If you want to write – a book! Part I

“Wanted: someone willing to sit for hours in front of a blank page and come up with words and sentences which will hopefully become riveting fiction, compelling memoir or beautiful poetry. Financial compensation: potentially zero. Benefits: an excuse to avoid working, housecleaning, laundry, and exercise. “ During a recent promotional event for the People of Yellowstone book at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, many visitors asked me if I knew when Old Faithful would erupt, but some stopped by our display table to peruse the book and ask questions about writing. Several said that they would like to write a book, too. Some imagined they would write fiction, but most wanted to write about their own life. “How do you begin a memoir?” they asked. “What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?” Why do people think they want to write a book? I asked myself. I’m not sure if I can answer this for others, but I do know that writing is a wonderful and mysterious heroic journey during which it’s possible to make amazing discoveries about our self and the world. “Heroes take journeys, confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves,” says Carol Pearson, author of The Hero Within. I think we can say the same thing about initiating a writing project. It’s a heroic feat. But how does it begin? Most of us wouldn’t consider entering into hand-to-hand combat or a tennis tournament without some training, but to accomplish a piece of writing – a short story, essay, or even a book – it is possible to hone your skills on the job. The first requirement is to put words […]

Truth Be Told

“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]

Musings on Memoir

In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller. The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now. We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self. Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box.  Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story. Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story.. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel. The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking […]

What is Memoir?

    Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer. A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a […]

Write, Eat, Walk, Write: Food for Thought

    One of my challenges in the writing process is how to stay connected to whatever I’m working on and enough distance, at the same time, to have a perspective on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes writing can feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can work for hours laying down sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared. Even though I’m the one who stocks the frig, something new and different might have arrived mysteriously between paragraphs.   Amazingly, this little trip away from the desk helps the writing process almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head. Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I think I’m being clear, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must reread and edit as if she knows nothing and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work.  But how can we achieve this?   Novelist Zadie Smith suggests putting a finished manuscript in a drawer – a year is ideal, she says, or as long as you can manage – so that you can become more of a stranger to your book and eventually read it in a new […]
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    When Friends Ask for a Critique of Their Writing: The Science and the Fiction

When Friends Ask for a Critique of Their Writing: The Science and the Fiction

HRH could be conferring with a friend about her book, but perhaps she should have asked Ray Bradbury. Ray was not only a highly motivated and prolific writer, but also a ferocious reviser. He said, “When you write – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! Then give yourself enough time to think, cut, rework, and rewrite.” If and when he did show his work to others before publication, he had already logged double-digit revisions. But, most of the rest of us earthling writers need support and encouragement along the road to the finished product. There are those writers who show their manuscript to no one until they think it’s ready for publication, but often, when I’m still revising, I like a nudge now and then from a carefully chosen reader who will be honest enough to say that they have no sense of what I’m trying to say, or they lost interest after the first paragraph, or they just couldn’t figure out what my characters were trying to do. This usually happens when I don’t know what I’m trying to say and I’ve wandered off into a thicket of ideas.  My reader is not going to tell me what to do or how to find my way, however they might offer a clue or notice that there is too much of something and not enough of something else. Perhaps I won’t agree with my helpful reader – but I was the one who asked! Now I can decide if and how I’ll revise. Something mysterious happens, though, when a friend asks me to read their work. Suddenly, in spite of having critiqued many manuscripts, I doubt my […]

Truth and Consequences: When family and friends see themselves in your writing

(a workshop presented at a meeting of the SE Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association in Groton, Connecticut, October 21, 2013) People will always assume that what you write is true – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.   We cannot know in advance what people will be offended by  – and sometimes you will be shocked. They may resent that you haven’t included them enough in your story.   Vivian Gornick – author of “The Situation and the Story” says that good writing must do two things. It must be alive on the page and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.   Writers of all genres wrestle with putting autobiographical material in their work – and writing things in which friends and relatives might recognize themselves.   For writers who write memoir this is an especially important question. In fiction you can use false names, new settings, or even a different ending to the story. Memoir offers no such hiding places.   With family stories, the stakes are particularly high – especially if family members are still alive. You have to make ethical and practical decisions at every stage of the writing.   You have to decide – what is yours to explore and what should be respectfully left out.   (a large part of this decision is related to what really needs to be in the story. There are some things that should be left out simply because they don’t actually contribute to the story)   Every writer has to make the determination of what is too private and how to know when enough has been said and all writers approach this control differently.   For example, Paul Austin, an emergency room physician who wrote a memoir entitled: “Something for the pain” wrote about his feelings […]

What prompted that? Looking for inspiration in the writing process

    Recently – as I tried to jumpstart another essay – or at least get a few words on the page, I felt that familiar numbness spreading down my shoulders and arms and paralyzing my fingertips on the keyboard. Instead of writing I was listening to the little voice from writer’s hell that likes to play with my common sense. Some writers call it monkey mind. When it happens to me, I feel confused and drained of ideas at the same time.  Of course you have ideas, I prodded myself, but my genius moments were just wisps of smoke –  amorphous, intangible, lost in the jungle undergrowth of my mind. Accessible only to the chimp in my brain. When I reached up to snatch a thought, it was nothing but air. Not even a gnat’s wing of substance.   Dr. Beatrice Hinkle,  who opened the first psycho-therapeutic clinic in the United States at Cornell Medical College in the 1920s and specialized in treating artists, wrote, “ Every writer, …suffers from periods of drought, in which not a trickle flows. He is in full command …carried along on a flood of creation.”   I love her generous sprinkling of adverbs. Hinkle is certainly not the first or only therapist who has tried to understand artistic temperament and productivity, but I like the simple way she describes what is fundamentally an indescribable process; the torturous road of creativity where putting one foot in front of the other seems like an Olympic […]

Why I Write

A recent issue of The Writer magazine featured writer Alice Hoffman speaking about how and why she writes. On the subject of reading and writing she says “Writing serves the purpose that reading used to serve for me. I always feel like reading save my life because it was a place for me to escape. I feel like quitting all the time, but the act of writing is like being in an ecstatic state. It’s like being high because you are not there. You’re experiencing something on a different plane.”   I feel what she means about writing, but what exactly do I feel? Making a list is always a good thing to do when this kind of question comes up. Here is my list of eighteen reasons why I write:   To understand what I’m thinking. To revisit places and people of the past via my imagination. To entertain myself. To feel the magic triangle between ideas, the pen on the page and the written result. To dig for buried treasure. To reflect on common things. To reflect on extraordinary things. To approach an understanding of human nature. To contemplate death. To open a window in my brain. To translate experience into understanding. To be with others through language. To discover my childhood. To describe. To play with words. To find lost worlds. To remember To forget.

The Adventure of Travel Writing

Travel has a way of slowing you down, says author and traveler Rolf Potts, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end on your return home. It can be one of the benefits of planning, before the trip,  to write about experiences on the road. I love this notion of living each day with the anticipation and exhilaration of seeing, hearing and smelling a place for the first time – even if I’m visiting my living room. But what is travel writing – today?  A look at styles, purpose and tradition is worth a moment of consideration as we gather pen, paper, journal and IPad before setting out on a journey. There are writers who create “service” articles and guides – those helpful hints about what to do, for example, if you come upon a shark while swimming off the coast of Australia, or how to find the oldest church among the thirteen in San Miguel de Allende, or the best restaurant in Los Gatos, CA, (where they claim to have the best restaurant in the US) or the site of a Civil War battle in New Jersey (did they battle that far North?). And then there are those writers who take us on their journey. They might be searching for ancestral roots in Poland or describing how they managed to know how to behave at a luncheon with members of the Communist Party in China. The common thread among travel writers dedicated to a […]