Stylistic Choices in Creative Nonfiction, Interview Pt 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

In this second installment of my interview with Sue William Silverman, we continue to talk about her latest memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. In the first segment, I asked her about her stylistic choices. In this one, I dig a little further, trying to learn more about the unusual writing style with which she successfully portrayed a woman attempting to blend into the dominant culture.

Jerry: You seem so obsessive about pop culture. In addition to your passion for Pat Boone, you show how you were afraid to move from one city to another because your new home doesn’t have a cable channel with your favorite television show. And later in the book, you seem to be obsessed with Superman. As I’m reading this memoir, I’m feeling that you are relying on pop culture as a sort of talisman to ward off your fears and insecurities. By immersing yourself in pop culture, you hope to finally melt into the melting pot. That’s a fascinating part of your story, and you do it beautifully, but you communicate your obsession in a really unusual way. You show your obsession by diving so far in, you become a character inside the pop culture. Rather than an observer, your writing takes you into the stories of pop culture so when reading the memoir, I feel like I’m inside your mind, and your mind is inside the television show, or the fan-worship or the Superman comic. Tell me more about those stylistic choices.

Sue William Silverman: One section of the book you’re referring to is “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love,” in which I was obsessed with the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is now (sadly) off the air. Not only did I love the show, but I was particularly smitten with one of the robots on it, Crow.

Anyway, I wrote the chapter or section almost as if it were an episode of the TV show, so I included Crow, adding his interjections at appropriate times.

Here is a short excerpt from it to better show what I mean. My writing is in blue and I put in red ink the sections where Crow speaks, and these are real lines of his, from the TV show, that I “borrowed” for my book.

To set the scene: My husband, “M,” and I have just flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’re moving for his new job, from our home in Georgia.

Rich, our realtor, glides to the curb in a black Jaguar. He leaps from the car, enthusiastically welcoming us to west Michigan. I barely shake his hand before collapsing in the back seat, forcing M. to sit in front. Let him schmooze with Rich, listen to the glowing Chamber of Commerce sales pitch. Let him hear about this “perfect” house, that “perfect” neighborhood. [“Hour after hour of heart-pounding small talk,” Crow says, in a mock-stentorian voice.]

Just two years ago…, we bought our first house [in Georgia], only recently completing the re-decoration. That’s the house in which I want to live. But now, because of this job offer, we must sell it. I must give up my adjunct teaching job. I must leave my therapist and my group. [“Goodbye,” Crow calls. “Thanks for the Valium!”] Worse, I fear I might also have to leave Crow – Crow, the robot, whom I think I love more than my husband. At least it feels as if I’m leaving Crow behind. Surely, though, I reassure myself, cable television stations in Michigan – just as in Georgia – must air the Comedy Central series Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which Crow is one of the stars. But all in all it feels as if I’m leaving my life behind—or as if I’m being abandoned. [“Does anyone have a copy of Final Exit?” Crow asks, innocently.]

In another chapter of the book, “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” I write as if I’m part of a Superman and Lois Lane comic book, an episode in which the young singing sensation Pat Boone visits The Daily Planet. This comic book, published back in 1959, actually exists.

It seemed the perfect invented structure in which I, playing the role of a newspaper reporter, could interview Pat Boone to help him understand why he hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (because of his conservative political and religious views). It’s not a conversation I could ever actually have in person with him, so I surreally portray us all as comic book characters, a format in which I could encourage Pat Boone to be more of a liberal Democrat, along those lines.

Why do this? Because by playing with structure and format (that TV show and the Superman comic book), I’m better able to draw both myself as well as the reader inside the actual experience. Everything we write needs to have its own voice, its own tone, its own structure to best work in conjunction with the content and context.

One thing I love about creative nonfiction is its openness of form. It’s a genre that encourages writers to experiment and push the envelope.

In the next section of the interview, I ask Silverman more about the angst of assimilation and her desire to be included as an “Anglo-Saxon.”

Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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.

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

One way to resolve the “where do I start” dilemma is to jump straight into the action, and then come back later to fill it in with flashbacks. Flashbacks consist of entire scenes, inserted out of chronological order. Even though life takes place in chronological order, flashbacks give you the freedom to jump straight into the thick of the action. In addition, they offer another stylistic benefit. They can increase the power of an otherwise boring scene.

Travel Memoirs and Flashbacks

In his memoir, Zen and Now, Mark Richardson retraces the path traveled by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The miles of road streaming by provide Richardson perfect empty canvas on which to paint scenes not only from Pirsig’s book but also from other times in his own life. The weaving of time, thoughts, and place feels seamless, and the pages roll by with the same grace as the miles.

I’ve since read other travel memoirs that use this technique. Andrew X. Pham has plenty to say about other times in his life during his bicycle ride through Vietnam in Catfish and Mandala and Cheryl Strayed takes advantage of both of these benefits in her artful use of flashback in Wild.  She sweats and struggles with her backpack on a wilderness trail, and effortlessly integrates her remembered scenes to provide an ever deepening spiral of character development. Thanks to her impeccable stylistic control, and the neat trick of inserting the past scenes when nothing much is happening around her, Strayed uses flashbacks to her advantage.

However, even though the open road provides a blank canvas on which to paint flashbacks, not all travel writers use it in that way. Throughout Sam Manicom’s year-long motorcycle ride in his memoir Into Africa, he only briefly mentions that he grew up on that continent and provides no scenes from the earlier period, and Doreen Orion does not say much at all about her past during the road trip on her RV in Queen of the Road.

Flashbacks Require More Craft

Many memoirs follow chronological order because that’s the way life really happens. However, when you first start writing, your memory asserts its own order, or rather lack of it. During the research stage, memories jump around like lightening from one period to another, touching on a variety of scenes only tenuously connected to each other. When you first wrote this hodgepodge it might have made perfect sense. But readers won’t be able to reconstruct your life in the order that it actually unfolded.

Story reading is very different than memory, and so, a big part of the memoir writer’s job is to sort the raw material of memory back into the chronology of actual events. Gradually you will tease apart the causes and sequences of things, and present them in the most compelling possible manner. Good writers work hard so their readers can work easy.

However, as you develop your story, and continue to look for the techniques that will keep readers fascinated, you may decide the final version will benefit from a flashback, and that requires work to make sure the reader is oriented in time and space. You never want the reader to ask, “where am I again?” Such ambiguity disrupts their precious attention.

So how do you gracefully insert a flashback without disrupting the reader’s concentration and ensuring they know exactly where they are in time? If you on a hike through the wilderness, it could be easy for the reader to realize your childhood bedroom scene is a flashback. But what if your flashback scene is in the same place and with the same person? The two scenes could bleed into each other, leading the reader into ambiguity and confusion.

The movie Wayne’s World provided a comedic exhibit of how to make a clear transition. The characters signaled the return to an earlier time by making a silly noise, wiggling their fingers and shimmying the video. That exaggerated device highlights the importance of letting everyone know the timeframe is shifting.

For example a time shift in books often occur at a chapter break, or is signified with extra line breaks and printer’s marks. The first phrase of the first sentence should make obvious reference to the shift in order to acclimate the reader. For example the weather in one time frame is cold and in the other it is warm, or it could be a clear verbal signal. “Back in the earlier time, life was good.” You could even mention the date. Doing it right is crucial and it requires polish and skill to pull it off effectively.

Sometimes a jump in time can be signaled with a prop. So if you are touching a briefcase at the airport, waiting in line, and then you remember a previous scene. You jump back into that scene. Then, when you are ready to return, you feel the weight of the briefcase in your hand and hear the person at the counter asking if they can help you. One of the great ah-ha moments in cinema comes when Christopher Reeves’ character in Somewhere In Time travelled back in history to meet a lover. When he glances at a coin with a future date, the shock hurtles him out of the past and back into the future.

Perhaps You Didn’t Need to Go Back

If you don’t believe your earlier years would add anything to the story, don’t force yourself to include them. It may be that your story starts much later . Lots of excellent memoirs offer very little backstory. For example, in many memoirs about the period called launching, when the author is attempting to move out into the world, there is very little consideration of earlier years. Every ounce of their energy seems to be focused on the future.

  • Publish This Book by Stephen Markeley: A young man, just out of college tries to figure out how to earn a living as a writer.
  • Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook: A young newlywed moves with her husband to his job in Japan and must figure out life marriage and career.
  • Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn: A young woman enters the workforce and ends up interviewing celebrities. In her new role, she still must figure out how to be herself.

In every memoir, the structure is determined by the author’s best attempt to provide a powerful story and each author uses different devices. In Dani Shapiro’s launching memoir, Slow Motion, she does provide many important flashbacks of her earlier life. At the other extreme, backstory can be extremely brief. In Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald she mentions that she travelled to India because a stalker scared her away from her home in Australia.

Do Midlife Psychological Dramas Need Roots?

Many memoirs focus on challenges later in life, when events or psychological pressures cause us to rethink our direction. For example, in Accidental Lessons, David Berner tells about his midlife crisis, during which he drops out of his successful career and marriage and attempts to reinvent himself. He writes the whole story from the point of view of a middle-aged guy in a junior position as a school teacher, and offers hardly any glimpses of his earlier life. I found the book engaging, and psychologically compelling. In her midlife course correction  Sonia Marsh tackles the world head-on, and tells about her move to Belize in her memoir Freeways to Flipflops. The journey is told with very few flashbacks.

Other writers who experience a shift in awareness later in life choose to start their story from many years earlier. For example, when John Robison realizes in midlife that has had Asperger’s syndrome, it helped him understand himself. In his memoir Look Me In the Eye, he starts from childhood and describes his whole life in chronological order. When Boyd Lemon retires, he wants to make sense of the mess he made of his three marriages. He organizes his memoir Digging Deep as a series of three long flashbacks, remembered from the present.

Writing Prompt
The decision about how you structure your story will be influenced by your creative approach to the dramatic arcs of your life. Explore the possibilities by writing one or more synopses, as if you are writing a blurb for the back of your book, using third-person so it feels like you are talking about someone else. Experiment with a variety of approaches. For example, write a blurb about a memoir of your childhood. Write one about the journey of launching into adulthood. Or write about some other powerful event or period that you feel might be story worthy.

As you proceed in your memoir writing journey, hone these blurbs. A side effect of refining them will be an improved understanding of your whole project and will help you find your way amid the complexity of memories.


This is the third part of the series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.

How eBooks Revolutionize Your Memoir Options

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

I recently read, Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa, eagerly absorbing the human drama unfolding on its pages. The author’s grandfather survived Stalin’s infamous famine-genocide in the Ukraine, so she grew up surrounded by stories involving mid-century Russia. Naturally she had an enormous stake in the outcome of these historical events, and her passion for the subject drove the story forward.

And just as exciting as the content inside the book were the possibilities the book raised for other authors who wonder how they will find readers. Orwell and the Refugees reports on one cultural upheaval, and it is also an example of another. The book shows how the changes in publishing are expanding our ability to connect with each other.

Her story is about one of the greatest dramas in human history. Stalin’s starvation campaign affected millions of Ukrainians, and indirectly impacted hundreds of millions of others. And millions of people have grown up horrified by the strange and terrible allegory portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. However, despite this vast impact, none of this is in today’s news, and it’s unlikely many readers are heading to the bookstore to buy a book on either topic. The history of George Orwell’s impact on Ukrainian refugees seems too specialized and obscure for a commercial publisher.

Many aspiring memoir writers face similar problems. We know our story has dramatic impact that would intrigue some subset of people. But when we learn how to pitch it to a publisher or agent, we find that we must demonstrate its salability. It’s difficult to guarantee the five or ten thousand readers that traditional publishers need. Until recently, such authors would either squash the impulse to write about their lives, or they would polish a manuscript for years, shop it around, and then lovingly lay it to rest.

In the new millennium, we no longer need to jump over the barrier of the mass market. Electronic publishing gives us the freedom to focus on telling our story as artfully as possible so whoever reads it will enjoy it and tell their friends. In the new millennium, aspiring authors build momentum not on a sure business case but on the passion of storytelling. And as Orwell and the Refugees demonstrates, once we are released from commercial considerations, we can take advantage of some additional literary freedoms.

Cut Across Rules to Engage the Modern Mind

If Orwell and the Refugees was published traditionally, a bookseller or librarian would not know where to shelve it. Does it belong with books about the history of Eastern Europe, or the history of English literature, or is about the investigative journalism of a woman whose grandfather wrote a memoir? Because Chalupa published her story as an eBook, she didn’t have to worry about these distinctions. By cutting across categories, she is free to express herself in a variegated style and high-energy content that suits the broad interests of a hungry mind.

Its length is another radical departure from the past. Traditionally, its petite size would have kept it out of a bookstore or library because without a spine, you can’t see it on the shelf. However, it recalls a much older tradition. Some of the most influential books in history have been short enough to be considered pamphlets, such as the incendiary Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a 48 page work that helped ignite the American Revolution. Orwell and the Refugees is unlikely to start a revolution but it’s a great example of one, allowing us to regain access to this important, short form. The book is filled with intrigue and information, without being so long as to be overwhelming.

Which Niche Markets Beckon Your Book

Just because Chalupa did not convince a publisher that Orwell and the Refugees would sell thousands does not mean that such sales are impossible. Publishers often take the wrong side of this bet, as evidenced by endless stories of successful books that were rejected before they found a home. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, was rejected at first.

When you look more closely at Orwell and the Refugees you can imagine an enormous number of potential readers. Millions of people could be curious to know the background of George Orwell’s ominous allegory about cruel tyrants, and millions more might want to know about grandparents displaced in the upheaval of Europe and Russia. Orwell and the Refugees places those events into historical context as a chilling personal account seen through the eyes of someone whose family suffered from the horror directly.

In fact, in my own household, the word Ukrainian never had any particular significance. My grandparents came from Kiev, wherever that is. In light of Orwell and the Refugees I looked at a map. It turns out that three of my four grandparents were refugees from the same region as Chalupa’s ancestors, as were the millions of Jews who escaped Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I have come across this information, I’m fascinated. Her niche is not so small after all.

It’s not easy to know in advance how your book will be received. In the epilog to Rachel Simon’s memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, she says that the success of the book took her completely by surprise. Instead of the occasional person who wanted to read about a girl and her sister, she was inundated by buyers who desperately wanted to learn more about caring for their disabled siblings. Pleasing the vagaries of the public is not something any of us can predict, even the professionals. So the best bet for any memoir author is to tell your story as well as you can and then reach out and let readers know where to find it.

Writing Prompt
What niche audience might be interested in your story? (For example, boomers, veterans, survivors of a particular illness or injury, spiritual seekers, children of aging parents, etc.) How will you connect with these readers?

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

What Is the Nonfiction Bonus in your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

In fiction writing classes, we learn that to create a powerful bond with readers, every bit of information must directly serve the power of the story. While that prevailing rule dominates genre fiction, I have found that successful memoirs often violate it. Memoir readers are curious about the world, and so we also want formation that satisfies our intellectual curiosity.

I first heard the term “nonfiction bonus” from children’s book editor Ellen Roberts who was referring to the fact that story readers enjoy learning. After I thought about the concept, I scanned my book shelves and realized all the things I learn. In Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields, I learn about postpartum depression. In Diane Ackerman’s 100 Names for Love I learn about the neurological details of the stroke-induced aphasia that afflicted her husband. In Running the Books by Avi Steinberg, I learn about the culture inside prisons, as well as  historical notes about the prison system.

Sometimes, a history lesson is a side effect of a great story. In Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, I learn about the radical fringes of the anti-war movement. In Colored People by Henry Louis Gates I learn about the waning days of the Jim Crow culture in the south. In Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, I learn about the history of the Cuban revolution.

I’m not the only one who enjoys learning from memoirs. In the epilog to her memoir, Rachel Simon said that Riding the Bus with My Sister touched a nerve among people who wanted to learn about caring for a sibling with mental disabilities. This powerful nonfiction bonus motivated Rosie O’Donnell to star in a movie based on the book.

The nonfiction bonus in the Orchard by Theresa Weir apparently didn’t bother Oprah who recommended the book through her television show and magazine. I don’t mind either when Weir explains pesticides and the economics of the small farm. These added facts might slightly briefly slow the dramatic tension. But they more than make up for any detrimental effect by lending the book an air of authority and providing insight into an issue about which I am eager to learn.

Most memoirs follow the model of Riding the Bus or Orchard, in which the nonfiction bonus takes back seat to the primary value of the story. However, in some books, the priority is reversed – information plays the primary role, and the story is merely a container for it. When reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, I was eager to learn about international memory competitions. His story helped move the information along, and I loved both aspects, the information and the story.

The distinction between story and background information is blurred even further in Jon Robison’s memoir Look Me In the Eye. The story is about growing up with Asperger’s so it’s impossible to distinguish the drama of his life from a description of what it is like to live with that condition. Robison’s condition was finally diagnosed properly when he was an adult, a diagnosis which helped him understand a great deal about his own childhood. Many readers were able to learn from his experiences how to make sense of their own childhood, or to understand their children. The nonfiction bonus was so important in this book that his memoir is filed in the bookstore not under Biography but under Psychology, and Robison frequently lectures on the challenges of Asperger’s and the autism spectrum.

This Dilemma Might Inspire Maturity

This balance between story and information has an important implication for many memoir writers, who, when telling about their lives, also want to explain things about their world. I empathize with their desire to embed information in their story, and also agonize with them over the disturbing conflict. Should they tell a “pure,” “tight” story and leave out the information, or is that information indeed an authentic and important way to fill in the blanks? I face similar questions in my own memoir-in-progress. Whether I’m telling a story about my new job as an engineer, or my discoveries on a spiritual path, I want to make my experience available to a reader, not just as sensory information but through the intellect as well.

The most interesting nonfiction bonus in my own manuscript is the historical perspective of how the decades have changed me. In the early 60s, still under the spell of the Leave-it-to-Beaver, and Father-Knows-Best generation, my entire focus was on doing well at school. In the late 60s, my trajectory was thrown radically off course by the counter-culture and war protests. In the 70s, I tried to recover from the chaos of the previous decade by immersing myself in the spiritual searching so popular in that era. In the 80s I returned to the workforce to establish my place in the emerging computer industry. By the late 90s, I had grown weary of cubicles, and was ready for the next step. And in the 21st century, my life shifted toward the exciting possibilities for positive-psychology and self-development that is starting to emerge in the new millennium.

With our current emphasis on short-term consequences, I believe my longer view offers an important perspective about the way life unfolds across time, but I wonder how much I can fit in to a compelling story. The dilemma has me stymied, forcing me to read more memoirs and seek more insights. This is not the first puzzle I have had to solve in order to write my memoir and every time I solve a problem, I feel like I have matured, both emotionally and creatively. It looks like there may be a nonfiction bonus not only for the readers of my memoir but also the writer, as my effort to write my story is turning into one of the most invigorating chapters in my life.

Writing Prompt
How about you? In your journey to tell your story, what dilemmas have you faced between wishing you could convey specific information, and the fear that your information will drag the story down?

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

In Memoirs, Literature Helps Explain Life

by Jerry Waxler

Azar Nafisi, like any memoir author, weaves her life into her story. And since she is an English literature professor, stories also work in the other direction. Many passages of her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran show Nafisi standing in front of a classroom, explaining other peoples’ stories to her Iranian students. As she teaches them how to read novels such as “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Azar Nafisi meticulously weaves the threads of her Persian life with the literature written by these great authors, creating a finely crafted product as fascinating, complex and beautiful as a Persian Carpet.

For example, she explains that Nabokov wrote during the Russian Revolution, and that while he was writing, he had to ignore the violence raging outside his window. While she is teaching these lessons about Nabakov, Nafisi and her students also must ignore the violence raging all around them, and try to forget the secret police raids and disappearances in the night.

Some of her hard-line Islamist students hate Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” claiming that it celebrates the satanic values of the west. To give an audience to their grievances, she stages a mock trial, during which the “prosecutor” claims that the “Great Gatsby” justifies Western decadence. Nafisi defends the book by saying, “Fitzgerald doesn’t justify decadence. He shows it, and allows it to condemn itself.”

Then Nafisi creates an astoundingly elegant effect. She lets us hear the moralistic claims of the Islamic Revolution by showing so-called “morality squads,” prowling the streets of Tehran looking for girls who are guilty of offenses like using cosmetics and showing hair. The brutality of these self-righteous thugs demonstrates their own moral depravity. Like Fitzgerald, Nafisi doesn’t need to condemn their actions. By simply portraying them, she lets them condemn themselves.

In her lectures about “Lolita,” the English professor shows her students how Humbert Humbert forced a little girl to become his sexual object, his “thing.” He squeezed her into the mold of his fantasy, and crushed her individual humanity. But Humbert Humbert never admitted he did anything wrong. He deceived himself and his audience, claiming it was all Lolita’s fault. Nafisi suggests that the Revolution has done the same thing to women. The religious rulers declare femininity to be a crime against the state, and so they have no choice but to force women to hide their sexuality. The Islamic Revolution has the same effect on the girls of Iran as Humbert Humbert had on Lolita, turning them into things.

When girls enter the university campus, they are frisked, sometimes searched inch by inch to detect smuggled cosmetics. One guard tries to rub the “filth” off of Nafisi’s face, but Nafisi is not wearing makeup. The blush on her cheeks is natural. The guard in frustration rubs harder and harder, bringing tears to Nafisi’s eyes, and indeed making her blush with shame. Nafisi says the guard’s examination was “like a reverse X-ray, which made me feel invisible, except for only the very outer layer of my skin.” From then on, the author decides to hide her arms inside her robes, pretending she doesn’t exist. She says, “I felt like fiction, written into existence, and then suddenly erased.”

Another memoir author and English literature professor, Robert Waxler, also injects his love for literature into the story of his life. In his two memoirs, “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk,” Waxler lets us accompany him when he turns to books as a source of strength. He gives us the double benefit of taking us on his journey and also inspiring us to conduct a similar search, ourselves.

In the memoir “Film Club” movie critic David Gilmour watches and discusses movies with his son. In the process, he reflects on how the stories in the films relate to his own and his son’s life.

English teachers and film critics are not the only memoir writers who have been influenced by stories. We may not all be experts, but we all experience our lives against the rich backdrop of the books we read and the movies we see. Now, as aspiring memoir writers, by writing about how stories affect us, we can show these literary dimensions of ourselves, and give readers insights that can help them on their own journeys.

Writing Prompt
Brainstorm ways you can show how books or movies have influenced you. If, like Nafisi, you taught, or like most of us, have informally discussed a story with a friend, show the discussion in a scene. Or find other ways to represent the way stories influenced you. For example, in your self-talk, muse on the importance of some book or movie.


Click here for Azar Nafisi’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

Conversation versus Story Style in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In the previous two sections of my interview with Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her about conforming to the typical structure of memoirs. In this fourth part of the interview, I look for insights into some of her stylistic choices.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Style: Conversation versus story

Jerry Waxler: I’d like to crunch in on one specific scene in your book in order to help me understand your stylistic choices. In the scene, you are trying to understand whether or not you should feel guilty about the slaughter of American Indians. You wonder, “How many generations later must people feel responsible?” Your inner debate opens into a flashback in which a student in one of your English classes was anxious about this exact point. You recount the conversation you had with this student, and then you transition from the flashback into speculation about what you might have said to him that would have helped the whole class come to some clearer understanding of their responsibility to history.

I love this scene, and love your clear thinking and intellectual guidance along this fascinating line of questioning. You were in control of my reading experience, and I never felt jarred out of place or out of point of view.

But the scene raises all sorts of stylistic questions. First, it’s a flashback to a debate. That’s unusual right there. And then your speculation about what you might have said doesn’t take place inside any scene. Sharing your thoughts to this extent is not typically part of storytelling. However, there is one medium where such a fluid sequence of thoughts would be perfectly normal. In an energetic conversation, we naturally introduce concepts and anecdotes to illustrate a point. I read somewhere that the best Creative Nonfiction writing comes when you try to imagine telling it to a smart, curious friend. I feel like that’s what you are doing.

The first time I thought that conversational styles might be okay in memoirs was when I was listening to Frank McCourt’s memoir “Tis.” I shouted “ah-ha!” when I realized that his narration was almost indistinguishable from great conversation. Reading “Tis” was like listening to Frank McCourt having an elaborate enjoyable, entertaining conversation. Actually, it sounded like he was having the conversation with himself, which was even more fun.

I find much of this fluidity in Ruby Slippers, a lovely mesmerizing flow of philosophy, story, and reflection. As a reader, I love this form. As a writer, I find it daunting. How can I write across two different genres? And is it really story writing? What are your thoughts? How did you steer between these styles of essay and conversation versus straight storytelling?

Tracy Seeley:  Well, first, I think writers should be able to do whatever they want as long as it works.  I’m on Twitter, and nearly every day something comes across my feed: “Seven Rules for Writers,” or “Ten Rules…” or “Twenty….”  And I think it’s all pretty much hogwash.  Many of the writers we revere most as a culture look at “rules for writers” and laugh.

The idea that a story has to move in strictly chronological order is one of those rules.  A lot of great stories often move back and forth in time.  The problem arises when a writer relies on flashbacks because they can’t think of a more effective way to explain background or suddenly need to explain a character’s motives for something.  Then flashbacks don’t serve the story.  They’re just a gimmick.

But to get back to my own strategy.  My choices were largely made in some gray zone I call aesthetic intuition.  It’s like the way a skilled football player just knows where to run on the field to catch the ball coming toward him, or a soccer player knows how high to jump to meet the ball at the right angle to head it into the goal.  That kind of knowing comes from lots of practice and watching better players do things.  Writing is like that for me, and I made a lot stylistic decisions intuitively, at least initially.  Of course, then the conscious mind kicks in and asks, “Okay, but does that really work here?  How exactly do I make it work?”

Literary or aesthetic intuition, of course, isn’t something we’re born with.  It’s shaped by our reading and educational history and intellectual inclinations and character.  I’m very synthetic in my thinking, which means I like bringing things together, following chains of association, seeing connections between disparate events and ideas.  I love bringing a whole assorted bag of things together that you would never be able to fit in a simple, linear narrative strung together with scenes.  That’s why I’m drawn to writers like Woolf, or Rebecca Solnit, or W. G. Sebald, the great German writer and Nobel Prize winner.  His Rings of Saturn leaves me open-mouthed every time.

Stylistically, the way to make these strategies work, like moving from the main narrative to a flashback, or from the main line into a digression and back, is to maintain a consistent tone, and never, ever forget a reader’s need not to be abandoned along the way.   I like your description of the conversational feeling you got reading the book.

Lovely Easy Language arts.

Jerry Waxler: When I enjoy a book, I try to understand why. Of course, a great story with a strong character arc is essential. But each page needs to be enjoyable too, and so, aspiring memoir writers need to pay attention not only to good story telling but also to good sentence construction. Some people say that the language needs to be beautiful. I have conflicted feelings about the degree of beauty the language should have. Mary Karr’s “Lit” is a good example of writing so exquisite that I found myself thinking more about her exquisite metaphors than about the story. I go more toward the camp that wants the language to be practically invisible. Your writing achieved that state that I enjoy: clear, compelling, easy to read, and yet it still evokes thought provoking, sometimes moving images and ideas. During your journey to acquire your language arts, can you think of any particular tip or advice that moved you along, that made your sentences clearer?
Tracy Seeley:  I love beautiful sentences, and I lean toward lyric, complex constructions.  I love semi-colons.  I’ve also learned to rein that tendency in a bit, but still it’s there.  I sometimes struggle with writing simply declarative sentences like “It rained on Wednesday.”  I mean, really?  That’s it?  Still, beauty can get carried away with itself and we can fall in love with gorgeous sentences that bring too much attention to themselves.

My language arts story is a long and involved one—my mother took me to the library every week when I was a kid, I majored in English, then got a Ph.D. in literature, and now have been teaching literature and writing for nearly half my life.  So the best advice I have is to read, read, read.  And read writers with a wide range of aesthetic sensibilities. You’ll absorb a lot by osmosis, and can study more closely those writers you love.

In your own sentences, a few tips can help: Use strong subjects and verbs; use fresh language; stay focused on the juicy, concrete, physical world in your descriptions so that readers can really see what you do; keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum, and learn to edit.

One of the best books for learning stylistic editing and creating what I call “juicy” writing is Sin and Syntax: Crafting Wickedly Effective Sentences by Constance Hale.  Great book that practices what it preaches.  It’s delightful.

Jerry Waxler: The only memoir I know of that does such a lovely job tying together facts of life into a philosophy of life is Kate Braestrup’s “Here if you need me.” Can you recommend any others that achieve this sort of pleasurable, uplifting, and delicately interwoven philosophy that emanates organically from the story?

Tracy Seeley:  The one that comes most clearly to mind is Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, which I’ve mentioned before as a memoir of place.  I’m sure there are others, but they’re not coming to me at the moment.  Or maybe I’m a rare, special bird.  But I doubt it.

Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

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.

Stretching the Memoir Form, Tracy Seeley Interview, Part 2

By Jerry Waxler

This is part 2 of my interview with Tracy Seeley, author of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas.” In this section I ask her to share her thoughts about stretching outside the standard definition of memoirs. The topic is important to any memoir writer who is trying to share their own unique lives within the form of the genre.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Jerry Waxler: Memoirs are sometimes thought of as novels based on real facts. I think it makes sense to aspire to story telling. That’s what I teach also, because after all, our goal as memoir writers is to tell a good story. But as a reader, as well as a writer, I also find great pleasure in going beyond the structure of a novel, and considering the many ways that memoirs differ from fiction.

If there is such a thing as a “straight story model” of memoir writing, you seem to have stretched it in a number of ways, which I found expansive, enjoyable, and effective. I believe your memoir offers a much richer palette than the straightforward scenes that make up a typical storyline. I want to explain what I’m talking about before I ask you for your opinion about the process of stretching the story form. I see three ways that your memoir broke out of the mold.

One, Daisy Chaining

Before I even started reading the book, I knew from the title and blurb that it was going to be about your search for self in Kansas. As I continued to read, I found you daisy chaining from your own history, to your family history, to the state of Kansas. Along the way, you pondered many truths and questions such as the relationship between history and current events, east and west, urban versus rural life, parents and children, the deteriorating economy of the middle states. When people write memoirs, they are encouraged to find a theme, a particular aspect of it that will pull the reader from beginning to end. I find it interesting that you had woven several themes.

Two, Historical foundations

The second way you broke out of classical story-form is that you have embedded so much history of Kansas into the storyline. This is unusual, because you are telling history. And yet, you maintain my suspension of disbelief throughout by taking my proverbial hand and letting me know that we are exploring this information together. I am inside your head while you are discovering these things.

Three, deep, rich, philosophical denouement

The third break in “classic story form” is that your denouement, the conclusion, the ultimate destination of your story is not a physical location or an external set of events. For example at the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt disembarks in New York, as clueless about where he has been or where is going as a human being can be. All he knows is that he is in New York. Growing up for him meant biologically growing. He still had many years to go before life would make sense. On the other hand, your memoir takes me not only on an external journey through place but also on a huge inner journey. The destination of “Ruby Slippers” is a deep understanding of the intertwining of self and place, and the intertwining of the people in a place. The ending was a lovely, surprising, creative, clear, compelling philosophical conclusion.

Despite your breaking of these “rules,” I found your memoir to be one of the most insightful and moving ones I have read. I have several questions about your innovative style and structure.

Jerry Waxler: When trying to figure out how to write the book, how did you process on this perceived requirement that a “story” has a well-defined theme and story line, does not break out into an historical overview, and relies more heavily on the external conclusion? Did you feel compelled to stay in that mold? Did you wrestle to break out? Had you developed an alternate theory of writing the memoir that allowed you find these other directions?  Did you feel like a maverick?

Tracy Seeley: (laughing) You’ve touched on so many interesting ideas here, and the thought of being a maverick appeals to me so much! And thank you for loving its non-rule-following qualities so much.

I do think My Ruby Slippers does some things that most contemporary memoirs don’t, and I hope it opens up the field a bit.  I feel eternally frustrated by those who say that literary nonfiction and memoir in particular should be nothing but story: scene, scene, narrative arc, etcetera.  There are great books that do that, but it’s very limiting, I think, to say that nonfiction should model itself only on the novel or short story.

I came to writing My Ruby Slippers with a background in literary study, and I’d spent years reading back through the history of nonfiction, especially the essay.  Before the contemporary scene came along, what we now call “creative nonfiction” was vastly more varied, less rule-bound.

One of my great literary heroes and models is Virginia Woolf, who mixes fiction and nonfiction modes, writes in wildly digressive fashion, leaving the main narrative to ruminate for awhile before returning to it.  Take a look at one of her great essays, “Street Haunting” if you get the chance.  It’ll knock your socks off.  I think we can agree that even though she breaks about every rule there is, her writing still comes out alright.  Even in her autobiographical writing, like Moments of Being, she’s not just building scenes.  There’s a strong presence on the page of her, the writer, reflecting on, commenting on, and digressing from the main narrative line.  I like reading that mind at work on the page.

So I didn’t struggle with breaking out of a mold, because I really don’t like it to begin with and had other models to work from.  I think of My Ruby Slippers as a book-length essay that exploits many of the forms that nonfiction can take—and all of those parts help tell the story of who I am and how I see the world.

Jerry Waxler: Two. The writing world seems to keep driving us toward the chute of pure story. Most writing mentors and classes, editors, critiquers, and agents, tend to want stories built only from scenes along a simple straightforward line. This feedback can be incredibly helpful up to a point, but when I want to stretch slightly outside the boundaries, there is a drive to bring me back into the formula. When reading memoirs, I sometimes see this pressure distorting the beginning of the memoir, when the first chapter feels to me to have been  manipulated by editors who are trying to force drama into the “all-important” first pages because we readers are supposed to have short attention spans. I also know of teachers/critics who discourage memoir writers from adding anything that is not a scene, in an ultra-orthodox attempt to enforce show-not-tell. Show-don’t-tell is a hard rule for memoir writers who want to share the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world. Of course I completely agree that too much reliance on ideas can also ruin a story, so I understand there is a balance. And that’s just it. How do you find mentors and editors to lead you between the Scylla of too many ideas and the Charybdis of too restrictive a story form?

Tracy Seeley: The edict to “show, not tell” does a serious disservice to creative nonfiction writers, and to the genre.  It’s not the same as fiction, even though it may share many techniques, and it shouldn’t be forced to be fiction made out of “true facts.”

Weaving ideas into story, or weaving multiple themes together as I do in My Ruby Slippers, or writing digressive asides, are things that nonfiction should be allowed to do.  In the contemporary literary world, many nonfiction writers are doing fantastic, innovative work doing just those things.  Still, the question is how to strike a balance: how to make sure everything serves the ultimate aims of the work, and how to not let any one part overbalance the rest.  I wrestled with this throughout writing My Ruby Slippers, trying to find that balance, and trying to make sure that when I did veer off the path to explore ideas or to ruminate on the subject, it all served my own developing story.

But the question you ask, about editors and publishers, is about what sells (or what is perceived to sell), and that’s a different matter altogether.  I don’t know how to reform the commercial publishing world.  I would say, though, that there are many small presses that value, publish and promote work that might be quieter or more innovative and less obedient to the common dictates like “show, don’t tell” or “only one theme, please,” or “single, linear storyline only.”  I’m thrilled to be working with a publisher like that now.  The University of Nebraska Press really got my book, and didn’t bat an eyelash at the embedded history or the sections that show and  tell.  If you want to do that kind of writing, and I think every nonfiction writer should (ha!), look for readers, mentors, and publishers with a little wider view of the literary world.

It seems a terribly impoverished view to say that a writer should never include, as you say, “the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world.”  That’s one of the gifts that creative nonfiction gives us.  We ought to use it.


Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

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.

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

David W. Berner, author of the memoir “Accidental Lessons” should have been satisfied with his successful career as a newscaster. Instead he hated chasing the latest sensational story in order to increase ratings. His distaste for his work infected his marriage. His wife couldn’t stand living in the shadow of this hollow man and so, they parted.

The memoir “Accidental Lessons” begins with the demolition of David W. Berner’s life and for the rest of the book, he builds himself up. He goes back to school to earn teaching credentials and he takes a job in a public high school. As a beginning teacher, he makes freshman mistakes with students, and when he tries to date a young woman, he behaves like an amateur there, too.

Can a beginner be a hero?

When I read a thriller, I expect the hero to know exactly what to do. However, I enjoy memoirs for the opposite reason. The protagonists of most memoirs are beginners whose journey is paved with mistakes. That’s the case in Coming of Age stories which are, by definition, about beginners. Children in blockbusters like Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” must make the journey from helplessness to adulthood. Readers cheer her, not because of her expertise, but because of her vulnerability.

Children are not the only beginners. Adults often find themselves starting over. Will readers cheer for older beginners, the way they do for young ones? David Berner’s memoir suggests that the answer is “yes.” His place at the bottom of the totem pole contrasts sharply with his success in broadcasting. And yet, as he bumbles along, trying to figure out how to make a positive impact on these kids, it is easy for me to cheer him on. I turn the pages, thinking, “Please grow.” “Please learn.”

Writing Prompt
In your own memoir, you might cringe at the mistakes and frustrations of starting over. Rediscovering these periods also highlights your courage. Write about a situation in your life that pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to take a new approach.

Writing Prompt
All memoir writers expose situations and emotions that most people keep hidden. We writers must learn new language arts. And we have to overcome reluctance and press on with tenacity. To get in touch with your vulnerability and courage, write a scene that shows you overcoming some emotional obstacle on your writing journey.

Second Coming of Age

At the beginning of the 21st century, more of us stay active well past the traditional retirement years. So how do we find meaning during our extended years? Stories like “Accidental Lessons” are perfect demonstrations of how such a “second act” can succeed.

David Berner’s new career is not just about regaining his earning power. In order to feel good about himself he needs to help young people feel good about themselves. He needs these kids as much as they need him. And even though as a new teacher he doesn’t know all the procedures of his position, he knows enough about life and love.

Through the memoir, he shows his sometimes-clumsy attempt to let his students understand he cares about them. In some cases his effort pays off, providing support to the kids and meaning to the teacher. I find the book to be a wonderful exploration of one man’s effort to create a more worthwhile life than the one he constructed the first time.

Teachers serve kids (and readers) in exchange for a sense of purpose

I love the fact that David Berner finds meaning through teaching. This is the third inspiring high-school teaching book I’ve read. The first two were “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, and “Freedom Writer’s Diary” by Erin Gruell. In each of these books, an adult pours out information and support in the hope that children will grow. In exchange for their effort, they achieve their own sense of purpose.

Each of these teachers then wrested stories from their mundane experiences. By turning life into story, they created additional social value from their effort. I didn’t have to leave my home in order to vicariously experience their sense of purpose and uplift, and to learn more about my own years in a classroom, through the eyes of a teacher.

In the external world, David Berner traded in a glitzy career for an incredibly unglamorous one. However, inside himself and inside the kids, beautiful things were happening. Just as he filled himself up with his journey, by sharing it, he filled me up too.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of other new skills or crafts do you want to learn, “before it is too late”? Write a scene in which you are taking steps to achieve those goals.


David W. Berner’s Home Page

Three Part Interview with Author David W. Berner
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3
The author of the memoir Accidental Lessons answers questions about the craft and experience of writing the book.

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.

In your memoir, how does your character grow?

by Jerry Waxler

At the beginning of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” the young protagonist hit tennis balls because his father ordered him to do so. As he grew older, he incorporated his father’s demands into his own motivation. As he won more and more games, inside himself, he knew something was missing. The book is essentially a search for that missing ingredient. Agassi transforms from a kid who wants to win, to an adult who wants to understand why he is alive. Eventually he realizes that working only for his own wealth and fame is not enough. The payoff of the story comes from his impulse to help underprivileged kids.

Agassi’s story offers an excellent model for a good memoir. The main character has flaws and moral dilemmas that set the story in motion. Through the course of events, he must solve all sorts of problems related to these flaws. By the end, something has shifted inside him, some lesson learned, some demon conquered. As I close this book, his  increased wisdom fills me with hope, a feeling that motivates me to recommend the book to my friends.

Most memoirs that I love end along similar lines, showing how the protagonist grows wiser. For example, at the beginning of “Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup, the protagonist was suddenly widowed. By the end, she didn’t call her husband back, but she did gain beautiful insights into the cycle of life and death. Brooke Shields in “Down Came the Rain” emerged from her post-partum depression with a more realistic, less idealized image of mommy-hood. Bill Strickland in “Ten Points” couldn’t undo the abuse he experienced as a child. Instead, he learned that embracing the horror of those memories led to inner peace.

That requirement for closure at the end of a story often stymies aspiring writers, who can’t at first visualize the satisfying ending that occurred during their own lives. They are afraid that if they report the events that actually happened, the reader will not feel particularly informed or uplifted. This question leads to the heart of the memoir genre. Our responsibility as writers is not just to repeat events but to share a creative way of looking at those events. Finding this shape, this wrapper, this satisfying ending is one of our most important challenges.

Even though all storytellers must end with a satisfying conclusion, memoir writers don’t have the luxury of being able to change the events to suit their needs. Instead, we must adjust the meaning, the implications, the interpretation. The typical exquisitely satisfying memoir does not arise from a perfect confluence of events, but from the wise reflection that shows what the protagonist has learned. Naturally when you first lived through experiences, the lessons did not leap out ready-made. The wisdom occurs to you later, when you go back to look for it, making the satisfying conclusion of your memoir as much a gift to you as it is to the reader.

Even though Agassi lived an interesting life, the structure of his memoir did not automatically arise from that interesting life. Consider an alternate structure. He could have ended his memoir with his fame and his marriage to one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Steffi Graf. But that happy ending would have made it just another forgettable celebrity memoir.

Instead, he and his ghost writer J. R. Moehringer focused on the inner journey, showing how he found a deeper set of values. He won at tennis, but his real love turned out to be helping children get an education. This expansion of his sense of social responsibility is known in literary analysis as a character arc. But I consider it to be more than just the reason to read a book. My term for it is “ending on higher moral ground” and I think it is a chance to find the value in living a life. Agassi found his true calling when he began to play tennis not just for himself but to raise money for those kids, a conclusion that leaves me with hope not only about Andre Agassi’s life, but the possibility for me to live a meaningful life, as well.

Writing Prompt
In your own story, find the values, the inner strengths, and beliefs that developed over time. Compare your character at the beginning and at the end of your proposed memoir. Write (or find) a scene at the beginning of the story which shows the flaw in your initial thinking. Through the course of the book, show a couple of lessons that led you to higher ground. Write (or find in your manuscript) a scene that shows the more mature reaction that will let the reader understand the development of your character, your maturity, or some other quality that will give your reader hope about the journey of your and their life.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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.

What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I was invited by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro, publishers of Philadelphia Stories, to participate in a panel of writers at the 2010 “Push to Publish” writer’s conference. My job would be to offer insights about the Creative Nonfiction Craze. At first, I hesitated. The last time I thought about this literary genre was at the same conference, last year. How could I speak authoritatively about it? I reviewed what I knew.

The first Creative Nonfiction book I read was in 1981. The microcomputer revolution was kicking into high gear and I devoured the trade rags, welcoming news releases from chip manufacturers with the same enthusiasm as I greeted Beatles album in the 60s. I was especially excited when 8-bit microprocessors gave way to the new 16 bit variety. The book “Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder offered an inside look. He camped out in a computer research lab, and from his intimate position, he introduced me to the engineers who sweated, brainstormed through the night, and then kept coming back for more, vowing to climb the highest intellectual mountains they could find. “Soul of a New Machine,” for which Kidder received a Pulitzer Prize, was a harbinger of the Creative Nonfiction wave.

Flash forward almost thirty years. In 2010, memoirs are everywhere. Hundreds of them spill off my shelves onto the floor. On my blog, I’ve posted hundreds of essays and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. I wrote one book about how to write a memoir, and I’m working on a manuscript about the importance of memoirs in the twenty-first century. The center-piece of my project is my own memoir-in-progress.

I look back across the decades and see how one thing led to another. The Creative Nonfiction genre, referred to by its abbreviation CNF, is now so widely respected it runs like a river through the literary landscape. And the memoir wave flows into and through it, fed by the individuals who share their nonfiction experiences.

Memoir Writers are Immersion Journalists

Kidder’s technique of reporting on a situation by hurling himself into the midst of it became known as “Immersion Journalism,” a specialized branch of the Creative Nonfiction wave. By participating in his subject, he was able to portray a gripping personal account of computer development. The strategy has matured over the decades, allowing a generation of journalists to turn facts into engaging stories. Memoir writers do the same thing and use many of the same tools. Here are some of the CNF techniques they share.

Immersion — You researched your material by living it.
Protagonist — Share yourself so the reader can identify with you.
Suspense — Generate reader interest with delay, urgency, and dramatic conflict.
Scenes — Let the reader see, hear, smell, touch, taste the things you did.
Character –Give characters real emotions, cues and quirks.
Dialog — Show people talking.
Story arc — Use dramatic tension and release, character development, and other story glue.

Memoirists Branch Out to Other CNF Topics

As you craft your memories into readable form, you attend classes, read books about writing, and share your work with critique groups. The final product, a finished memoir, offers interior as well as literary benefits. But what can you write next? Thanks to the skills you have learned while writing your memoir, you can go in a variety of directions.

By applying immersion journalism, suspense, characterization, and other CNF ideas, you can discover book ideas almost anywhere. You might even decide to use immersion journalism techniques to enhance your memoir itself. Many memoirs contain elements of investigative journalism. This can be especially helpful if you feel insecure about the importance of your own life. If you don’t think you are interesting enough to read about, weave in another theme, based on your observations. These satisfy the reader’s urge to learn more about the world and potentially make the book more exciting, relevant, and readable.

Some memoir writers find interesting material by taking a trip. For example Doreen Orion’s memoir “Queen of the Road” is about her travels around the United States with her husband in a luxury RV. In “Zen and Now” author Mark Richardson follows the same route Robert Pirsig traveled on his famous Zen motorcycle trip. Sarah MacDonald went to India and wrote about her religious tourism in “Holy Cow.” Author Stephen Markley actually set about to write a book about writing a book. His memoir “Publish this Book” was immersion journalism about itself. As readers, we are guided by cultural habits as old as civilization. If the protagonist is interested and interesting, we keep reading.

The crossovers go both ways. Successful CNF author Tracy Kidder tried his hand with a memoir about his service in Vietnam titled “My Detachment.” The title is apt, since his character was eerily detached from the surrounding war, a character trait that might explain his successful career as an observer.

CNF Authors Attain the Status of Experts

The reason CNF is so successful is because people like stories. But they also want other forms of information such as advice, analysis, self-help, and calls to action. Many aspiring memoir writers try to fulfill these needs by offering information along with the memoir. But in my experience, too much information derails the story’s momentum and disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

Many memoirs successfully offer non-fiction insights by taking advantage of reliable story-telling techniques. They stay as close as possible to the thick of the story and allow lessons to emerge naturally from it. The best practice is to tell the story first. Let the story enter the reader’s mind, and then by the end of the story, it will feel normal that you want to figure out what you were going through.

This notion of ending with a conclusion about life runs very deep in the nature of stories. The most primal of children’s stories often end with a lesson. “And that’s the reason the skunk has a stripe” or “that’s the reason you should follow your mother’s advice.”

Here are a few memoirs that show first and then tell.

  • International charity work: “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson
  • Flaws in the Foster Care System: “Three Little Words,” by Ashley Rhodes Courter
  • False imprisonment: “Picking Cotton,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
  • Parenting of a special-needs child: “Slant of Sun,” by Beth Kephart,
  • Historical insight into the final years of Jim Crow south: “Colored People” by Henry Gates
  • Right and left hemisphere brain function: “My stroke of insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor

All of these writers earned their understanding through life experience.

Crossing from Nonfiction to Fiction

Many writers cross between fiction and nonfiction. Both literary forms require appreciation for the compelling structure of a story, and both require excellent language arts.

Dani Shapiro wrote a crash-and-burn memoir, “Slow Motion” about her collapse in a heap of sex and drugs when going to college. She has also written several novels. Same with Alice Sebold. She wrote a memoir “Lucky” about being raped in college and also wrote an acclaimed novel “Lovely Bones” about a girl who had been raped. Beth Kephart wrote several memoirs including “Slant of Sun” about raising a son. Then she switched to writing Young Adult novels.

Can Fiction Writers Learn to Write Creative Nonfiction?

Fiction writers already have an excellent grasp on the elements of Story. Now to write Creative Nonfiction, they surrender their license to invent. The results might lack some of the precision they were able to achieve by adding any detail they wanted. But I think lack of precision is an attractive aspect of memoirs and may even be one of its signatures. We nonfiction readers understand that reality is messier than fiction. In fact, a few messy details add realism the way flaws in handmade objects increase their value.

I Joined the Panel

Once I realized that memoir writing falls under this umbrella of Creative Nonfiction, I knew I would be able to contribute to the panel.  So I agreed to join. At the conference, five of us sat in front of an audience of around 40 writers. It turned out I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere was congenial and collaborative. Perhaps I was feeling the glow of the lovely Rosemont College campus on the main line or perhaps it was the glow of collegiality fostered by Carla and Christine, the producers of Philadelphia’s Push to Publish. Whatever the cause, everyone seemed to feel at home and ready to share and help each other. I felt at ease, sitting with fellow writers, talking about a subject I love. After all I had lived the story, and now I was prepared to share my conclusions.

Interesting Article: Why should fiction writers write nonfiction? Carol Ottolenghi

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.