Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What You Should Read

Read, read, read.  Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.  Read!  You'll absorb it.  Then write.  If it is good, you'll find out.  If it's not, throw it out the window.
                                                                                    --William Faulkner

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Turn Your Life into Art

After my memoir students read their work, they sometimes say "true story!"

I say, "tell me your truth, but shape it in a way that takes us from the doldrums and startles us into a new grasp of our strange and remarkable lives."

In other words, turn real life into art. The author must establish right away a reason for the reader to be attentive at all.  Structure your experience; be concrete and vivid.  Fill your work with sensory details, metaphors and lively rhythm. Then the reader will feel the personal story along with you.  By experiencing it, the reader begins to care about it, because your experience has now become his/her own.

Observe your life from every angle, then fashion what you see through a voice that is yours alone. You should be active, authentic and consistent.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Moments of Being

The memories that can have the most emotional impact for the writer are those we don't really understand, the images that rise up before us quite without our volition.  For example, the flash of our mother's face as she sips from a cooled cup of coffee, her eyes betraying some private grief you've never seen before; or the smell of grapefruit ripening on a tree outside your bedroom window.  Perhaps the touch of a stranger's hand reminds you of the way your grandmother casually grasped your hand in her own, the palm so soft but the knuckles so rough, as you sat together watching television, not speaking a word.
These are the river teeth, or the moments of being, the ones that suck your breath away. What repository of memory do you hold in your heart rather than your head?  What are the pictures that rise up to the surface without your bidding?  Take these as your cue. Pick up your pen, your net, your magnet, whatever it takes.  Be on alert.  This is where you begin.

From Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Greatest Betrayal of All

I found the following nugget in the Sunday, October 6, 2013 NYT Sunday Review from an Opinion by Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical School. The article is about the impact of betrayals in our lives.  The last lines are:
Moving forward in life is hard or even, at times, impossible, without owning a narrative of one's past.  Isak Dinesen has been quoted as saying "all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them."  Perhaps robbing someone of his or her story is the greatest betrayal of all.
I couldn't agree more.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Using Lists in Writing

Sometimes lists in writing can provide rhythm and rich detail for a strong effect.

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien has excellent examples.  For instance:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.  Among the necessities or near necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations,and two or three canteens of water.  Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds. . . .

In one of my humorous short stories, my father used a flip chart listing the basic reasons why my mother should marry him.  She liked the presentation and accepted his proposal.


Friday, October 11, 2013

First Paragraphs are So Important

Let's consider the first paragraph of We the Animals by Justin Torres. I quote:

We wanted more.  We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry.  We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men.  We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.  We wanted muscles on our skinny arms.  We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight.  We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

Notice how the details make this paragraph singe, as well as the repetition of "We" as the first word in every sentence.  The number six referring to hands and feet make it vivid and chaotic.  Lots of crashing traffic in this paragraph, we catch our breath in the second.

Justin Torres sets the bar high in writing take offs.  But in the book's landing, I was a bit disappointed. Never mind, the magical images are soaring.  Well worth the read.  A slim book, 125 pp.



Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Write Down Your Secrets

Don't hide any events of your life that cause you anxiety or pain.  It's not necessary to reveal them to others, but write them down for yourself.  Examine them, bury the notebook but don't let those things pollute your other writing.  Whatever is hidden or secretive will look for a way out.  You'll write about a grilled cheese sandwich and bubbling up in the middle of the cheese will be incest, deception or adultery.  Claiming it, exploring it, will free you.  This doesn't mean that you have to make it public. 
I have written stories for the drawer.  One in particular I decided to pull out years later, edit and submit.  Now it has been published in Zest Literary Journal, issue number two. There are other stories left in the bottom of the drawer.  Some will be dragged out in the future, some never.
Only when your secrets are on the page and not concealed will they stop haunting you. 
This is taken in part from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg.  I recommend this book whether your write fiction or memoir.  A wonderful read, full of exercises to elevate and transform your muse.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Truth in Memoir

The purpose of memoir is to capture the essence of the narrator rather than factual life details.

Memory is a very personal and changeable thing.  The actual year or season or time of day shifts to a different one.  Many details are lost.  The writer may need to consciously adjust minor details in the interest of clarity.  Sometimes events need to be reordered to make the narrative work.

It's often necessary to approximate dialogue.  No one can recall word for word what happened decades ago.

Leave out whatever makes the story too complicated for a reader to grasp.  But feel honor bound to capture the essence of the interaction in the events in the dialogue.  Memoir is, after all, supposed to be a true story (one that represents as closely as possible the experience); you have an obligation to the reader to make it that.

We have to make peace with the possibility that there is no more absolute truth in memoir than there is in life.  The task is to decide where, in each story, the integrity--the honest heart of the story--rests, while at the same time giving due respect to the events as they are remembered.

The truth, however we define it, is often hard to tell.  First there's the pain we can cause ourselves in the very act of of getting close enough to the truth to write it down.  Then there is the fear of self-disclosure that might cause embarrassment, social ostracism or loss of family and friends.  We know in advance about the raised eyebrows, the turned backs, the gossip.

Telling your truths--the difficult and joyful ones--is a big part of what makes for good writing.  It's also what brings you peace in the process of of writing.  You want to see your writing grow, to find your daily work absorbing, to discover how you improve.  None of this will happen if you shy away from the truth.  The rewards you seek are the rewards that go with courage; you take the risk and you feel the satisfaction of becoming a better writer.

That doesn't mean your memoir needs to be a tell-all confessional or a desire for revenge.  It's that unique blend of truth and art that can touch a reader's heart.

Much of this information comes from Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington.


Progress On My Second Novel

The main problem in my second novel is drawing out the female protagonist. She is 21, admitted to a psych ward of a hospital after a suicide...