Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Evoking Emotions

Sketch Of Woman CryingReaders of memoir, like fiction readers, come along for the ride because of the promise of being swept into someone else’s world, which is often different from their own. And they expect everything that goes along with that undiscovered land – setting, history, character struggles, victories and defeats. Even though a memoir is nonfiction, it shouldn’t read like a history book. Adding emotion to our writing will help ensure readers are engaged in the journey we’ve promised them.

There are a lot of crimes a writer can commit – the torture of sentences, the mangling of meaning, the wrecking of words through using the wrong one at the wrong time. However, the greatest of these is the crime of lack – to forget to put in the emotion. ~ Shannon Donnelly

Six basic emotions are found in all good writing: anger, love, sorrow, joy, fear, and surprise. The situations that elicit these feelings may be different, but the feelings themselves are common to all of us, at one time or another and to differing degrees. Expressing these effectively in our memoirs will touch the hearts of those who read our stories.

But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it. Saying, “I was angry,” is one way to express how we feel. But wouldn’t it be more powerful to show our anger in physical reactions or dialogue?

Emotions are one place where the author should “show, don’t tell,” or “show, then tell.” Show, Don’t Tell, refers to the idea that fiction should create the emotion in the reader by zooming in and giving enough details for the reader to feel as if they are in the story itself. ~ Darcy Pattison

In regard to Show, then Tell, Ms. Pattison explains that “once you have Shown the emotion, you can also – not all the time, but selectively – also name the emotion.” As a rule, the best writers avoid “telling” as often as possible.

How to Evoke Emotions Without Telling

Through Actions
Did a child stomp a foot when he was angry? Stare at her feet when ashamed? Did you slam a cupboard door in anger? Bounce for joy on a bed when you won the lottery? Did your dad sit on the edge of his empty bed, staring out the window for hours, after your mom died? Some people yell when they’re angry, others whisper. We cry out of joy, frustration, and sorrow.

Through Physical Appearance
Facial expressions show our emotions and so can slumped shoulders and jagged fingernails. Our hands shake when we’re nervous, or afraid, or angry. Faces flush out of embarrassment. Eyes widen and lips might become pale from fear. How does jealousy manifest in our outward appearance – a sneer, clenched fists?

Through Setting Description
How we feel affects how we see the world at a particular moment, and we can use that to color our descriptions. A child might describe a new playground as huge and inviting with so many playthings to choose from, but an adult who has just lost a child might hear the screeching swing and see the place as empty and grey.

Through Dialogue
Conversation can show a lot about how a person is feeling. Often it’s not what we say but how we say it that gives us away. Our words come out angry, sarcastic, cutting. Our speech might be halting if we’re unsure or manifest as stuttering or stammering. Sometimes we don’t say what we mean or only speak in half-truths. We blurt things out when we’re excited or choose our words too carefully to hide our anger. The sound of our voice changes, too – growing deeper or high pitched.

Through Writing the Hard Stuff
Writing is hard work. Period. Including emotion in our stories is something we all need to master, but writing a memoir comes with a unique challenge. A fiction writer can pour her truth onto the page without the world guessing how true it is. As a memoirist, you expose your life and your heart to the world, and there’s no hiding those truths. Even a lighthearted story will have its sad or bitter moments. At some point you will face the stark white page that demands a sacrifice of blood. My advice? Shake it off and write as honestly as you can. Straight on. Simple language. It will be powerful.

Through “Contradictions and Convulsions,” “Brambles and Beatitudes”
Truth in writing naturally evokes emotions. Aren’t we often conflicted about our choices or our feelings? We are not perfect robots, or dutiful children. When we read fiction or memoir, we experience someone else’s life. We see how they deal with hard choices, and we rejoice or cry along with them. Their pain is our pain. Maybe we like to be reminded we are not alone.

The following excerpt from the article “Touch the Hearts of Your Readers: Entangle Their Emotions” by Tom Bentley speaks about conflicting emotions common to all of us:

I felt such relief knowing my mom wasn’t to be expelled from her home, such dread that she might outlive the [mortgage] contract, such guilt that I actually hoped she would die in her home before the time is up. How can you hope for your mother to die?

Those kinds of mixed feelings – love, guilt, pride, shame, regret – can pull at a reader as much as they pull at the characters in your work. If you can find a way to use those kinds of feelings, their contradictions and convulsions, richly and honestly, your writing will be the more rich and honest for it…

[We] need to chase down our characters and pull them into all of life’s brambles and beatitudes, and sometimes all at the same time.

If you’ve taken on the task of writing a memoir, leaving out emotion should not be an option. Decide why your stories are worth remembering and retelling. Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion. Straightforward or subtle, sharing your feelings (the good and the bad) will enrich your writing, and engage and impact your readers.

Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Passive vs. Active Voice

ID-100174671Whether composing fiction or nonfiction, writers should be concerned about the strength of their sentences reflected in word choice, as well as structure – and that usually means using active voice (or construction) instead of passive.

According to The Elements of Style, “the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,” and, “The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind.”

I’m not a grammar geek, so this is not a grammar lesson – go to Ashlyn Macnamara’s post for that – but here is a quick refresher: In active sentence construction, the subject performs an action, making the subject the most important part of the sentence (subject, verb, object). In passive construction the subject is receiving the action, making the object the most important part of the sentence (object, verb, subject).

In the following simple examples, it’s clear that active construction is less wordy, less awkward, and more straightforward than passive.

Active: Frank ate the ice cream cone.
Passive: The ice cream cone was eaten by Frank.
Active: The teacher asked Jenny to stop yelling in class.
Passive: Jenny was asked by the teacher to stop yelling in class.

Writers are often cautioned that the use of “to be” verbs – such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been – equate to passive voice. But in the strictest sense, “Frank was eating the ice cream cone” is not passive construction because of the subject/verb/object structure.

However, just as the use of “by” (eaten by Frank) in the previous examples points to passive sentences, a “to be” verb such as was often indicates a place where writing can be strengthened. The same is true of using a “to be” verb along with a verb + “ing” ending (was eating).

The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer. ~ William Zinsser

The following is a paragraph I wrote as an example of passive voice and overuse of “to be” verbs.

Jake was running along his favorite path that led through the forest. Birds were singing overhead and squirrels were climbing the trees. Jake knew this was the best way to be constructive with his time in solving his problems. Today an article needed to be written for his journalism class about the different ways that quotations are being used in dialogue. Using double quotation marks is how Americans write dialogue. Single quotes are used by British writers. And a new way has just come along – not using any quotation marks at all. If there was only one way to format dialogue, Jake’s life would be much easier.

Here is the same paragraph strengthened with more specific verbs (jogged vs. running, chirped vs. singing, etc.), most of the “to be” verbs removed, and taking a more direct approach to convey ideas. This isn’t a perfect rewrite, but the result is more concise and uncluttered.

Jake jogged along his favorite path through the forest. Birds chirped overhead and squirrels skittered through the trees. Jogging in the outdoors always helped Jake solve his problems. Today he needed to write an article for his journalism class about using quotation marks in dialogue. Americans use double quotation marks. The British use single quotes. And the newest way does not include quotation marks at all. Jake’s life would be easier if the world decided on one standard way to format dialogue.

In the following example from one of my fantasy works-in-progress, “had” signals a place where a sentence can be strengthened. (Thanks to a critique by Kirt Hickman who suggested ways to fix passive construction in my early writing.)

The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger had the Sight and nothing moved yet in those depths.


The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger’s sight penetrated even those. Nothing moved yet in their depths.

It’s not possible, or suggested, to rid our manuscripts of all “to be” verbs or to be rigid in using only active construction. But the suggestion I take seriously is to be aware of how I construct my sentences and to make conscious choices accordingly. Sometimes I’m able to catch passive voice as I write, but the editing phase is when I find most of my problems. I do a search of those words I know I overuse (like was or had) and then decide if I can strengthen a sentence by substituting a stronger, more active verb or noun.

[T]here are going to be times when the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence. It might be more appropriate for the situation. Like so many things in writing, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as what you’re doing is exactly right for what you’re trying to say. ~ Janice Hardy

Good writing is made up of many elements layered or woven together into the whole. If you’re like me, you’re still learning and weeding through all that advice thrown around the Internet. Here is one of the best worth considering:

I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there. ~ H.G. Wells

Is passive voice a problem you deal with in your writing?

You might want to check out the following regarding passive voice:
Janice Hardy, “Passive Aggression: Avoiding Passive Voice
Liz Bureman, “When You SHOULD Use Passive Voice
Bartleby.com, from the Elements of Style, 11. Use the active voice.

Image “Digital Equalizer” courtesy of panupong1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why We Love Celebrity Memoirs

Steve_MartinI think most people would agree that the appeal of memoirs lies in the worlds they take us to and the struggles of people who may or may not be like us. We want to see the world through someone else’s eyes and experience how they handle life.

Melissa_GilbertCheering for the underdog is something most of us like to do. We’re ordinary people who want others like ourselves to come out ahead, even if we’re stuck in our own ordinary lives. We also want to know that chasing dreams is not a waste of time, that achieving them is possible. If someone else can reach the top of the mountain, maybe we can, too.

Gavin_MacLeodIn the case of someone whose life is shattered by their choices, we look for the turning point, the signs leading up to the fall. Drawn to tragedy and moved by suffering, we sympathize or empathize — and perhaps learn from their mistakes.

But are we drawn to celebrity memoirs, especially those of actors,Rosie_Perez for the same reasons?

It could be that humans are simply curious, like cats chasing shadows in a box. Curiosity could account for some of this attraction, but it might be more than that.

Tina_TurnerAs an audience, we watch actors on the screen or stage interacting in the most intimate of ways, both physically and emotionally. We laugh when they laugh, cry when they cry, feel for them in their suffering, as well as their joy. Our hearts pound when a character we care about steps into danger. Then we leave the theater with nubs for fingernails, and stuffed full of popcorn we can’t remember eating. Is it any wonder Roger_Moorewe feel something for these strangers who share their lives with us year after year? When we’re drawn to someone, don’t we naturally want to know more about them?

Regardless of the reasons why some kinds of memoirs are more popular than others, they give us a chance to experience life from a different perspective and end up enriching our own lives because of it — and that’s a good thing.

What do you think of my theory about why we love celebrity memoirs?

4 Helpful Websites for Writing Memoir

Diana Jackson at A Selection of Recollections was kind enough to post an article I wrote about how I put This New Mountain together (and she gave it a great title, too). Visit her site to read “Writing Readable and Compelling Memoir.”

If you’re looking for places to glean great writing advice for memoir, here are four websites I’ve found helpful—plus an in-depth article by bestselling author Jerry B. Jenkins.

NAMWlogo-variation-2-300x124National Association of Memoir Writers
The goal of NAMW “is to help memoir writers feel empowered with purpose and energy to begin and develop their life stories into a publishable memoir, whether in essay form, a book, a family legacy, or to create a blog.” Besides excellent articles, they also have public roundtable recordings of topics pertaining to memoir writing.

Memory TreeThe Heart and Craft of Life Writing
Tips, guidelines and insights on all facets of life writing, plus click on their Free Stuff tab for eBooks and timeline resources. Content includes author interviews and guest posts, as well as Sharon Lippincott’s own observations and tips from her book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

Memories&Memoir2Memories & Memoirs
Linda Joy Myers says, “Most people who write memoir are searching for memories that validate their experience, but they worry about writing the truth. A memoir is not a factual recitation of history, it’s a recollection, a musing and merging of images, dreams, reflections moments on your life’s journey.”

memoirWritersJourney3Memoir Writer’s Journey
You’ll find a wide range of posts from exploring themes to social media tidbits on Kathy Pooler’s website. She’s “a writer and a retired family nurse practitioner working on a memoir about the power of hope through my faith in God. Hope Matters. I believe we are all enriched when we share our stories.”

“How to Write Your Memoir: A 4-Step Guide” by Jerry B. Jenkins
Jerry Jenkins is the author of the memoir Writing for the Soul (and over 190 other books). In this article, he says, “A memoir draws on selected anecdotes from your life to support a theme and make a point.” But in the eyes of a publisher, your memoir is “not about you — it’s about what readers can gain from your story.” He goes on to discuss: 1) theme; 2) choosing anecdotes; 3) using novel-writing techniques; and 4) telling your truth without “throwing people under the bus.” He also touches on common memoir mistakes and includes a list of 10 well-written memoirs (out of the nearly 50 he read before writing his own). The article is worth a read and bookmarking/printing for later.

What websites or articles do you recommend for writing memoir?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Pacing

3D Man on Green Arrow3The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page….Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A study of your favorite book, the one that keeps you turning pages late into the night, will reveal a perfection of pacing. The opposite is true of a book that takes you out of the story with bogged-down narrative. In this case you might find yourself cursing the author with, “Oh, please get on with it. I can’t suffer through more description of ball gowns and medieval livery.”

Pacing as it applies to story
A well-told story carries a reader into a character’s life but moves quickly through those parts which don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict. This would be information the reader needs to know, but a brief mention or presentation through summary is sufficient, such as relaying bits of back story, observations about the weather, or a transition or passage of time during which nothing truly important happens.

Example: A man is dressing for his wedding, but the day has been filled with omens that make him wonder about the future. It might not be necessary to go into the details of looking for lost car keys, changing a flat tire, stepping in dog poo, and ordering broccoli and beans for lunch. A summary will do, unless the specifics are important for the story later on.

It’s just as necessary to slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. Take the time to set the mood through description. Unfurl the emotional state of your characters, plant seeds of mystery.

Examples: Recounting a tragic event such as a murder (which might happen quickly in real life) would be made more powerful by presenting it slowly. And there are moments that stretch out and become important for the epiphany that follows. I once had the pleasure of falling backward off a telephone pole from 20 feet off the ground. The world passed by in slow motion as I watched clouds float across the summer sky – right before I slammed into the ground.

Pacing as it applies to structure
Think variety when forming sentences and paragraphs. Reading sentences of the same length and rhythm becomes boring after a short period of time. In general, vary their lengths by using short, long, and compound constructions. Also vary paragraph size. Keep in mind that large blocks of text slow the reader down – a good thing if that’s the effect you’re trying for, but huge paragraphs can also signal information dumps.

The way a scene or chapter begins and ends also impacts pacing. Cliffhangers (not necessarily literal or extraordinary) are a good way to entice a reader to turn the page, but can be overdone. Structuring the end with hints of what’s to come, leaving a situation unresolved from one chapter to the next, or dropping in a new conflict will keep a reader wondering what will happen next. Begin a new scene or chapter with something happening, close to the heart of the action. Again, variety and writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.

Here’s a table with suggestions on how to speed up and slow down the pace of your story. Go to Controlling the Pace of a Story for the pdf version.

Controlling the Pace of a StoryPerfecting story pacing is a skill that comes with time, whether through years of practice or by focusing on it during the editing process. It’s one of the most important elements of any fiction or nonfiction project for keeping the reader engaged through the end.

So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dialogue, Disclaimers, and Diarrhea

ForestPathWhat do dialogue, disclaimers, and diarrhea have in common? They’re three of the topics of my most popular blog posts for 2013. Just over half the articles were related to writing, the rest included recipes and one remedy for – yes – diarrhea. If you missed any of these, here are the top ten posts from my blog for last year.

  1. Ten Favorite Country Sayings – Wisdom (or country wisdom, anyway) must have been on many people’s minds this year, evidenced by my No. 1 blog post.
  2. Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers – Most works of fiction include a disclaimer to help ward off potential lawsuits, and it’s even more essential for a memoir. I include examples of different types of disclaimers and a link to where to find disclaimers for many kinds of fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue – The fourth post in my Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series discusses how to write natural dialogue.
  4. Free Resources for Writers: The Basics – This is a short list of free foundational resources that continue to help me in my writing journey.
  5. Southwestern Recipe: Green Chile Sausage Gravy – The flavor of green chile is popular both inside and outside of the southwestern United States. Here’s a recipe shared by a New Mexico fireman that never fails to keep the firehouse happy.
  6. Country Remedy: Diarrhea Relief – Who knew this country cure would be so popular, but AJ Jackson says this simple remedy has never failed to provide relief from diarrhea.
  7. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc – The first in the series of Writing a Memoir Like a Novel, this article discusses the beginning-middle-end structure of a memoir.
  8. 5 Tips for Retrieving Memories – An excellent article by Lisa Hase-Jackson (reprinted with permission) originally titled “Five Tips for Retrieving Memories and Developing Your Memoir.”
  9. Country Recipe: Old-Fashioned Tea Biscuits – This is one of AJ Jackson’s favorite family recipes that makes a ton of cookies.
  10. Writing the Memoir: Consider the Consequences – Three important things to think about before deciding to write a memoir.

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?

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.