Stories Help this Author Grow

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

An article and interview about David W. Berner’s Night Radio: A Love Story

Every memoir shows life through the author’s eyes, and each one provides an example of how the author turned life into a good story. One of my favorite memoir authors, David W. Berner has taught me many lessons in both arenas. Berner’s writing explores powerful parts of human experience, and his writing style is flexible and far ranging.

By following his life story, I have learned not only about writing a memoir, but also what it means to be a creative, energetic writer at midlife, ferociously stretching for new angles and new creative styles.

In his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, he wrote about the challenges of redefining himself in midlife. The book was written in a straight, narrative form.

In his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There he tries to make better sense of being a father and understanding his own father. He wrote it as a travel memoir, about the road trip he took with his friend and sons.

His third memoir, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, A Life in Pets is again about his sons and father as explored in stories about their pets. He wrote this one as a collection of short stories.

Now, in his fourth book, Night Radio: A Love Story, he’s tackled the complex and sexy challenge of a young man in college who must sort out the difference between lust and commitment.

When I was trying to become an adult in the 60s, I learned about men from novels such as those by Henry Miller, which sensationalized the freedom of promiscuity. Such fictional characters provided little, if any, guidance to help me sort out these confusing issues. Now thanks to the Memoir Revolution, I hope young people can find better guidance from memoirs than I had back then. So when I heard that Night Radio is about that period, I thought this empathetic, insightful author would offer honest, compassionate insight into that important period of life.

However, it wasn’t a memoir and neither the publisher nor author ever said it was based on the author’s life. I should have just let it go and accepted that it wasn’t going to provide insight into this young man’s mind.

And yet, I wanted to believe in the authenticity of this main character. For one thing, Berner had written three memoirs, so he has plenty of practice writing from his own, authentic voice. And he, too, had been a radio announcer. Surely, I thought, he would place himself in the main character’s mind. So I kept wondering if the character in the book was a fabrication or a reflection of the truth. Finally, I asked Berner to help me tease apart the difference. I was not disappointed.

Interview with David W. Berner about his Memoir Night Radio

Jerry: When I started reading Night Radio, I found myself tangled up trying to figure out which parts were invented and which parts were you. Could you help me figure out how to sort this out?

David: Night Radio has what I call “experiential truths” in it. There are scenes that may be based on real events, but not necessarily tell the true details of that event. The scene is important to advance the narrative, but unlike memoir there is no need to stick to the absolute truth of an event. It can be shaped and massaged into what the story needs. I always get asked about the drinking party at the college radio station depicted in Night Radio. Did that happen? Well, the drinking party happened, sort of, but te what the characters end up doing on the floor of the station’s office is *not* true. At least it’s not *my* truth. It didn’t happen to me, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for this to have happened at a college radio station somewhere, at sometime. This brings me to authenticity. And that’s key here. It may not be fact, but it has to ring true.

Jerry: I was so curious about what it was like being you during that period. I guess I’m projecting my own desires on you. You wanted to write a novel, but I wished you had written a memoir. Why did you choose to write fiction?

David: I think there are a number of stories out there from very well known broadcasters and journalists who have written memoirs about their careers, legends in the industry. I’m not one of them. I’m a respected, long-time journalist and broadcaster, but not in that one-percent, if you will. I believed a fictionalized story with all the things I wanted to say about broadcasting, rock ‘n’ roll and the redemptive powers of love could be said, hopefully, more powerfully in a fictional story.

So many have said that fiction can get to a bigger truth. Sometimes, I think they are right.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” — Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Picasso

I think, in the case of Night Radio, fiction tells the wider truth.

Jerry: But that’s just it. The Memoir Revolution came into being to serve readers who no longer want a wider truth. We want specific truths so we can see into each other’s minds, and decide the wider truth for ourselves. And as a memoir writer and journalist, you were a great person to reveal it.

Maybe I’m being too personal here, but what I’m trying to figure out is Jake’s struggle with the awkward transition between the delights of lust and sex, versus the long-term commitment of authentic relationship. You did a great job of taking me inside that transition. In fact, your excellent writing evoked memories of my own inner debates during that period. My younger male self struggled enormously to steer through passion, and during that transition, I made a lot of mistakes. I included some of those awkward moments in my own memoir, but on every page, I had to resist the impulse to say, “And I was such an idiot.”

When I started reading Night Radio, and was still under the mistaken impression you had put yourself into the character, I thought you were being so heroic, opening up your thought process for all to see.

Now that you’ve convinced me this is really fiction, I’m not so sure if you were being brave. Maybe the opposite was the case. By couching it within fiction, you could completely deny the whole mess. Was that your intention? Did fiction enable you to explore that character without revealing personal, embarrassing choices and states of your own mind.?

David: This is a fascinating question, in essence, do we write fiction because the truth is too close to home? I do not believe I wrote Night Radio to avoid, in some way, calling attention to myself. I’ve written about other issues and emotions in my earlier memoirs that are pretty close to the bone. So writing about very personal feelings, is not a concern. Plus, I am *not* Jake. There are aspects of me in Jake, certainly. And the character’s issues with commitment and/or fidelity are a very human thing, I think, especially for young men trying to figure it all out. Plus, some are only modeling the behavior of their fathers. That’s somewhat the case for Jake. His father has had his own struggles with these issues and whether it’s overt or just through the DNA, sons of such fathers will also have to deal with these matters. It’s inevitable. Here’s the final say on this: everything a writer puts down on paper has a little of him in it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s painfully obvious or squeezed between the lines, it’s there and any writer who tells you differently is not telling you the truth.

Jerry: So now that you’ve written your first novel, are you dropping memoir altogether and switching over to writing fiction?

David: I’m glad you asked. Roundfire Books, will publish October Song: A memoir of music and the journey of time most likely in the first part of 2017. I believe October Song is a unique story of time and music. I played in a band many years ago. Nothing much. Just a bar band. I was a teenager and did it into my early 20s. But I always played music, and still play some guitar. But it’s really just about having some fun. Now and then, I’ll write a song. I’ve never professionally recorded or published music. On a whim I entered a national contest and was quite unexpectedly named a finalist and was asked to perform at a well-known music venue in Virginia to see how far the song would go. The memoir is about the road trip there and the experience of the competition, and most importantly about the passage of time. When are we at the moment when we should give up our crazy dreams? When do we say…”well, I guess I’m not going to be President of the United States,” and for me that was “that rock-n-roll star.” All of us have those dreams, right? Ultimately October Song is an examination of the passage of time, love, the power of music, and the power of dreams.

Jerry: That’s perfect. Another memoir. And the subject of the memoir fits in perfectly with the image you portray through your memoirs.

In the beginning of your first memoir, Accidental Lessons, you become convinced that you are not living life to the fullest, and to fulfill that desire, you need to change. Now here you are a few years later. You’ve been a high school teacher. A college teacher. You’ve written two memoirs, a collection of short stories, a novel. And you’ve got another memoir coming out about your passion for music. What a relentless, creative journey you’ve been on.

In my experience, most memoir writers are responding to a similar desire, to find themselves by creatively shaping their lives into stories. What advice could you offer us, based on your mid-life quest to reclaim your soul through creativity?

David: You hit the nail on the head – “reclaiming your soul through creativity.” I believe that my writing has done that. I didn’t write *to* do that; it was not calculated in some way, as journal writing might imply. But I have always been a storyteller in one form or another. From delivery newspapers as a paperboy in Pittsburgh, to my radio work, to writing journalism, to music and songwriting, to writing memoirs and now fiction. And for one reason or another, in the last 8-9 years, I have been a faucet of stories. I don’t know why that is, really. Maybe I am on a quest to understand my world and my place in it. But I don’t think people who are reclaiming their place in the world have to write a book or a memoir to “see” themselves or “find” themselves. That can be done in myriad of ways. And it’s a natural process for all of us. Looking in the mirror, really looking, is important to find steady ground, to be happy (whatever that means), or redeem or create relationships with people and the world. What makes us uniquely human? The stories we tell. No other species on earth tells stories. Only us. To be quintessentially human, we must tell stories. I must tell stories.

Notes

Night Radio: A Love Story by David W. Berner
Accidental Lessons by David W. Berner
Click here for the article I wrote about Accidental Lessons.
Any Road Will Take You There by David W. Berner
Click here to read my article about Any Road Will Take you There
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard by David W. Berner

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

More about Why Choose to Write Fiction Instead of Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

In the previous post, I interviewed David Kalish, author of the novel, The Opposite of Everything, about his ten-year journey to write his memoir, resulting in a fictionalized version. Why did he change genres? How did he choose his fictional storyline and characters from among the facts?

These important issues arise for many writers, whether novelists or memoirists who wonder how to create an engaging narrative from their observation of the human condition. In this second part of the interview, we dig deeper into David Kalish’s choice, trying to understand the relationship between his life experience and his powerful characters.

The Luxury of Deniability
Jerry Waxler:  I’ve been working on my memoir for ten years, and feel good about the story but not so good about the privacy that telling the story violates. I’m jealous of your ability to say in your acknowledgements “No one in this book is real.” What an awesome freedom that gives you. How did the freedom of deniability influence the decision to move toward fiction?

David Kalish: Interestingly, it wasn’t until after I completed my novel that the connection between fiction and deniability became clear. Until that point, the consuming process of writing the book, making sure it held together, and getting it published overwhelmed any concern over whether I’d offend anyone.

But several months before my book was released, a family member had a negative reaction to a synopsis of it on my website. The synopsis said that this family member’s fictional counterpart in the book was “overbearing” and pushed the main character off a bridge. My family member told me he feared the novel would make him look bad. He made the comment without reading the book. “How do I explain to my friends what’s real and what’s not?” Then and there I realized I needed to more proactively emphasize that the novel, despite its resemblance to my real life, is fiction. I crafted an acknowledgment to address his concerns, and struck the adjective “semiautobiographical” from all marketing materials. As I now say in the acknowledgment, any resemblance to real-life people is coincidental to my goals as a novelist to create a fully realized story with a narrative arc.

So the lesson here is, simply calling something “fiction” may not be enough to deny any violation of privacy. I suggest backing it up with a carefully worded acknowledgment and perhaps a dedication too. Even that may not be enough, however. The family member and I still are not on regular speaking terms, and he still hasn’t read the book.

Downer POV character
Jerry Waxler: Your character does some pretty excruciatingly rude things. He pushes people away. His relationship to his father is filled with neurotic blame and loathing. This guy was making such horrible decisions about his relationships, there were moments I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany him on this journey.

As a memoir junkie, I am accustomed to thinking of the protagonist as a real person. So at first I thought, “This guy is incredibly rude.” Then I vacillated thinking “Wow. This guy is being incredibly honest about his own lousy behavior.” Then I thought “Wow. If I had cancer, maybe I would be a real jerk, too.”

But I had to reel my mind back from all of those assessments. It’s fiction, and you were free to create this character any way you wanted. Why did you choose to make him a jerk? Was it because you were a jerk? Were you drawn toward confessing your own bad behavior in real life? Did you exaggerate it for effect, dancing on the edge of intriguing readers and angering them?

David Kalish: I disagree that my protagonist is universally unlikeable. Yes, there are readers who may be turned off by his anti-social tendencies at the outset of his journey, but most people I’ve spoke with find him and his world entertaining enough to go along for the ride. They enjoy his humor, his hapless behavior, his intellectual zaniness. They connect with the darkness he’s going through. People give him a long leash as he discovers his place in the world.

But given that some people think Daniel Plotnick is a jerk, I’ll address that. To create Plotnick, I started with myself. I was a bit of a jerk, admittedly, in my younger days. In real life, I DID lock my wife out of our apartment, based on my lawyer’s advice. Indeed, for the novel, I softened my “jerkiness.” I planted reminders he’s morally conflicted about locking her out, and in fact doesn’t change the locks on her – he changes the locks on himself.

The dramatic requirements of the novel influenced my depiction. On the outset of his emotional journey, Plotnick is in conflict with his wife, his father, and the world. He just wants to be left alone. As the book progresses, he reconciles with people and puts his life back together. In his bizarre way, he finds love and renewal in the world.

I didn’t have a model in mind for an edgy character, although I took cues from the bizarrely dark behavior of the protagonist and lesser characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

Wife is smarter than main character. Could you invent such powerful behavior?
Jerry Waxler: Your edgy main character meets a women with astonishing sexuality and cleverness who has a relentless way of bypassing his defenses, ignoring his cynicism and mean-spirited behavior in order to help him heal. His self-involvement and her ability to cut through it provides a fascinating mix. I love these two people!

In a way, his wife was the hero of the story, and the main character was being rescued. (It would be like a version of Hamlet in which Ophelia figured out how to help Hamlet heal from his fatal flaw.)This premise is so complex and intricate, it’s hard for me to imagine you made this up. I’m wondering if life experience handed you this surprising flawed hero and his surprisingly strong wife.

Even if it wasn’t entirely a memoir, it seems to me that at least some of its power was shaped by your own experience. This raises the maddening question any writer might ask him or herself. How would one evolve from the power of real life into (hopefully) the even greater power of fiction?  In other words, for all of us aspiring writers, even if we don’t intend to write memoir, how much of our lives should we be expecting to move to the page? I know you can’t answer for the mob of writers lining up at the starting gate ready to start the marathon of memoir writing. But after having run the marathon of writing an unpublished memoir, and then tacking a second marathon of turning it into a novel, could you share some pearls of wisdom about how the power of real life has informed your writing?

David Kalish: The second wife in my novel is totally modeled after my actual second wife. Like Sonia in the book, she is a strong-minded, purposeful Colombian doctor who has a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it. The fact she’s from a foreign culture allowed me, as a writer, to view her with fresh eyes and, to an extent, capture her mannerisms, dialogue, and quirks on the page. Of course, I exaggerated everything for effect. But what I didn’t exaggerate was how much she helped me when I was going through my disease. She never beat around the bush. She told me in no uncertain terms how to cope. Her interesting way of nurturing me was what I needed to find strength to face up to my mortality. I’m a lucky guy that way. Of all the characters in the book, she’s one of the closest to my real-life counterpart.

All writers need to mine their personal lives for material for their writing. But my material is particularly rich, and so I probably went deeper than most. I think we all have characters in our life, but my tendency is to stretch real-life personalities and events to make them more interesting. Writing, to me, is a constant flight from boredom – and a lot more happens in fiction than in real life. Much of real life is spent doing very little of interest to fiction readers.

Click here for Part 3

Notes
For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

The novel, The Opposite of Everything is a powerful, fictional account about a character whose marriage is falling apart at the same time as he is fighting with a death sentence from cancer. In fact, this was the same circumstance as the author David Kalish.

Taking a cue from the title, I careened back and forth between the opposites of fiction and memoir, asking myself which parts were true, and how does fiction add to the power of the true life tale. The question of fact versus fiction haunts many memoir authors. How much should I hide? How can I protect myself from lawsuits and hate mail? What if I misremember? How can I embellish to make it more interesting?

I love these questions on the boundary of truth and continue to hope for answers. For example, last year, I went for a walk with Robert Waxler in preparation for point and counterpoint talks we intended to give some day about memoir versus literature. Since he is an English professor at UMass and has written two memoirs as well as a number of books touting the power of literature, he is intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. I told him that I believe memoirs are so important because they emerge from the truth. He insisted on the exact opposite. He believes that fiction is so much more powerful because it’s invented. These opposing views seem unsolvable.

The exciting thing about memoir writing, for me, has been the willingness to face these fears and keep going, staring into the unanswerable questions of truth and story. Now, having read the Opposite of Everything, I have come face to face with a man who has been staring at this paradox since he started writing about his life ten years ago.

Because he is apparently an expert in opposites, I interviewed him about these two forms of narrative and asked him how and why he stepped through that mysterious stargate into the limitless realm of imagination.

Your initial experience as a memoir writer

Jerry Waxler: When you first attempted to write this story, you were attempting to do it in a memoir. During that initial period, like any memoir writer, you were sticking to the facts and trying to turn them into a narrative, a compelling storyline. That makes you an unpublished memoir author. What did you learn from that experience?

David Kalish: I first wrote my book as a memoir because my life was pretty dramatic, and seemed to lend itself to a straight-forward telling. In just four months in 1994, I was diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at the same time my first marriage fell apart. I later got remarried to a doctor, and underwent chemotherapy around the same time my daughter was born. I turned to writing as a way to let off steam and tell what I thought was a pretty compelling story. I jotted down scenes, strung together a narrative. Going through this exercise helped me view the events in my life dramatically, and I gave certain scenes more emphasis than others, viewing them in a way that made sense from the standpoint of telling a story.

But after numerous rewrites over several years, I wasn’t happy with the result. The writing felt stiff. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about my pain. My characters were stick figures. Deep down, I felt uncomfortable starring in a book that featured me.

I decided to create some narrative distance. I tried humor. I made my characters do things their real-life counterparts wouldn’t consider.  I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones. I stretched truths for dramatic effect.

What did it feel like to break loose from truth?

Jerry Waxler: To craft a memoir, writers limit themselves to what they can remember. But to turn your manuscript into fiction, you allow yourself to draw from the entire universe of possibilities. That’s a big step that seems to me like leaving the safety of the known and entering the unknown.

How did that feel? Were you scared of the unlimited possibilities? Exhilarated? Was there a moment you decided to make the break?

David Kalish: As a reporter for twelve years at The Associated Press, accuracy was paramount. But I’ve always written fiction on the side, and loved the freedom of it. So when I decided to extend that feeling to my book, I felt extra-liberated. The end result is still a story about one man’s struggle, his search for renewal. But I’ve handed the story over to actors who are free to do all sorts of crazy things. I focused more fully on narrative arc. I went to town on my life.

It was only after I took a fictional perspective – other than my own — did my compassion for characters emerge on the page. As an experiment in the novel’s opening scenes, for instance, I switched the POV from the main character to my first wife. This enabled me to imagine what she was going through during the collapse of my marriage. In doing so, I learned she wasn’t all bad — it was our relationship that was bad. In the end I switched the POV back to the protagonist’s. But my sense of compassion lingered, helping me to write a fuller account.

I felt uncertain about fictionalizing my memoir, of course. It was hard for me to decide where to push drama and comedy, and where to let the facts speak for themselves. That’s where I received lots of help from fellow writers, particularly from Bennington College’s Writing Seminars Program, where I earned my MFA. We formed a writing group after graduating where we shared insights into each other’s work. This helped tremendously when I repeatedly revised my novel to pare it to its essential story.

Sets you free to explore stylistic invention

Jerry Waxler: Most memoirs tend to be more journalistic, explaining what really happened without flights of wordplay and phrasing. In comparison, your book takes all sorts of stylistic liberties: fantastical metaphorical devices (like your character’s notion of  the two opposing lumps, his cancer and his wife’s baby) and being able to write chapters from other character’s points of view.

Stylistically you seem to aspire to get into my head in a playful way and sizzle and pop, using words to excite and inspire. Thanks for that sensation!! Fiction seems to have set you free from the journalistic style typical for most memoirs. Tell me how you felt your style evolving when you left memoir behind and entered the mindset of a novel writer. Did your voice change? How so?

David Kalish: When I was writing it as a memoir, the narrative voice was distant from the emotional core of the story. Once I started making stuff up, I had fun with my characters. I had them banter, tell jokes. I riffed on dialogue. The comedy revealed the coping mechanism of the characters, as well as myself. The narrator in turn reconnected to the underlying emotion.

My tone became lighter, even as my material remained dark. I grew less focused on creating beautiful sentences and more focused on conveying ideas, character and story. My writing, as a result, became punchier. The visuals less complicated. The words were a conduit for what I wanted to convey: the emotional journey of the characters.

In the next part of our interview I ask David Kalish more about his decision and thoughts on the relationship between these forms of literature.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

When Does a Memoir Writer Choose Fiction Based on Life?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

Every time I read a memoir, I feel the delicious release of leaving myself behind and entering the author’s world. How did this person cope? How did they grow? How did that feel? My involvement in each author’s experience does not rely on sensational circumstances. I read memoirs to show me the relationship between the author’s circumstances and his or her interior world. Memoirs are the only way I know to see inside another person’s mind. I love that.

I hope my memoir will, someday, offer the same gift to my readers as other authors have done for me – develop the best possible story based on the actual events of my life. That is the memoir writer’s quest.

When I first decided to write my memoir, I had never written a story of any kind, and so I went on a long journey, simultaneously traveling on two parallel roads. Like an electron that is in two places at once, I found myself dancing between the memories themselves and the art of representing those memories in words. I learned that a story carries the reader forward with literary devices, such as pacing, setting expectations, and flights of observation that add a splash of color to an otherwise drab scene.

To learn these skills, I often find myself learning from fiction writers. They are the keepers of storytelling, building on a craft that has been evolving for thousands of years, adjusting and shaping reality in order to captivate the minds of their readers. Even though memoir writers adhere to the truth, sometimes the need for excellence pushes them to the blurry boundary between truth and story.

For example, since few of us have the luxury of accurate contemporaneous notes, we must reconstruct what was said. Even with contemporaneous notes, written dialog is different than spoken. The same creativity applies to one’s thoughts. There is no way to know the exact thoughts. Memoir writers report the most likely version.

I love the veracity of memoirs, and read each one as if it was a detailed, honest account. But I also recognize that when attempting to transform their lives into stories, many writers prefer the pure invention permitted in fiction. There could be many reasons for this choice. Perhaps facts are difficult to remember, or were not exciting, or there are thing to be kept secret.

During my research, I came across a book by Xujun Eberlein. She grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And her collection of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming, reflects those strange and fascinating times. However, when I asked her about the reality or lack of it in her stories she insisted it was all fiction. [Click here to read our interview.]

Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American wrote a book of short stories called The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly, which won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. Most of what I know about Palestinians comes from the turmoil in the Mideast. I wanted to read about Palestinians in South Philadelphia. Her short stories gave me authentic glimpses of cultural mixing, and yet like Xujun Eberlein, she questioned the value of exploring their veracity or lack of it. [Click here to read our interview.]

Even though both books were fiction, their stories gave me a wonderful window into aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise have been able to experience.

Recently, I learned of another example of fiction based on reality, a novel by David Kalish called the Opposite of Everything. The book is about a man’s journey through cancer treatment, a profoundly disturbing time in a person’s life that cries out for understanding. But how much of the story was based on his own experience? He offered a hint during an interview with blogger Crystal Otto:

Before he was Daniel Plotnick, my main character had my name. That’s because my book started as a first-person memoir about my struggles with cancer and divorce. But over years of revision I decided the book worked better as a third-person comedic novel.[Click here for the whole interview.]

This decision fascinated me. Why did he do it and how did the transition work out? Fortunately, he is willing to delve into this question more deeply. In my next post, I will publish the first part of our interview.

Notes

For more about David Kalish:
Web site
Blog
Book

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

Note
This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

Notes
For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Relationship between Fiction and Memoir, Interview Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my interview with Marie Lamba, author of the young adult novel, “Over My Head.” In this part of the interview, I continue to seek understanding of the relationship between young adult fiction and the Coming of Age period in memoirs.

To read the first part of the interview click here

Jerry Waxler: Adult fiction is sorted on bookstore shelves by genres such as romance, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Are YA books separated along similar lines? Your book “Over My Head” reads to some extent like a romance. Would you or would booksellers categorize it as a YA romance?

Marie Lamba: It’s a contemporary YA or a romantic YA.  There is young YA for the tween crowd and older YA for more mature audiences (think PG13-R).  Then of course there is paranormal, dystopian, chick-lit, fantasy, literary, you name it.

Jerry Waxler: In Over My Head, there is an incredible amount of inter- and intrapersonal deception. Almost everyone was lying to each other, or to themselves. Girls lie in order to get guys, to save face, to override parental authority, to hurt each other, to protect each other, to brag. It was a deception fest. Naturally the lying created enormous dramatic tension. Did you accentuate this quality of human nature because of your own experience of what young life is really like, or is this just the way you felt these particular characters needed to act, or what?

Marie Lamba: Jerry, I’m sure you NEVER lied as a teen, but I might have once_ or twice? Teens try to be good, they really do, but sometimes it’s the lie that allows them to continue to be viewed that way, or to test out new identities or to fix what they may have broken, or to break what is too perfect.

The tougher the mess, the bigger the lies can be until they are so ridiculous that only the truth will do. Lies, like secrets, are also great story devices. As writers we do highlight elements in life, heightening them to make a story really shine.  In real life you might have one grand humiliating moment, in a book the character can experience a virtual fest of humiliation. Now that’s a story.

Jerry Waxler: Actual people are infinitely varied, and the situations that drive us have all sorts of nuances and details. I read memoirs so I can learn about these unique aspects of real people. However, in the genre fiction that I read as a young man, such as, mysteries, thrillers, and sci/fi fantasy, the characters often have far less human individuality or depth. Where do you see your books falling on this spectrum? Do your YA books aspire to offer authentic, unique challenges of real human beings, or more formulaic characters of a genre?

Marie Lamba: I hope that my books contain characters that are nuanced and not stock.  The bad guy has a soft side, the good girl does something horrible, they all have their own arcs and purposes and dreams. They say there are no original stories. But people are original.  I hope that by putting my own spin on characterization that I’m creating characters that are fresh and original and that feel real.

Jerry Waxler: What sort of real-world observations do you use to help you authentically portray your characters? For example, do you keep a writer’s notebook about growing up, or interview young people, or does it pour from your imagination?

Marie Lamba: It definitely flows. Once I have a good feel for the characters, that’s all it takes for me.  It helps that I’m surrounded by teens as a mom and that I’m an older girl scout troop leader. And I definitely remember my teen self vividly. No journal required for that.

Jerry Waxler: When creating your novels, what sorts of real life experience did you bring to your books? Can you offer any example of how you mined your own memory for situations, age appropriate emotions, characters and psychological tension?

Marie Lamba: It doesn’t take much for any of us to remember a time when we were heartbroken or mortified or how it felt to be in a fight with a really close friend. These are such visceral experiences that plucking those emotions to use in a story is a natural thing for most writers. In “Over My Head,” the uncle’s illness plays an important role. My brother-in-law actually had the same disease as the uncle in the book, and he passed away shortly after 9-11.  The novel is dedicated to his memory, and Sang feels what I felt_helplessness and a deep desire to do something, anything, to help.  So adult emotions and experiences can also be helpful in shaping the YA world.

Jerry Waxler: Have your characters ever taught you interesting lessons about yourself or about human nature? In other words, as you watch a character develop in your book, does the behavior or attitude of your fictional character help you piece together some aspect of real life?

Marie Lamba: In a way, a book is more than you are. You are creating different characters, points of view, experiencing things you never would have experienced otherwise.  I think it forces me to look harder especially at the villains in our lives to find a speck of good in even the worst of us, and writing difficult scenes forces me to linger and feel things that in real life I would eagerly speed past.

Jerry Waxler: In the last 5 or 10 years more and more writers are interested in memoir writing and the trend seems to be accelerating. I wonder if fiction writers are more open to real-life experience. Years ago, when the novelist Carl Barth visited the University of Wisconsin campus, I asked him if his fiction had been influenced by his life. He snapped at me like I was insulting him. Nowadays, I have met many fiction writers who are more open to discussing the relationship between their stories and their lives. What do you think? Have you noticed any change over the years in the attitude about using real life situations in fiction?

Marie Lamba: We fiction writers do have a dilemma. We want to be free to create honest stories, and this of course includes experiences from our past, but if the veil between truth and fiction is lifted, how can we feel free to be as frank? In my work, most things are a composite of experiences put together, plus a healthy dose of make believe. Is there a trend for writers to own up to the memoir-like aspects of their fiction?  Not for this writer.

The real truth is that people love to see themselves in your books. Even when they truly aren’t in there.  It’s pretty fascinating.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next? Are you going to stay within this period or are your characters going to grow older?

Marie Lamba: My YA novel “Drawn” again deals with a 17 year old teen, but the next novel I’m currently stirring around in my brain will probably reach into the 20-30 year old adult range.  And, hey, who’s growing older?

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview: Young Adult Fiction versus Coming of Age Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

I am fascinated by Coming of Age memoirs because they provide a window into the many emotional challenges that people undergo on their journey to becoming adults. Recently, I realized that Young Adult fiction is about that same period of life. To learn more about the way Young Adult fiction handles that period of human development, I read the novel “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a college boy. Is it real love? To find out, she must process her own feelings as well as advice and opinions from friends and parents.

When I started reading, I was afraid I had entered a girl-zone where I didn’t belong. The more I read, the more engaged I became, appreciating my privileged front-row seat, where I watched the emotional and social challenges of a girl trying to make the leap to adulthood. “Over My Head” zooms into one particular aspect of Coming of Age: that awkward period when humans first steer through the outrageously intricate connection between romance and sex. The hero of the novel must learn those lessons under the spell of emotions so compelling they have an almost mystical power.

I have spent the last five years infatuated with the way memoirs allow us to see each other through the medium of a story. Memoir authors go deep inside themselves and then bring that intimate detail out into social awareness. Marie Lamba reminds me that the real people who write fiction also share their insights into the human condition. After reading the book, I asked the author her opinions about the relationship between real life and fictional characters.

Jerry Waxler: In “Over My Head” your character was 16-year-old character had to sort out romantic feelings from sexual ones. Some people advised her that the boy might be using her while others urged her to jump in. Her challenges represent the dilemma teens face in real life. When composing your novel, how conscious were you about representing these real-life Coming of Age challenges?

Marie Lamba: Hi Jerry.  Thanks so much for speaking with me about this.  I think when you write for the young adult market, it’s almost always a coming of age story. This is a time when we search for who we are as individuals.  The conflict of trying to make big decisions based not on the thoughts of our peers or our family, but on our own feelings and beliefs is key. This forces us to examine who we really are.  When I write about these sorts of things, it’s just natural for me. I don’t consciously plot out a coming of age structure, it just evolves from the characters and the plot.

Jerry Waxler: (laughing) Wow, I think you ought to be teaching a course in developmental psychology… In most Coming of Age memoirs, one of the protagonist’s tasks is to understand the relationship with adults, especially parents. We have to grow toward adulthood and yet at the same time, push adults away. I thought you did a great job in Over My Head portraying this dilemma.

When you were writing Over My Head, or when you read other Young Adult novels, how do you like to see the relationship between the young characters and their authority figures? How does the relationship of your fictional characters with their adults relate to your own observations of these relationships in the real world?

Marie Lamba: Family, whether absent or all-too-present, looms large in everyone’s lives. Intrinsically, children want to please their parents, even terrible parents, sadly. But there comes that moment when the point of view of even the very best parent seems so foreign for that child. That is when the child does take that giant step away from the parent and sees that maybe she’s on her own.  Pleasing your parents or listening to them isn’t always what’s right. That can be quite a revelation.

In YA fiction, the main character needs to have some independence, or needs to be fighting for independence, or the story just isn’t dynamic to me.

Jerry Waxler: The audience of YA is supposed to be 14 to 21. That’s a big range, considering the difference in reading level, emotional and life experience. So when you write, what is the age of the audience you visualize?

Marie Lamba: These days, the YA audience stretches straight up into adulthood. It’s not unusual for me to hear from adults that they related to my novels and that it took them back to their own teen years. And I also hear from readers who are much younger than I’d expect saying that they really related to the characters in my books. I guess I don’t really think about the audience, though. I think about the characters and strive to create as authentic a voice for the ages they are. For OVER MY HEAD, Sang was 16 going on 17, so that’s where my focus in voice and tone went.

Jerry Waxler: In adult life, a few years difference in age rarely makes much difference. But in a teenager’s life, each year brings them closer to adult empowerment. When will I be able to drive? When will I be able to earn freedom from my parents? When will I be old enough to earn the optimum romantic partner?

You bring out these tensions powerfully in “Over My Head” with the romance between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old boy. The age difference creates a big power imbalance. What interest brought you to the story of a 16-year old hero and her 20 year old love interest? How does age-related envy and power imbalance play out in your favorite YA stories?

Marie Lamba: There are all sorts of imbalances in relationships in novels, but age is a biggie. The younger character finds herself wondering if she’s mature enough, envying the freedoms of the older character, perhaps even glorifying what is mundane to an older person.  In OVER MY HEAD, the age difference isn’t exactly 4 years.  Sang is almost 17 and Cameron is just 20, but with him in college it is a great divide indeed.  He has a separate life from his summertime world, and this raises a lot of red flags about who he really is.

In my previous novel, WHAT I MEANT… all the teens were around the same age.  The adults had tremendous power and one especially diabolical aunt used this to set the heroine up to take the blame on numerous occasions. With OVER MY HEAD, Sang is 2 years older, and ready for true independence. I selected an older love interest to up the stakes and to really force Sang to be at odds with her youthful self and her family.

A favorite YA of mine, IT’S NOT SUMMER WITHOUT YOU by Jenny Han also involves a girl smitten by an older boy. The separation forced by him going off to college, coupled with the death of his mom, create huge rifts between the two, and the heroine wonders if he’s changed, or if he was ever who she thought he was. And perhaps she didn’t know her own heart either.

Jerry Waxler: I felt your novel “Over My Head” had especially good control over the passage of time. I wondered if part of that authorial control is related to the age of your characters. Since we all went through the school system during those years, your school-year markers remind us of our own coming of age. (Harry Potter capitalizes on this structure too, making each book correspond with a school year.) In addition, an illness in the family creates additional time pressure, and then toward the end, we hear the drumbeat of the approaching school year. Do you pay special attention to the suspense around the passage of time? Do you have any set rules about how to keep the reader moving through time?

Marie Lamba: I’ve learned through writing a number of novels to always keep a fictional calendar for my stories. Weekends make a difference. So do holidays.  So does the weather, the phases of the moon, stuff like that. With my manuscript DRAWN, which has a time travel element, this was especially critical.  I had to track the present day time as well as the critical events of the 1460s.  

I always know the big climactic event of the book before I write, and having a count-down to this helps me plot the pacing and keep the tension going.  An author (now I can’t remember who) once said that the things that keep story engine going are a secret or a ticking time bomb, preferably both. I always try to go for both.

Jerry Waxler: Sometimes YA books jump over into an adult readership. For example, Harry Potter obviously made the leap to a cross-generational readership. And sometimes adult books are picked up by young people. J.D. Salinger apparently wrote “Catcher in the Rye” for an adult audience, and then young people realized that the subject matter was about them, and they took it for themselves. So when you write about your young people, what sort of attention are you paying to the possible interest adults might have in reading your books?

Marie Lamba: With YA books, parents are often the ones who okay or nix the purchase, whether at a bookstore or online or at the library/school level.  Because of this, we YA authors are actually really conscious about the level of profanity and sex we put in a novel.  Win over the teens, lose the parents? It’s a delicate balance. I strive for authenticity, and then I assess how critical a curse word is or a sexual thought. If it truly is critical to the story, in it goes.

As for appealing to adults as readers, I believe that any well-told authentic story will speak to us all.

Interview to be continued

Notes
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..

Marie Lamba’s Home Page

Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre

Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview: Lessons From a Flock of Memoir Experts

by Jerry Waxler

The National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW.org), offers a wonderful selection of resources to aspiring memoir writers, culminating in the all-day event called the Memoir Telesummit. Entry is free and you don’t have to go anywhere. The whole thing is conducted over the phone, so wherever you are, you can learn from passionate memoir advocates, authors, and experts. This year’s phone conference is on the fascinating topic of “Truth or Lies,” about the interface between memoir and fiction. For more details and to sign up, click here.

The meeting is hosted by NAMW founder Linda Joy Myers, PhD, a memoir expert, teacher and author, herself. The Telesummit reveals two more of her strengths, conference organizer and interviewer. Thanks to Linda Joy’s open, curious approach to guest speakers, these discussions consistently provide a pleasurable and worthwhile listening experience.

To find out more, I asked Linda Joy a few questions about the Telesummit, about her guests this year, about her passion for sharing memoir-work with the world, and about her own writing.

Jerry Waxler: What is a Telesummit and who should attend?

Linda Joy Myers: A Telesummit is another word for an all-day phone conference, and it’s free to everyone. It’s so great now that we can offer and attend professional conferences casually at home! I love the Telesummit because there’s such great energy when we have experts join us all in one day to offer their knowledge.

This year we are so pleased to have teachers and authors of memoir and fiction to talk with us about inspiration and skills needed to tell a good story. Robin Hemley, Dinty Moore, Jennifer Lauck, and three young memoirists Elisabeth Eaves, Nicole Johns, Anna Mitchael. Penney Sansevieri will talk to us about marketing. What a rich day!

Jerry Waxler: Because we are all flooded with an endless supply of information on the web, one of the best ways to filter information and find the useful bits is to follow people we trust. After following your work for several years, I have come to expect informative, generous, caring people who want to teach and help others to get to the heart of their own stories. I consider this one of the valuable services you offer to the memoir community. So help us understand your process, and how you select people for these events.

Linda Joy Myers: I love inviting people who are inspiring and who are experts in writing and teaching to speak to a larger group. It’s fun to share my passion for the work these people have done and whose skills and passions will fuel great writing in others. All these presenters—authors, real people who work hard at their craft—have so much to offer! I have read the books they have written, finely tuned, thoughtful works that have expanded my world. Each has his or her own style of course, and I’m transported into their worlds through their writing. I go for that gut feeling of “I HAVE to share this person with others!” I want everyone to be inspired and fueled for their writing journey.

Jerry Waxler: I believe memoir writing is a multi-dimensional project, and one reason I love NAMW is the brilliant way you integrate and balance all the dimensions of memoir writing. So let me explain what I mean by “dimensions.”

Memoir writers:
1.    Look inside themselves to sort out the memories and turn them into scenes.
2.    Improve themselves, heal wounds and integrate parts they long ago rejected or forgot.
3.    Reach out to other people, across barriers of culture, gender, and all the other isolating definitions we hide behind, and allow ourselves to connect with the world.
4.    Turn life experience into literature, and contribute their stories into the river of culture.

Throughout the year you do a lovely job balancing these aspects, so I’m not surprised to see the Telesummit extending across all four of these dimensions as well. Help me understand how your presenters will provide attendees with more insight and a greater appreciation for each of these dimensions.

Linda Joy Myers: Jerry, I love how you talk about what we do as memoir writers! There is so much to say about all these fabulous people –Robin, Dinty, Jennifer, and the talented young women writers Anna, Elisabeth and Nicole. All of them have done what you mention in various ways. Of course a humorous book like Anna Mitchael’s Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am has a different tone than Nicole Johns’s book about recovery in Rehab—yet both took me into their personal experience and made me want to keep reading. Elisabeth Eaves’s two books Wanderlust and Bare were very intense, introducing worlds, places, and experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Robin Hemley’s memoir Nola is so deep and thought provoking, I have to stop reading for a time to gather myself and absorb the complexity of it. His book Turning Your Life into Fiction is one of the best books I’ve read about story writing, drawing from your life, and all the angles to look at when drawing from your life for story.

Dinty Moore’s memoir From Panic to Desire shows me how the brief essay form can work, and makes me want to try that style. His book Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction should be on every writer’s shelf. Jennifer Lauck’s first book Blackbird inspired me to finish my memoir, and I’ve enjoyed all her books—each of them a jewel of self-exploration and courage. She used her writing to help to sort out and heal a childhood of loss, adoption, and confusion—a great model for me, and now we’re colleagues!

I don’t know about you, but for me literature, including fiction, has helped me find solutions to the problems of life, starting way back when I’d search eagerly for insights and answers in books from Dickens to Atwood, Woolf to Steinbeck. Of course many, if not most, fiction writers have drawn upon their own lives to offer their marvelous stories to us, but memoir goes a step further—it offers us truth. Memoir promises that “The tale I’m telling you is the way it really happened, and here is my story, my learning, my mistakes, and my lessons. Take them to your heart, and allow my story to help you, change you, entertain you.” This is why memoir is such an important force in our lives now—inspiring lots of stories and writing that now can reach audiences very quickly and easily. Of course, they need to be edited and shaped so the reader can get the most out of them—but it’s a whole new world out there now!

Jerry Waxler: I think everyone has a story worth telling. But then in addition to having the story, they need to tenaciously develop the skills, put it all down on paper, and then polish it in a way that will be engaging to readers. What support and encouragement do NAMW programs offer people who travel this road? What steps do you suggest for these people? How will the Telesummit and other resources of NAMW help?

Linda Joy Myers: Creativity needs nurturing, regular feeding and watering, like plants. As creators who draw upon the inner self for our writing, we need to have input—stories, teachings, and the experiences of others who have walked the path of life, the path of writing, people who search for words to express the inexpressible.

NAMW and my team—friends who are writers like you—are always looking for new ways to meet that need, as well as offering a huge array of resources on the website. We have over 50 audios that members can download from the last several years, along with free articles and discussions that we want to offer the public to help them with their writing. The presenters all have books and websites that everyone who comes to the website can draw upon for inspiration.

The Telesummit gives everyone an opportunity—for free—to engage in a conversation with renown writers who led the way of creating works of excellence that help us know that we can pursue our dreams of writing, creating a story out of personal experiences that will touch and move others, and even help them in their lives. We all are searching for fellow travelers and here at NAMW, I’m excited to join together with communities who want to share with each other the special trip we are taking through life—and through art!

Jerry Waxler: I know that the mission of NAMW is to help members tell their own story, so I seldom hear you talk about your own memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother” about a girl whose mother has severe attachment problems. I found it to be a valuable addition to the Coming of Age subgenre. You said that you worked on it for 15 years, so obviously during that period you continued to grow and learn about yourself. Could you say something about the influence that writing the book had on your own life and career and ability to help other people?

Linda Joy Myers: Thanks Jerry—it’s always great to have fans! When I began Don’t Call Me Mother, I was still in the middle of living with a situation where my mother didn’t acknowledge I was her daughter, and didn’t want people in Chicago to know she had grandchildren either. The title of the book comes from the first time I visited her in Chicago when I was twenty. As I grew up in Oklahoma with my grandmother, mother would come to visit, and while these were fraught with fights between them, mother would hug and kiss me, though coolly, but I was used to that. So it was a shock to find out that she had told no one she had a child. Over the years, I would occasionally bring the children to see her, but she’d rush us through back stairways, and admonish all of us not to call her mother or grandmother. I was proud of my 14 year old daughter — on one of the last visits she marched up to the hotel desk and announced she was Josephine’s granddaughter! But scared too because my mother could be quite cruel in her demands and control, and I didn’t want the children to be hurt by her.

As I grew up through the decades, I’d pondered the generational pattern I’d seen in my family—three generations of mothers and daughters who were lost from each other in various ways, who had conflicts with each other that lead to a permanent breach between my mother and grandmother. I saw this as tragic, and had already determined to break the pattern, but as long as my mother lived, it was hard to forgive something that continued to hurt me/us. Writing helped me to heal a lot of it, along with therapy. I was able to be with her when she died, where waves of compassion and forgiveness for this broken and lost person became part of the new story being lived out. That allowed me to move forward and with more resolution and a healed heart to finish the book.

When we write our first book, especially if it’s full of intense feelings and memories of past pain, it takes a lot of time. I hoped that my story of loss that leads to generational healing and forgiveness for all the mothers who did the best they could, who were themselves wounded, would help others find their way. I discovered the research about how writing heals—the work of Dr. James Pennebaker which I have written about in The Power of Memoir.

I was so pleased to find out that there are studies about how writing can heal—which as a therapist I had seen and experienced myself, but here was official research! It galvanized me to finish my memoir and to help others write theirs—starting with the notion of healing and finding a new perspective, moving toward creating a well-written story that changes others’ lives. As Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I did, and so can everyone.

Jerry Waxler: What book are you working on next?

Linda Joy Myers: After writing my memoir, I took some time to write a novel about something I’m interested in—the story of the Kindertransport, children who were sent out of Germany during WWII to escape persecution. I weaved my background with music into this tale that featured a young girl who had to learn how to live without her parents—something I knew a lot about! I enjoyed bringing in the history of WWII in Berlin and England—and I took three trips to Europe to research the story. The fiction book is waiting for me to get back to more edits, but I did finish it, and loved writing fiction—and of course traveling and research. One of the best days was looking at newspapers in the British Library!  Another one was walking down the Unter den Linden in Berlin—a vibrant and healed city.

Linda Joy Myers: My next nonfiction book is Truth or Lie—On The Cusp of Memoir and Fiction—a topic we have discussed in the two Telesummits—as so many people are struggling with these issues. Do I tell my story as “truth” or allow some fictional shifts in the story is the theme of the book, with lots of discussion about the levels and stages of memoir writing, tools, tips, and techniques to help people write, sort through these questions, and polish a manuscript for publication. As you can see, I love this topic!

Notes

Click here to visit Linda Joy’s Power of Memoir Page

Click here to read my review of  “The Power of Memoir.”
[click here ]

Click here to read my article about her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Character Development of a Novel’s Hero

By Jerry Waxler

When the protagonist of the novel “Bread Alone” went to work in a bakery, she found her own strength. That’s the central premise of the novel. Through creative striving, through effort and overcoming obstacles, the protagonist grew. In this regard, “Bread Alone” provides an uplifting, even inspiring answer to the question asked by almost every good story, “How did the character grow?” I asked the author Judi Hendricks to tell me more about the importance of the character arc for her and her characters.

Jerry Waxler: Okay. I get that the character Wynter had a different experience in the break up of the marriage than you did in real life, but there is one area of your life that your protagonist seems to accurately reflect. You both went from incomplete people to much more aware and fulfilled people by working in the bakery. As a reader, I love this inner arc, which shows your character’s personal development. This is one of the reasons I read memoirs, to see how people grow, and I’m glad you reflected that part of your life in the novel. I know you’ve said you just follow your characters and your characters tell you what happens, but I wonder if you could say anything specifically about this aspect of story crafting which portrays the growing wisdom of the protagonist as she travels from the beginning of the story to the end.

Judi Hendricks: I should clarify that comment about following my characters to see what happens–I think that applies mainly to specifics of the story, not so much to the character’s arc.  In one class where I workshopped the first few chapters of Bread Alone, one of the other participants said, in essence, “Your main character is a nincompoop.  She’s totally spoiled and clueless and not very likeable.  Why don’t you make her smarter and don’t let her feel so sorry for herself and so entitled?”

My response was, “That’s the whole point of the story.  She has to change and grow or there’s no story.”

I usually have at least a vague idea of how my characters will develop, who they’ll be at the end.  But the things that happen along the way, I discover as I write.

Jerry: Okay, so flash forward. You have written a bunch of novels, and you are actually a writer now. So this whole story would make a great memoir. In the beginning was an unformed young bakery worker who attends a memoir class and realizes she could play with reality. This marks the transition into the next stage in her life. Over the coming years, like Wynter in Bread Alone, the protagonist of this memoir is becoming a deeper person, as she writes novels, and finds her voice, her audience, and her stride as a mature writer.

So if you were to look back and see yourself as the protagonist in this memoir or novel about the birth of a writer, could you offer us a scene, a revelation, a key moment, perhaps at a book signing or the completion of yet another manuscript when you said to yourself something like, “Hey, this is my life. I’m a writer.”

Judi: First of all–what a great idea for a novel!

The realization hit me as I was beginning my second book, Isabel’s Daughter.  I’d gotten a two-book contract from my UK publisher and I had to produce a manuscript in 18 months, whereas I’d had no deadline for Bread Alone and ended up taking four years to write it.  I had only the most nebulous idea for a story and was facing a huge amount of research about New Mexico and art and a bunch of other topics I knew nothing about.  I rented a little house in Santa Fe for a month and my husband and I drove over with all my books and my computer and we had a fun weekend playing tourists, and then Monday morning he got on a plane and went back to L.A. and I freaked out.  I spent most of the day walking around town in a daze, envisioning having to give back my advance.

That night I called my husband, practically in tears and he gave me his best halftime locker room pep talk.  The next morning I sat down at the kitchen table and organized my research materials, outlined a 30-day plan for what I needed to accomplish, read over the story notes I had to date and then I just started to write.  That’s when I knew I was a writer.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Judi: Part three of Bread Alone– Baker’s Apprentice was part 2..

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

By Jerry Waxler

In this part of my interview with novelist Judi Hendricks, I ask her to describe how she walks the line between fact and fiction in her novel “Bread Alone.”

Jerry Waxler: When I read “Bread Alone” I was impressed by how realistic and rich the dialog was. It was just very real. I enjoy dialog that has a rich real flavor, and always wonder how writers do it. How do you bring your dialog to life?

Judi Hendricks: You have no idea how big of a compliment that is. When I first began to write fiction, dialog was the hardest thing for me.  There are so many ways to do it badly, and I did every one of them.  I’ve always been an incorrigible eavesdropper, so at first I tried to write the way people actually talk, which is incredibly boring, full of um and you know and sentence fragments that go nowhere.  I read a lot of novels and books on writing, and I took a lot of classes, and I learned that the biggest problem with my dialog was that it went on far too long.

When you’re writing dialog you have to decide with each conversation between your characters, what exactly is the point of this exchange?  Once you know that, you must ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t pertain to that point.  And if you don’t know what the point of an exchange is, you have to get rid of the whole conversation, no matter how cool it sounds.  The other thing about dialog is to be constantly aware, and to make the reader aware, that what a character says is not necessarily what she thinks or feels.  Everyone’s got an agenda; every conversation has subtext.  To me, that’s one of the biggest things that brings dialog to life.  This applies to memoir as well as to fiction.

Jerry: I have heard that people often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” I could see how this line of questioning could lead to a tangle if you have to start explaining which parts are true and which are invented. Maybe that’s why many writers try to dodge the question altogether. How does that work for you?

Judi: “Where do you get your ideas?” is the second most frequently asked question, right after “How did you get your agent?” and I’m always tempted to laugh.  It’s almost like there should be a catalog company with a warehouse in Kansas where you can order ideas over the internet.  My best response is that ideas are organic.  Your life is like a big compost pile full of thoughts, dreams, memories, experiences…all of which lie there and rot and become this very fertile substance from which ideas sprout spontaneously.  As for the truth, that’s a more slippery thing.  I don’t believe that a story has to be real to be true.

Jerry: Do you keep a writing notebook to jot down notes you observe or think? Do you insert snips of overheard conversations into your novels?

Judi: I actually have several notebooks.  One by the bed, one in the car, one in my purse.  As I get older and my memory gets worse, I feel like I have to write down the ideas I don’t want to forget.  A few of my best lines are gems I overheard in an elevator or sitting in a café.  Those are like a gift from the writing gods.

Jerry: Many new writers ask, “What if a character sues or hates me for writing the story?” Obviously you side stepped this issue by writing fiction. It’s what the spies call “plausible deniability.” You could say, “Oh, no. It’s fiction. That wasn’t really you.” But this is a complex mental and emotional game. You must juggle parts of reality with parts of imagination. Did it feel strange distorting real events for the purposes of the story?

Judi: It really is a kind of game…a game of “what if,” like my writing about the robbery. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble distorting or changing or embellishing reality.  When I was growing up I got in trouble for it; now I get paid for it.  Sometimes when I try to write nonfiction it’s harder to remember what actually happened than to recall the little nuances and embroideries I concoct around so many events.

Jerry: Interesting. Experts, like Brian Boyd in “The Evolution of Stories” propose that humans began to tell stories as a sort of cognitive playground where they experiment with alternate scenarios. You seem to be the perfect model for that theory. In “Bread Alone” you turned your imagination loose at the boundaries of reality. So on your fifth novel, how has that connection between life and fiction evolved for you over the years?

Judi: Bread Alone was my first novel, and my most personal one, partly because I actually experienced some of the things I wrote about.  But no matter what I’m writing about, it becomes very real to me. Part of writing fiction is digging deeper and deeper, not just into your characters, but into yourself, mining your own emotions and memories.  You discover your character’s emotional reality by drawing upon your own.  For example, in Isabel’s Daughter, my second novel, the protagonist is a woman who was abandoned as a child, grew up in an orphanage and foster homes.  I’ve never been abandoned; my family was excruciatingly normal, so I don’t know anything about that.  But my experience includes that feeling of not being fully engaged in life, of being an outsider–and it was that feeling I had to mine when I wrote this character.

Everything you write is filtered through your experience, your sensibilities.  Even if it’s a totally fictional story with characters that are completely unlike you, it’s still almost impossible to separate the writer from the work.  That’s why it’s so hard not to read criticism of your work as criticism of yourself.

If I only knew what my thought process was as I tried to figure out the story structure…  It’s the same for me now, working on my fifth novel, as it was with Bread Alone.  I just keep writing to discover what happens.  There’s a certain amount of ceding control to the story, which I know sounds very woo-woo, but there you are.

Notes

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.