First Things First in Writing

Photo Credit: “Notepad” by Crisderaud

“Pause for a minute…that word order is confusing. Instead of ‘my spiritual life post thirteen,’ how about ‘my post-thirteen spiritual life’?”

I was reading chapter 2 of my memoir to my writers’ group, which, this week, was only one other person. She was stopping me every couple of paragraphs to suggest a syntax change or a modifier deletion.

“The action ‘I put my head in my hands’ makes pretty clear that you dreaded what was coming next. I know you’ve heard it before, but this is a case where you show and tell. You don’t need the telling.”

Putting It into Practice

Two days later as I sit at my keyboard trying to jump back into my memoir, I’m glad for the prose tightening advice. It will be really helpful later…but it’s not what I need right now. Since adding more than ten new chapters, I’m just trying to figure out if the scenes I’ve extracted from my reluctant psyche even belong in my book.

Show, Don’t Tell

“And tell us what you were wearing. I can’t see you as an eleven-year-old. Show the makeup or lack thereof. How did you know it was snowing outside? Show us how you are seeing this. Are you looking out a picture window?”

This writer, an excellent writer, by the way, is a visual person. Her prose overflows with color, texture, and shape. She lent me a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by another fellow Minnesotan (my critique-er and I are both Minnesota girls who ended up in Texas), and I wonder if she modeled her writing on Nicole Lea Helget’s style. Helget writes with beautiful imagery that places readers right in the scene.

For example, here’s an excerpt where she’s describing watching/hearing her father “pitchfork” a cow:

A sound snapped the thick air.summer of ordinary ways

Like eggs dropped on the wooden floor of the chicken coop. Or metal bats whacking leather-covered baseballs. There was something of a wooden ruler slapping naughty palms. Something of thunder breaking against the sky. Only more primal, more rooted. I recognized it immediately… It was the sound of girls splitting wish-bones, of Mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary… It was the sound of field stones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box….It was bone.

I don’t write like this. At least, I don’t write like this about my early years. These years feel like a cold case. I can’t remember. Or is it that I don’t want to?

The first draft of the memoir I sent off for editing begins with me at age twenty—and I believe that draft was more descriptive than the chapters my writing group has seen in the last month. I can deal with those more recent scenes.

The early scenes? I’ve been writing them, but they kind of suck right now. I feel something about my early life is important, but I’m not sure if I’m capturing it.

Another Book?

I always had the idea I’d save my early life for another book. It deserves a whole book, and, in fact, was going to be my first book. I prepared the manuscript as a series of journal entries, and to this day, the scenes are preserved in my memory as the journal entries. I fear I’ve forgotten the actual scenes—I just remember the journal entries. The scenes I’ve written for draft 2 of my memoir feel fabricated—or at least really detached from my feelings and memories.

Moving Forward, Nonetheless

This week I’m going to send off my new part 1 to Trish. Because I’ve had more time to talk to Trish, and because she’s seen the rest of the manuscript (or where I am going with it all), she will understand that, more than prose tightening, I need help deciding what to include about my early years. Maybe I even need help unlocking memory.

I doubt memory will come back in full color like it seems to for Helget and my fellow Minnesotan, and maybe that’s okay. In my daily life, I don’t often notice what’s around me (I know, I know—as a writer, I should work on this). I don’t think I’m going for a full-color memoir, though. I’m not sure. This is a style question I can work out later. But first things first: figuring out content, order of events, and narrative thread.

Wait a Minute…

Right before I hit “post,” a thought occurs: is writing in “full color” a way to actually unlock memory? What do you think, readers? Have I got the process wrong?


Writing the Hard Stuff

If you’re currently writing your memoir, maybe you’re having some of the same issues I am, so let’s commiserate for a moment on two key ones.


Writing the Hard Stuff (Content)

It’s inevitable. If you’re writing a memoir that’s remotely honest, you have to touch some stuff that’s quite icky. One tip I have for dealing with this ickiness is to first decide whether the icky topic is a main idea, or a supporting one. Right now, for instance, I’m trying to figure out how to deal with past boyfriends I’m not proud of—and in the least self- and sin-glorifying ways. Since my story is about recovery and rebirth, I’ve decided these guys are not THE story–but supporting actors who can help create backstory and a setup for the main show. For other memoirists who draw out the ickiness in excruciatingly gory detail (almost as if the authors enjoy remembering their lives in darkness), the descent into hell IS the story. Fair enough, except this doesn’t much help those of us going for a more uplifting effect.

Writing Scene Versus Exposition (Form)

Once we’ve decided what and how much of the gory past to include, we memoirists must also decide how to tell the various parts of our stories. Does that ex-boyfriend get a well-developed scene, complete with sensory details and lots of feeling, or should he get a passing glance, a quick summary, only enough to  get us from point A to B?

In many memoirs I’ve read, authors choose to dwell on their descent into depression, addiction, and despair for most of their memoir…and only at the end do we get a glimpse—a chapter or two and/or an afterword at most, and that usually of drab summary—of the upswing.

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So far, my strategy as a Christian/motivational writer is shaping up somewhat differently: I am leaning away from dwelling too, too much on the icky; and trying to trade chapters and chapters of the macabre for a couple well-placed, representative scenes. As Bill Roorbach says in his excellent book Writing Life Stories, “A good scene replaces pages and pages of explaining, of expositional excess, of telling. Instead of a passage about your family’s socioeconomic status, you show your dad pulling up in the brown Ford wagon, muffler dragging. Or does he pull up in a shiny Mercedes? Or does he walk up the hill with his jacket over his shoulder, car traded for shares in a new invention?” (pp. 35-36).

One caveat for me: I’m finding that there are certain parts of my past that I’m just so disgusted by, I cannot bring myself to honor them with fully-fledged scenes. For these moments, I think some succinct summary is sufficient. In contrast with other, better developed scenes, these sparse selections can make their own statement to the reader: This is a part of my past you have to know about, but I’m not proud of it. At least, that’s the message I’m hoping to send.

A Strategy for Separating Scenes—Writing the Hard Stuff

Not that I’m an expert by any stretch, but here is a suggestion that might be helpful—one that I am testing this very week.

If you kept a journal for those years you are currently memoir-izing, sit down in a good chair, at a sturdy table, and reread those journals, along with any pertinent letters or other artifacts, with a notepad handy. As you read, take notes on what’s there, so you can begin to separate out what is important from what’s not—as well as get an idea of the “arc of your story.”

For my own memoir, I’ve divided the ten years I’m writing about into seven sections—three of those focused mostly on the grime of the past, and four dedicated to climbing out.

I decided that each section needs to have an “arc of story”; and therefore, I need to get reacquainted with the key trajectory, and key moments, for each section. My memory is quite bad, so my journals are helping immensely here.

Yesterday, I sat down and reread the journals that would fall into my first section. I did not try to write any new scenes or develop any exposition during this time; I only took notes on each journal entry—a brief line or two to characterize what was going on in each. I highlighted the entries that seemed particularly important—either as potential scenes, or as “scenes” in and of themselves.

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Note that I already have many pages of writing completed for all sections of my book—perhaps I even have most of the pertinent facts—but now I am going back to try to fill in any gaps I’ve left, and develop that which still needs developing.

Today, I’m going to look over the notes I took yesterday and answer some key questions:

  • Where do I want this section of my memoir to start? On what scene, or using bit of exposition?
  • Where do I want it to end? On what scene, or what bit of exposition?
  • What key questions do I need to answer in this section? Or, what facts does my reader need during this section of the book?
  • How will I do that? Or, which questions and facts should be answered with scene, and which should be answered by exposition?
  • How will I order these scenes and snippets of exposition?

Once I have answered these questions, I can assign myself a list of scenes I still need to write up, and the sections of exposition that I’ve not yet covered. If I get stuck, because section one is turning out to be the grimiest, ickiest section of them all, I may hop over to section two for awhile, but now that I have a plan, I feel confident that I can do this…no matter how dirty the job.

Meanwhile, my writer friends, I’m curious to know: What’s tripping you up in your memoir? And what solutions are you finding?