A Private Eye Gives Up Her Gun

ID-100183203At Diana Jackson’s blog, A Selection of Reflections, she shares “true stories in the present and past” and tells about Norman Campbell who shared his story with her, “all 103 years of it!” A novelist and historian who lives in Bedfordshire, U.K., Diana also posts stories by guest writers – and I’m happy to have a condensed excerpt from Chapter 9: Know Thyself of This New Mountain up on her website. If you want to find out what could cause a private investigator to stop carrying her snub nose revolver on the job, check out my post on A Selection of Reflections. While you’re there, read a few excerpts from Norman Campbell’s memoir The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, a man who became a silver surfer and learned to Skype at age 102.

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Image courtesy of num_skyman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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To Blog or Not to Blog

After taking several months off from blogging, I’m back with a few questions I’ve had to answer for myself. Why blog? Why Not to Blog?

WorldPeople2You do not have to blog, and if you don’t have much interest in the form, then please don’t pursue it. As with any form of writing, it takes a considerable investment of energy and time to do it right and get something from it. ~ Jane Friedman

Why Blog?

Reasons for blogging vary from one person to another. Apart from any business goals of selling yourself and your goods or services, there are a few basic reasons to blog:

  • We all want to make a difference. Sharing knowledge or experience is one way to do that.
  • Some people have a lot to say. Blogging is another way to express themselves.
  • We all have a desire and a need to be heard. Done in the right way (and with the right intent), blogging can be a good outlet.

Initially, my purpose in starting this particular blog was to give my 12-year writing project a home and to encourage others to face their fears. AJ Jackson – the fearless private investigator and repo-mama from This New Mountain – has impacted me from the moment her red-headed spunk and energy rushed into my life more than fifteen years ago. My reasons for contributing to the blog-o-sphere were a natural by-product of my relationship with her. Later, including posts about writing style and writing as it pertains to memoir also seemed a natural addition to the blog. I am still (and forever will be) perfecting my writing skills, and I’ve felt the urge to encourage writers on their own journeys whether toward publication or “perfection.”

Why Not to Blog?

Again, the reasons not to blog (or to stop blogging) depend on the individual, but there are some standard things that come with the territory.

  • Blogging takes time. There’s the planning, the research, the writing, the proofing. Even just coming up with ideas to write about can take up hours every week. Do you have this time to spend?
  • Blogging takes commitment. Even if it’s once a week or once a month, keeping up a blog is one more thing to add to the To-Do List. How committed are you willing to be?
  • Blogging takes energy. Okay, it’s mostly brain energy. But you do have to drag yourself to the computer, then to the bathroom, then to the computer. And what about all those round-trips to the refrigerator and the bowls full of peanuts, pretzels and chocolate to carry back with you. That’s got to count for something, right?
  • Blogging can be a distraction. Blogging can keep you from something more important such as family commitments, health goals, or other dreams and creative pursuits. Will you use blogging as an excuse not to do some other thing?

It’s a physical fact that adding one thing to a finite space results in less space for something else. In deciding whether or not to blog, we each have to weigh our personal desires and goals against the added commitments and the affects blogging has on other more important aspects of our lives.

For me, I’ve decided to keep blogging. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to pursue their dreams and push through any fears that might be holding them back. But I’ve also come to realize I need to implement some major changes in time and goal management (a topic for another post).

Why do you blog? Have you found that the good outweighs the bad?

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?

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: Dealing with Comfort Zones

I wasn’t the first to suggest AJ Jackson’s “adventures” would make a good book. Nearly everyone she came in contact with said the same thing. One of the major appeals of her stories is that she’s a regular person in an unconventional job doing things most people would find uncomfortable, even frightening. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of courage?

When we first met, we both worked for the same attorney – AJ as a private investigator/process server, and I as a secretary. She came in several times a week to pick up and drop off documents, and while she was in the office, she shared her newest adventures. While I listened, I would shake my head and say things like, “you’re kidding” and “my goodness” and “that’s crazy” in response to her latest I-almost-got-bit story or I-almost-got-shot story or I-almost-got-[fill in the blank] story.

After one especially exciting storytelling session, I offered to write her book. She didn’t say “yes” right away. When she finally did tell me she wanted to give it a try, my stomach twisted in knots. Writing AJ’s memoir would be a challenge. First, this was not my memoir, these were not my memories. And second, I wrote fiction (specifically science fiction and fantasy) and not nonfiction. But I’d committed to doing it, so I pushed through my doubts and fears, and began a practical approach to writing my first memoir.

AJ recorded her stories on a tape recorder, then I listened to her voice and let it guide me as I retold her adventures. The next six years were one cycle after another of outlining, research, writing and rewriting – with AJ proofing – and then more writing and revising. I finished a first complete draft in 2006. A professional edit of the manuscript brought the memoir back into seemingly endless cycles of digging deeper, reworking, rearranging, and rewriting. After six more years, the manuscript was as ready as we could make it for publishing.

And that’s where This New Mountain is now, in the hands of the publisher and waiting for (what we hope is) just one more round of proofing before going off to the printer and then distribution. 

Though I wasn’t the first person to say AJ’s adventures would make a good book, I’m pretty sure I was the first to offer to write that book. Without her example of a no-comfort-zone life and stepping out of my own comfort zone, I never would have had the chance to know the exceptional woman who is Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson or start on my own publishing adventure.

Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone – and found a treasure because of it?

Welcome to the Home of This New Mountain!

After working for twelve years putting together AJ Jackson’s memoir, AJ and I are excited to announce the upcoming publication of This New Mountain by Casa de Snapdragon Publishing.

Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

        “Just go ahead and shoot me,” I told the sneering young man who held a gun pointed at my chest. “I’m an old lady and I’m tired. You’d be doing me a favor.” I wasn’t all that old, but I was cranky. “I don’t want to die in some nursing home, so why don’t you just go ahead and pull the trigger.” I stared the guy right in the eyes and waited. His baby-blues narrowed, his forehead furrowed. He didn’t shoot, so I turned my back on him and continued hooking up the rear of his pickup to my tow truck. It had been a helluva long day so far, a helluva life….

        Like most private investigators, AJ Jackson has more than one foot in the fire to make ends meet – driving a tow truck and serving legal documents for local law firms. But not every PI is a mother of four, a grandmother of ten, an ex-gun dealer and former mental patient, or a descendant of a great Choctaw chief. This is a memoir of Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson, a country girl with a go-to-hell attitude who must face her fears in order to keep her sanity and make a future for herself.