By Pamela Jane Bell Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.
Sometimes, for recreation, I take a few minutes out from writing to play brain games on the computer. A favorite game is one in which you have to guide a seed through a maze to its proper planting place, avoiding all the obstacles (ladybugs) along the way. I like this game because it’s not timed, so you don’t feel hurried; you can relax and work out the most expeditious path for the seed, while calculating the least number of moves needed to clear the bugs out of the way. Just like life.
All of us are continually bumping up against obstacles to our goals, compelling us to invent ways to get around, through, over or beyond them. Or maybe just kick them out of the way.
The same is true of writing a memoir – we inevitably encounter hurdles that could potentially slow or even stop our progress. Following are some of the most formidable and also familiar obstacles (such as rejection, time constraints, or cosmic discouragement) and strategies for overcoming them. I guarantee these are all genuine, high-quality obstacles, and their solutions have been thoroughly tested!
Obstacle #1 An editor or friend whose opinion you value tells you there is something wrong with your manuscript.
OK, take a deep breath. You are not in cardiac arrest – your manuscript may be, but guess what? You can fix it.
Let’s imagine a discerning reader says, “You are not telling me enough about your father.” At first this criticism may sound daunting, especially if you are not inclined to write at length about your father. On the other hand, your reader may have a point in terms of the need to provide a richer context for your story, or greater clarity. If so, ask her how many sentences she imagines would be needed to accomplish this. You might be surprised when she answers “three or four.” Suddenly a discouragingly amorphous task is reduced to a few sentences. You can do that!
Obstacle #2 Someone tells you you’re hiding something from the reader.
I’ve had this experience. “You’re not telling the whole story,” or “I have the feeling you’re hiding something about your aunt.”
Ask yourself, are you really hiding something or are you simply choosing not to write about it? There is a difference. If your aunt’s
mental illness is not essential to your story, don’t write about it. Doing so might pull the narrative off course, or disrupt the continuity leaving loose ends you’ll have to tuck in later.
Obstacle #3 You don’t have enough time to work on your memoir.
You can think about time linearly, that is, horizontally – how many minutes or hours do you have available for writing? It’s a finite amount. But you can also think about time vertically by using the time you have to go deeper into your story, with more intention and greater focus, expanding the time you have to write.
Obstacle #4 You keep getting rejections on your query or manuscripts.
I’ve written here about my co-author’s and my 75 agent rejections for our book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties. I have a children’s book I sold after 125 submissions, and I’m sure I will break that record in the future. (You can read about the funniest rejections ever – mine and other writers’.)
The solution to rejection is simple; never give up. It isn’t an option. You can revise your manuscript, if you’re receiving a lot of similar criticism from agents and editors. You can research alternative publishing options. But you can’t give up.
During the years we marketed Pride and Prejudice and Kitties to agents, I remember many empty days, gray days, defeated days. Days when no one in the world seemed interested in our book. Nothing was happening. Not just nothing, but, as a young friend of mine says, “a big fat nothing” – a huge yawning emptiness, failure. If I’d listened to the universe on those days, I’d swear it was telling me to give up, like wicked Mrs. Danvers whispering to Max de Winter’s young wife in Rebecca: “Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on…” Or, as I heard it, “Go ahead, give up. No one likes your book, so why keep trying?”
Just tell that evil Mrs. Danvers to go jump in a lake, and keep sending your manuscript out.
Obstacle #5 There really is something wrong with your manuscript.
There’s something wrong with nearly everything. Take a movie you love and have watched dozens of times, and Google its title and “holes.” Most likely your search will reveal flaws, illogical sequences, mistakes and inconsistencies in the film. Yet these didn’t diminish your enjoyment in watching it. Discovering your favorite film’s defects may endear it to you even more.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore flaws in your story, only not to be disheartened by an apparent lack of perfection.
I learned an efficient method of dealing with flaws or “holes” in films or books from screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.
“If you have a hole,” he said, “take it out and wave it around.”
J.D. Salinger did this brilliantly in the famous opening of Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Salinger does weave in his character’s backstory throughout Catcher in the Rye, but in his own way and his own time.
Finally, tell the story you want to tell. Find your own way to solve problems in your narrative (though readers can be helpful in
identifying where those problems lie). Just as your story is a reflection of the particular way your mind works and sees the world, how you resolve flaws and weaknesses in your memoir will be unique to you. Keep advancing steadfastly towards your goal while you move those little bugs out of your way.
Claudette Cobert in "It Happened One Night"
A well-known physician noted that the most respected doctors, “are those who can step back and look at the big picture rather than simply react. In situations like this, it is best to: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ ” *
Sounds like a smart doctor to me. I have lots of stories about doctors who should have just stood there, but that’s another story. The point here is that in some circumstances “just standing there” is the best advice for writers as well. But I have a hard time doing it.
“Time is on my side,” the Rolling Stones sang. But is time our friend, or our adversary? Perhaps, because of the complexity of human life, it is both. Still, my idea of a writer is someone who writes, not someone who waits. I jokingly describe myself as a self-employed writer with a strict boss, but it’s not really a joke. I have a difficult time putting aside a piece of writing or turning to another project when I’ve hit a roadblock with my manuscript. Instead, I sit anxiously by its side, taking its temperature every five minutes. But sometimes, in fact many times, walking away, at least for a while, is exactly what you need to do.
Below are three tips for letting time work its magic on your memoir, and why you should:
Writing Tip #1. Nothing stays the same
Even when life appears to be standing still, it isn’t really. It’s like the stream that always changes yet always stays the same. It flows on, bringing new experiences and perspectives that enable you to see your story with fresh eyes. Many things – a forgotten photograph, an unexpected trip, a dream – can yield a memory or insight that will help round out and deepen your story.
Writing Tip #2. Let your subconscious work
Madeleine L’Engle, author of the famous children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time and several sequels, decided to give up writing on her 40th birthday after receiving yet another rejection notice.
“This was an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write,” she wrote in A Circle of Quiet. “All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered…with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.”
L’Engle proceeded to cover her typewriter and give in to misery only to discover later that her subconscious was at work on a novel about failure.
Trust yourself; your subconscious is working even when you aren’t.
Writing Tip #3. Let time perform its magic
In 1965, Katherine Anne Porter sat down to write a forward to her new collection of short stories. She wrote about an unfinished story she had discovered in a box of old manuscripts.
“‘Holiday’ represents one of my prolonged struggles, not with questions of form or style, but my own moral and emotion collision with a human situation I was too young to cope with at the time it occurred; yet the story haunted me for years and I made three separate versions, with a certain spot in all three where the thing went off track. So I put it away and…forgot it. It rose from one of my boxes of papers, after a quarter of a century…as for the vexing question which had stopped me short long ago, it had in the course of living settled itself so slowly and deeply and secretly I wondered why I had ever been distressed by it…”
Time is, indeed, a magic elixir.
What These 3 Writing Tips Mean to You
I’m not suggesting you wait a quarter of a century to finish your memoir or your novel! It’s the willingness to step back, even for a day, that is important. As my husband, John, always tells me: “Possess your soul in patience.”
For me, that’s an even greater challenge than scrubbing the kitchen floor.
*Douglas A. Drossman M.D.
Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
By Pamela Jane Bell Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.
[Note from Women's Memoirs: Kendra's had cats for as long as I can remember. Now that we frequently Skype, I even get to see her one remaining cat -- Sabrina. Sweet Sabrina long ago used up the last of her supposed nine lives. We're convinced she has been given an allotment of 18 or so.
Well, as you can imagine, we just had to check out Pamela's new book and we're sure you'll like it as much as we did. To give you a preview, we've put her book trailer at the bottom of her list of 5 Memoir Marketing Tips.]
My friend Debbie teases me about the stacks of self-help books I’ve collected over the years. I admit that many of them have proved to be less than helpful, but for me finding one new book to add to my self-help library – one that changes the way I think and see the world – is worth the search.
One of those finds is The Highly Sensitive Person by psychologist Elaine N. Aron. Dr. Aron defines a highly sensitive person (HSP) as someone who is more aware than others of subtleties in her environment, and also more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. If you are unusually sensitive to loud noise and bright lights, for instance, or even to comments overheard while touring a museum, you may be highly sensitive. (My husband turns on the dining room light so bright it looks like he’s preparing to operate rather than sit down to dinner. I don’t like light bulbs brighter than 25 watts; candles are even better.) A complex inner life is another HSP characteristic. I’m sure many writers, especially memoirists, have that one!
Being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean you are more understanding or empathic than others – it simply relates to how you process stimuli. In fact when you are feeling overwhelmed, you are probably anything but kind and understanding. To find out where you fall on the highly-sensitive continuum, you can take Dr. Aron’s self-test here.
I just want to type! (Jean Harlow)
So how does marketing work for an HSP? When a friend of mine got a new computer a while back, he protested that he didn’t need the Excel spreadsheet software or the Skype app; he “just wanted to type.” I know exactly how he feels. It reminds me of a call I got from a cable TV company recently.
“How would you like 150 more cable channels?” the sales rep asked brightly.
“Actually,” I replied, “I’m looking for fewer channels.”
There was total silence on the other end of the line.
5 Book Marketing Tips for Writers
It may be hard for non-HSPs to realize that some people really do want less. For me, marketing my book falls under the “I can completely do without this” category, but it is part of today’s writing and publishing world. So here are five marketing tips especially for HSPs:
1. Don’t try to out-market your non-HSP colleague
There will always be better networkers, smarter marketers, or those naturally gifted at promotion. Their ideas can inspire you (or drive you crazy). Hopefully, it’s the former, but either way don’t set yourself up for frustration and disappointment by implementing an impossibly ambitious marketing campaign. Instead …
2. Decide what you will do
It’s helpful to decide ahead of time how much and what kind of marketing you want and would enjoy doing. I love public speaking. To me it feels cozy and intimate; it’s just the two of us – me and the audience. If you don’t enjoy live interviews or public speaking, you can send out postcards, e-newsletters, or organize a blog tour, where various blogs feature your book on consecutive weeks.
3. Give yourself some “inward” time
Just because you’re in a marketing phase doesn’t mean you can’t take a little introverted vacation. Stagger your “in” and “out” times so you don’t become disheartened or discouraged with the demands of marketing. Children’s author Deborah Heiligman has a note on the wall of her office that says, “Long view, light touch.” With marketing I tend to do just the opposite – hurl myself into a promotion campaign as if there’s no tomorrow, then crash. Deb’s strategy is much more intelligent.
4. Team up with your non-HSP friend or colleague
Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of original and creative marketing ideas. In fact, as an HSP, you probably have more ideas than you have time or inclination for. So let your more stimuli-loving friend chat up editors at a conference, while you do on-line market research. The introverted-extroverted collaboration is an ideal partnership.*
5. Slow down when you’re feeling pressured
When you start to feel pressured or flustered, resist the urge to speed up. Not only will you maintain your balance (literally – I tripped and broke my foot last year hurrying to get some information while talking on the telephone) but when you slow down, you’ll actually accomplish more.
Understanding the HSP trait has helped me tremendously. For example, when my family and I moved to Florence, Italy, for a year, I spent the first scorching August days on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of our apartment. If I hadn’t just read The Highly Sensitive Person, I might have concluded I was crazy and forced myself to hurry out and start soaking up the culture and beauty of Florence. But because of Elaine Aron’s book, I understood that I was exhausted and overwhelmed from the intense, protracted effort of preparing to leave home for a year. The floor-scrubbing phase, though short-lived, was extremely therapeutic and even pleasurable. Physical work, done in a quiet place, “knits up the raveled sleave of care,” as Shakespeare wrote about sleep.
One last point: I’ve found over the years that for your book to do well, a little luck or magic has to kick in – something, in other words, that is completely out of your hands. Accept this, take time to consider your marketing plan and, most importantly, enjoy the ride!
From Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace. Illustration by Lois Lenski
Are you an HSP? If so, what are your marketing strategies? Please leave us a comment; we’d love to hear from you. Non-HSPs are welcome too!
*Though I’ve used the terms “HSP” and “introvert” interchangeably, in truth only about 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts; 30% are extroverts.
Below is the trailer for Pamela Jane’s new book: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic
- See more at: http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-wri
By Pamela Jane, regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.
I have a confession to make. I’m horribly jealous of Princess Kate* but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because she’s wealthy, or because the royal family owns several yummy country estates (one of which will be Kate and William’s country home). Nor is it because Kate can do anything she wants (princesses never can). It’s not even because of her hats. No, I’m jealous of Princess Kate because she has access to armies of super-attentive physicians, day and night. (As Woody Allen said, the best thing about being a celebrity is having doctors call you back on the weekend.) And that’s just the beginning! The Queen’s own gynecologist postponed his retirement to deliver Kate and William’s new baby, Prince George. What doctor would do that for a commoner?
I was thinking about this yesterday while sitting in the orthopedic doctor’s office, waiting for the doctor to come into the exam room. I broke my foot last summer while talking on a recorded line with my health insurance company. (They later claimed they lost that particular recording – not that I was going to sue them or anything.) Now I was afraid I’d re-fractured my foot exercising a little too zealously on the treadmill.
The longer I sat on that exam table, waiting, the more steamed up I got about not being a princess or even a Hollywood celebrity. When I arrived for my appointment, I had been hustled into the x-ray room even before I got a chance to be examined by the new doctor – hardly the protocol for royalty or even sub-royalty. I’m terrified of doctors and medical tests and being hurried along by a brusque impersonal technician was particularly unnerving. What a difference it would make, I thought, as I shifted my weight on the crinkly white paper, if doctors and their staffs treated me like they would Princess Kate, ministering to every tiny pain (I imagined), and every flash of panic. In fact, if I wanted, I could have the whole British commonwealth panicking along with me. How cozy would that be?
If only my daughter, Annelise, had listened to me! In 1997, when she was three I advised her to marry Prince William when she grew up. Then at least I’d have some royal privileges. But Annelise had just looked at me with her big three-year-old eyes and replied stoutly, “I don’t want that job.”
What a stubborn child, thinking of (and for) herself instead of her mom!
At this point in my ruminations, the door opened and the doctor breezed in.
“You sure had a bad break last year,” he said, holding the new x-rays up to the light. “But your foot is fine now.”
“Really?” I said, in surprise. “You mean I didn’t break it again?”
The doctor shook his head. “It’s fine. You’re fine!” He studied me for a moment. Then he sat down in the chair beside the exam table.
“You know,” he said, “You should enjoy life more and not worry so much.”
I nodded. “I’m a warrior worrier,” I admitted. “It’s an honored family tradition.”
The doctor chuckled. “What kind of work do you do?”
I told him I was a writer. Then I opened my purse and handed him a bookmark for my new book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties.
When he looked at the bookmark, the doctor’s eyes lit up. “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it,” he said, quoting from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion.
Oddly enough, I just used that quote in a recent post for WomensMemoirs.
For the next fifteen minutes or so we talked about love, suffering – and Jane Austen. For that brief time I felt like a princess, being treated by the Queen’s physician.
When the doctor stood up to go, he shook my hand.
“Write a story about this,” he said, “and God bless you.”
So here I am. There’s no moral to this story, just two tips:
1) Find the story in your ordinary, daily experiences, and the peculiar workings of your own mind. It’s great practice for writing your memoir. It might even lead to a whole new book.
2) Take the doctor’s prescription, and enjoy life. When you feel like speeding up, slow down instead – literally move more slowly. Notice things, listen, observe.
And here’s one last prescription. This one is from me: take time to treat a friend like a princess – the fairy dust will rub off on you.
*Kate’s proper title is “Duchess of Cambridge,” though she’s popularly called “Princess.”
“When you… want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly… The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” – Anton Chekov
Recently, I was reading a chapter of my memoir to my writing group. In one passage, another character makes a startling confession, and my response was something like, “I felt shattered.” Later, when I was reading the group’s comments on my story, I saw that Joyce, a highly perceptive critic, had written next to that passage, “I don’t feel the intensity here.” Others agreed.
I thought about this for a while. Why didn’t my writing convey to readers the intensity of my emotional response? After all, I had felt shattered – or had I? I frowned, trying to remember. Did “shattered” truly describe what I had felt? Or was that just a word that had popped conveniently into my head, an approximation of what I was experiencing at that moment in my story?
When I pondered this question, I realized I hadn’t really felt shattered as much as horrified. Yes, “horrified” was the right word, I thought; it described exactly what I had felt.
Finding the right word, led to a realization. I had felt horrified not only because of what another person was confessing to me, but because I recognized the same feelings in myself. Now I could go back to my story and build up to that moment of horror by describing and developing events that led up to it. This gave my response emotional resonance, and allowed me to develop the scene within a richer context.
That’s one of the rewards of writing a memoir. You not only have to figure out the story. You have to figure out yourself. The more successfully you achieve this, the more real your story will be to your reader.
Following are three tips for writing intense, highly-charged scenes that will engross and engage your readers. Try them out, and see if they work for you!
1. Let the reader do the work
Below is a passage from A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean. In this scene, Norman has just told his father about the brutal murder of Norman’s younger brother, Paul.
“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again. He had to struggle to lift his feet, and when he did get them up, they came down slightly out of control. From time to time Paul’s right hand had to be reaffirmed; then my father would shuffle away again. He could not shuffle in a straight line from trying to lift his feet. Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.”
The author doesn’t say, “My father was in shock,” or even “my father was never the same.” He simply describes, in brief, telling detail, his father’s inability to walk well again. From this, we realize that Norman’s father is a broken man. And because we come to this conclusion without being explicitly told, the scene has much greater impact. Maclean lets the reader do the work.
Norman’s father keeps asking the question about which hand was broken. It’s only further on in the text that the narrator acknowledges why (although we can figure it out). Maclean writes: “Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting,” With these words, Paul’s death takes on a deeper dimension of human destiny and human history.
A memoir is a dialogue between author and reader, and it’s the dialogue – what the reader brings to the work – that makes the story meaningful to her. In a sense, the reader is creating her own subtext.
2. Let the facts speak
I remember reading a scene of unimaginable horror in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove. Recently , I went back to see how he achieved such an unforgettable, haunting atmosphere of menace. I looked up the episode where the treacherous Blue Duck, the very essence of evil, castrates another man. What I noticed when I read the passage was the matter-of-fact way McMurtry described the action. He simply and quietly stated what happened without trying to instill horror in the reader. (Of course, such an event hardly needs elaboration to be horrifying.) The author was masterful in letting the facts speak for themselves.
3. Let the perspective shift
Last week, my friend Debbie, who teaches creative writing, asked me if I could suggest ways to make a character’s grief at a funeral more real to readers. One of her students had written a story in which a woman is sobbing at her mother’s funeral, but the readers didn’t feel her sadness.
Pondering this dilemma called to mind a funeral of a friend’s father I attended many years ago. My friend, who was very close to her dad, was grief-stricken, but as she walked out of the synagogue she turned and winked at me. This made a lasting impression, because it showed spunk and courage in the face of irremediable loss. In a story, a similar scene can be more moving than having a character break down in sobs, or become hysterical.
I hope these tips are helpful, and that they will lead you to develop more of your own. And remember, if someone doesn’t react or respond to an intensely emotional scene you’ve written, take heart!
As with most things we write, this too
cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes.
To me, flexing your memoir muscle means cultivating a state of mind in which you are aware of being aware. This requires living an examined life – not in retrospect but in the present, even as at it unfolds. The deeper and more earnestly you engage in investigating reality, past and present, the more vividly you will be able to recreate a particular reality for your reader.
Following are 5 tips for flexing your memoir muscle – a workout I need everyday!
1. Use music to take yourself back to “here and now” of the past.
Music touches hidden chords of memory and reanimates long-forgotten experiences and emotions. Fortunately, the internet gives us the ability to find a piece of music or a song in an instant. This is a great gift for memoir writers. I arrange my “memoir music” into folders labeled for different chapters of my life. When I listen to Tracy Nelson’s poignant “Sad Situation” or Bob Dylan’s lilting “To Be Alone With You,” I’m transported back to 1970. Once again I’m painting the walls of an old farmhouse while approaching a fateful turning point in my life. The music unlocks and engages all the senses from that time. I can even smell the wet paint.
2. Talk to people from your past
We all remember different things, and we all remember the same things differently. That’s why your memoir is yours! I rarely make use of others’ memories in my memoir; most of the time their stories are extraneous to mine. Yet talking to someone from the past can open your mind and generate new insights.
For years, I’ve been returning to the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York, to write and think about the past. But it wasn’t until I unexpectedly met up with an old friend there that I found the ending to my memoir. His version of a dramatic event that touched us both allowed me to see my story in a richer perspective. It was just the touch I needed to exit gracefully from my narrative.
3. Cultivate Lucid Dreaming
A lucid dream is a dream in which you are aware that you are dreaming. (Dr. Stephen Laberge from The Lucidity Institute at Stanford University has established that lucid dreaming occurs in a true REM state, not one where you are half-awake or simply imagining that you are dreaming.) Tibetan monks have been using lucid dreaming techniques for centuries to “wake up” and explore the illusory nature of reality.
Part of training yourself to have lucid dreams is performing “state tests” throughout the day to see if you are dreaming. For example, you might jump up in the air to see if you can fly. If you’re dreaming, you probably will be able to float at the very least. (Don’t go jumping off any rooftops, though, until you’re positive you’re dreaming!) The point of this exercise is to teach you to test your state during the night, when you truly are dreaming, so that you can enter a lucid state. But even if you never have a lucid dream, the daytime exercises, such as state tests, encourage the habit of examining reality instead of rushing unconsciously through the day. And if you do have a lucid dream, the heightened awareness it brings will spill over into your waking and writing life. See my previous post at womensmemoirs.com for more about lucid dreaming and memoir.
4. Remember to remember
I keep a little rock by my computer that says “remember.” It’s not “remember” as in remember to take out the garbage or remember to call the dentist. It’s remember as in, reflect, contemplate, make time to step back and think about the present as it speeds into the past. This can be a formal meditation, or just a moment in time when you stop and give yourself mental space, a cushion of silence around you to luxuriate in. Remember to remember that you are you, and that you are here, alive and living in the world.
"Bedroom Space - Mental Place" by Ted Ramsay
5. Notice something different in your environment every day
This is an exercise I invented and really enjoy doing. I look out my window, or around my writing room, and make a mental note of something I’ve never noticed before. Yesterday my eye lit upon a green canoe turned upside down behind my neighbor’s woodshed. I’m sure I gazed at that canoe unthinkingly dozens of times before. But yesterday I really looked at it. I committed its color and peculiarities to memory. Every day, I review the list of things I’ve become aware of, and add something new. This sharpens my powers of observation, and makes me feel that I am cherishing my time here and appreciating the things around me, especially the ordinary, everyday things.
Long ago, a speaker at a writer’s conference gave me some good advice. “Walk slowly, walk quietly, look deep,” she said. Sadly, that sounds almost dated now. These days we’re more like to race, race noisily, and not look down.
Please drop us a comment and tell us your strategies for flexing your memoir muscle. We’d love to hear from you!
Mohonk Mountain House
Every year, usually in spring or fall, I spend a few days at Mohonk Mountain House, a hotel in the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York. With flags fluttering from its turrets and towers, Mohonk stands like a triumph of Victorian architecture, a hymn to nineteenth century beauty and civility. But I don’t go there for the luxurious setting, or even the amenities. I go to remember.
In the spring and early summer of 1972, when I was twenty-five, my first husband and I had summer jobs at Mohonk. I worked as a “flower girl” gathering lilacs and lavender from the cutting gardens, which I arranged into bouquets for the guests. It sounds idyllic, but that summer was more of a nightmare than an idyll. The truth is, I was having a nervous breakdown (to use an old-fashioned but aptly descriptive term). And though I would have loved to stay on at Mohonk that summer, to see the roses bloom and watch the cloud shadows flit across the mountains, I was tormented by an inner voice that prophesied all kinds of terrible evils, threw me in a panic, and rendered even existence malignant in the midst of unimaginable beauty and serenity.
My favorite thing to do when I return to Mohonk these days is to walk – and think. (The hotel is surrounded by 10,000 acres of wilderness and nearly 100 miles of trails and carriage roads so it’s almost impossible to exhaust the possibilities for exploring.) When I was walking there on a recent visit, I got to thinking about why I am so fond of returning, both in actuality and in my memoir, to a scene of such terrible anguish. As I reflected on this, I remembered a quote from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion: “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it”
Amanda Root in Jane Austen's "Persuasion"
One of the reasons I have such affection for Mohonk, other than its beauty, I realized, is because I did have such a hard time there, and survived. That got me thinking about why some chapters of our lives seem to arrange themselves (with a little editing) into a compelling narrative, while others do not, even though the events themselves may have been dramatic. Following is what I came up with – five elements of experience essential for building a story.
Walking the carriage roads through the mountains
A story requires conflict, and my summer at Mohonk was characterized by a titanic inner struggle between two opposing selves. These two conflicting selves tore me apart. I – or I should say, they – couldn’t even come to a consensus about whether I was really crazy, or just pretending to be.
Ask yourself, what is the central conflict of your story? Is it an inner conflict or a conflict with another person, or both? How did you resolve it, or mediate between opposing forces? In my case, the strands of good and bad, dark and light, were so deeply intertwined in my inner antagonists that I couldn’t separate them without destroying myself. The only way forward to health and sanity was integration. That process of integration is unique to each of us, and it makes a riveting story in memoirs such as Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater.
One of the things that draws me back to my memoir and keeps my interest in writing it fresh, is the sharp contrast between the lush beauty of Mohonk that long-ago summer, and the gray prison-like starkness of my inner world. Contrast heightens interest and creates stunning story scenery. In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean illustrates the poignant contrast between the grace and gifts of his younger brother, Paul, and the ugly underworld Paul becomes entangled in. Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind highlights the contrast between the destructiveness of the author’s manic depression and its seductive allure and dark beauty. First identify, then heighten and intensify contrasting elements in your story.
There are many different forms or expressions of color. Even the absence of color paints a vivid picture. In my Mohonk story, the language of my interior dialogue was colored by the highly charged political rhetoric of the times; my two selves were ideological as well as psychological enemies. Infuse your writing with vivid images and colors that draw you and the reader deeply into your narrative.
Recollection truly is just that – re-collecting. You salvage the pieces of the past and arrange them into a pattern. As the pattern emerges, you begin to sense how to build the pieces into a narrative. Recollecting and rearranging is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing a memoir.
The Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, NY
Here is where it all comes together – the events of the past shaped by your present perspective, enriched by your vision and completed with the finishing touch – the wisdom you’ve gained from living and recreating the past.
It doesn’t get better than that.
#1 Rejections hold value
No, this isn’t a lecture on a virtues of adversity! But rejections can be helpful. One agent who initially showed interest in our P&P kitty mash-up, remarked, “How do we know Austen’s Pride and Prejudice isn’t a paradigm for a bunch of kitties running around the neighborhood?” The agent ultimately decided not to represent us, but her comment was instrumental in shaping our vision for the book. Often, editors will give you an authentic reason for turning down a manuscript, or suggestions for revision (as opposed to stock responses like “the story is too quiet to compete in today’s frenetic world”). If you don’t keep your book out, you may miss the benefit of a constructive response, or a chance to engage in a dialog with an agent or editor. You may even miss an offer for your book!
#2 Believing in your book is a genuine asset – not a pipe dream
Having been in several writer’s groups over the years, I’ve often been heartened to see an apparently flawed manuscript or confused concept transformed into a published gem through the author’s perseverance (and a little help from her friends). The author believed in her book – and maybe the book believed in her back. They held each other up – the vision, character or the narrative voice took firm hold of the author, and she, in turn, stayed with her story all the way to publication and beyond.
#3 Time is on your side
Time and timing –often perverse and uncooperative – can be allies. In spite of the 1990s explosion of all things Austen ignited by the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice (with the delectable Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), I believe that Pride and Prejudice and Kitties was ahead of its time. In any case, when we started sending the proposal out six years ago it wasn’t quite the right time, in spite of interest from several agents. In retrospect, my co-author Debbie and I also needed time – that magic elixir – to let our vision of the book evolve. And, although we didn’t plan it, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties is coming out this year, the bicentennial of the original publication of Jane Austen’s classic.
#4 Mood is separate from action
This perspective is one I’ve often heard actors express about auditions. You may feel discouraged or disheartened about getting rejected, or be experiencing an impasse with your writing. That’s perfectly acceptable, and definitely understandable! Put these feelings on a shelf and polish them to a high shine every day, if you want to. Accept the feelings but do not let them influence your action plan, which should be devised and written down ahead of time. Follow your plan for writing or submitting regardless of your mood.
#5 Fate, luck, and other mysterious phenomena can go your way.
The apparent randomness of the universe is even more evident in the world of publishing. We all know terrible books (at least in our opinion) that soar to the top of the best-seller list, and jewels that languish. It’s unpredictable and arbitrary – it’s not fair! But sometimes the very unpredictability that foiled you in the past, lands squarely on your side. Someone will see promise in your manuscript when you least expect it, or something in the news may heighten interest in your story.
I’ve had books accepted two or three days after I sent them out, while others took over 125 submissions. It largely was a matter of finding the right editor or agent, at the right house, at the right time. Trends reverse, new publishing companies start up, old themes become new again. Sooner or later, things let up.
Don’t give up until they do!
“…how do you arrange your documents?”
“In pigeon-holes partly,” said Mr. Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.
“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything gets mixed in pigeon-holes:
I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.” –Middlemarch by George Eliot
I hate clutter. The great Victorian novelist, George Eliot, hated clutter too, so I guess I’m in good company. My daughter, on the other hand, feels perfectly comfortable with clutter. She doesn’t even like to empty the trash on her computer – she says it’s cozier when it’s full!
Uncluttered space in which to write is important to me because the creative process itself is unavoidably messy and unpredictable. If I am going to make a huge mess, at least I can clear space to make way for it.
I have a theory that it is better to allow the way you work (and think) to inform your organizing plan, rather than imposing someone else’s strategy on yourself. That’s why I call it “organic organizing” – because the ideas flow from you. And because they reflect your mind and temperament, you’re much more likely to benefit from them.
Having duly warned you against adopting someone else’s ideas for organizing, I’m going to share five tips to get you started:
Memoir Tip #1. Design your own filing system
Ordinary file folders can be difficult to work with. Small pieces of paper, letters, or cards tend to fall out of them, and it’s time-consuming to remove or replace folders in a filing cabinet. I prefer to use plastic snap or zipper envelopes for various memoir categories, such as “research” “chronology” or “letters.” These envelopes securely hold of scraps of papers or photos, look neat stacked on a desk, and separate various subjects or themes in a way that makes sense to me. Plastic or wooden file drawers are also helpful. You are much more likely to “file as you go” when you can simply open a drawer and toss something in. Baskets also work well for holding manuscripts, photos or books related to your memoir, and you can move a basket from room to room if necessary.
Memoir Tip #2. Create an “anxiety file”
This is a fairly simple concept, and requires only a little inner monitoring. Here’s how it works: if you have an important, letter, yearbook or other document relating to your memoir that you are worried about losing, create an “anxiety file” (or drawer) and put anything you feel anxious about misplacing there. Later, when you are looking for it, you’ll experience a slight uptick in anxiety (What did I do with that old letter? Is it lost forever in some “super-safe” place?). The anxiety surge is your signal that you filed the missing item in the anxiety file. This strategy never fails!
Memoir Tip #3. Play “Name that file.”
Everyone puts off filing; it’s tedious and time-consuming. I suggest you set a timer, say for twenty minutes, and play “name that file” by identifying new categories for unfiled or uncategorized papers.
I bring a chapter of my memoir to my writing group every month. I “named” (and created) files, such as “next Writing Group,” “in process” or “completed.” This works better than a stack of unidentified papers, and the chapter I’m bringing to the writing group is there in its plastic envelope, ready to go.
Memoir Tip #4. Use a student planner to keep track of things
I began using these when my daughter, Annelise, was in elementary school. Maybe it’s the kid in me, but I just love elementary-school day planners (you can get blank ones, without the subjects filled in). The large spiral notebook is hard to misplace, so you don’t lose research notes, stray thoughts you jotted down, insights or inspiration. I highlight anything that is especially important. Later, I rip that page out and file it.
Memoir Tip #5. Store a treasure chest on your computer
Keep a file on your computer for special quotes (including your own), precious bits of writing, dreams, or descriptions. Sure, you can always do a global search on your computer to look for a specific piece of writing, but it’s much easier to find in your treasure-chest file. If the file gets too long, you can create a new one each year.
These are just a few of my favorite tips to get you thinking about organizing organically. We’d love to hear your ideas, so please leave us a comment!
Betsy Ray, the main character in the well-love Betsy-Tac children’s series, loves making lists. Betsy is a budding author, and what author doesn’t like to make lists, especially a list of New Year resolutions? A brand-new year offers a deliciously blank page to make sweeping plans, project massive character transformations, and map out writing goals. And what more worthy goal than resolving to finish your memoir?
But of course, it’s one thing to make an ambitious and well-organized list, and another to follow through on it. Sometimes I can’t even get through New Year’s day without slipping. (No kidding. I just ate a half a jar of blueberry jam and I’ve sworn off sugar.)
My friend, Debbie, teases me about all the self-help books I read. I do read quite a few, and although the majority are probably not all that helpful, every so often I find a jewel of a book, or an exceptional technique to add to my treasure chest of self-help strategies. (Someone should write a self-help digest so I wouldn’t have to wade through so many books.) Genuine self-help, however, comes from closely observing yourself and paying attention to your failures and successes so that you can distill and integrate the best techniques, and make them your own.
Below are 5 tips to help your finish your memoir (or novel) this year. These strategies have helped me work through the final draft of my own memoir, and I hope they will help to you as well.
#1 Hold Hands with Your Story
This is a way of saying keep in touch with your story throughout the days and weeks of the year, even when you’re distracted or otherwise employed. Perhaps because I’m a children’s book author, I visualize this concept as two little girls holding hands. The idea is not to lose contact with your story. During hectic times, you can stay in touch by organizing your research papers, or exploring some aspect of your memoir in your journal. Whatever you do, don’t let go of your best friend’s hand!
#2 Float past Unwelcome suggestions
I wish I could take credit for this brilliant tip, but I owe it the late Dr. Claire Weekes (http://www.claireweekes.com.au/). I have discussed “floating not fighting” in previous posts, but this is a specific suggestion to float past unwelcome suggestions (made by self!) Float right past “This memoir is a piece of $%^&!” or “The market is so crowded – what if I can’t get my book published?” When you float, Dr. Weekes explains, you can either imagine yourself floating past the unwelcome suggestion, or visualize it floating past you. Such suggestions may sound authoritative and powerful, but they fade quickly when you learn to float past them.
#3 Take up the Slack
I think of this as having someone holding one end of a rope by encouraging you to keep going or helping you stick to a deadline, while you hang on to the other. By doing this, the other person keeps the rope pleasantly taut, tugging a bit when it goes limp from your end. It can be difficult to finish a book when you’re accountable only to yourself. You may write consistently, but without a deadline the work has a devious tendency to expand to fill all the available time you have, indefinitely. If you are lucky enough to have an editor or agent for your memoir, she will hold the other end of the rope. If you don’t have such a person, you can enlist a writing group, or a friend. It’s comforting as well as efficacious to have someone else on the other end of the rope – or the telephone line.
#4 Make use of small pockets of time
A pocket is cozy and portable at the same time, which makes it an appealing concept. When writing a rhyming children’s book, for instance, it’s easy for me to use small pockets of time to work out a difficult rhyme or rhythm pattern. But it’s harder to make use of fifteen minutes or even half an hour when you are trying to develop a theme in your memoir or recreate a scene from the past, especially one that is highly charged emotionally. But it’s not impossible! You can use small nuggets of time to plan your next chapter, or talk to someone about a problem you’re having with your story. It’s another way of holding hands with your memoir.
#5 Tell the story aloud.
I’ve written about how important storytelling is for developing your natural writer’s voice. Often, in my writing group, someone will explain in vivid detail an episode or idea that was left out or undeveloped in her manuscript. We relax when talking informally, allowing for a fuller, deeper narrative.
Recently I was talking to my friend, Paula, about how confused I was as a young adult in the 1960s trying to figure out how to become a published writer. I had no idea how or where to begin, not only within a story, but within a tradition. That much I had written in my memoir. But when talking to Paula, I went on to explain, “I imagined writing a book that would combine lots of different elements – the novels of George Eliot, feminist Kate Millet’ Sexual Politics, th O books, and Aretha Franklin’s soul music. You know what I mean,” I went on, “something brilliantly perceptive, uncompromisingly feminist, yet with a naïve childlike-quality and a touch of the blues, all woven together with the beauty and warmth of a countryquilt.” (No wonder I was confused!) What I told Paula in a casual telephone conversation was richer and more illustrative than what I had written.
I hope these 5 tips help you complete your memoir in 2013. But wait – one last tip! Don’t forget to play with your story. The concept of playing is crucial in creating, no matter what the tone or content of your work.
Happy working and playing in 2013! Please drop by and tell us how you’re doing.