Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Point of View

Looking BackA novel can be written in one of several points of view, but a memoir is written exclusively in first person – the “I” viewpoint of the narrator. While this is a great vehicle to draw readers in and bring them close to you and your story, the key to good writing is to take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel.

For memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens itself — or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze. ~ Jane Friedman*

Author and editor Alane Salierno Mason prefers “an eye seeing to an I talking” which is the difference between an “I memoir” and an “eye memoir.” Try describing what you see in a one-dimensional photo of the Grand Canyon, and then do the same after standing on the edge of the real thing. The one can only take you so far, the other can take you anywhere. And the reader with you.

When it is an eye, it is in constant relation to the outside world. This kind of eye sees not only from the narrator’s point of view [or] only from the point of view of the moment; it stands and moves both inside and outside the self. It might even see from the point of view of ancestors, both literal and literary; it might see itself swept along in historical and cultural and political currents and in others even more mysterious. It sees itself swimming in a larger sea than that of the individual. ~ Alane Salierno Mason**

Accomplishing the kind of re-focus necessary for an “eye memoir” requires you to step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. Take us with you across a lonely schoolyard or into a dark woods. Show us a face of joy, let us hear the words that cut you deep. It isn’t, “I cried when my parakeet died,” but, “I turned then, right before the screen door slammed. And I saw – in the insistent beat of his wings, his delicate head thrust forward, eyes intent and focused on mine – his longing to be with me. The door hit with a dull thud, and not the sharpness it should have. And then he was falling, silent and still, to the floor….”

This thoughtful, empathetic, reflective persona is the real heart of memoir, the voice that readers will follow and want to know. The discoveries it makes over the course of the story, the wisdom it uncovers and brings to the tale, even its confusions and uncertainties — these will carry the audience through, well beyond the limits of “me, me, me.” ~ Tracy Seeley***

In filtering every detail through your eyes, your story becomes your truth. And in the end, 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.

What would be the most difficult part of going back and seeing your life again through the perspective of younger eyes?

*Jane Friedman, “Your No. 1 Challenge If You’re Writing Memoir”

**Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”

***Tracy Seeley, “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger Than Me, Me, Me”

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc

PuzzleButton3A well-written memoir utilizes the same elements of a novel, including scenes, dialogue, characters, and a beginning-middle-end structure, also called a story arc. A story arc moves the main character/protagonist (you) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir will quickly become a disconnected, chaotic jumble.

Take the time you need to structure your story before you write. Drawing your arc is not something you can knock out in the half-hour before dinner. It challenges you to survey the tangle of emotions, motives, repetitions and complexities of events you lived through with the cold, dispassionate eye of an editor. It asks you to know not what is important or meaningful to you, but what is important or meaningful to the story. ~ Adair Lara

The Beginning of the story arc introduces the protagonist and the protagonist’s problems, desires, and conflicts. This is the set up for the rest of the story. In many memoirs, the story begins initially in more or less the present state and then moves into the telling of the protagonist’s journey.

The Middle is full of obstacles, physical and emotional, that the protagonist encounters and strives to overcome or at least move through.

The End includes the biggest hurdle, the climax, and a tying together of loose ends. The ending is tied to the beginning in some way, often through resolution or revelation regarding the initial internal conflicts. Many memoirs return the reader full-circle to the beginning of the story.

Here are a few examples of beginning-middle-end structure:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is called “a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant.” In the beginning, Ms. Walls is riding through New York City in a taxi where she sees her mother rooting through a Dumpster – but she’s too embarrassed to stop. We’re then taken into Ms. Walls’ childhood and learn the things that shaped her life and her relationship with her parents. The end takes us to a time past the beginning of the memoir  to a point of healing.

My Dog Skip by Willie Morris begins with the protagonist finding a photograph of Skip, “his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.” We’re then swept into the life of a boy and his dog growing up together in Missouri – a dear story of love and friendship that eventually brings us full-circle (I dare you not to cry).

For This New Mountain, I start with one of AJ Jackson’s “adventures” that shows a typical day in the life of a private investigator, and present her internal conflicts regarding her age, financial situation, and being “stuck” in a dangerous job she knows she can’t do forever. In the middle, we journey with her as she learns the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of her profession. In the end, AJ has worked through many of her initial conflicts, but she also faces the facts and makes life-changing decisions.

Adair Lara writes extensively about building a story arc in the Key Elements of Writing a Memoir. Here is a brief summary, taken from her article, of what defining your story arc looks like:

  • [Beginning] Decide what you, the narrator/protagonist, want in the story you’re telling. The struggle to achieve this desire drives the book.
  • [Middle] Detail what you did to get what you wanted and what got in your way.
  • [End] When the narrator/protagonist gets what he wants, or doesn’t, or stops wanting it, the story has reached the end of its arc. We see him changed by all that has come before.

Knowing and understanding your story arc will keep you focused on what the memoir is about and guide you in what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

What memoirs would make good study material for your own?

Memoir Writing: Organizing Your Life Stories

PuzzleFlowerThere are times when a writer sits and stares at a blank page or screen without a clue as to how to start a story. This is not a classic case of writer’s block, it’s more like the gear shift hasn’t been properly engaged. But once it’s moved from park to drive, the journey can begin. In writing, that nudge to get going may simply be to tell yourself, “Just start.” Begin at the beginning, the middle, even the end. None of it’s written in stone. The order, and the writing itself, can be changed and rearranged at any time.

When I first started the project that became This New Mountain (a memoir of AJ Jackson), I asked AJ for the basic facts of her life: birth date and place, family history, etc. I also gave her a tape recorder and told her to tell her stories as they came to her. As it turned out, AJ began with her divorce, which was the driving force that led her to become a private investigator. This is not how the memoir itself begins, and it’s not the foundation of the book, but it is an important part of the puzzle in understanding who AJ is. She continued to record the stories that were the most important to her because they were the ones that were closest to the surface, the ones she had continued to engage in over the years. As the stories came to life in my mind, questions also came up, and those led deeper into her past which, in turn, led to other, untold stories.

Writing down your most important stories first, your most vivid memories, is one way to “just start” the process of putting your memoir together. As in AJ’s case, one story will most certainly spark your memory of others.

To some, this may seem too haphazard a way of doing things.

Stacey Dubois, in an article for the Writers Digest blog, tells us that our “memory’s natural organization” is special when it comes to autobiographical memory. This “episodic memory (memory of events)…is unique in that all of the memories are relevant to YOU. Unlike other systems of memory, autobiographical memory contributes to the formation of your sense of self…the memories form the story of your life.” Ms. Dubois has these suggestions to take advantage of the way memories are organized naturally in the brain:

  • On separate sheets of blank paper, make a timeline for each sphere of your life (school, work, family, friends, etc).
  • On each timeline, segment and label the important periods.
  • Separate these periods from each other with defining events – turning points such as moves, milestones, deaths, etc. (these can differ from timeline to timeline).
  • Take notes on what you remember from each period, staying completely within one sphere at a time. It’s also a good idea to make your first pass over the activity chronologically, even if you are not planning to organize your memoir that way.

The main advantage of organizing the important periods of your life with all their turning points is that you’ll then have a detailed outline and the makings of the stories themselves. Another advantage of following Ms. Dubois’ advice is that it could help you decide what the main focus of your memoir will be (if you don’t already know). Once the foundations of the stories are laid out, you’ll be able to see patterns or themes, and ways to organize the memoir. You might even recognize you have the makings of more than one.

The most important thing, no matter how you do it, is to write the stories down. Don’t worry if the focus or the theme doesn’t come to you right away. Just start, and you’ll be surprised how all the paths begin to converge farther down the road.

Have you started writing down your life stories?

First Steps to Writing a Memoir

Woman with typewriter.We all have stories inside ourselves – and the longer we live, the more we acquire. Our pasts are filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, remarkable adventures, and lessons learned. At some point, most of us think about writing it all down, if only to make sense of our lives and capture important moments from our past before time can snatch them away.

Before starting on the process of recording the past, a few questions should be answered.

Biography or memoir?

A biography is a life story, an account of a person’s life from beginning to end told by someone else. An autobiography is the story of your own life told by you (or dictated to someone else). Your history is a great gift to give to your friends and family.

An individual’s memoir is a biography or autobiography of the important events in that person’s life. It is focused, usually has a theme woven throughout, and tends to be more anecdotal. Memoirs are a good way to explore the “meaning of life” as you’ve experienced it in the context of certain events or within a particular period of time. A person can write multiple memoirs, each covering something different from life experience (but an individual will have only one biography).

As an example, President Obama’s biography/autobiography would chronicle his life from birth through the present, whereas his memoir might focus on his years in the White House.

My publisher tells me that bios and memoirs are the hottest selling books on the market right now. But it’s “who you are” that will be the selling point. So unless you’re a celebrity, making it onto the bestseller list will likely be an unfulfilled dream. That leads me to my next point. 

Overall goal of the memoir?

When I first began working on This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, the reason was to help AJ leave a record for her family of the things she’d done as a private investigator, repossessor, and process server. But after I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures, we both thought the audience of the book could be much wider – reaching beyond her circle of friends and business associates (see my post “Beginnings: The Goal of a Memoir”).

In my case, shifting the goal meant refocusing and strengthening the elements of fiction writing (scenes, dialogue, beginning-middle-end structure, etc) to create a piece of creative nonfiction that would appeal to a larger group of readers. At this point I knew the road to publication would be a long one, but a journey doesn’t start until you take the first step.

Some writers enjoy the process of writing for the sake of writing itself. For them, finishing a poem or larger manuscript – and knowing they have done their best – is an accomplishment that brings its own joy. Writing for yourself or for friends and family are both goals on par with the “loftier” one of publication.

Purpose of the memoir?

If you’ve decided you want to publish your memoir, ask yourself why.

Writing for revenge or betrayal

Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…. Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not.  ~ Marion Roach Smith, “Don’t Write A Memoir to Get Revenge”

Writing a story focused only on pain or as a means of self-help for others

Writing through grief and tragedy is a proven method to heal, but it is not a proven method for getting published. I say this not to be insensitive, but to bring needed attention to the fact that these stories are prevalent, and very few publishing houses are accepting them…. Life experience, or overcoming a personal challenge, is not enough expertise to help others, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. ~ Jane Friedman, “Five Common Flaws in Memoir Projects”

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman writes:

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life… If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead. But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

Deciding on the type of biography you want to write, along with its goal and purpose, are the first steps that lead to the foundation of your memoir, and will drive the course of the entire manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about how to make a memoir more artful and less confessional.

Are you thinking about writing your biography or memoir?

Structure: A Different Kind of Memoir

I knew from the beginning, even before writing the first chapter of This New Mountain, that AJ Jackson’s book wouldn’t be a regular biography. It would not relate every bit of AJ’s life from birth onward. Instead, the book would be a memoir, focusing on her life as a private investigator, repossesor, and process server. However, it wouldn’t be a typical memoir.

AJ has a ton of stories, but putting them into chronological order (like most biographies and memoirs) was not going to work even if she had perfect recall of specific dates. Tying them together in this way or making them flow from one to the other would have been a difficult task. In my opinion, this kind of structure would not have made for good reading. I finally decided to present AJ’s stories grouped together into themed chapters. For example:

  • Chapter 7: Sin and Survival – AJ learns to lie in order to succeed in her line of business.
  • Chapter 12: Just This Side of Catawampus – AJ deals with people and cases that are just a bit off.
  • Chapter 14: Jackrabbit Mind – AJ uses her brain, and/or temporary insanity, to get the job done.
  • Chapter 19: Spit and Vinegar – AJ looks foolish, feels foolish, and acts the fool to satisfy her clients.

The stories in chapter two through six are told in the order they happened, but grouping the rest of them by theme made strict chronological order, within the chapters or the book as a whole, impossible. That meant a story about repossessing a car using a tow truck might be included in a chapter with one in which AJ has to jimmy a lock or use a key to open a car door. Or one chapter tells how and why she stopped carrying her Colt .38, but a few chapters later the .38 surfaces again.

Though This New Mountain is not put together like a normal memoir, it is structured and ordered in a way that makes sense. The stories within each chapter are tied together. And all the chapters ultimately tie into the main theme of the book, facing one’s fear.

What do you like most about memoirs – being introduced to a different way of life or following along as a person deals with her life?

Using and Choosing a Pen Name

In many cases, using a fake name is considered illegal or at least dishonest. But doing so is a common practice among artists like actors, musicians, and writers.

Famous authors have used pen names for different reasons for hundreds of years (if not longer). There was a time when women writers weren’t taken as seriously as men, so they often assumed men’s names if they wanted to be published. Sometimes an author used a different name for political reasons, like not wanting to be imprisoned by a particular government (French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet wrote as Voltaire). Stephen King’s early publishers didn’t want to saturate the market with too many of his books, but King wanted to keep publishing so he wrote under the name Richard Bachman.

Other good reasons to use a pen name include: the author doesn’t like their real name; the name doesn’t fit the genre the author writes in (female names sell better in romance, male names in business books); and separation of an author’s works when writing in more than one genre.

This last is one of the main reasons I chose to use a pen name for This New Mountain. I don’t plan to write another memoir, but I do hope to have my science fiction and fantasy work see publication. When it comes time for that, I’ll use my married name, KL Wagoner. But I don’t want future readers to think This New Mountain is anything other than a memoir, and so I took into consideration my later plans for publication.

There is one more reason I chose a pen name – the writing style for AJ Jackson’s memoir is very different from any of my other work. See my earlier post on the voice of the memoir. Again, I don’t want readers to get confused in the future.

The process for choosing a pen name can vary even more than the reasons for using one. Some authors simply take the initials of their first and middle names and add them to their last name (Joanne Kathleen Rowling aka JK Rowling). Others use the name of a relative, a friend, a pet or a combination of any or all. Maps are a great place to find a pen name, as well as characters from favorite books. But a pen name should be chosen as carefully as choosing the name of a character. The author of a crime novel won’t pick a silly, girly name and the writer of chic lit won’t choose an uppity sounding one.

As a child, I accepted my maiden name because it belonged to my father and I didn’t have a choice, but it wasn’t long before I learned that having a last name that rhymed with tick, lick, etc. (a fact which silly boys couldn’t help remind me of on a regular basis) had its disadvantages. So using my maiden name was definitely not on my list of favorites.

For Cate Macabe, I picked a variation of my real first name. As far as the last name, I’ve loved the sound of it ever since being introduced to someone years ago with the same name. I even have a character named McCabe in one of my unpublished novels.

Settling on the spelling of my pen name took careful consideration as well. In researching, I discovered dozens of Kate McCabe’s around the world, including artists, actors, and a published author. To simplify things, I decided on a different spelling. Changing the name at the last minute from Kate McCabe to Cate Macabe caused headaches for my publisher, but a certain amount of flexibility is one advantage to being associated with a small, traditional publisher (and for this, Casa de Snapdragon deserves a big, gold star).

There is a chance I will sign the wrong name one day if someone asks for an autograph. And I might stare blankly for a moment at a person who uses my pen name in conversation with me. Maybe neither of these scenarios will come to pass if I practice my signature and try to get comfortable with being…[cue loud and inspiring music] Cate Macabe, Author.

If you had the chance to choose a new name, what would it be?

Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, my intention in writing AJ Jackson’s memoir was to stay true to her voice and to the goals she set for the book. There is one more truth we both dedicated ourselves to in our writing journey – the telling of the stories themselves.

Several steps went into the process of making sure the memoir remained truthful. After listening to AJ’s recorded stories and imagining them playing out like scenes in a movie, I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. If I needed more information or clarification, I consulted AJ. Organizing the stories came next. And when I thought the chapters were ready for proofing, AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. AJ then re-read the stories and give her input again. We repeated this cycle until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter. Even after everything seemed right and ready, AJ sometimes came back and said, “no, this isn’t quite right” or even, “this isn’t what happened at all.” Her memory and my imagination often got mixed up somewhere in the telling and re-telling of her stories.

Because of this process, portions of chapters didn’t pass inspection – couldn’t even be reworked – and had to be deleted. The following, taken from a chapter originally titled “Fools Rush In,” is one of my favorite stories we ended up cutting from the final manuscript:

            I once had two cases working at the same time that were, at first, as different as night and day. A bank had hired me to repo a vehicle, and a private party had hired me to investigate Mel, the father of their grandchild. Mel was up to no good and I needed to gather evidence so he could never get visitation rights with his daughter. Well, this repo and this private deal started intertwining. The same names kept popping up in both investigations. These were names associated with the local drug industry – and we’re not talking Walgreens. In the middle of all this complicated business, I went knocking on doors in the South Valley, handing out my business card, and asking people to give me a call if they saw or heard anything about Mel, my “long-lost nephew.”

            I decided to hit one more stucco-front business, the last one on the block, before I took a break. The mom-and-pop taco stand I’d passed a few minutes before would do just fine for lunch. Sitting in the shade of a turquoise umbrella in front of the taqueria, chugging a coke full of perfect cubes of ice sounded like heaven just about then. Even the cicadas complained about the heat.

            An old man dragged a rake across the rocks in front of the building. The landscaping was already pristine, not so much as a shadow out-of-place.

            “Looks good,” I said as I walked past the groundskeeper and headed for the front door. He stopped raking and squinted at me like I was crazy.

            When I stepped through the doorway, I knew why the guy had given me such a strange look. The inside of the place was empty, gutless, except for a card table, a handful of folding, metal chairs and the five goons who occupied them.

            “What’s going on here?” I blurted out. Two of the guys stood up. The others kept looking at the cards in their hands, smoking away, drinking their Dos Equis.

            “What are you doin’ here?” said one of the polite gentlemen with a hairnet on his head and a silver crucifix hanging down the front of his black t-shirt.

            Then my brain turned on. Take one manicured landscape outside, add shell of a business inside, plus scary – yet religious – goons, and I’ve got…trouble.

            “Sorry.” I backed up. “I must have made a wrong turn.”I went through the door, took a few nonchalant steps, and ran.

            The next day, a lady who lived across from this “business” called me. I had knocked on her door and given her my card. She was sorry, but she was too scared to give me any information, and “would you mind not coming by again?” Of course I didn’t mind. I had no intention of going back there.

            Two days later, the neighbor lady called me back. Somebody had broken out every window in her house, and “if you don’t mind, I’m just going to throw your card away, okay?”

            Not long after that, I got another call. “Lady, you stay out of my neighborhood,” a deep voice told me, “or you better be packin’ if you ever come back.” Another Dirty Harry, you-better-be-packing routine. It gets cornier every time I hear it.

            Well, I didn’t go back, thank you very much. I later learned that place was a money laundering business involving one of Albuquerque’s finest citizens. I ended up finding the repo I was looking for in a garage on the west side. And Mel ended up in prison on drug charges. I found enough evidence against him that when he got out, he only had supervised visitation with his child.

This story had potential and included elements of tension and humor. What was the problem, then? It just wasn’t true. The two cases mentioned in the first paragraph – though both real – weren’t the correct ones. And AJ didn’t find anyone in the empty building, so no goon actually confronted her. I had misunderstood and over-imagined the stories I heard and (because of these and other complications) this particular piece couldn’t be saved. If I had been writing a novel instead of a work of creative nonfiction, I would have left the scene in, expanded it and spiced it up, and had a lot more fun getting AJ out of her scary predicament.

This New Mountain uses all the elements of a fiction story – scenes, internal and external dialogue, tension, imagery, a well-developed main character – but because the stories are true (but read like fiction), the book is considered a piece of creative nonfiction. The process of keeping the integrity of the memoir intact was time-consuming but worth it to stay true to AJ and her life.

If you’ve read a good memoir lately, what did you like most about it?

Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

Beginnings: The Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?