Search Results for: memoir

How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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I wrote a trauma recovery memoir in lockdown – what now?

This email just arrived.

I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.

Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.

So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.

You don’t need an editor yet

The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.

Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing

You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.

Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.

The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft

We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.

For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.

Not just about you

For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.

There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.

They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger –  you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.

You

You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.

Writercraft

As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.

You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.

Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.

Other points about structure

There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.

How many characters?

You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.

Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.

Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.

A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.

To answer the question: do you need an editor?

An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.

Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.

Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.

Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.

This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.

First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.

Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould

  1. Embrace cliches
  2. Don’t write what you know.

That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.  

Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?

Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)

Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.

I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)

I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.

Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.

Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.

Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?

Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.

Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.

Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.

Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.

Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”

Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.

Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.

But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.

In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.

Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…

Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?

Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.

Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.

Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.

Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.

Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.

Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.

Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.

If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.

Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.

Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.

Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?

Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.

Roz Did they see the manuscript?

Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.

Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.

Scott Endings are always hard, right?

Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.

Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.

For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.

Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?

Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.

Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.

Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.

Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.

I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.

I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.

 Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?

Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.

 Roz Do you have a literary agent?

Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.

Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.

Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?

Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.

Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?

Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.

Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?

Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.

Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?

Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.

Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.

Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?

Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.

 Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.

Find Scott on Facebook Twitter @Scott_Gould and his website. Things That Crash, Things That Fly is published on 10 March 2021 by Vine Leaves Press but you can grab a copy right now.  

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write a memoir about difficult times

I’ve had this question from Julia.

I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.

First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.

How to write the diary

You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.

You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.

Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.

Do this every day, or as often as you can.

Don’t edit

Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.

Add context

When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.

Don’t delete

This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.

This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.

Start planning the book

After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.

Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?

We are made of many memoirs

At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.

Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.

From my interview with Peter Selgin, author of The Inventors

Other aspects to consider

You need to be objective, honest and fair, which is hard – see this interview with Peter Selgin.

Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).

More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write your memoir – Ep39 FREE podcast for writers

Remember me. The haunting refrain of Dido’s Lament begins this episode. Today we’re dsicussing the most personal kind of writing – memoir. Why would you write a memoir? Revenge? Relief? To make a memorial? Or simply to find a use for your diaries? To tell the unseen things nobody ever knew about you? And here’s the next question: who will read it? Also, what should you include and what should you leave out?

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Memoir: how we write about ourselves – an interview with Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin

How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?

I’ve posted before about memoir from various perspectives and of course I’ve had own dabblings, with Not Quite Lost.

For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University.  He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)

Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?

Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.

I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.”  It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.

In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.

When your agent disagrees

Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing.  We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?

Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.

Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.

Writing about real people

Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.

An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?

Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).

The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.

Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.

Unreliable narrators?

Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.

Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.

Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.

Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?

Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.

The eclectic writer

Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse.  You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?

Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.

Roz Neither do I.

When we teach writing…

Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?

Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?

Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.

Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.

Aside from Roz: You might like Peter’s series on Jane Friedman’s blog, Your First Page , a spin-off of one of his writing craft books.                    

Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?

Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”

Find Peter and his books here and connect with him on Twitter @PeterSelgin . Find his beautiful artwork here.

And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news

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Writing memoir, taking control, long-term careers – talking to Victoria Dougherty about the 21st century author

What qualities characterise a 21st century author? I got talking about this with my friend Victoria Dougherty and she wanted to chew over it properly on her podcast.

You might recognise Victoria because she’s been on this blog several times. She’s a prime example of the phenomenon we’re discussing. She writes historical thrillers and memoirs and develops into new genres as life goes on – because real authors don’t stand still and they know the world doesn’t either. We talk about indie and traditional publishing and the pros and cons of each, the peculiar challenges of memoir, how we love travel writing and places that are weird and adorable, Vladimir Nabokov, some guilty pleasures and how the fiction we’re writing affects the outfits we wear (very serious question). Do come over.

And if you’re curious to know more about my own adventures, here’s my latest newsletter

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Personal journeys: 2 posts about writing Not Quite Lost and memoir – Joanna Penn and Clare Flynn

Well that headline was a mouthful, but these two posts share a common theme.

I’m at The Creative Penn today talking about the process of turning a set of personal diaries into a book for outside readers. We cover the thorny topics of writing about real people, staying faithful to the truth, organising material – and also when a personal account might be better left quietly in a drawer.

As usual with the wonderful Joanna, you can read a transcript, download an audio or watch us wave our hands and crook our eyebrows on video. And there’s an appearance of the actual diary that started it all (now looking rather tattered). This is the direct video link, if that’s your thing.

I’m also at Clare Flynn’s blog, with a more leisurely conversation about personal journeys – from my own writing journey, to creating the book, to a provocative statement from Anthony Burgess. He said all literature was mostly about sex. If you want to chew that over, step this way. Oh, and there’s also an ‘ahhh’ moment with a big old friend.

 

 

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Dear me: how fiction authors adapt to writing memoir

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my newsletter you’ll have seen I’m taking a creative interlude to work on a collection of travel memoir pieces. It’s a new kind of book for me and it’s raising some interesting challenges, particularly as I’m used to the freedoms of fiction.

So I thought I’d gather together a few other fictioneers who’ve crossed into memoir to discuss the differences.

Let’s meet our novelists-turned-memoirists.

Jean Gill

Jean Gill @writerjeangill has published in a wide variety of genres – historical fiction, fiction in translation, teen novels and a goat cheese cookbook. Her memoir, How Blue Is My Valley, is an as-it-happens account of her first year living in Provence.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers, who you might recognise from The Undercover Soundtrack and this post about ghostwriters and their soul projects,  had two novels published by small literary publishers, and then a big bestseller with her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which kicked off a career as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. She has continued to write fiction, and her second memoir is an account of her hybrid publishing adventures: First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell @msbessiebell will also be familiar from The Undercover Soundtrack. She’s a musician, writing coach, graphic designer and publisher, has released seven books of fiction and verse. Her memoir is GO: A Memoir about Binge-drinking, Self-Hatred and Finding Happiness about her dysfunctional childhood, teen years and music career.

Real events

The most obvious difference between novels and memoir is, of course, real events. And this creates an artistic problem. Real life is messy; it lacks the structures that do much of a novel’s work. Personally I’m enjoying it; the need to stay within boundaries is a challenge. I asked my authors about the main challenges they faced with their material.

 

Joni: ‘The least interesting thing in a cancer memoir is the cancer. I had to distil the complex medical aspects of the story in a way that did justice to my experience while maintaining a compelling pace for the reader. I won’t even pretend I did that on autopilot. I had a terrific editor with an unsparing eye.’

Jean faced an additional challenge with her book because she was writing without a predetermined shape. It was a day-to-day diary of events as they unfolded. ‘Authors with any sense write memoirs looking back, so they can find patterns and resolutions. Instead, I was writing the book ‘live’ as workmen destroyed the house around me and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I haven’t kept a diary since the ones I gave up as a teenager with cryptic codewords.’

Jean says her approach paid off, though. ‘Fans have told me this is part of the book’s charm. The immediacy of all those first impressions, of being in love with Provence, is not filtered by artistic shaping. Moving to another country is always about what you take with you: physically, mentally and emotionally. I came to understand that from writing my memoir.’

How we come across

One of the hardest things to judge with such a personal book is how we’re coming across. As the writer, we know everything and the reader knows nothing, and I know I’m going to be relying on beta readers more heavily than usual. Joni and Jessica say they couldn’t have done it without editorial support.

Joni: ‘Beta readers and a good editor are crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to be edited and mentored by amazing professionals at Big Five publishers and prestigious small presses, so maybe I’m spoiled, but candidly, I was disappointed in the editor I hired to do First You Write. Even more disappointed in the copy editor. Fortunately, my beta readers were top drawer. The Midwives, my critique group at the time, was an amazing posse of well-read, widely published authors, including Barbara Taylor Sissel and Colleen Thompson. That crit group was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally and personally.’

Jessica says she also could not have done without a professional editor. She began by writing her book as vignettes, then attempted to fill the gaps. But I knew deep down that they were not satisfactory. When I invested in a professional editor, I discovered that many details were lacking. Because I knew my life so well, I didn’t have the same need, or instinct, to explore every fine detail like I do when writing fiction. When writing fiction, I am completely immersed in the details, and also creating those details for myself. When writing memoir, those details already exist. It’s so easy to not realize they aren’t apparent to your reader. The effort it took to dig them out was my biggest hurdle. I felt like I was constantly repeating myself, when in fact, I wasn’t at all. It’s really interesting how unreliable we are as writers of our own lives. I now know that I will still need that editor with my second, third, and fourth memoir.’

(Modest shuffling of feet: Jessica’s first editor was me. To slip into that role for a moment, I’ve worked on many memoirs and each time it’s a special privilege to be invited to help shape such personal material. I also happen to know that Jessica’s editor for the second version was Dan Holloway, so – a shout-out to him.)

Jean had an unexpected source of feedback when her memoir was being made into an audiobook: ‘If you want to know how you come across, nothing beats having to listen to the narration and having to explain to a top voice actor just how funny you thought that sentence was. Even now, the thought makes me hot with embarrassment.’

Real people

Inevitably some people in our memoir will be recognisable. What do we do about that?

Jean says: ‘I changed the names of all but immediate family and I let my sisters read it beforehand, so they could raise any objections. They didn’t.’

I’ve also been contacting people who are recognisable and letting them read the relevant excerpts. And Jean brings up another principle that I’m following: ‘I considered every word I wrote from the viewpoint of that person reading about themselves. Ask me again in a year’s time as the book is being translated into French, so all the villagers will be able to read it. My hairdresser has promised to let me know if we need to sell up and leave the village.’

Jessica says she asked permission from family and close friends to reveal their true identities. And that was nerve-wracking – I remember having a conversation with her behind the scenes on Facebook as she gathered the courage to show the manuscript to her mother.

‘I’m very lucky they gave permission,’ she says. ‘For those I don’t have contact with (or don’t wish to contact) I’ve changed physical attributes, names, and certain characteristics. Sometimes three people have been merged into one character. People who know me and the people in my memoir will most likely be able to work out who is who; I don’t think there is any way to avoid this. The only thing we can do is change our characters enough so that they can’t be recognised by random readers.’

Joni had to write about her family in close detail during traumatic events, especially her husband, Gary. I asked whether that was awkward.  ‘I did struggle with this invasion of Gary’s privacy. He was supportive in a very unexpected way: he didn’t read the book. He said he wanted me to tell the story I needed to tell without feeling like he was looking over my shoulder. To this day, he hasn’t read it. The one concession he asked was that I decline an option on film rights, even though we desperately needed the money. Chemo left us bankrupt. Thanks, American healthcare system! When the film option came up, our children were still small, and I wasn’t in remission. Gary and I agreed that if I died, a movie could be confusing and unhealthy for our kids in later years.’

With that in mind, I think we need a brief feelgood interlude. Here’s a very soppy picture of Joni and Gary.

 

The difficult memories

Jessica had to steel herself to revisit some of the events in her book and was tempted to leave them out. ‘I had a really hard time writing about them. But my editor convinced me to bite the bullet.’ (Just call me Rozweiler.)

Joni also had to grapple with difficult memories. ‘My desire to help other women with cancer far outweighed any awkwardness. Cancer destroyed me physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and financially, and while I was in that crucible, I craved honest conversation about taboo topics like money and sex. To leave out the awkward and even humiliating moments in that story would have been a disservice to readers with cancer, and it would have felt dishonest to me.’

What to leave out?

And not everything belongs in your memoir. Joni says: If life is a sprawling country garden, a memoir is a cut flower arrangement. Choices have to be made, and some are difficult. Here again, I have to sing the praises of my editor, the late, great Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins. Throughout the process, Marjorie focused a single beam of light—the book’s reason for being—on every anecdote, character, sentence, syllable. Much of what I know and practise as an editor now, I learned from Marjorie as we worked through Bald in the Land of Big Hair and my subsequent novel, The Secret Sisters. She never told me what to do, but she always asked the right questions.’

That pruning process might not be straightforward. Jean says that at the time of writing, one of her children was very depressed, and she found her own feelings of helplessness overwhelming. ‘This memoir wasn’t about trauma or therapy so the details of my private life were irrelevant. But I felt silly writing happy little thoughts without acknowledging that pain. This is how I dealt with it. I acknowledged it for the only person who mattered to understand:

‘Happiness is an utterly selfish emotion. How can you be happy when someone close to you, isn’t? How can you be happy in the face of war, starvation, poverty… And yet. How does your misery change others’ lives for the better? Who is helped by your depression? Isn’t it from some kind of secure self that you can reach out a helping hand?’

We are made of many memoirs

But Jessica says each of us might have many memoirs in us. ‘Just because something has happened in your life, that doesn’t mean it has a place in the memoir. For example, to the disappointment of those who have gotten to know me online, this memoir doesn’t talk much about my writing career. That’s an entirely different story, unrelated to my child- and teen-hood, and love life and music. And then there’s my humorous and devastating story of running a café-bar in Ithaca, Greece. I realised these didn’t belong in GO. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is confident and ambitious. And they need their own book.’

So let’s sum up. Here’s the gathered wisdom on writing a memoir:

  • Beta readers and a good editor are crucial for helping us understand how we come across.
  • Seek permission from real people who will be recognisable, and if possible let them read the relevant sections. Change the details of others so they can’t be identified. Consider every word you write about another person as though they were reading it.
  • If your memoir is about difficult experiences, dig deep and remember that these details are part of the honest journey.
  • Not every experience will fit in one memoir. As with fiction, check that everything serves the story you’re telling. If it doesn’t, consider keeping it for another book.

Thank you to my panel. Here’s where you find them

Jean’s blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @writerjeangill.  Jessica’s website is here and she’s @msbessiebell. Joni says she’ll be hosting a memoir writing retreat this autumn, her website is here or you can follow her on Facebook.

And if you’re curious about the book I’m currently working on, here’s my newsletter.

Bonus! Here’s an episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss the memoirist’s art.

Any insights to share about writing memoir? Or questions? Fire away.

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Should I write a memoir, a novel or a fictionalised memoir?

If you want to write a book from your life experiences, which is the best option? I’ve had this rather interesting question…

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working across the globe as a freelance soldier. I am committing my adventures to text to shine a light on the realities of that world. Far from the blood and gore of Tony Geraghty’s Guns for Hire, I want to explore the personal torment so many go through and the struggles they face in balancing domestic life and freelancing. Would this be better written as a personal recollection or a novel like Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher series?- Michael

My first reaction is, can I be your agent? Wow, what a story. Not many people who offer themselves to the publishing world have such a unique premise. You should definitely write a memoir first. If it does very well, you’ll find yourself asked to write novels anyway. Many successful publishing careers have started with a best-selling memoir – although, of course, there are many memoirs published that don’t hit the big time.

If you have ideas for novels, work them up too to demonstrate that you can be a long-term investment. (If you haven’t, it’s not a deal-breaker. If they’re really keen they’ll send you to someone like me 🙂 )

Are you legally allowed to write it?

Make sure you’re allowed to write this book. In your case it sounds as though you want to focus on the personal story rather than operational details. But many writers with dynamite memoirs can’t publish because of libel laws, the Official Secrets Act or possible death threats.

Libel is when you harm a person’s reputation. You can relate events if you can prove they’re true. If you’re delving into people’s motives you have to be careful, or get the subject’s permission. But don’t let this scare you – people do write quite searching, searing memoirs. Just make sure you’re fully informed.

Publishers will not protect you

Writers often think that if they have a publisher to hide behind, it will protect them. It won’t. Although publishers have lawyers they can show manuscripts to, they usually only do that with the famous or infamous – otherwise it’s not worth paying the fees. (Sorry.) Publishing contracts always have a clause that makes you responsible for any harm (ie legal harm) caused by your book. Even if it’s only a twinkly fairy tale.

Be honest – do you want to be honest?

Are you willing to write honestly and fully about the experience? This is going to be a story about the effect on your family and friends. They won’t all be angels – and if they are, the book won’t ring true. Will they mind if you peel them in public?

I’ve seen many manuscripts from writers who are examining traumatic periods from their lives. While they delve truthfully into their own hell and bad behaviour, they balk at doing the same to their loved ones.

We novel-writers are frequently asked by friends or family if we’ve put them into books. If we deny it, they often don’t believe us. In a memoir there is no cloak of fictionality. They know, without doubt, that you did.

Should you write a fictionalised memoir?

This is the hybrid option – not quite truth, not fully invented. You take a real experience apart and make a story that is true in essence, even if not keeping to the precise detail.

I get approached by a lot of people who want to write about a major change in their lives, such as unusual travel experiences or giving up a high-flying career to start anew in a foreign country. Speaking with my cruel marketing hat on, these are not as unusual as Michael’s story. It’s probably better to mine them for a novel instead, where you have licence to make something bigger and more distinctive than reality. In that case fictionalised memoir might be a good option.

From the moment you cross into fiction, fiction rules apply. Start with what really happened, but do not shrink from adding, cutting and inventing until you have the best story and the most usable characters. What’s the difference between that and ‘real’ fiction, if there is such a thing? Probably not much.

Huh?

Fictionalised memoir is mainly a label to get more attention in an overcrowded market. It says ‘this is a story, but it is written from what I truly lived’. Some readers like that; some are profoundly irritated and want either truth or fiction. They certainly don’t want to question whether you made the best bits up.

Attention!

The problem with being a debut writer is getting attention. Readers – and publishers – buy the author’s story as much as they buy the book. For that there’s a pecking order.

1 – Memoirist – translates as ‘read my book because this is my extraordinary life and it’s fascinating’

2 – Fictional memoirist – ‘read my book because it’s fiction based on my inimitable experiences’

3 – Novelist – ‘read my book, I made it up from extensive research, the depth of my human understanding and the pure dedicated application of my craft’

Believe me, it hurts to write that list. It’s not a comment on quality, simply on the volume of writing that is out there.

The bottom line

Memoir comes with the marketing built in. If you have enough usable material to write a straight memoir, go with the memoir. You’ll start at the top of the debut writers’ pecking order.

You guys may, of course disagree! What would you tell Michael? Share in the comments!

 

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for writing novels in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.My own novel, My Memories of a Future Life is now available. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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