Sunday, August 23, 2015

Writing memoir: Pacing

When we speak of pacing in fiction, we are talking about the interweave of narrative, description, dialogue, and conflicts and decisions. The plot pulls the story along and keeps the reader turning the pages. In some ways, how much or how little of these elements you use is subjective. Consider what you like when you read. For example, I prefer not too much dialogue but I enjoy intricate descriptions of the characters’ inner workings, what he or she is thinking and feeling and why they react they way they do. I love descriptions filled with sensual imagery and unusual metaphors or similes.

When we begin to write our memoirs, we may not be thinking about plot. We may be writing down the basic story of what happened and what we think about it. But if we use the same craft elements for memoir as fiction, we will write something dynamic, fascinating and true to the holistic arch of the story.

The pace of the story is determined by the descriptions. Too many and the reader will start to disconnect; too few and it will not be vivid enough. Descriptions carry us along and work best interspersed with dialogue and plot. It's all in the details. As a writer, you need to transport readers into your setting and time period as well as to make connections to the universal truths in their own lives.

Description, dialogue and decisions move the plot along.
The main character is you: how do you write about yourself and show a personality worthy of your reader’s emotional investment? Start with vulnerability and courage on the page. Then through description, dialogue, and the decisions you made, you show that you are unique and yet flawed; that you acted on desires and sought solutions that may or may not have worked; that you are a real person with inner conflicts, quirky personality traits, motivated by the same things that motivate us all: to discover the key to understanding, the gift of insight, the ability to change. You want the reader to see the world through your eyes. At the same time, this is not a persuasive essay. This is your life, in all its messy twists and turns and wrong assumptions and judgments and aha! moments and love and tenderness and awakening. Nevertheless, you want to write in a way that makes sense to readers, that follows either the structure of before, during and after (before I was hurt, unhappy, unhealthy, struggling, abused, confused, etc and then I did this and this happened and afterwards, I was healed; found joy, acceptance and friendship; became a better person; became stronger, etc) whether or not you write in a linear time frame or use backstory, or you can use the Hero’s journey as a template: the call to adventure, the encounter with guides and mentors, given seeming impossible tasks and a protagonist you must conquer (even if it is your own doubts, fears, and weaknesses), leading to receiving the reward of insight, wisdom, or change.

Tension moves the story along. Tension is created through inner and / or outer conflicts. Inner conflicts are psychological or moral--desires, choices, reactions, beliefs, hopes and dreams. Outer conflicts include relationships, the sequence of events, heritage, family expectations, social-historical context, challenges such as health challenges or outer circumstances such as poverty, war, famine, or racism. The desire to be a free spirit while my culture and family told me that I needed to earn a living is one of the conflicts that underpin my stories of growing into adulthood. Or the tension between pleasing a loved one I disagree with while suppressing a desire to be heard and respected is another.

Decisions move the plot along. Decisions are ways the character makes choices that determine their fate, such as where they end up, how they feel, their relationships, and their gained insight or wisdom or change of attitude, perception or understanding.

Dialogue is natural; it is the way we interact with the world. It can be as simple as a few sentences. Too much dialogue and the piece will seem weightless and insubstantial. It can be used to illuminate the setting, tell the back story, show a relationship between characters, give information about the characters or the circumstances the character is in or the characters’ beliefs and attitudes. It captures the nuances of the characters’ speech patterns, especially if there is an accent, special verbal ticks, or particularities. It can show where a character is from, what they know, what they want. 

Each character should have a unique viewpoint and should sound unlike the others. Characters can be defined based on what they ask or tell as well as what they refuse to reveal.

Dialogue can replace long narratives to move the pace along with information that is important but not essential to tell in detail. It can transition between time periods. It can heighten tension, as when two characters disagree or be a way to shed light on how others perceive you.

Plot keeps the reader turning the pages.
Plots move from a conflict, challenge, quest or question, to resolution, transformation or change of attitude, perception or understanding. The main character is changed in some way.

Just like fiction, a personal essay or memoir has to include an inciting incident. Something has to happen to set off a physical, emotional, and/or intellectual reaction. For example, if you wrote an argument between your brother and your mother in which your brother wants your mother to stop riding her motorcycle, you'd want to denote what started that argument and whether the argument was about safety or about seeking control in the family or generational and personality conflicts.

Memoir is both a story of your inner knowledge and your experiences of interaction with the world: family, friends, lovers, mentors, guides. You also have antagonists: those who tighten the tension by misunderstanding, physical or emotional mistreatment, judgment, intolerance, even by being overbearing and meddlesome. Your antagonist could be your loved ones with expectations or friends who mislead you or demand misplaced loyalty. He/she can be a mentor who is competitive or a spiritual guide who misuses his power.

All these elements can be woven together in a way that bring you as the character to life but also keep the reader engaged and on the edge of their seat to see what happens to you.

A surprise delights the reader. It has to seem authentic and realistic. In other words, the events leading up to it must point towards it in some way.

Not all endings are positive and may leave a question unanswered. But the reader wants to see that the protagonist gained something from the experience. We read stories to learn how others cope, especially with loss, uncertainty, failure, illness and trauma. 

“The king died and the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.” --E.M. Forster 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Memoir: how to deal with emotional overload

When writing memoir, it is inevitable that emotions will rise to the surface as we describe both happy and sad memories. Sometimes what we write stirs the caldron of unresolved emotions. Rage, guilt, shame, hurt, and fear can all surge back immediately, even if we have done everything we can to heal, from therapy to moving on to a new life. While sifting through the details of the past, we may suddenly have revelations that shed new light on our motivations and our personalities, and on others as well. These revelations can range from shame or embarrassment at choices we made and/ or our naiveté or culpability, anger at ourselves that we didn’t act on inner guidance, anger at others for mistreatment or ignorance of our suffering, regret that we didn’t make wiser choices or ask for help, or forgiveness of our innocence and ignorance and understanding or tenderness towards ourselves and others.

Scientists who examined the brain discovered that the center of memory lies close to the center of emotion, and that reading sensual details of smell, taste, sound, sight and touch trigger the brain to believe the sensations are real. Logically, it makes sense that these sensations register as real when we write about them as much as when we read about them. Your body retains cellular memoires that can be triggered by writing your experiences down.

So what can we do? We want to write from a place of telling our stories, not seeking revenge, as victors, not as victims, as wiser, not embroiled in emotional turmoil. The place for expelling the emotional turmoil is in our journal but for readers, we want our reflections to resonate: what the past means, what lessons we have learned, what we have gained. The take-away.

It is important to take care of ourselves as surprisingly, these emotional states can arise again and again in different ways and in different levels of intensity as we progress from writing to rewrites and through further revisions. The emotions may change: we may no longer feel softened by the naiveté of our younger self, we may feel anger or regret that we had not felt before, the injustices we suffered may be more blatant or relationships may take on nuances we hadn’t noticed when we were just getting the story down.

Ways to  take care of ourselves:
  •  walk or do yoga or dance, hang out in nature, feel the sun on your face or sit by a body of water, massage, cuddle, have sex, eat healthy foods. Any activity that occupies your immediate attention and gives you a break from over-thinking can help soothe and restore
  •  talk with a trusted friend or counselor, read uplifting messages, express love for family and friends, feel heard, discuss other topics, laughter
  • create and repeat positive affirmations, participate in a  spiritual community, sing, chant or listen to music, meditation and prayer: quiet the mind down
  •  make art or visit a museum, being inspired by others’ work will raise your vibration

Other possibilities:
  • write a letter to someone you admire, expressing your admiration and gratitude
  • write a letter to someone in your writing world (a writing partner, an imaginary agent or editor, a writer you admire) explaining what you are working on and your intended goals
  • write a letter to a reader, explaining why you need to write your story     
  • Keep a blessing journal:
Every day write down three blessings. Note any blessings such as a friend called, a new book to read, a good meal, a cleaned kitchen, a gorgeous sunset, an inspiring poem, help with a project, a favorite song, a great parking spot, the bus on time, a smile from a stranger
  • If the material is too hard to write, write in third person and/or turn it into fiction
You can go back and rewrite in first person memoir. Sometimes we need to the distance of third person to get our emotions on the page. Turning it fiction will give us permission to explore other points of view and perspectives.

  • Write your story with a successful outcome or amazing synchronicities or with the ending you dream of. 
Give yourself a break from the dissection of your self to the vision of what you can be. I once threw a “Come as you want to be” party. I arrived dressed up for my trip to accept the Nobel Prize. Even though it was a fantasy, it gave me momentum to keep going at a time when I felt discouraged. The Nobel Prize may be out of reach but I published two books of poetry and have performed for hundreds of audience members, have won four grants and have been able to teach in prisons and non-profits, schools and healing centers. Besides my work appearing in literary journals and anthologies, I had an article published in Poets & Writers magazine and I have been a community editor for the Saint Paul Almanac.
  • Take a break and write something else: poerty, short story, flash fiction
Come as you want to be as you rewrite your work: wiser, stronger, happier, beloved, and doing what you love to do. Keep your vision of your published book in your hand, your audience enthralled. Imagine the questions your interviewer will ask. Know that you have a story to tell that will open hearts and minds. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

How do I find my voice?

The difference between fiction and memoir 

is not only the structure that the writing takes, but the fact that your readers have to resonate with you as the main character. Your voice must reflect who you are, not a persona, and yet at the same time, you are the protagonist and have a persona on the page. You have experiences, adventures, struggles and revelations, insights and self-awareness leading to transformation, healing or connection.

Your voice is distinctive and your friends recognize your voice immediately on the phone. But how so we access our voice when we are writing? Or how do we know when we have found our voice? How do we walk that tightrope between telling our story so that others will feel what we felt and yet with enough subjectivity that we are sharing a story and not a therapy session? How do we maintain urgency while showing the wider picture?

I would ask you what has the most emotional energy for you? What are your passions, fears, and joys?  What is hard to write about? What do you avoid writing about? And what is your personal point of view on the world?

I teach what I call self-reflective writing in Writing for Healing classes and I use prompts to start spontaneous timed writing. I have discovered than when I read a poem and then dive into my feelings, my writing is lyrical, flows easily, touches my core beliefs, includes specific images and details, and ends on a positive note usually with a spiritual insight. When I use a writing exercise of craft such as writing a setting with a characters or characters, add dialogue, decision or a sudden change, or work with a prompt grounded in facts, my writing is a struggle for me and I meander back and forth all over the page. There is no sense of what drives the writing. I will need to edit and revise. 

My voice is attuned to my deepest feelings and core beliefs: life is full of terror, grief, and beauty and has meaning, love, and hope; each moment is a gift and holy in its own perfection, not matter how broken or bruised it may appear. My essential nature is to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I remind writers that writing is a practice. A practice means that we are practicing all the time, not only when we are working on a short story or memoir or poem. By writing exercises to warm up the intuitive imagination, we strike gold: something can be woven into a larger piece. 

I use a simple exercise to help writers access their material. We begin with writing numbers down the page in 5 sections such as this:
and then I suggest a category for each section, We write what comes to mind quickly and spontaneously without over-thinking. I move from one category to the next quickly.

The first category is always things I love because that one is easy. The following may be:
  • things that annoy me
  • things I regret
  • times I lost something important
  • things I will never forgive
  • moments that changed my life
  • places I hang out
  • people I admire
  • times I had to make a decision
  • times I took a risk
  • things I left behind
  • blessings

For example: things I love:
hearing the sound of Spanish around me
the beach
my grandsons

The exercise can be extended with specific details:
the beach in Puerto Vallarta at sunset with a cold drink in my hands
reading a story together with my grandsons
poems that opened my heart to recognize myself at the Islandwood reading

Often then I give a prompt:
  • What I will never forget
  • I remember
  • At that moment
  • The first time
The idea is to access right brain intuition by accessing memories but in a quick overview so that what is most compelling comes to the surface. Now we have 25 topics to write about, emotionally charged topics. Circle one and write for ten minutes. The exercise can be repeated; allow new memories to arise. I have taught it often and each time, what I focus on will shift depending on what items have filled my list.

I once made the mistake of changing the introduction of my memoir after attending a workshop on dynamic first pages. I had originally started with the impact of the ’60s, but moved that in order to begin with the first time I took a trip to Mexico. But I had cut off my own voice as surely as if I had strangled myself. I had to think again of how my own story really started. It began when I visited Arlington Cemetery as a 6th grader and become a pacifist, a realization that would lead me to the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam War and later, to seek my tribe of those who believed as I did.

Change to “dynamic first sentence”:
      The first time I crossed the border into Mexico, I was eight months pregnant and single. Caren invited me to accompany her as she drove Roxanna, Irene and their children, Chandra and  Carissa, from Santa Fe to Juarez. From there, they would hitch-hike farther south. I knew members of the group traveled to spread the Good News, imitating the first-century Disciples of Jesus. Despite the discomfort of the baby somersaulting in my belly and constant pressure on my bladder, I agreed.

Change to Claiming My Story:
       When I was in sixth grade, our class took a field trip from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC. I don’t remember much about filing through the White House, although I do remember being impressed by the size of the Senate chambers and the Lincoln Memorial. But our visit to John F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery changed my life.

      As I looked over the thousands of soldiers’ graves that fanned out to the horizon, a feeling swept over me of heartbreak, a profoundly disturbing sorrow. This is wrong, I thought. So many lying in their graves under simple white tombstones just felt wrong. I knew little about war and its justifications, but I knew my dad and his brothers had been soldiers. The sight of those tombstones stretching to what felt like infinity gave me an epiphany. At that moment, a clear vision transformed me into a pacifist. This philosophical and moral stance was firmly planted as my heart broke open, mesmerized by those white tombstones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly

recognized as your own
 —Mary Oliver

Finding your voice takes vulnerability and the courage to be yourself. With practice, you will tap into the story you are compelled to tell. That story that haunts you and will not let you rest until it is told. That's your voice.

Another tip: Express your opinion on a topic that resonates with you either because it makes you laugh, cry or even rage.

More thoughts on finding voice are here: