Author Interview: Memoir into Fiction

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

After years of working on her story as a memoir, Wendy Baez switched to fiction. In my previous article, [click here to read it], I commented on my own observations about the impact of her novel Catch a Dream. In today’s post, I share our conversation in which she explores insights, techniques, and recollections. Her perspectives are especially informative because she is also a writing teacher and coach.

Jerry Waxler: Catch a Dream describes such an intense experience. It surprises me that most of it really happened and that you started writing it as a memoir. Wow. Tell me more about the events that you actually lived through.

Wendy Brown Baez: The experience of being in Israel was incredibly profound and a story I was compelled to write. I arrived there as part of a Christian commune. After ten years of living together, we broke up in Israel. I had to de-program myself from group-think. Was it okay to be feminine? Was it okay to put my son in school? I hadn’t worked for ten years—we took in the homeless and lived on donations. It was a very emotional time of betrayal and disappointment. I was very idealistic and naïve and Israel brought me down to earth. The awakening I experienced was extraordinary and it happened in an extraordinary place.

Jerry Waxler: So if it was a story you knew you wanted to tell, why didn’t you ultimately publish it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I spent years trying to write it as a memoir, but I kept struggling to get it right. One problem with the memoir is that I had already fudged some of the story, a touch of fiction in some scenes. For example my character’s first meeting with Levi is a composite of my memory and someone else’s.

Another problem was the complexity of my backstory. Living in a Christian commune seemed too complicated.. My backstory also included my being kidnapped and raped ten years earlier. I wanted the book just to be about my journey through Israel and I couldn’t figure out how to make it a memoir while stripping away all these extra storylines.

Jerry Waxler: What happened that switched you from memoir-writing mode to fiction writing mode?

Wendy Brown Baez: I attended the Bookbaby Independent Author’s Conference last year and left knowing I was going to publish with them. I have a stack of manuscripts so I had to make a choice.

One day I thought to myself what if I changed Catch a Dream to a novel? The names Lily Ambrosia and Rainbow Dove popped into my head. I immediately had a visual of these two young women and it just felt right. By changing it to fiction, I could remove all the backstory. This meant the story was less focused on reflecting on my experience and more focused on taking the reader on a journey. It meant I could make things up! It was very freeing to let go of the backstory.

I then had to add the backstory of what had motivated Lily and Rainbow to be on the road. I enhanced Lily’s sense of rootlessness. The descriptions remain the same and the pivotal scenes remain the same. Many of the conversations are recorded as they happened (in particular with Levi, Jonah, and Asher, and between Dov and Asher).

I did fall in love with a man who was very mysterious and who rejected me because I asked him to slow down, based on group advice. I made up the conversations between Lily and Rainbow and embellished their personalities. I took out mental meanderings and journal entries.

Jerry Waxler: When you say “group advice”, I’m trying to visualize a group that could advise you on the specialized skill of translating real life experience into a novel. How did you manage to find such a group?

Wendy Brown Baez: This wasn’t a formal group, just people I asked to read my work. Some are writers, some not, but I worked with a professional editor on the longer memoir and it was quite a struggle. I had to explain everything as she had never had a ’60s experience of living freely and hitch-hiking and raising children together cooperatively. Another young writer friend said, I just don’t get why anyone would live that way. And yet, as soon as I changed the characters’ names and described what they were doing, people were nodding their heads and saying they could picture it.

The beta readers I picked to read Catch a Dream never saw my earlier memoir writing, only the novel as it reached completion. Some knew me and my story and some did not, some are writers but mostly I chose people who like to read, and some with Jewish backgrounds. Readers who know me try to figure out who the characters are in real life and which parts were true and are a bit confused until I tell them it is fictionalized!

Jerry Waxler: In Catch a Dream, you mention that you had been violently raped. This is such a profound, disruptive experience. I wonder how much of your journey in Israel was really a search for healing from that trauma.

Wendy Brown Baez: I have written (and shared publicly) other stories and poems about the rape. I didn’t want it to be the central theme of the book, I wanted to emphasize the search for personal and spiritual meaning. The healing started in Israel, instigated by standing up to the attacker (true story) but it took trauma therapy years later to fully heal. (more stories!)

Jerry Waxler: I love some of your long paragraphs where Lily goes into amazing reveries. I’m not sure what to call them, “riffs” or “rants” or “internal soliloquys” – these are just so lovely and powerful, some of the coolest writing I’ve seen in a memoir. What can you tell me about that style of writing?

Wendy Brown Baez: The inner workings of my thoughts came out of journaling. I wrote Catch a Dream separately from the longer memoir because the experience of living in Israel was so dynamic and complicated and extraordinary and deserved its own book. I am also a poet, a performance poet, so the riffs maybe come from my poetic voice. One advantage of fictionalizing is that I can exaggerate impacts, responses, and emotions. (Lily’s lament, It’s all my fault. Rainbow’s accusatory conversation with Levi: fiction)

Riff tends to mean short repetitions (in music), soliloquies are like talking to yourself: these are short monologues meant for an audience. I just wrote them because these things were on my mind, but I really don’t know what to call them. Inner reflections meant to be shared….

I was reading a lot of Anais Nin at the time I wrote those journals. She wrote down everything that happened to her and her reactions, very detailed insights into a woman’s psyche and emotions, analyzing herself and others. In fact, I used to wonder how she got anything else done! She was married to two men at the same time, wrote erotica for money, and based her novels on her true life experiences. In a way, her entire diaries are riffs!

Jerry Waxler: Would you have kept these lovely “riffs” if you had published it as a memoir?

Wendy Brown Baez: I would have kept the riffs in the memoir but I did take some liberties with style, for example I switch to second person in the bar scene, that maybe wouldn’t work as well in memoir. I would say that the inner thoughts and emotional responses came from my direct experience and conversations and some scenes were fictionalized. As a writing instructor I believe that the more we know ourselves, become aware of our inner workings and reflect on our writing process, the better we can create characters that resonate emotionally with readers. I give my participants questions to ponder such as What are you afraid to write about? What do you want people to know about you? How can you view your actions differently? as a tool for self-discovery– I think that makes us better writers. So memoir and fiction blend in self-reflection.

Jerry Waxler: What more can share about the experience of turning it from a memoir to a novel?

Wendy Brown Baez: Because the story was originally written as memoir, people respond to it as if it is true. Readers after publication say, This sounds just like you! The line between memoir and fiction are blurred and I am hoping it’s a good thing!

I have to gently remind them that Lily’s opinions and observations may be flawed. I do not want to be considered an expert on Israeli history or politics–I hope that a novel with a flawed main character will excuse me!

To show that Lily became assimilated into Israeli (therefore Jewish) culture gradually, I fabricated the story about how she lost her cross. In real life, I returned home still wearing my cross, although I kept a kosher kitchen and Jewish holidays. (My Israeli boyfriend used to say I was more Jewish than he was!)

I also knew that by keeping the memoir’s structure and pace, it was not a traditional novel. There is not a definitive cliff hanger or a resolution and that’s why the questions in the back are very important to me. I wanted to raise questions more than answer them.

After I had the first copy in my hands I realized that it is my love letter to a country embroiled in conflict.

Notes
Catch a Dream by Wendy Brown-Baez
Wendy Brown-Baez’s home page

For my article about the impact Catch a Dream had on me, and some of the life lessons and memoir lessons I drew from the novel, click here.

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

George Orwell and Memoirs: How Literature Changes Lives

by Jerry Waxler

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

This interview refers to the boook Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa. To read my two posts about the book click here and here.

In her book Orwell and the Refugees, author Andrea Chalupa tells how the history of her family intersected with the history of the world. Her grandparents fled the Soviet Ukraine, where, in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was killing millions of people. The family lived in exile at a time when many people in the West still thought of Stalin as an ally. That’s where George Orwell comes in. His book Animal Farm was an attempt to expose the truth about Stalinist Russia. A copy of Animal Farm reached the refugee camp where Andrea Chalupa’s uncle read it as a boy. Years later, her grandfather wrote a memoir about those events. This entire saga is described in a book published by the granddaughter in 2012. As a memoir enthusiast, I love seeing history through the eyes of these three writers. George Orwell exposes Stalin’s cruelty. Chalupa’s grandfather puts a human face on the millions of refugees. Finally, through the granddaughter’s eyes, I see how Stalin’s madness ripped through history, like a tsunami crashing upon the shores of modernity, and then receding as people grew, recovered, and entered new phases of their lives. To learn more about the creation of this extravaganza of history and literature, I interviewed Andrea Chalupa.

Jerry: Animal Farm was a powerful influence in my high school reading list, so when I read your story, I relate it to the feelings I had about it as a young man. Considering how Stalin affected your family, I am curious to know what if any effect the book had on your younger years. What are your memories of Animal Farm? Did you read Orwell in high school? When you read it, did you resonate with any personal sense of history about it?

Andrea: I don’t remember reading Orwell in school, but I grew up hearing the stories from my family that Orwell allegorizes in Animal Farm. But I didn’t read the novel until I was 26 and looking for inspiration and energy while working on a screenplay about Stalin’s famine in Ukraine. When I finally read Animal Farm, I felt incredibly grateful that someone “pop culturized” exposing Stalin and the Soviet Union. It had a massive impact in paying tribute to the countless victims.

Jerry: It’s interesting that you didn’t know about the actual physical existence of the Orwell manuscript hidden in your family archives. So I know you didn’t know about the original copy of the book. Do you remember anyone talking about the book when you first read it?

Andrea: No, no one. It was such a surprise and makes me wonder what other priceless possessions are in my family!…

Jerry: When you grew up, how aware were you of your grandfather’s past? Do you remember any incidents about how his past entered into your childhood awareness, say in passing comments or stories around the dinner table, or even hushed tones or avoiding WWII movies, or whatever?

Andrea: I grew up very aware and sensitive to what my family had escaped, their stories of survival. My parents and grandparents spoke openly about these things when the mood hit them. In sixth grade, I made a presentation to my class about Stalin’s 1933 famine in Ukraine and started crying. The stories I heard from my grandfather of surviving nearly being starved to death, seeing entire villages slowly wither and disappear, the stories of people driven to madness from hunger left a big impression on me at a very young age. The famine had only to be merely mentioned to get me to finish my dinner as a kid and eat every last bite, a tactic my parents sometimes employed. But I didn’t learn of the extent of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner during Stalin’s purges and the torture he endured–I just knew that he was in prison, a victim of the KGB; but that was something that no one spoke openly about. Though one time, my parents had a party and one of the guests was a doctor. When he met my grandfather–whose hands slightly shook–he asked him, “Parkinsons?” My grandfather responded, “No, KGB.”

Jerry: Had you heard about the existence of your grandfather’s memoir when you were younger? When did you first learn about it?

Andrea: I didn’t learn about his memoir until my last year of college when I was working on a history thesis about underground religious movements in Soviet Ukraine. My mother brought it up as something that might be useful to my research since my grandfather witnessed religious persecution by the Soviets, and fearless monks continuing to practice and heal people.  He wrote his memoir shortly before he passed away, and she held on to it for almost ten years before giving it to me. His memoir primarily focuses on his time as a political prisoner, the torture he endured, and miraculously surviving and being released from prison–all these things were too painful for my mother and the rest of my family to talk about. That’s why I had to essentially “go looking” in my own way, by studying Soviet history in college.

Jerry: Did you read it? If so, what was that like?

Andrea: I did read it. It was written in Ukrainian, which I can barely read; so I went to Ukraine after college and found a translator. I got to read his memoir for the first time while I was backpacking through Ukraine. It was incredibly moving, his spiritual descriptions of relying on God in “this hellish machine,” as he described the Soviet Union. The first time I read it, I was overwhelmed and cried. I had to remind myself of the many happy years he had helping raise me in sunny and beautiful California. Orwell said it best, the horror of a totalitarian regime is “unimaginable.”

Jerry: Have you considered making your grandfather’s memoir available to other readers?

Andrea: I would love to. His memoir certainly was an inspiration to me, and I know it would be to anyone who reads it. It opens with him as a little boy watching the Bolsheviks battle the Czar’s army on his family’s farm, and he describes growing up as the Soviet Union grows up. So he gives a lot of wonderful, historically valuable insight into this dramatic time. But the richness and power of his writing comes through most during his arrest and his life in a secret KGB prison. I have done preliminary research into finding a publisher for it. The same time I received his memoir, I began researching and dreaming up an idea for the screenplay about Stalin’s famine that led me down a different rabbit hole. But now that the script is with a production company, I want to focus on getting my grandfather’s memoir published.

Jerry: What impulse originally stirred you to write this book Orwell and the Refugees?

Andrea: The ebook stemmed from a talk I gave on this little known history to the National Press Club. I had been invited to give a talk at the National Press Club after giving a presentation about Orwell’s refugee camp edition of Animal Farm to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation–I think I just brought the book in to their office one day and it turned into an impromptu presentation!  In preparing my talk for the National Press Club, I wrote a longer speech than I had time to give; I decided to present all my research in an ebook–an outlet that could fit all the research I kept gathering.

Jerry: When did you decide to publish it as an ebook?

Andrea: As a journalist and writer, I had been following the ebook trend for some time, watching it evolve from a “kiss of death” that turned off publishers to an attractive mainstream option. Journalists were just turning to ebooks to showcase longer, in-depth stories. It was an incredibly exciting project for me, because I had just spent two years pitching my screenplay to anyone who would listen, only to get it into the hands of professionals who would take another x amount of years just to produce it; I was hungry for the immediacy of sharing an ebook.  My ebook explores the history I dramatize in my screenplay; so it felt like a relief to finally get it out into the world and in front of an audience versus a few producers.

Jerry: What feedback have you received from other people who were affected by these events in history, say descendants of refugees like yourself?

Andrea: I’ve made new friends and learned so much from people who reached out to me after I gave a talk or after they heard me share this history on NPR. People have written to me through Facebook just to share their story or send me their memoir or pages of other invaluable information, or helped piece together missing links I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s really been a highlight of this experience and gave me a sense of community.
After I gave my talk at the National Press Club, during the Q&A, about a dozen people in the audience raised their hands with comments that I had captured their childhood growing up in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The looks on their faces were very touching and humbling. It was an unforgettable experience for me.

Jerry: In my view, your writing voice in Orwell and the Refugees spans nonfiction genres, combining essay and history in a first person perspective. But that’s just me as a reader. What was it like for you as a writer? Where do you see this voice evolving in your own writing path?

Andrea: Orwell and the Refugees was originally intended to be a 25 minute lecture. There was just too much good information that couldn’t fit into a 25 minute talk. So the research, intended for a speech, is presented as it was written–to be spoken. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Orwell’s essays, and he had a wonderful, frank voice and I think that also influenced my writing style.

Jerry: What’s next?

Andrea: I have a fantasy of one day writing and producing a screenplay about the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe. I had interviewed a lot of people about their experiences, people who were children at the time. And they made life in these refugee camps seem like an endless summer camp. They acknowledged, of course, that this wasn’t so for the adults, who had to worry and act for the sake of the future.

In the meantime, I want to arrange for the publication of my grandfather’s memoir, so it can be shared in its entirety. In Orwell and the Refugees, I only published the sections that show my grandfather living through the horrifying events Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm. I wanted to show the real Animal Farm through the eyes of a survivor.

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

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

If you are intrigued by the relationship between literature and life, check this essay I wrote on the subject.

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.

Interview With The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

This is part 2 of my interview with Jon Reiner, author of the memoir “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.” Click here for Part 1 of the interview. To read my essay about the things I learned from the book, click here.

Jerry Waxler: What can you share about your editing process? For example, some writers have specific rituals for rounds of editing, say devoting one round to improve sentence structure, another to develop characters, a third to clarify dialog, and so on. What rituals or methods do you use for editing?

Jon Reiner: I’m an inveterate, obsessive rewriter. Frankly, the fact may just be that I’m slow, but I labor over the language trying to write perfect sentences. I realize this makes me sound insufferable, but I haven’t been able to settle on another method. I don’t discriminate between exposition and dialogue; they both require repeat attention. I write “by ear,” so I often read the sentences aloud, or listen to them in my head, trying to find the right sounds, rhythms, cadences, combinations, and that process continues through the editing. Even now, I’ve been on a book tour reading passages of The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, and I can’t resist the impulse to improve a phrase, or add a beat, which I have done extemporaneously on occasion from the podium. Henry James was motivated to do the same thing, rewriting his published work before he died (and he was a million laughs). I don’t mean to put myself in James’s league, but I can understand why he felt inspired to continue reworking his prose.

Jerry Waxler: Memoir is supposed to be “a story” based on scenes. Your memoir is almost entirely scenes, and yet occasionally you lift out into micro-essays to support your points. For example you are talking about your cravings and you mention that Richard Burton, a “man urged by unrivaled cravings writes of the pleasure of American short-order cooking.” The notion of Richard Burton’s craving is not actually in the scene. It’s you the protagonist thinking about Richard Burton. That’s interesting. Can you explain the technique? Why is it okay to have a side note about Richard Burton’s cravings in a memoir about your own? This is just one example, I am fishing for an understanding of your attitude toward this stylistic device in general.

Jon Reiner: No story is fully realized without a reference to Richard Burton, the greatest rogue of them all. For a more complete explanation, please see my essay on the same for NPR. So, a side note about Burton is always warranted. With regard to my “technique,” you’re a canny guy, Waxler. Your combination of flattery, critical praise, and artistic interest almost had me. [Me laughing] But do you really think I’d reveal the magician’s secrets and kill the act so soon? Come on, man, I’ve only published one book; I’ve got a family to feed. So, let me say this: I’m opinionated, have been writing in a cave for decades, and the opportunity to share the brilliance of my many “side notes” (The Elimination of Public Drinking Fountains as Indictment of the Privatization of Government, anybody?) with a whole world of readers was catnip to my ego, but also potentially deadly to the story.

What did make sense was to selectively riff on topics that were fellow travelers to the food-essence of the narrative but were seemingly so far afield from rational, linear thought that they dramatized the protagonist’s (my) state of social and psychological dislocation. That dynamic tension between reality and escapism would both alert the reader to my emotional distance from the core of people at the center of the story and, if the written detours were entertaining, draw the reader into my experience and POV. Now that I’ve shared the inner workings of my signature technique with your readers, I can never use it again.

Jerry Waxler: Okay, I’m really digging for dirt here. Let me try another one of my heavily finessed questions. [laughing] Some memoirs end with scenes that put a nice final touch on events. For example, if someone is writing about Coming of Age, the memoir can end when the protagonist enters adulthood. However, there is another type of memoir ending that becomes especially important when the topics are more complex, and don’t lend themselves to clean finishing points. This is the “essay ending.” During the denouement some memoirs end with lessons learned. In my opinion you do it brilliantly, with your passionate wrapping up of the implications of your experience, for yourself, your relationship to the healing professions, and to the nature of love and family. You even suggest some personal and social calls to action. Nicely done! Could you tell me something (anything) about how you decided to end the book this way rather than a more scene-oriented ending?

Jon Reiner: When I understood what event would comprise the end of the story, I also acknowledged that the event marked the one-year anniversary from the inciting incident at the beginning of the story. The narrative would encompass the natural closure of a 12-month calendar, and I felt that it therefore demanded an appropriate measure of closure to the physical, emotional, psychological, personal and dietary issues that had characterized my experience and my relationships with the principals in the story. That choice was a bit of a leap for me. My tendency for endings is towards useful ambiguity, and I didn’t want to abandon that entirely – I do end the book with a final gesture that dramatizes the central conflict I will continue to wrestle with after the book is closed – and I patently rejected the idea of a formal summing up or lessons learned in an epilogue. As it so happened, the scene I chose to end the book organically allowed for the stating of my “closure” in dialogue, portraying final dinner toasts that happened in that country house. Here, I must, again, credit my editor, Trish. My first-draft ending reflected something closer to my interest in useful ambiguity, but Trish encouraged me to find the opportunity in the scene to be more direct and give the reader hooks on which to hang his final experience with me. Of course, she was right.

Jerry Waxler: What are you working on now?

Jon Reiner: I’ve written a number of essays which have been published this fall – on writing, on food, on sports, on real estate, on Occupy Wall Street. I’m working on two books – one fiction, one non-fiction, and they’ve both been in my head for years. The novel is called Uncle Moses in the Promise Land. It’s about refugees, immigration, identity, and the future of this country. The non-fiction is also a personal memoir called Chutes and Ladders. It’s about corporate layoffs, living with unemployment, refugees, identity, and the future of this county. Perhaps a smart publisher will sell them as a boxed set.

Notes
Blog Post: Ten Reasons to Read a Memoir About a Man Who Couldn’t Eat, Pt1

Blog Post: Ten Reasons to Read a Memoir About a Man Who Couldn’t Eat, Pt2

Click here for Jon Reiner’s Home Page

Click here for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat on Amazon

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.

A Memoir Author Comments on His Beginning and End

by Jerry Waxler

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

In this final section of our interview, I ask David W. Berner to share more about writing his memoir,  “Accidental Lessons.” Questions in this part of the interview dig in to the choices he made when constructing the book.

(Read my essay about Accidental Lessons, here.)

Beginning of the memoir

Jerry Waxler: In my experience, one of the hardest parts of finishing a memoir is to review the structure and decide exactly how to begin, so I am always curious about the way authors start their stories. I find yours especially intriguing. You start with the breakup of your marriage, and then you backfill, providing the back-story through reflection. I like the way the book is structured, and I’m trying to understand what made you pick this beginning. If it was me, I would have been tempted to start the book while you were still a newscaster, and then show how that world began to fall apart.

So how did you arrive at the particular structure that you published? What other ways did you consider? Help me understand your experience of wrestling with this structure. Was it daunting to pick one, and not do the others? If so, how did you come to peace with that decision?

David Berner: My first couple drafts were far more linear in nature – this happened, then that, then that. Frankly, that sort of story structure bores me a bit. Life is not linear. Sure, the clock ticks away in one direction, but during that time we all reflect, stop and think, try to recreate old times and invent new times. At the risk of sounding too existential, I wonder if there were no such thing as a clock, time as we know it, would life be linear?

As mentioned before, my original first chapter was not the first chapter that ended up in the book.  So I did play around with different ways to let the story unfold. But essentially, the structure was based around the school year, so starting with a startling moment in that school seemed natural.

Although I played around with the structure a bit, I did not consider major, 180-degree flips in the storyline. Frankly, you can make yourself crazy as a writer considering what you could do, or should do, or could try. Sure, adjustments, many times big ones have to be made. But fixing, adjusting, editing, shaping will become a never-ending ritual if you let it. At some point you have to say – this is it, this is what I’m going with, this seems to get the job done. Trust it and believe in it.

Ending of the memir

Jerry Waxler: I love the way the school year provides you with a natural frame of reference that can help you tell the story, and helps me read it. How did you choose this framework, and how did you decide where to end it?

David W. Berner: The structure seemed a natural to me. The school year framed the story and acted as a bookend, you might say. I had that in mind all along. It’s just that I wanted the all-important reflection to come within that framework, not be somehow transported out of it. I also think because the story is not completely linear, that framework of the school year helps the reader stay on track.

Through every draft, the ending was always the ending. That email that is tacked on my wall, the one I reference in the epilogue of the book, is still there above my desk. It reminds me daily of that very special year and those students, and renews my commitment to teaching every time it gets shaky, and yes, there are times it gets quite shaky. I hope the reader would finish the book with the belief that although our past may be gone through the passage of time, it has left an indelible mark, a branding on all of us. And we should not dismiss it even when it’s painful or troubling; we should embrace it, use it to our advantage, and savor it until it becomes a memory that can be used as fuel to move us along in our lives. My mother always used to say, “It’s not what happens to you, it is how you deal with what happens to you.” I think that message comes through in Accidental Lessons.

Jerry Waxler: What are you writing next?

David Berner: I’m the Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando this summer, and absolutely honored and humbled to have been awarded this time at Kerouac’s old apartment in the College Park neighborhood. The room where I’m writing is Jack’s old room. Maybe you don’t believe in these sorts of things, but there’s an energy in that room I hope I can bottle. It’s where he wrote The Dharma Bums, a book like all his others that was creative nonfiction before there was creative nonfiction. His work was always autobiographical, a memoir hybrid, I might call it. I’m hoping to complete a first draft and begin a second on another memoir while I’m here, this one based on a road trip I took with my sons. It’s really a father-son story, reflecting on all the men who came before me in that long line of fatherhood and how what they did well, and not so well, resonates in the generational DNA.

Notes

David W. Berner’s Home Page

Click here for information about the Jack Kerouac Project

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.

On Writing a Memoir: Interview with Author David W. Berner

by Jerry Waxler

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

David W. Berner changed directions in mid-life, and became a teacher. Then he wrote a memoir “Accidental Lessons” about how his second chance gave him a deeper appreciation for life than his first. The book is an important one for anyone who is attempting to reinvent themselves in order to keep up with changes in external circumstances or in their own goals. This is part one in my interview with him about writing the memoir.

(Read my essay about Accidental Lessons, here.)

Jerry Waxler: In Accidental Lessons, you were starting a new career and you were single for the first time in many years. In addition to being hurled back to the beginning of relationships and career, you are entering the early side of aging. For example, when looking to date, you had to come to terms with the problem that you were no longer such a young, vibrantly sexy man. At what point during these tumultuous changes did you decide to write a book about it? What motivated you to share these vulnerable aspects of your life with the public?

David Berner: I had been kicking around book ideas for a long time. As a journalist, I had been telling a lot of other people’s stories, but in recent years had been doing a good bit of immersion journalism and writing from the — I — perspective. I had written some essays and personal memoir pieces that had been published in a few small literary journals, but a book was a bigger project than I ever considered before. And since my journalism background made it difficult for me to “make things up” — I figured the best way to get a book done was to tell something of myself. But I had in no way planned on revealing the story of my year in the troubled school outside Chicago. Not until my sons encouraged it.

Each day I would return home from the classroom with stories, the kinds of stories my two sons — middle school and elementary — had never heard before: students talking openly about sex in class, and using the “F” word in every other sentence in front of the teachers. Most shocking, and interesting to them, were the students’ personal stories of their dysfunctional families, gang influences, and drugs. “Dad,” they said, “are you writing this down?” I hadn’t until then.

It was a month into my teaching assignment, one I had secured through a scholarship program that would allow me to get my Masters in Education degree as long as I agreed to work in a troubled-school for a period of time, so I had to catch up on some notes. But from there on out, for the entire year, I kept a journal. Some notes were quite detailed, some cryptic, but enough for me to remember the daily experiences. My journal entries included the facts, but they also included how I felt, what touched me, worried me, concerned me, the stuff below the skin where the emotions are raw.

If I was going to write an honest memoir about this experience, I better be honest about it all, every bit. The reader can spot a fake. Hemingway said a writer has to be a very good “shit detector.” Be authentic and the reader will connect. I was determined to do that. Besides my sons, the strongest motivator for me to tell the true story of my feelings and experiences was the desire to be a good, honest writer. To me, there was no other way to take on this project.

Jerry Waxler: It takes time to put together a whole story about your life, and along the way, there are unlimited number of opportunities to shrink back from the task, put it away in your drawer, and just consider it a good writing exercise. What sorts of internal discussions or external supports kept you pressing through the effort, to keep you going to the end?

David Berner: My sons were my motivators. They would ask me regularly, “How’s it going? What did you write about today?” I couldn’t disappoint them. And also, I knew from my journalism work that you had to set deadlines for yourself and you had to make time for writing, like going to the gym. Not just write when you felt like it, or when you had some time. You had to get up in the early morning, go out to a quiet coffee shop, sneak into a corner and write for hours. I did that a few days a week and every weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, for years.

When I entered my MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I had a third draft of a manuscript. Then the real work started and I a met my new motivator – Thomas E. Kennedy, an incredibly talented author. His most recent work of fiction is In the Company of Angels He was kind, honest, and relentless about getting me to really dig into using sensory language. I could tell a story — again, my journalism background — but I would miss opportunities to bring my senses into the deep introspective moments in the manuscript. He got me to go there. And as all memoirists know, the personal reflection on your story is as important as the story itself, if not more so. He encouraged me, told me I had a good story to tell, and believed I had the skills to tell it well. I can’t stress enough to writers of memoir that finding a mentor, someone who believes you have something vital to say, is absolutely essential. Self-doubt will creep in; it’s inevitable. But it shouldn’t stop you. Never.

Notes

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.

Character Development of a Novel’s Hero

By Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry: What are you working on next?

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

Notes

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

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

More memoir writing resources

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

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

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

by Jerry Waxler

I constantly scan for wisdom that can help me translate my life into story, so I was intrigued recently when  fiction writer Grace Marcus told me about a friend who walked into a memoir class and walked out with an idea for her first novel “Bread Alone.” When author Judi Hendricks agreed to speak to me about her creative process, I prepared by reading the book, about a woman crushed by the betrayal of her husband, went to find herself by baking bread. The novel seemed so rich with the emotional journey of real life, I felt sure that my talk with Judi would be productive. Here is part one of our interview.

Jerry Waxler: So is it true? Did you get the idea from your first novel after attending a memoir class? If so, please share the events and choices that brought you to that conclusion?

Judi Hendricks: I’ve always said my career as a novelist began in a bakery, which seems appropriate, because the longer I practice both writing and baking the more similarities I see between them.  Bread is a process–slow, arduous, messy, unpredictable.  You can say all the same things about a book.  Bread is composed of distinct ingredients, that merge and become dough–a completely different entity which then takes on a life of its own.  A book follows that same process.

In my twenties and thirties, I had so many different jobs.  If there had been such a thing as adult ADD then, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with it.  I worked as a journalist, then in public relations and advertising.  I worked in public television, then at Delta Airlines, then I had my own travel agency.  I wore suits and carried a briefcase.  I kept thinking everything would be fine if I could just find the right job. When I finally landed at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, I thought I had found my calling.  Which I had–just not in exactly the way I first imagined.

Time and circumstance intervened, and later in a different city I found myself in a creative non-fiction class with an assignment to write an essay about something I loved to do.  I wrote about making bread.  This was almost seven years after my job at the McGraw Street Bakery had ended, and yet all these memories suddenly came flooding back.  The essay became a memoir of my time at the bakery.  I never intended to write anything longer than 30 pages, but something about the piece nagged at me.  I kept rewriting it.  Every time I thought I was finished, it drew me back to the computer.

Jerry: Why did you go to that memoir class? What was your goal?

Judi: Actually my goal was to avoid having to get another job.  I’m not kidding.  I was “between engagements” and I was hoping if I stalled long enough I’d either win the lottery or figure out what I was supposed to be doing.  The only reason I took that particular class was I knew I could write nonfiction because I’d made a living doing it.  I was also sure I couldn’t write fiction because I had a file cabinet full of aborted short stories.

Jerry: What inspired you to flip from nonfiction to fiction?

Judi: It was not a conscious choice.  I remember the exact moment when I crossed the line between memoir and fiction.  I was writing about something that happened at the bakery right after I started working there.  We had a robbery one night, and the police decided that it was an inside job because the cash box was kept in a fairly unusual place, behind the huge tins of baking powder in the store room, and the thief apparently went right to it.

Suspicion immediately fell on our dishwasher–a fifteen-year-old boy–we’ll call him Josh.  His parents had just been through a really nasty divorce, and he was living with his mother, but all he ever talked about was getting enough money together so he could go find his dad in Kansas City.  Coincidentally or not, he disappeared shortly thereafter.  Within a week we had a new dishwasher–a pretty16-year old girl we’ll call Kristi.  This information is totally unrelated to the robbery.  She wasn’t even working there when it happened.
But what if she had been?

Somehow my brain made the leap that it would be more interesting that way.  What if Kristi liked nice clothes and she had an old car that needed repairs and insurance and gas…what if she stole the money and let Josh take the fall?  What if he knew and didn’t tell because he was crazy about her?  Or…what if she took the money for him because she was crazy about him?  Without any conscious decision on my part, I’d just become a fiction writer.  None of this stuff ended up in the book, but it seemed to me that my course was set.

Jerry: Fascinating! You were willing to write about “real life” but with a twist. That’s an interesting intuition. Didn’t it feel strange veering away from reality like this? I’m trying to understand why you wrote fiction instead of just sticking with the facts.

Judi: I never imagined writing about myself anymore than I imagined writing a novel.  Bread and the bakery were just two things I was passionate about.  I think almost everyone has had an experience like that–one of those magical times that exerts an almost gravitational pull on you.  You know there’s a reason for it; you just don’t know what it is.  You keep revisiting it and reliving it in your head until it becomes almost your personal mythology.  For me, the bakery was that experience.

Yes, the thought of writing a novel was daunting.  So for months I didn’t acknowledge that’s what I was doing.  At around 350 pages, it became clear that it had gone beyond a short story, but it was a scary step to admit to myself–much less anyone else–that it might be a book.  That sounded like an engraved invitation to humiliation and failure.  (I do subscribe to that school of thought that says if you don’t admit you’re trying something, then you cannot possibly fail.)

The Scottish astronomer David Brewster said,
“It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of very faint star, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears…”

Focusing on the bakery enabled me to see the story I was trying to tell, framed within the experience of making bread.

This is part one of the interview. In the next part we’ll dig further into the relationship between fact and fiction.

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

More memoir writing resources

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

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

A novelist comes alive in a memoir, or is it the other way around?

by Jerry Waxler

Rick Skwiot, author of “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” also wrote several fiction books, making him a good resource to help me understand the relationship between these two apparently very different narrative forms. In the first parts of this interview I asked him about; his spiritual quest, turning notebooks into a memoir, and more about his life as a writer. In this fifth part of our interview, I ask him about fiction, fact, and finding an end.

Jerry Waxler: You have written several fiction books. Which did you learn first, memoir writing or fiction writing?  Have themes from your journey to Mexico infused your other writing? If so, how?

Rick Skwiot: Learning how to write fiction came first with me, long before I ever thought of writing a memoir, though “learning” it is a never-ending journey, perhaps like “learning” philosophy or learning wholeness. However, like fiction writing, memoir writing is creative writing, and all the tools and approaches that I learned as a novelist I applied to my two memoirs: how to organize my material for dramatic effect, develop interesting characters, modulate and pace the story, construct emotion-laden scenes, build taut and tense dialogue, keep the narration driving forward, etc.

Fiction writing also helped sharpen my imaginative powers, which certainly come in handy when writing a memoir. For example, in my childhood memoir I wrote a scene in which I imagined my widowed grandmother’s secret lover (whom I learned about 50 years after the fact) meandering North St. Louis streets after being chased from her flat prior to our Christmas morning arrival. Appropriate turf for a memoir, I think, the memoirist’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination.

As to themes from my Mexico journeys infusing my other writing, yes, they do, for they have become part of me. They show up quite plainly in my two early Mexican novels, particularly in Sleeping With Pancho Villa, though in an indirect and subtle way, I hope. The playwright Arthur Miller once said that all drama attempts to answer the question, “How does a man make for himself a home?” That can be said of novels and memoirs as well. I think the spiritual quest is central to that search for home. All men and women have something of Odysseus in them, and lives that parallel the Odyssey—we are all trying to find ourselves and our place in the world, to vanquish monsters and false suitors and navigate threatening seas to return home.

Jerry: How did writing a memoir help your fiction?

Rick: Writing a memoir helps put the author in touch with his or her deepest feelings. It is both, from time to time, a melancholy and an uplifting process. But digging into oneself and one’s past in an honest way helps a writer recognize what’s important—what resonates with you, what moves you, what frightens you. Those things are probably what should drive one’s fiction writing as well. Overall it helps you see yourself better and more honestly, which will make you stronger as a fiction writer and as a human being.

Jerry: How much help did you receive from other writers, say in critique groups. Did other writers help you gain perspective and create a clean, straightforward portrayal of your journey?

Rick: I got some valuable feedback on early drafts from writers and intelligent readers alike. Actually, the concept of starting the book at the time I broke my ankle came from a reader who is not a professional writer but a yoga instructor in Mexico. When he made the suggestion, it was like a curtain going up and I saw the rightness of it. (I’ve learned to trust my heart on fielding criticism, rejecting suggestions that don’t really resonate with me, and embracing those that feel like revelation or, conversely, sting.) Most writers benefit from good critiques, and it is very difficult to operate without them. However, it is not always easy to find. Fortunately I do have some friends who are novelists, and we read each other’s works-in-progress.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Rick: I have just finished a “final” draft of a novel, Key West Story, in which a down-and-out writer in Key West, suffering from writer’s block, penury, and self-doubt, is visited by an angel—a young Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—sent down to get this worthy yet misguided soul back on track as a man and a writer. Together they set off to Cuba in Hemingway’s fishing boat, to attempt to smuggle out a Cuban Navy salvage diver, a Santeria priestess and maps to sunken Spanish galleons. Although it has certain autobiographical elements, probably best written as fiction, not a memoir.

Jerry: One last thing. I am very sensitive to downbeat endings. For one thing, my experience with the existential and nihilistic literature popular in the sixties depressed me profoundly. Once I overcame that depression, I have tended towards literature that lifts. From that point of view, your book challenged me. I found the pervasive death and poverty depressing. And yet, in the end, I felt uplifted, not by what you found in Mexico but what you found inside yourself. This theme of a young person trying to find himself is one of my favorite themes. But you had to finesse your personal rewards within the gritty reality around you. I can see a dynamic tension between these two opposing forces, your insistence to grow and the severe limitations that poverty placed on the people around you. How did you feel about portraying this tension?

Rick: I have spent my life trying to balance those opposing forces, the yin and yang, my melancholy and my exuberance—product, perhaps, of a mercurial Slavic soul. The world has always been a difficult and dismal place for our species, with threats and evil lurking, but also an enveloping home with great beauty and riches. Life is struggle, for everyone, and those who have the inner resources and high spirits to fight on in the face of great adversity are those we most admire. Like you, I want to hear their stories, not the stories of quitters, pessimists and whiners. The protagonists don’t have to succeed in reaching their goals, but they have to strive with great heart. When we read these stories, we see it is the struggle that ennobles us and the thing that matters most.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Spiritual memoirs

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Journals and Notebooks

Click here for Part 3 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Backstory of a memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Notes

Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

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.

A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir is a journey. In addition to finding and writing material, we also strive to improve our skills, the same road taken by the authors of all those books that have entertained and informed us since the beginning of our lives. In addition to the lessons they have recorded between the covers of their books, many writers are also happy to teach. In this third part of my interview with Rick Skwiot, novelist, writing teacher, and author of the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing,” I pry into his insights about writing.

Jerry Waxler: I was intrigued to see you immersed with these characters. You wanted deeply to learn from them about letting go and just living. And yet, you kept diving into your books. It was an interesting character portrayal of yourself, a guy who wanted to find himself in the culture and yet kept finding himself in books. I can relate! How self-conscious were you of this self-portrait? Did you have to work at the self-portrayal, or did this emerge naturally from events.

Rick Skwiot: I don’t think I consciously crafted a self-portrait here. I was just trying to report on this guy who went to Mexico and found himself, and how that came about. For most any memoirist, there are two first-person characters: the author/narrator who is writing it and the historical character who experienced the events in the book’s scenes. The author has some temporal distance from that other first-person character, in my case, the man I was some 25 years ago. I think I was able to write about him with some detachment because he isn’t me, but a character from my past who has no current existence. This was even more apparent to me when I previously wrote my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake, which takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1953, when I was six years old. In fact, in early drafts I used third person to describe the six-year-old Rickey, since he seemed another person to me. (My agent and the first few publishers who read the manuscript found this rather off-putting, and I subsequently agreed and changed it to first person.) Anyway, in writing San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I was able to draw from extensive journals I kept in those days, a day-by-day reporting of what I did, what I read, and what I thought. So I was able to recount fairly accurately who I was in those days, and to perceive the significance of events then thanks to the authorial distance of some decades.

Jerry: In your book you show scenes when you are reading great works of literature or working on your own writing. I enjoy this aspect of your book. You let me watch your literary coming of age, during which you drink in the literature that came before you so you can learn how to write your own. Could you say a bit about your choice to put your literary passions into the story of your stay in San Miguel Allende.

Rick: I think you’ve said it pretty well, Jerry. The great literature I was being exposed to then for the first time affected me deeply and altered me–it was an important part of my experience. And these were the giants I was, and am still, measuring myself against as a writer. I know there are all sorts of writers just as there are all sorts of people, but in my heart I never really wanted to be a commercial writer but a writer of literature. This was a great and difficult leap for me, to aspire to do that, as I came from a working-class environment where there were no writers, much less literary artists. Being a creative artist just wasn’t on the radar for me. But as I grew and developed and gained confidence, I kept raising my goals and expectations for myself. As I show in my memoir, at the time I first went to San Miguel de Allende I was still very unsure of myself as a writer and an artist–I had hopes, but that was it. But I also had some great mentors who pointed the way–Chekhov, Simenon, Cather, Hemingway, et al. These were my instructors and role models. They were pivotal in my development and important characters in my life, even though I had never met them. Thus they had to be characters in my book.

Jerry: Fascinating. That explains a lot. Your journey from a working class family to an young man who wanted to be a literary writer is an unspoken subtext to the memoir driving the protagonist. It’s like I am now seeing the backstory that makes the book work even though in the book you don’t show scenes from that childhood. I love it. Many memoir writers struggle with how much backstory to put into their memoir, and now I’m seeing that sometimes it’s okay to let the  character’s personality speak for itself.

Rick: Exactly. The reader will get it if it is embedded honestly…I’m now writing a novel in which an angel from Writer’s Heaven, Ernest Hemingway, acts as a mentor to my protagonist, so I’ve been immersed in what the real-life Hemingway had to say about the craft of writing. I think his “Iceberg Theory” from Death in the Afternoon applies here: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” In San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, there would be no struggle, no story, if our protagonist had come from, say, a family of writers or artists or successful people who paved the way for him–or at least it would have been a different type of struggle. But I knew my working-class backstory (and the role it played in my struggle) and had previously written about it with affection in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake. There you see that while I had no material class advantages to speak of, I was given one great gift, a hard love that granted me emotional security and kept me grounded–which ultimately enabled me to venture out spiritually, intellectually and artistically. As to my Mexican memoir, I sensed rightly, I think, that any extensive digression into my childhood or my frugal family background would interfere with the narrative drive and perhaps come off as self-indulgent.
In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Notes

Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

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.

Turning Journals and Notebooks Into a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

When Rick Skwiot moved to Mexico in the 1980s, he had two goals. He wanted to find himself spiritually and also find his writing voice. Years later, he wrote about the trip in the memoir “San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.”

In the first part of this interview I asked Rick to help me understand more about the spiritual aspects of his search. Now in this and following parts, I ask about his literary journey. The book explains that he wanted to be a writer. I wanted to learn more about how he fulfilled those dreams by turning his powerful life experience into a book that invites readers to relive it with him.

Jerry Waxler: You mentioned your writing journals quite a bit, since writing was one of the things you did to pass the time. Explain how you used your writing notebooks while you were in Mexico.

Rick Skwiot: My journals were crucial in my development as a writer. Not only did I record events of my life, but I also, as you suggest, wrote fictional scenes there, experimented with writing styles, penned criticism on the books I was reading, recorded my dreams and more. It was a mishmash of fact and fiction that would likely misinform and mislead any reader other than myself. My journals were a cauldron from which a writer emerged, finally. They also taught me the discipline of writing every day and thinking every day, examining my life and the world around me with a sense of writerly investigation. For a writer, most everything is research and potential material, which makes us such charming companions, half vulture, half snake-in-the-grass.

Jerry: As you were attempting to write the memoir, what help were your original contemporaneous notebooks? How did it feel reading that old material?

Rick: A curious thing occurred regarding the notebooks’ content. I had mined the notebooks/journals years earlier when writing my two novels set in Mexico, and had not revisited them in perhaps ten years. But when I did I found that the fictionalized versions of events, from my novels, had come to be my reality, how I remembered things. My contemporaneous reporting of events shocked me at times, for I had not remembered things that way at all. This showed how unreliable memory (and perhaps a memoir) can be, and alerted me to the power and truth of fiction. I was also surprised by how hungry I was back then. I was on a compulsive quest to find myself, and my journal notes underscore how serious and driven I was, how dead set on saving myself. It was somewhat frightening in retrospect, for I saw what peril I was in at the time, and found myself feeling sympathetic and paternalistic toward my former self.

Jerry: How have your habits and strategies with notebooks changed over the years? How do you use them now?

Rick: Nowadays I don’t keep a regular journal and only start doing so when I am beginning to work on a book. Then I use a notebook to sketch out plot, dialogue, scenes, characters, etc. So it is more of a workbook than a journal. Also, I think my life has become much more mundane–which is a mixed blessing–and doesn’t inspire journal entries. Also, I have come to trust my memory, which is a writer’s capital, his material. I know everything that has happened to me is in my mind, in my conscious or unconscious, and that it will surface in some form when I need it. I noted this in particular when writing my childhood memoir, Christmas at Long Lake. When I began writing a scene and put myself in that place emotionally and, through the imagination, physically, I began to see and remember–the sights, smells, words, feelings–from my childhood. It was in some ways a very moving experience, spending time again, in that way, with my late parents, when they were young and vital. Most bittersweet and affecting for me.

Jerry: Many aspiring memoir writers look at their pile of notes, their many memories, and feelings, and are daunted by the prospect of turning them into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. What was that like for you, as you tried to find a theme or organization or thread of this book?

Rick: That’s always the most agonizing and daunting part of writing a book, organizing and structuring it. What I try to do, and what I advise my writing students to do, is to think in terms of scenes–as in theater, compressed, meaningful action that takes place in real time at one location with a few important characters, and dialogue that drives the narrative forward and reveals character. I will note down what scenes I feel are obligatory, scenes I know I want in the book, somewhere, or that need to be there. Then I start to organize them in some effective way–whether it’s chronologically, thematically, geographically or whatever. I often do use a schematic in doing this–I draw boxes that represent scenes–so I can see what needs to happen first, what relationships and interconnections there are between various incidents and characters, and so I can easily move things around. Once I arrive at a workable ordering of the scenes, I can write them (or often I write the scenes first and worry later about where they go.) The last thing then is to write the summary and transitions, the authorial intrusions, if any, and needed exposition. Of course this is a very messy and recursive process, and difficult and potentially heartbreaking. You can write the whole book and then see that one particular scene is out of place, so you have to tear the book all apart and do another organization and a lot more work. This was even more daunting in the pre-computer days, when each draft meant having to re-type the whole manuscript. But I was happy to do it, as I thought such rigors weeded out the dilettantes and other writers not as insanely committed as I.

Jerry: There was a rhythm to the way the book was set up, with your initial burst of enthusiasm, some rethinking, then a trip back to the states and the start of a second round. I liked the rise and fall and rise again. It felt organic and natural. This is especially important for writers because the middle of a book is supposed to be the hardest, keeping the energy moving during the “long middle.” It’s hard enough to get the overall structure. You have done an excellent job of finding internal structure too. Talk about how you worked through the material looking for the shape.

Rick: I am gratified that the book’s structure “felt organic and natural,” because it was arrived at after a lot of trial and error and anxiety. Yes, I did labor over it, and it changed shape drastically over the ten years of its gestation. At last–and this came after numerous drafts over the years–I settled on starting the book in the middle of things, at the pivotal and dramatic point when I broke my ankle playing basketball on the Mexican team. Then most of what happens in the first half of the book is told in flashback. This gave me the opportunity to order things thematically and control pacing. Part two, my return to Mexico, is told more chronologically. The key for writers is the get the story going right off the bat, to get and hold the reader’s interest and attention. Once you have some conflict or problem on the table that captivates the reader, then you can begin to layer in some of the needed exposition, in a judicious way. This applies to creative nonfiction as well as fiction. It is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing a book, keeping the narrative driving forward.

End of Part Two

In the next part, I ask more questions about Rick Skwiot’s journey as a writer.

Click here for Part 1 of the interview with Rick Skwiot

Click here for Part 3, A Memoirist Talks About the Backstory of His Memoir

Click here for Part 4 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Tenacity of a Writer

Click here for Part 5 of the interview with Rick Skwiot, Novelist or memoirist

Notes

Rick Skwiot’s Blog, “New Underground”

Rick Skwiot’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

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

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