.

When we write memoir, we pull back the curtain on our private lives and invite readers in. We willingly give up our privacy, or a chunk of it. But because we’re human, our stories also include other people: parents and siblings, teachers and neighbors, lovers and friends — and they haven’t exactly signed on to the deal. ~ Tracy Seeley**

You will risk legal action against you. A writer can be sued for defamation with the claim being that what was written is not true and has caused injury to reputation or character. Another legal claim is that of invasion of privacy, or the public disclosure of private facts. According to Stephanie Rabiner, Esq., “It is illegal to reveal truthful, yet private, facts to third parties. The facts must not be of public concern, and would offend a reasonable person if made public. The information must also legitimately be private and known by few, if any, other people.” To be sure of the legal ramifications of your memoir, you might want to discuss the possibilities with a lawyer.

Only you can decide if you should tell your story and how it should be told. But in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, perhaps the best question to ask is, “Who or what do I serve in the telling of it – me or the story itself?” Your memoir is not so much about what happened but about the importance of your journey, about what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

Writing memoir is not for the faint-hearted…. Our first obligation is to the art and truth of our story. And that means not censoring ourselves…. Write with respect for your subjects, even if they come across as louts. And tell your story true, artfully and with courage. ~ Tracy Seeley**

(Read *“Don’t Gloss Over the Hard-to-Write Parts” by Laurie Rosin and **“Important Privacy Issues in Memoir” by Tracy Seeley.)

What has been the most difficult part for you in preparing to write your memoir?

Pick a Throwaway Title and Keep Writing

Writing2In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know what it will be before beginning the manuscript or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. I knew one would come to me in time.

There came a day, though, I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

I had already brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if that was settled it would help me move forward on the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering most of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one, The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson, that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without spending any more time and frustration trying to choose an actual title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title – and the book became Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. A very catchy title (and don’t ask where that came from), but now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes to include with each chapter name, I found this: 

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before. Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello This New Mountain.

“Dirty Underwear” is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title to something I’m working on. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one, not liking the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

What are some mind tricks you use to make sure you get things done (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late)?