Style, humor, and other tips from Doreen Orion’s Travel Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Lots of artists have tried to represent a starry sky, but few of their paintings became famous. What was it about Van Gogh’s rendition that was more popular than everyone else’s? The difference is not in what he painted but how. Style makes a difference in writing, too. Lots of people write about motoring around the country in a portable home. But Doreen Orion wrote her travel memoir “Queen of the Road” skillfully enough to attract an agent, a publisher, a bookstore, and then a reader (me). I bought it, read it to the end, and enjoyed it enough to share with you.

If you have any doubt that style is at least as important as content, consider “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss, a book about punctuation (!) that is so cleverly written there are three million copies in print.

Writing tip: To capture the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, you don’t need a perfect style. Just the best one possible. So start from where you are and then proceed: take classes, practice, and read about writing. In addition read books that have a style worth emulating. For example, by reading “Queen of the Road,” you can discover and imbibe some of author’s way with words.

Comedy as a stylistic choice
One reason I kept turning pages was Orion’s comedy. Her riffs start out restrained and dry, and then she exaggerates and twists so by the time I realize she’s joking I’m already laughing out loud. One of her humor tactics is to put herself down. In a style reminiscent of Joan Rivers she portrays herself as superficial, a lover of fashion above all else. By creating this shallow character, she sets up gags, provokes banter with her husband, and gives herself plenty of room to grow. This head room comes in handy in her Character Arc, when she shows the personal lessons she learns during her travels.

How does she do it?
In a discussion I had with Doreen on the Writer’s Forum,, I asked the writer how she developed her knack to make me laugh.

Doreen Orion:
“When I decided I wanted to concentrate on comedy in my screenwriting 10 years ago, I started challenging myself to be funnier in “real” life. I really do think like most knacks or talents, it is something that gets better with practice. So, I did. The feedback I got was mainly from other people not getting my jokes (or in some cases getting ready to punch me). I also took screenwriting workshops which helped a lot.”

She continues with another tip that could help any writer improve their style.

Doreen Orion: “I’ve been screenwriting for a decade, and along the way have studied acting somewhat (not to be an actor, just to understand the process actors go through), in order to write scripts actors would be attracted to, as well as help me in my character development and dialogue. No matter what I’m writing – scripts or books – I say EVERYTHING out loud on my final edits. If it’s dialogue, I actually act it out in voices. It’s amazing what I find that worked in my head, but doesn’t when spoken.”

The bus as a crucible for romantic comedy
Putting two people together in a confined space generates dramatic tension. If they hate each other, the situation turns vicious, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, duking it out in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” If they love each other, it comes out comically, like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Orion’s marriage tends towards the comic variety.

In one passage that had me laughing out loud, she is nervous because her husband is tailgating the car in front of them. She says, “Listen, I don’t want to be a nag and I know whenever I tell you you’re getting too close, you just lament that you could have bought a system with radar, but don’t you think…?”

“Why would I need a system with radar when I’ve got the Nagavator,” he chuckled.

When I listen to impeccably timed verbal sparring on reruns of “Frazier,” “Seinfeld” or “Everybody Loves Raymond, ” I wish I too had a team of comedy writers to script my snappy retorts. So when I heard Doreen and Tim going at it so cleverly, I assumed Doreen made it up. It turned out my guess was wrong. Her written scenes actually replay real-life banter. Here’s what Doreen said when I asked her about it.

Doreen Orion: “Tim and I have always laughed together. A lot. I honestly don’t think many days go by in my life where he doesn’t make me laugh so hard I cry. I believe that being funny is like any other “talent,” if you work at it, you get better. So, since we also enjoy trying to top each other, Tim has definitely made me funnier over the years. As a result, our humorous dialogue isn’t really writing; it’s dictation.”

Funny dialog transcribed from real life
The next question is, “how do writers repeat dialog so accurately?” I asked Doreen if she could share her technique.

Doreen Orion: “I’ve never used a recorder – I just write it down. During our Queen trip, since I hoped I’d get to write a book, whenever Tim and I had some funny interchange, I’d just jot it down. Whenever we took day trips away from the bus in our Jeep, I had a small notebook, took notes on people we met/places we saw and again, any funny dialogue, then would transcribe those notes into a file on my laptop later that day on our return.”

Keep notes
A whole slew of memoirs take advantage of contemporaneous notes and journals the authors kept during the period they cover in their book. For example, when Alice Sebold, author of “Lucky” was going to the police station to identify her rapist, her writing teacher Tobias Wolff looked her in the eye and said, “Remember everything.”

Joan Didion, author of “Year of Magical Thinking” kept notes during her year of grief. Martha Beck’s memoir “Expecting Adam” and Kate Braestrup’s “Here If you Need Me” both use notes they kept during the period. Carol O’Dell journaled while she was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Then she relied extensively on her journals when she wrote the memoir “Mothering Mother.”

In addition to recording events, journaling serves another purpose. Journals help the writer organize ideas into a coherent whole, one of the basic elements of mental health. So by deciding you are going to write a memoir next year, you might be able to gain a number of benefits. You become more conscious and organized about your life, and then as you become clearer about what you went through, you can share your observations with your readers.

Even memoirs about a period many years earlier can take advantage of journals. William Manchester’s World War II memoir “Goodbye Darkness,” published in 1980, refers to his wartime diaries.

And when Xujun Eberlein researched her memoir essay about growing up in China, she had lost her own diary, but did find one kept by her sister during these tragic years.

Read my other essays about Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road

Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir
Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir
Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

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

After listening to the audio version of Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” I’m exhausted. She does a spectacular job of bringing me right into her experience, starting from the details of the attack, the numbing and disorienting results of the trauma, the eventual identification of the perpetrator, a detailed, harrowing account of the trial, and along the way, I felt disturbed. If I didn’t know it already, I am now convinced rape is a form of torture every bit as real as the horrors of war.

And it happens without the military ceremonies, the awards of valor, the training, weapons, or body armor. A college girl innocently walks to her dorm, and two hours later, she’s a prisoner of post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma does not sit comfortably in the mind, so when we’re not in it we try to forget it. And yet, whether we want to think about it or not, it’s real and it’s awful. By sharing her experience, Sebold reminds us of its reality.

So what would make such a book worth reading? Like any story of another human being, such an authentic, well-crafted tale might be your best chance to see life from that other side. If you know anyone who has suffered this trauma, ever expect to be strong enough to help such a person, or want to switch the word rape from an abstract news item to a deeper understanding of the human condition, this book will do it for you. And while the focus is on her own rape-induced PTSD, late in the book, she realizes that war ravaged veterans suffer from many of the same psychological problems as rape victims.

When looking through this book for lessons about your own memoir, take into account that this is the culmination of decades of self-examination, teaching, and writing. Despite all of the power Sebold brings to the project, or perhaps because of it, her writing is exquisitely simple and accessible. Not once in the whole book, not a single sentence, does she pull away into her own world and leave me out of it. She never hides behind fancy, or even pretty words. Through all that training she has learned to be simple and direct. She tells the story. I am so impressed by the simplicity and rawness of her telling, and think it offers a valuable example for any writer.

If you have ever suffered a violent trauma, and you have never been sure how to write about it, or if you feel it’s too raw to put in a memoir, “Lucky” can perhaps offer some insights. Not only is the storytelling simple. It’s also open. I recently interviewed horror writer Jonathan Maberry, author of Bram Stoker award winning novel “Ghost Road Blues.” He explained that the emotional basis for his horror writing is his own actual memory of violent physical abuse. By sharing his real emotions, he injects his writing with the real power of life. He used the word “authentic” and I think it’s a quality that readers have a sixth sense about. If a writer shares real emotion, we feel it.

It is this sixth sense for authenticity that pulls me in so deeply to Sebold’s Lucky. If you can find the authenticity of your own experience, and harness it into a story, you will not only capture your reader, but will also capture the essence of your experience. It’s this combination of real shared experience, real to you and shared in an authentic way with the reader that makes memoirs so exciting, a window into our individual universes.

When our experiences are so raw, our initial attempts to describe them usually spill out in an unpleasant, disorganized way. We say the same things over and over. We hide. We don’t have words to describe our complex feelings. The trauma breaks down all the sense that has come before, and even turns sense upside down. How can you describe a life that itself no longer feels safe or reasonable. After violent trauma, victims feel isolated inside this strange senseless world. As they try to regain order, they want to reconnect with people. Humans live together in a shared experience. We like to believe our world has the same rules that other people have. In fact, one definition of insanity is that you think your world works differently than everyone else’s.

So to regain sanity, trauma victims try to convince other people that their story makes sense. But how? The people they are trying to tell also feel disturbed by the trauma and shrink away from hearing it. Perhaps the only way to find that connection with others is through writing. People accept terrible things in movies and books. Writing seems to bypass our natural abhorrence, and we can let in some of the horror. It bridges the gap between trauma and normalcy.

Sebold has spent much of her life processing on her attack, starting with her first rage filled poem about the rape shortly after the event. She has taken years to turn the emotional upheaval and horror into a story that is readable by others. And finally, by creating this story, she is able to share it with others who have suffered, or those who give care to sufferers, or anyone looking to understand the dark side of human experience in a way that allows them to hang on to their hope.

While writing doesn’t convert horror into amiable pleasantries, it does transform it into something that makes a sort of sense. In fact, much of life is an accumulation of stories, and we turn to these stories to find sense. Look at the very core of religion, much of which is communicated in stories. And we try to make sense about all kinds of things by telling stories. Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.


The motivation behind writing a memoir can add an interesting dimension to our understanding of the events that take place on the page. In the quote below, Sebold explains:

“One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”

In fact, her intention has certainly been realized in my own willingness to write about this troubling topic and talk about it in my writing classes. I believe this is one of the great powers of the memoir revolution — that as more of us turn life into story, we build a shared language that breaks through all sorts of silences and helps us increase our mutual compassion and understanding.

Click here for another article on using memoirs to heal self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

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.