Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists – Use fiction to tell truth

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (www.glvwg.org) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

First, I went to an all day workshop presented by Regina McBride, author of several novels, including her most recent, The Marriage Bed. The purpose of the workshop was to help us get inside one of our characters, and open our imagination so we could write more naturally. This was an intriguing concept for me. As a non-fiction writer, I don’t have characters. But I want to learn more about character writing to help memoir writers. So that morning, for the purposes of the workshop, I invented a fictitious character that would be a version of me.

The exercises were based on work she had studied as an actor, and it was very simple. She turned out the lights, and guided us into a sort of “writing meditation.” (She didn’t call it that, but that’s essentially what it was.) She told us to relax, sit deeper in the chair, find areas of tension, and release them. Breathe deeply. Then long silences. Then she asked us to imagine we were in our character, and she suggested writing prompts that would get us going. Then she turned on the lights and we started writing.

Out of those exercises came some great writing by the other attendees, all of whom were fiction writers. I found my own invented character to be fascinating and events unfolded for him in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but that added to my understanding not only of him, but of me as well. He was a 26 year old man who had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. He had no sellable skills and no interest in acquiring any, and when he could no longer stand being broke, he took the job his brother-in-law offered him to be a furniture salesman. This has similarities to the way my post-college years worked. By changing my name, and putting myself in a fictional setting, I was able to describe, and feel, my clumsy approach to coming of age in a more poignant and convincing way than I could have if I had tackled this description head on. As I was writing it, tears came to my eyes, and after I read it, Regina said “I can feel the isolation.” She seemed very sad when she said it.

I have heard about this effect of writing fiction to capture one’s own life, and know from talking to people that this method has helped them get in touch with feelings and express them. But seeing it for myself made it part of my own experience. It opened doors of memory, and made available to me a powerful technique I recommend to other aspiring memoir writers.

One reason it feels good to write your memoir

by Jerry Waxler




Yesterday, I was thinking about what benefit Frank McCourt achieved by writing Angela’s Ashes. Of course by publishing it he received world wide acclaim and lots of money, but I was thinking about the act of writing it. What was he after? Then I remembered his detailed descriptions of his relationship with confession, and how everyone told him it would all be better if he told of his transgressions. Well, here he was telling his transgressions to the world. The book was a massive confession, and according to the logic of his life, by telling us the story he was going to feel better. We are all his confessors.

If all he wanted from his story was the opportunity to tell it, he could have just written it in a journal. But since he wrote it so superbly, he found many readers to share it with. If he couldn’t tell it well, he wouldn’t find readers, and without readers, it wouldn’t be much of a confession, would it?

So consider this. There are two parts to telling a story. What you get from telling it, and what the reader gets from reading it. If you only pay attention to the first part, you might as well write it in a journal. In your journal, you can say anything. And frankly, that can feel good. Writing about yourself, watching the facts and observations roll out onto the page can be liberating. But with no sharing at all, the catharsis doesn’t tie you in with anyone. It’s not a social experience.

One of the most interesting things about memoirs is what happens in a memoir class. I’ve seen it over and over. The teacher gives some writing prompt, and gets people writing about some time in their lives. After the exercise, most people feel surprised at what they found in their own memory. It’s a little revelation, that the material was even in there at all. They thought they had long forgotten it, and seeing it now brings with it a bit of an ah-ha about some important moment.

Those experiences happened individually, before anyone reads aloud. But then after the reading, we find that the sharing had power to connect people. Even though the reader is looking down at the paper and reading words, their story draws the people in the room closer together. Very quickly, you go from sitting with strangers, no more familiar to you than if you passed them on the street, to someone with whom you feel you are somehow connected . The power of memories to bond people together is striking, and one of the payoffs waiting for memoir writers.

That’s a great thing that happens in a memoir class. But how do you get someone to read it in a different situation? There’s your family of course, but beyond that, if you are going to find readers to connect with, you need to put attention on how to tell a story that someone will read. What will it sound like? Are you presenting the material in an order that makes sense?

To gain the pleasure of reaching other people, you need to go from an explorer in your own mind, to an explorer in the mind of the reader, trying to understand what sounds well, and how to organize your thoughts into a story. That’s a pleasure that requires more organization than just writing in your journal. But when you arrive at that point, and find new ways to tell the story, you gain so many new dimensions of pleasure. It will make the pleasure of writing seem like only the first step towards a much greater treasure of connecting with people.

Memories, past, present, and future

I’ve been hard at work making memories this week, and helping others make their own, or more accurately record their own. In one week, I’ve given three workshops, one on telling the story of your life at the Writers Corner, one on getting started writing at the Quakertown Library, and one on finding meaning on your memories at GreenshireArts. I’m also taking a workshop on memoir writing at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. I learn so much from workshops, whether I’m giving them or taking them. People in a room, all sharing the introspective project of writing, stirs up lessons and insights, like how passionate people are about writing, and sharing their story. I love that. At every step there is something to learn, and I keep learning more so I’ll have more to share. I’m having fun, and in my surveys, people say “Inspirational, and motivational” so my students are having fun, too.

The amazing thing about all of this is that as I teach about writing memories, and seek to find the stories in my own life, I can’t help but notice that I’m making more memories every day. Take last night for example. As many times as I speak in public, preparing for talks often makes me nervous. Sometimes I was nervous there could be a large crowd, and other times that no one would show up. I was nervous because this was my first talk at a Library, and my first talk since I published “Learn to Write your Memoir in 4 Weeks.” The library talk means that I’m going to be talking about writing to a general audience, and I know there will be a huge range of experience.

Once you get used to it, being nervous isn’t too bad. The adrenaline was actually making everything sharper. My perceptions were more acute, and my thoughts were more intense. To get through the day I worked on a series of calming strategies, such as seeing the audience as dear friends with whom I was having a chat. But my favorite strategy arises from the storytelling work I’ve been doing. I looked at the evening’s performance as a chapter in my life. Yesterday, when I woke up, I thought, “In 12 hours, I will be giving the talk. That’s a little scary. In 24 hours, I will be looking back on the evening, and it will be over.” Based on previous experiences, I expect it will have gone fairly well. Of course I didn’t know the details in advance, like how many people would show up and how the conversations would proceed. But as I was telling myself this story about past, present, and future, I was calming myself with the passage of time, and more importantly the passage of story.

It turns out that every minute is tomorrow’s memory. That might seem obvious or cosmic, but in either case it is an inescapable fact that I might as well try to take advantage of. While I’m working through the stories of my life, why not work on the story I’m living right now? I can craft my actions to lead me in the direction I want to go, to achieve the goals I want to achieve. It helps me skate on the surface of obstacles, which I know will soon be past, and it helps me retain a sense of purpose.

The first time I heard the concept of making memories was years ago, in Victoria Island in British Columbia staying at a Bed and Breakfast run by a retired couple. The sun was shining brightly through picture windows that opened down a hill towards the docked boats in the harbor. Someone at one of the tables said something about vacations making memories, and the whole idea of time popped free from its moorings and yesterday, today, and tomorrow ran together in a delicious blur. Having fun in the blur was my job that day. Teasing it apart and writing about it gives me an opportunity for pleasure for the rest of my life.