Friday, July 3, 2020

Memoir's Primary Argument--How to Make Sure Your Memoir Has Universal Meaning

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, once said, "The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality.  It's tapping in to your universality."  

A.M. Homes said, "Memoir is about more than you."

My aunt, who is in her 100th year, wrote her memoires.  It was fun to read them, and I learned things about my father's family that I never knew.   This style of memoir follows the Anglo-French definition:  an "account of someone's life." A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to consider the wisdom of memoirists like Strayed and Homes.  Modern memoir is not autobiography.  It focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might.  And it contains a universal element, a meaning, that has nothing to do with the person writing it. 

I'm teaching an afternoon workshop on memoir on July 17 on Zoom, and I've taught this workshop every summer for about five years. This time, I'm looking into the meaning element of memoir, that universality, and how the writer finds it.

I think there are three steps.  First, I believe the writer needs to orient towards a snapshot, a certain pivotal period of time, that changed his or her life in a big way.  Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it's easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir--what might have happened years before which led to this moment,  what happened years later that came as a result.

Second, I think the writer needs to choose where to place the weight of the memoir.  Some memoirists write about the time leading to the pivotal moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not.  A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.

Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it's easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir--what might have happened years before which led to this moment,  what happened years later that came as a result.

Most writers feel they have to include all of their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events.  Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change?  This is where the storyboard comes in so handy.  Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug.  

But the most intriguing step, the one that fascinates me, is discovering the primary argument of the memoir.  This is the key to its universality, and best described through example.

Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen, is about mental illness, being confined to an institution.  To me, it's primary argument is What is sanity, truly?  The argument is not stated outright, not for a while, but it's clear even in the opening scenes.  That's what draws us in, keeps us reading.  The situation is personal, the argument leads to the universal.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, has three storylines:  her training of a hawk, her father's death and her relationship with him, and the author T.H. White's falconry.  Complex story, so I'm guessing at the primary argument, but it is tied to what drew me in:  what we can control, what we can't, and how love appears within that empty space.

Writers often wonder what backstory to include, and where to put it.  The argument tells you.  Only backstory that elucidates it is needed.  If Kaysen included stories of trips to the circus as a young girl but they didn't illustrate the question of sanity, they'd feel off to the reader--the writer stepping in where she wasn't wanted.  

This takes incredible restraint. Because everything is fascinating to us, who lived it.

Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance, talks about the "frame" of a memoir.  Which window will your memoir look out of?  This is another way of getting to the primary argument and one I use in the workshop, because it's also fascinating.  Shapiro's frame concept forces the writer to focus the story in some direction.  Unlike an autobiography, it's heading towards a universal meaning. 

This week, I'll share a writing exercise, a taste of what we'll be exploring in the workshop on July 17.  Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far.  No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just it get on paper.  Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked.    Do they have a common argument, or theme, teaching you something about life?

If you're interested in joining me on Zoom on July 17 for more about memoir, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rest Breaks for Creative Artists--How to Get Your Mojo Back

Perhaps you know these important signs of creative burn out:  an overactive inner critic, a blue feeling about one's work, a sense of deep depletion despite relative safety and well-being.

Of course, relative is the word these days.  But each of us has our baseline.  And if the summer is rolling around with all of these symptoms, you might be giving so much out in your life, you haven't replenish the part of you that brings the good things back.

I've been noticing this myself.  Whenever I'm teaching a lot, as I am now, and my private coaching schedule is full, I see my own burn out happening.  My book-in-progress doesn't work, never will.  I can't find time to write or even think about being creative.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Anger and Grief and Their Place in Writing (an Actual Technique I've Used)

During the height of the riots and fires, I sought ease in mind-candy movies.  One was Tootsie, from the eighties.  It kept me entertained, and although I moved on to another similar film very soon, one scene from Tootsie stayed in my mind, reminding me of a great writing technique I'd used during time of intensity and crisis.

Dustin Hoffman, who plays the lead, is teaching an acting class, trying to get one of his students to feel and act her rage.  She can't.  He provokes her, she gets mad, and the acting blooms.  

Friday, June 5, 2020

Jennifer Egan and Susan Choi on Productivity (or Lack of) during a Pandemic

One of my writing students sent me a link to this wonderful podcast, perfect for our chaotic times--which have only gotten more so.  If you're concerned that you haven't made progress on your epic novel or other masterpiece, you're in good company.

Listen here.  If the link doesn't work, go to bookable.simplecast.com and search for the authors' names.  (And thanks to Gail for the link!)

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Writing through Anxiety--Write On! Video Featuring Author Shelby Kenney-Lang

I love these videos from the writing school in Boston, Grub Street, featuring their instructors sharing techniques they're using to keep writing during these unprecedented times.  

Here's video from author Shelby Kenney-Lang, who describes a technique he used to write a new essay that was published in the Green Mountain Review.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Unexpected "Container" in an Award-Winning Novel: An Interview with Ginger Eager

Not just because she's a generous, insightful member of my monthly writer's group.  Not just because her book won the coveted AWP award for the first novel. I fell in love with Ginger Eager's The Nature of Remains for the strong female characters and the unique place she writes about.  

Not unusual for a Southern novelist to be enamored with place.  Ginger Eager comes from Georgia and she set her novel in the fictional Georgia town of Flyshoals, but the larger setting of the book is its geological history.  The soil in that part of Georgia is riddled with amethysts.  The Nature of Remainsis about the people who circle that geological wealth, both the criminals who dig and sell it, and the families affected by their passion.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Using the Enneagram's 9 Personality Types to Create Vivid Characters in Fiction and Memoir


No one likes to be categorized or typecast, but when it comes to creating vivid characters on the page, I find the personality system of the Enneagram a life saver.

Twenty-some years ago, when I first began studying this system, not many people knew about it.  It had no huge institutes or psychologists tooting it, as it does now.  It was Greek and new age, a little odd.  My introduction was through Eli Jaxon-Bear, whose book, From Fixation to Freedompromoted an Eastern approach that appealed to me.  Later I discovered the more Western approach  used like Myers-Briggs typing and promoted by Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their Enneagram Institute.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

Unexpected Blessings of Writing by Hand: What Other Writers Find in Their Handwriting That's Not on Their Computer

Do you know "BrainPickings," the online newsletter/digest put together by Maria Popova?  (If you don't, it's worth a look.)  Popova recently wrote about her favorite books from 2019 and one was by the poet Ross Gay, called The Book of Delights.  In this article, Popova discusses Ross Gay's enjoyment of writing by hand, something not usual to writers in this super-fast electronic era.  

Writing by hand is slow, thoughts can come faster than they can be scribed.  But I read about more and more writers who swear by the practice.  Either for early drafts, sketching out ideas, even revision.

A colleague in this club tells me her handwritten scenes always contain unexpected blessings--ideas she would never have encountered otherwise.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Creative Resistance to Hard Times--Guest Blog by Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Ellen Prentiss Campbell's Known By Heart: Collected Stories, appeared May 1 (Apprentice House Press). In 2016 her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams(Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her story collection Contents Under Pressure (National Book Award nominee) were published. Ellen's home in Washington D.C., hosting an online book group for children, writing essays, reading War and Peace and mysteries, and making soup. 

I've invited her to share her view on creativity and Covid times, as her new book launches.  

Looking back, we see the signs. It was coming for us, not reserved for others, not restricted to Over There. But denial is a powerful force. The pandemic arrived stealthily, catching most of us absorbed in routine. Startling us, kidnapping us, blowing away our routine, our assumptions, our plans. The lights went out on Broadway; the stay-at-home mandates swept across the land. Even if we were lucky and healthy, we were hostages, grieving lost expectations, fearful, and uncertain.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Refining Your Writing Space for Sheltering at Home

One of my favorite writing treats when life seemed normal was an afternoon at our local coffee shop. Surrounded by a dozen others, all plugged into their laptops and earbuds, we wrote.  Sun came in the big windows, I sank into my leather chair, and I sipped a new choice of tea in the coffee shop's huge mugs.   
I wrote at home too, when my family was out of the house.  But mostly at the coffee shop.  I was insanely productive there, even with the music and crowd and cramped space.

Then my coffee shop went to take-out only. For the first month of Covid life, my writing stalled completely, so I didn't even miss the coffee shop.  After a month, I began missing my story. But where to write?