Lifelong learning: tips for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

After all the living to acquire our experiences, in past generations, those experiences disappear into forgotten boxes in the attic. Today we have the opportunity to resurrect that lost wisdom by sharing the experiences of our lives. Such stories provide us with a vast encyclopedia of insight into the human condition.In the previous post [link] I introduced two of my favorite international coming of age memoirs, both about childhood stints in Saigon just before the war. The stories expand my cultural reach, from the limitations of each reader’s life into the tsunami known as Vietnam. In addition to their specific historical significance from fifty years ago, the very existence of these two memoirs represents a cultural tsunami in the present. – we are living at a time when it is acceptable to find the story of your life.

After reading the Vietnam memoir Saigon Kids, the author Les Arbuckle provided a wonderful overview of his process to learn how to tell the story Here is our conversation for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

Me: So tell me the origin story of Saigon Kids. What made you decide to write it, and I guess just as important what made you think you could?

Les: I first thought about telling this story when I was talking to a friend’s wife way back in 1988. She had become interested in writing screenplays and it occurred to me then that my adventures in Vietnam might make a good movie. But I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, so I set the idea aside.

The story kept nagging at me. There are between 10 and 15 million Military Brats in the US and my story is, in some ways, their story too. I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Many years went by and at the ripe old age of fifty-three in 2002, I realized that if I was ever going to tell my story, I had to get started. But I didn’t want to just write it for myself. I was going to write it well enough to attract a literary agent and a publisher, rather than self-publish.

Since I still didn’t know how to write screenplays, I figured I’d write it as a memoir. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything about writing memoirs either, but my ignorance made it possible to get started without worrying about the details.

At this stage in my life, I had no experience in the world of writers and writing, except for a 500-word technical article I had penned for the Jazz Educators Journal in 1993 (The Music of Bill Evans: “Laurie”). I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience. I had a great story to tell, which I figured was what made the difference (it didn’t).

I wrote the whole book in about three weeks. I simply wrote down every memory I could muster, rearranged everything in chronological order as best I could, and then began struggling to make it better, a little at a time.

Me: Wow. What an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations for taking this big leap.

Les: I knew I had a long way to go, so I reached out to a mystery writer I knew, Zach Klein, (author of the Matt Jacob Series).

I was having trouble writing either descriptive or action prose. Zach suggested I do what Hemingway did: Just say it: “John threw the stick into the lake.” I immediately read the first Hemingway book I could get my hands on, “A Movable Feast,” and studied his style. I also used the Internet to review scenes of Old Saigon, paying particular interest to those scenes that resembled parts of my stories. This helped quite a bit with the descriptive portions of the book, tweaking my memory and inner eye enough to effectively add details I had forgotten. My daughter even gave me a vintage book about Saigon in the 1950′ and ’60’s that contained many familiar pictures of the city I once knew and its inhabitants.

Zach informed me that, unlike fiction or fantasy literature, memoirs are not “plot driven.” In a memoir, the narrative usually takes the form of an “arc” where the writer shows that in the course of the story he/she has changed in some meaningful way, and is no longer the person they were at the beginning of the story. Zach suggested I read a lot of memoirs and get a feel for the oeuvre, so I loaded up on every memoir I could find.

Me: Zach sounds like an incredibly helpful resource. It’s so cool that he offered you his wisdom about a genre that is not even his specialty.

Les: What I eventually learned was that memoirs are held to a higher literary standard than Fiction or Fantasy, and there were a lot of no-no’s to take into consideration (no lying!). Sustaining a 96,000-word narrative is not easy, either. Had I known how difficult the task was that I set for myself, I may never have started, but that’s one of the only good things about my ignorance of the literary world.

Over the next fifteen years I would read around 200 memoirs or so (who counts?). Based on my reading, I learned the importance of having strong themes. Because of my interest in the Military Brat phenomenon of constantly moving around, and needing to learn how to quickly adapt, I began to focus on the theme of belonging, of having a real home, friends, and community, and moving constantly. These are themes all Brats can relate to, so I tried to keep them front and center in the narrative.

Me: I totally agree that reading memoirs is a great way to learn how to write one.

Les: Then I hired a Professional Editor in Seattle named Anne Mini. I sent her the MS and a check and a few months later she sent the MS back. This was in the Spring of 2008 and that Summer I moved to Southern California and began working on her edits.

Anne was detailed beyond belief. Zach was kind and generous. Anne was not. She wasn’t unkind, however, she just told me the harsh truth and held a candle up to the workings of the literary world and the standards required of a memoir writer. In my memoir, “Saigon Kids”, I mention a teacher named Sister Kenneth who kept me after school every day for the entire first grade. Her approach was much like Anne’s: Absolutely no nonsense, tell the full truth about every detail of the manuscript, and give the appropriate amount of encouragement.

Anne gave me a literary beating from which I hope to never recover. She marked up every page, including the back, and every paragraph, and then put together a fifty-page summary with even more remarks, critiques, and suggestions.

She also told me not to commit the greatest sin of the memoir genre: Don’t try to make yourself look like a hero.

Anne Mini emphasized the scene building aspects quite a bit. She would write in the margins, “What did that look like?” “What did you feel there?” “Tell me more about xxx”

She suggested I join a writer’s group and get some fresh eyes on my prose, so I looked around San Diego, found a group at the Encinitas Library and began going every Thursday night. The group helped a lot because, as Anne explained, even though a person might not be a great writer, anyone inclined to join such a group is probably an excellent reader and can give valuable feedback.

Me: More awesome advice! That is so nicely said. In memoir groups, each person is giving you expert feedback on what they liked. She said it more clearly and succinctly than I’ve ever heard it stated before.

Les: One realization I had around this time: Words have rhythm: Accentuate. Wonderful. Technology. Dot. Hyperventilating. When words are strung together into sentences, the sentences acquire a rhythm. When sentences are combined to create paragraphs, the paragraphs acquire a rhythm that is sensed on a very subtle level (Avoid boredom! Vary your sentence length!). And rhythmic paragraphs become chapters, and the rhythm of the chapters creates the rhythm of the book.

We weren’t in Encinitas long. My wife’s father got sick, so in December of 2009 we moved back to Boston. I sought out another writing group and found the Walpole Writer’s Group, which at the time had been in existence for about ten years. WWG was a big group, and had some real good writers, including one retired teacher of English, a professional Technical Writer, and a woman who eventually published several children’s books. Their insights were very helpful.

Finally, in March of 2010 I got a call from the person who would become my agent. He had liked my query letter and asked for the full manuscript. When he read it he said that he noticed a lot of errors and small issues. He would ordinarily have passed on it, he said, but he kept wanting to read further and thought that was a good sign. His specialty was Military History and he told me he found the story to be a fascinating look at a world (the world of Military Brats in Vietnam) of which he knew nothing.

Me: That’s a great story. Typically you hear about editors having zero tolerance for errors in the query. This guy saw past that. Nice.

Les: I worked with his editor for a few months, and at one point we decided that it would be helpful to have the story start with a scene that was exciting; something to get the blood flowing. The Coup scene initially occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. It contains a lot of violent action and emotion, and we felt it might draw the reader into the story, make them want to find out how things got to that point. We tried moving it to the front of the book and it seemed to work. After that first chapter I flashed back to the real beginning of the book (when my family was in Florida) and proceeded chronologically.

One of the concepts Anne Mini drilled into me was that the writer must speak with their own authentic voice and not adapt affectations from other writers. You have to sound like you, not Jeanette Walls or JR Mohringer or whomever it is you admire. This was particularly difficult because I had no idea what my “voice” was. But as Theresa and I worked on my MS I began to realize that some of the things she objected to were my own little verbal idiosyncrasies, the “me” in my voice.

It was years before Roger (my agent) found a willing publisher. One of the problems we had with finding a publisher was the same problem I experienced finding an agent: when agents/publishers see the word “Vietnam” they think they know what it’s about — “choppers,” “Charlie,” “incoming,” and “rice paddy.” Their eyes glaze over and the query gets deleted. We endured six years of “no”, until a small publisher in Florida offered a deal. We took it.

Me: I have heard so many stories about how long and hard it is to find a publisher. You made it across the desert. Congratulations!

Les: Well, the story isn’t over yet. We still had a few more rounds of edits. After the first round of edits I had gone back over the manuscript and put back in some of the “me” that we had edited out, but when I started working with the editor assigned to me by Mango (my publisher), I sometimes faced the same problem.

For instance, in the first chapter, referencing Mother’s shaking hands and voice, I wrote: “The shakes have got a grip on her throat, too.” Mango’s editor, suggested that I change that sentence to something like, “Her throat was quivering with fear,” which would have been correct. But that’s not how I would say it. That’s how Mango’s editor might have said it. It’s a Southern thing…

The moral of this story is “don’t be afraid to sound like you.” If you’re from the South (like me) or from the North or the East or West, speak on the page as you would in life, then edit it to make it read well. If you’re not from the Appalachians don’t try to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re not an intellectual with a PhD in English Literature or Medieval French poetry, don’t try to write like it.

Mary Karr is a good example of how an authentic Voice can work in a literary setting and still sound natural. I’m Southern, but not as Southern as Mary Karr (My father is from New York). My writing doesn’t have much of that Texas twang to it, but what it does have I plan to keep, ya’ll. By the way, her book, “The Art of Memoir” is a must-read for any budding memoirist.

To sum it all up, if I had to do it over again, I’d take some writing classes first. Not so much as to get bogged down in the process, but the way I learned how to write to my present stage of ability was the hard way. I probably could have saved myself a few years! Although I initially thought the key to getting published was telling a great story, I discovered that, while there are millions of great stories waiting to be told, about the only ones that get a real publishing deal are those that are told well. I hope Saigon Kids is in that category.

Notes

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

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