Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists – Use fiction to tell truth

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (www.glvwg.org) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

First, I went to an all day workshop presented by Regina McBride, author of several novels, including her most recent, The Marriage Bed. The purpose of the workshop was to help us get inside one of our characters, and open our imagination so we could write more naturally. This was an intriguing concept for me. As a non-fiction writer, I don’t have characters. But I want to learn more about character writing to help memoir writers. So that morning, for the purposes of the workshop, I invented a fictitious character that would be a version of me.

The exercises were based on work she had studied as an actor, and it was very simple. She turned out the lights, and guided us into a sort of “writing meditation.” (She didn’t call it that, but that’s essentially what it was.) She told us to relax, sit deeper in the chair, find areas of tension, and release them. Breathe deeply. Then long silences. Then she asked us to imagine we were in our character, and she suggested writing prompts that would get us going. Then she turned on the lights and we started writing.

Out of those exercises came some great writing by the other attendees, all of whom were fiction writers. I found my own invented character to be fascinating and events unfolded for him in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but that added to my understanding not only of him, but of me as well. He was a 26 year old man who had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. He had no sellable skills and no interest in acquiring any, and when he could no longer stand being broke, he took the job his brother-in-law offered him to be a furniture salesman. This has similarities to the way my post-college years worked. By changing my name, and putting myself in a fictional setting, I was able to describe, and feel, my clumsy approach to coming of age in a more poignant and convincing way than I could have if I had tackled this description head on. As I was writing it, tears came to my eyes, and after I read it, Regina said “I can feel the isolation.” She seemed very sad when she said it.

I have heard about this effect of writing fiction to capture one’s own life, and know from talking to people that this method has helped them get in touch with feelings and express them. But seeing it for myself made it part of my own experience. It opened doors of memory, and made available to me a powerful technique I recommend to other aspiring memoir writers.

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