Memoir Writing: Lessons from Jeannette Walls

by Sherri Burr


The Glass CastleWriters who have contemplated crafting memoirs, but were too afraid, can learn lessons from Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. She feared that if she revealed her impoverished childhood with eccentric parents, who lived on the streets of Manhattan and dumpster dived for food, people might cease to speak to her. One day she quizzed her mother, “What am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”

“Just tell the truth,” her mother said.

Walls did just that in her 2005 memoir that has been translated into 23 languages and sold over 3 million copies. In The Glass Castle, you can open any random page and find a gem. On page 39, Walls explains why she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Her parents disillusioned their four children from expecting expensive gifts on Christmas morning. “Try not to look down on those other children,” Mom said. “It’s not their fault that they’ve been brainwashed into believing in silly myths.”

Turn to page 56 where Walls explains that her mother didn’t like cooking. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” her mother asks, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls describes how her mother would make a pot of beans to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week or more.

Then there was the time Walls and her brother Brian found a two-carat diamond ring, which her mother refused to sell. Walls writes, “But Mom, … that ring could get us a lot of food.” “That’s true,” her mother replied, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is more vital than food.” When Walls reminds her mother, “We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” the mother said, “You’re always so negative.”

Walls’ portrait of her mother is a testament that she is sensitive to people’s feelings. Like all memoirists, Walls was concerned with violating her loved ones’ privacy. She recommends sharing the manuscript. After doing this, she found it brought her closer to her family, not farther apart.

Her brother Brian was astonished she remembered the story of their father taking him to a whorehouse. Brian said at the time Walls looked far away. That she recalled enough detail to write the scene flattered him.

Walls believes that writers can tell stories without hurting loved ones. “If you are looking to understand them,” Walls says, “you might be surprised how supportive people will be. Be open to changing names to protect privacy.” Walls did that in The Glass Castle on the recommendation of lawyers who vetted her book.

Perseverance is another lesson from Walls’ life. She first tried penning her story as a teenager, then again in her twenties and thirties. It wasn’t until she was 40 and encouraged by her second husband, the writer John Taylor, that she set down in earnest to write. “I needed perspective,” she says.

She created a version in six weeks and then spent five years polishing it. “Just sit down and write,” she counsels. “Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

It was in the revision that Walls threw out material from her New York experiences, which she initially thought compelling, and added scenes she had dismissed as unimportant. One of the turning points in the book was when Walls discovered her mother owned over a million dollars worth of land containing oil and gas rights. When confronted, her mother refused to sell despite their dire poverty. It was Taylor who urged Walls to include that scene.

Walls warns writers not to read other memoirs while writing their own. Walls started reading Angela’s Ashes during the midst of her revisions and noticed blarney creeping into her story. Once she realized she was channeling another writer’s voice, she put the book down. Even for her own books, Walls instructs to read and set them aside. “Don’t try to copy me. Everyone has her own story. Listen to your own voice.”

In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls found the voice of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith and spins the tale of a woman with true grit. Lily, who grew up breaking horses in New Mexico, left home when she was 15 to become a teacher in Arizona. Eventually she would learn to fly. But because Lily wasn’t around to interview by the time Walls wrote the story, she invented dialogue and calls it a True Life Novel.

Though writing fiction, Walls follows her mother’s advice, and tells the truth.


SherriBurrSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has authored or co-authored twenty books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter, SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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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.

Rewrite:

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.

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

4 Helpful Websites for Writing Memoir

Diana Jackson at A Selection of Reflections 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 a site to share your own life stories if you’re 50+).

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.”

ElderStorytellingPlaceBannerThe Elder Storytelling Place (A Time Goes By Weblog)
This is a site for bloggers/non-bloggers 50 years old and older to share their stories. “Sad, poignant, happy or funny, not infrequently our stories contain lessons we have learned and the wisdom we’ve gathered on our long journey through life and that should not be lost — which is what led to this blog.” Ronni Bennett, the founder of the site, wants it be a place “where readers sit a spell and ‘listen’ to other people’s stories. And then tell their own.”

What websites do you recommend for those interested in 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

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

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Scene Structure

A scene is like a single member of a family – it is loved for its own individuality – but its greatest power is its contribution to the larger group. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

ID-100201658If you read fiction, you’re already aware of scene structure (even if only at a subconscious level), because that’s how stories are put together. A short story might be comprised of only one scene, a novel of one or more scenes per chapter. The larger story arc of a novel or memoir is made up of dozens of smaller beginning-middle-end story arcs strung together in scenes. If you want your memoir to read more like a favorite novel and less like a dry textbook, an understanding of the fictional elements of a scene is essential.

In “How to Write Vivid Scenes,” Chris Eboch describes a scene and its elements:

[A] scene is a single incident or event. However, a summary of the event is not a scene. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action. A scene ends when that sequence of events is over.

But

It’s not enough for a scene to be emotional or funny or colorful or scary. It must have a reason to be in your novel…. I have read scenes that seemed more like window dressing than an integral part of the story. ~ Diane O’Connell, “The Five Biggest Mistakes in Writing Scenes

Basically, a scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to do such things as: advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. Characters are a given. Action and purpose are essential.

As an example, two sisters discussing which pair of socks go best with their father’s Army uniform does not comprise a scene. Place the sisters (and their conversation) beside a stainless steel table in a funeral home and the promise of a story begins to surface. But it doesn’t become a scene unless some kind of action takes place, whether physical or emotional – the sisters take on the task of dressing their dead father, a last chance to show their love for a man who had never allowed them entrance into his life.

In fiction, a writer builds his characters and scenes. He creates his world and decides what story to tell. But a memoirist must work with what has already played out. Either way, the writers job is to find the meaning in these stories, discover the history and the why of things – the truth as he sees it and/or the truth as it really is – and then decide how it should unfold. My essay Dressing the Dead went through many revisions before I found the truth in my own story and how this unconventional farewell fit into the larger picture of the man my sister and I never really knew.

When writing a scene, first you must concentrate only on the elements that make that scene work on its own as an isolated mini-story. But eventually you must judge each individual scene’s effectiveness according to how much it contributes to the work as a whole. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

Whether you’re a plotter and plan your story scene by scene ahead of time or write your stories as they come to you, it will be important at some point to evaluate your writing to make sure the scenes are complete and relevant.

Jami Gold makes this evaluation process easier with her checklist Elements of a Good Scene available as a free download from the Worksheets for Writers page of her website. The checklist is divided into three sections: Essential Elements (scenes should reveal at least one of these), Important Elements (scenes should reveal at least two of these), and Bonus Elements.

Elements of a Good SceneContinue down the Worksheet page to download an Excel spreadsheet that covers the same scene elements but in a format to keep track of multiple scenes. In fact, check out all of her story planning worksheets, including Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheets and a Scrivener template.

How do you keep track of your scenes and how they fit into the larger story?

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Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / 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: Six Elements of Fiction

Novel Memoir Series Word CloudIn my ongoing series, Writing a Memoir like a Novel, I share what I know about writing fiction as it applies to memoir. I hadn’t tried my hand at a memoir until I took on the project that became This New Mountain, but I have written short stories, novellas and novels. You might understand, then, why my approach to writing AJ Jackson’s true story (of a feisty private detective and grandmother) included the elements that make up a work of fiction.

If you’d like your memoir to have the depth and flow of a novel, try adding fictional elements — and check out my posts about crafting characters, setting, dialogue, a compelling opening, point of view, and story arc. Here are the summaries of the six articles in the series so far:

Characters

Apply fiction techniques to your “built-in” characters to bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life. Physical description doesn’t tell us who a person is — we understand others by their actions and the choices they make. Weave in details a little at a time to reveal the characters as the story unfolds. By sharing the story behind the story, the reader gains an understanding of the why of things. Show how a person deals with change to shed light on that person’s character. Reveal the familiar, those common things we all relate to, to get the reader emotionally involved. Other details, such as relationships, ambition, and personal flaws, add layers and reveal character.

Setting

Creating memorable settings – without unnecessary detail – strengthens the writing and draws the reader into the story. Present the setting through the eyes of your character. Determine why a particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. Use historical research to take you beyond the limits of your own memory. Make your story immediate and real to the reader by using just enough sensory detail.

Dialogue

Dialogue can reveal motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information, and can create tension, suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory, produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions: use contractions; don’t overuse names; avoid niceties and information dumps; use dialect and vernacular sparingly; beware exclamation points (!!!); structure paragraphs and use tags/beats to make it clear who is speaking.

A Compelling Opening

Memoir readers don’t expect action-packed openings, but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story. A good opening will include: a character we know and understand; a situation that presents tension; an indication of the larger story problem or conflict; the general tone of the story (such as light-hearted or serious).

Point of View

Take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel. Write an “eye memoir” versus an “I memoir.” 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. In the end, your memoir is less about what happened and more about the importance of your journey, what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

Story Arc

A story arc moves the main character (you or the subject of the memoir) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir becomes a disconnected, chaotic jumble. Knowing and understanding your story arc – the beginning-middle-end structure – keeps the writer focused on what the memoir is about and acts as a guide to know what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

In the months ahead, I’ll be posting more in the Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series to include pacing, scene structure, and passive voice.

If there is a specific topic you’d like me to address in a future post, please leave a comment.

Writing a Memoir: Options for Non-Writers

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

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

Write it: You might surprise yourself

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

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

Hire a Ghostwriter

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

Collaborate with a Writer:

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

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

Here are a few articles you might find useful:

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Characters

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

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

1.   Characterization vs. True Character

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

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

2.   Reveal Characters Gradually

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

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

3.   Include Motivation

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

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

4.   Show Change (or not)

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

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

5.   Reveal the Familiar

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

6.   Other Details that Add Layers

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

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

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

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