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

Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In my previous essay, I described my overall experience with Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road.” In this entry I continue my journey through her journey, finding additional insights that I can take away from this excellent book.

Click here for my previous essay about Queen of the Road.
Click here for the Amazon listing for Queen of the Road.

Travel and Companion Animals
One of the best belly laughs I had from a book was when I was teenager reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie,” about his trip in 1960 across the United States to take the pulse of the American people. He drove a camper, and like Orion he took his dog who turned out to be a key character. In fact his dog was the “Charlie” in the book’s title. After a few miles on the road with Steinbeck, he mentioned that the dog’s full name was “Able Baker Charlie Dog.” In that moment, I saw into Steinbeck’s relationship and knew Charlie was a person in the great writer’s life. That glimpse stands out as a highlight of my reading life.

Now I’ve read another laugh-out-loud travel book that contains a respectful relationship with a dog. Doreen Orion took her dog and two cats along with her across country, and through the book she invests them with personality. Scientists often complain that humans ascribe too many personality traits to their animals. But most pet owners know that’s at least half the fun. Orion certainly does. She interprets their motives, and through the course of spending so much quality time with them, gains fresh glimpses into what makes them tick. Meanwhile, her connection with her animals helps me as a reader feel authentically connected to her and her world.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene in which a pet or some other animal in your life can helps you portray nuance of feeling or raise dramatic tension.

Travel and Motion
If I read a description of coming over a hill and sees the vast expanse of the ocean, I begin to see endless horizons and crashing waves. My connection becomes more immediate when the author smells the salty air, takes off her shoes and walks onto the sand feeling the grainy stuff oozing between her toes.

Writers often make use of the familiar five senses – touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight – to help connect readers. There is one more sense that can help. Our body has sensors that tell us where we are in space, and whether we are upright or in motion. This sense, called proprioception, is also used by writers. Think of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Just hearing the title makes me feel like I’m rocking around in stormy seas. Motion is an important part of our connection to Captain Ahab’s world.

Some of the best motion I’ve read were in Bill Strickland’s description of bicycle racing in his memoir “Ten Points.” He takes me right into the pack of cyclists, leaning into turns. I feel the dizzying and dangerous closeness of other riders all around him, and the crazy motion of spinning legs and road racing underneath. All this motion, offers a compelling metaphor for what Strickland is trying to work out in his mind.

Motion in stories often breaks up routines and dissolves structures. For example, Robert Pirsig’s motorcycle flew along country roads in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Jack Kerouac famously focused on motion in “On the Road” driving back and forth across the country, and practically driving a generation mad with the tantalizing insinuation that driving equals freedom.

Doreen Orion also traveled across the country, and despite the dishwasher and satellite television, the trip wasn’t as far from Pirsig and Kerouac as first meets the eye. She was seeking something not just in the scenery but also in her self. As she travelled she too felt the miles roll by and the rigid structures melt. The sense of rootlessness and motion in her RV does some of the same work as the car, the motorcycle, and the bicycle do in the other books. I think the boomer generation is getting ready for another existential crisis.  Could this book, “Queen of the Road,” become the Bible we need to usher in another round of cultural self-discovery? (Just kidding.)

Writing prompt
Consider some of your stories, and look for places to accentuate motion. Feel the bumps in the road, the tilt of the bike, the recline of the seat. How can you extend it either across time, or down to the details, to help the reader feel what you felt.

This is the end
The end of any story needs to wrap up what it started, letting the reader feel that the dramatic tension has drawn to a satisfying close. One of the classic methods to draw a story to a close is to “return home” or as the Greeks called it “Nostoi.” (To paraphrase Steve Martin, those Greeks have a word for everything.) If you are looking for a framework, discover some of the lessons handed down from the culture that essentially started the Western art of Storytelling. If you don’t return home at the end of your story, you may not have access to this method. Or you may need to dig for a metaphor that feels like coming home. But if you are writing a travel book, you can easily take advantage of this ancient Greek principle. At the end, go home. That’s what Orion does and it feels like a good ending.

And one more thing. You know how at the end of Star Wars, Darth Vader gets away, leaving room for a sequel? As Orion wraps up the story, she leaves room for her own sequels, by suggesting all the other trips she could take – yet another reason I keep using the word “brilliant” to describe this book.

Writing Prompt
Think about how you intend to end your memoir. List some of the places you were in the beginning and see if you can return to one or more at the end. Or list the essential dramatic tensions you have introduced in the book, and try to match up each dramatic tension with some sort of geographical or metaphorical Return.

Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis

by Jerry Waxler

When Doreen Orion’s husband noticed they were getting older, he suggested they buy a recreational vehicle, take a year off from work and drive across the country. She fought the idea at first. (What’s a story without some sort of conflict?) It sounded cramped, and she would only be able to take a hundred pairs of shoes. Eventually she gave in, went on the trip and wrote about it in this delightful memoir, “Queen of the Road.”

When I first started studying memoirs, one question I asked was “Are travel books really memoirs?” It seems like cheating, since the events just took place last year. But upon reflection and further reading, I have discovered that books like this one are lovely containers for musings and sharing of the author’s life experience. So if this is cheating, give me more.

In fact, by understanding how she put her book together, I see the goal of a memoir. It is designed to take you inside a real person’s experience of life. Inside the author’s point of view, we see what they see and how they see it. It’s the closest thing to mind-melding we can get on this planet, and if the author sees interesting things in a fun way, we enjoy the experience. Doreen Orion satisfies these goals fabulously.

As a traveler, she sees interesting stuff. Traveling across country provides endless opportunities for description, so like any memoir writer, she had to select the scenes that will add up to a good read. Her choices tend towards a mix of “famous yet quirky” like the vast Wall Drugstore in South Dakota, a huge mountain-carved statue of Chief Crazy Horse, and that strange place a guy built in Florida in the 1920’s out of chunks of Coral. (see my notes below for more about these travel details.)

Her observations inside the bus are just as interesting as what took place outside. She has some great scenes with her husband, while he drives and she sits there with the dog and cats. She keeps it interesting by playing up her fear of crashing, rolling, and smashing when they approach overpass or hit a bump. She portrays her phobias with grace and humor.

Within this mix we are working through Doreen’s midlife crisis. Since I (along with a few million boomers) am recently discovering the weird fact that I keep getting older every day, midlife is a topic that is particularly interesting. Considering that both Doreen and her husband are psychiatrists, she could have applied a lot of analytical fire power, but instead of getting all heavy about it, she just has fun.

So let’s see. It’s a midlife crisis book. A travel book. A memoir. A romantic comedy. An introduction to the RV lifestyle. It even has cats and dogs. This tremendous variety becomes one of its most intriguing stylistic features. And it’s a story. Her scenes add up nicely to give me a picture of the whole trip. She lets me feel the rhythm of their day: sleeping late; socializing with neighbors in the RV camp where everyone is just passing through; unhitching their tow-along Jeep to do some sightseeing; and then back on the road, bouncing along, navigating, and making jokes to pass the time.

And that brings up a valuable lesson for writers. Just as important as the fun things she sees is the fun way she describes them. Her style is engaging and keeps the pages turning, a crucial requirement for any publishable book. I always get in trouble with the literati when I say things like this, but Doreen Orion’s memoir reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays, at least in one regard. To appeal to a mixed audience, Shakespeare laced the dialog with sophisticated innuendos for the intellectuals and gags to keep everyone guffawing. Orion does the same thing in Queen of the Road. She’s funny.

Within this simple premise of a travel book about two people at midlife, there are hidden a number of clever layers that create a wonderful read as well as a wealth of ideas that you might be able to apply to your own memoir. In fact, I find so many aspects of the memoir enjoyable and informative that when I tried writing them all, I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas. In future posts, I’ll have more to say about the many lessons from Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road.

Writing Prompt
Write two synopses of your memoir. The outside story will describe events in the world. The inside story will describe emotions, such as fear, hope, and disappointment. Each of these stories should feel like a journey, with a beginning, middle and end.

About 20 years ago, I saw a documentary on public television about a guy who had built a sort of artistic compound, out of thousand pound blocks of cut Coral. I was intrigued by the weird fact that no one understood how this man moved this big rocks without any equipment. When I was in Florida, I went to see this strange out-of-the-way tourist attraction myself, and I was delighted to read Doreen Orion’s view of the place. Here is a note I found on the web with a link to the full article.

The Secrets of Coral Castle
Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida, is one of the most amazing structures ever built. In terms of accomplishment, it’s been compared to Stonehenge, ancient Greek temples, and even the great pyramids of Egypt. It is amazing – some even say miraculous – because it was quarried, fashioned, transported, and constructed by one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant. Working alone, Leedskalnin labored for 20 years – from 1920 to 1940 – to build the home he originally called “Rock Gate Park” in Florida City.

Crazy Horse Statue
During the 1930’s, Chief Henry Standing Bear watched in silence as faces of great white leaders emerged from the ancient granite of Mount Rushmore in his ancestral Sioux homeland: George Washington in 1930, Thomas Jefferson in 1936, Abraham Lincoln in 1937 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1939. Finally, in the fall of 1939, the Sioux leader wrote an appeal to a Connecticut sculptor who had worked on the monument: ”My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”

Half a century and eight million tons of rock after the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, acted on that appeal, the defiant eyes of Chief Crazy Horse once again glare across the Black Hills of South Dakota. One year from now, on June 3, 1998, sculptors plan to dedicate an 87-foot-tall version of his fearsome visage, a monument taller than the Great Sphinx of Egypt and higher than the heads of Mount Rushmore, 17 miles away.