But Is It a Memoir?

I have been reading a memoir that has been doing well here in Maine (it’s by an excellent Maine writer)–I can’t vouch for its reach in the rest of the country. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt so I can only presume it is receiving support elsewhere.

It’s an interesting book, very well-written in terms of style and organization, but my nagging doubt is that it is autobiographical fiction and not memoir. I will choose to leave the book nameless as my intent is not to be negative about it but only to use it to elucidate a point about memoir writing which I think is important to keep in mind as we write.

I have frequently spoken about using fiction techniques to make a memoir more interesting. Dialog, for instance, can be marvelous. The trick, as I have offered frequently, is to use only a few words in direct dialog (“I  won’t,” she said) and then put the rest in indirect dialog (She said that was because blah, blah, blah…”)

Frank McCourt in his Angela’s Ashes wrote voluminous dialog remembered word for word from when they were uttered in the hearing of a six-year-old fifty years earlier. Is there anyone who believed that the dialog was authentic, that Frank McCourt could actually remember it? Well, not me. The dialogue was clearly fiction. (Can you remember hundreds of words of dialog from when you were six? I can’t!) Subsequently, I had to ask myself what else was made up in this book.

If a primary role of a memoir is the mentor the reader (and I believe it is), then the authority of the writer to declare “this is my experience and this is how it came out” must be beyond doubt. Otherwise we don’t know if the experience is a mentoring one since we don’t believe the author had lived the experience. (The best mentoring may be “do what I do not what I say.”)

Clearly, Frank Mc Court was making parts his story up—the dialog, for sure, but how much else did he make up for the sake of his narrative’s drama? How valuable are his insights about a life well lived if we are doubtful that he has actually experienced the life he purports to have lived and has generated anecdotes to make an interesting story? (Another James Frey here with his version of A Million Little Pieces?)

Now don’t get me wrong: a book like Angela’s Ashes can be entertaining and even full of encouragement and inspiration but can it ever really serve as a guide, a path?

Now to get back to the memoir I am currently reading. Here’s a passage from in which the author’s sister is about to learn of the death of her father. My summaries are in italics and within brackets. Here goes:

“Anne gets the news at the high school [where she is a first year teacher]…Hello to her carrel-mates in the English/History office. Coffee in the black-and-orange … mug.  A commotion of students in the lobby down the hall, a faraway sound like a muffled applause. A copy of the Lewiston Daily Sun lies on a table littered with stained spoons and spend sugar packets. She glances at the headlines. [a series of headlines taken from the national media]…She shakes a stubborn fountain pen, going over notes for her first period-class, adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.”

OK. This is clearly a mix of verifiable information and guess work. That the black and orange school colors appear on a cup is  no great stretch of the imagination. The colors can easily be verified. That Anne actually had coffee that morning is probable but not certain. Possibly made up to enhance the you-are-there-quality. I can live with that easily, That there are “stained spoons and spent sugar packets” on the office table is probable but again is a fiction to create immediacy. Would Anne have remembered this? “She glances at the headlines.” Would even Anne remember this recalling the day of her father’s death? Clearly, this is internet research. Then “She shakes a stubborn fountain pen.” Yes, a vivid image, but memoir? Then “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” Why this sort of detail to compromise the authority of the memoir?

What else is being fabricated to enhance the story line, the drama, but proves to be injurious to the writer’s authority to  present her experience to us as the truth?

I am going to continue reading the book but I’m afraid that it has become a novel–well, a subgenre of the novel really—it feels like an autobiographical fiction. I know there is much here that is the truth but I’m not so sure where it is to be found. The paragraph above is easy to pick apart but what about the other parts? So…

I’m going to continue to enjoy the book knowing that the feel of the book is true but uncertain about the particulars, the how-we-really-survived-our-father’s-death part. How much of the specific fail to correspond to the actual we cannot know. Mourning after all is often a matter of getting through the specifics: “I can do this morning–this next hour.”

What are your thoughts? Are you writing a memoir or an autobiographical fiction? Do you feel it makes a difference? Not what you call your writing BUT what you do with it. Are you reading a memoir that feels like autobiographical fiction. Tell us about it.

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Guest Blogger: How to Blog Your Memoir in 10 Simple Steps

by Nina Amir

If your memoir has the three elements discussed in my last post—a time period significant to you and relevant to readers, a marketable story and benefits to your readers, then you are ready to begin blogging your memoir. This means you will write it post by post on your blog. Blogging a book is the quickest and easiest way to write a book and promote it at the same time, thus building the platform, or fan base, you need to make it successful—to ensure it sells to readers and possibly to a publisher as well.

To blog your memoir, you take some of the same steps you would if you were going to write a memoir the traditional way. However, your writing must be chunked down into post-sized bits. Here are 10 steps to take to blog your memoir:

  1. Create a timeline of the events that occurred during the time period you want to write about.
  2. Decide which events are the most important–the ones you will include in the memoir.
  3. Determine the less important events that support the more important ones and which, therefore, should also be included.
  4. Make a list of two or three themes that run through your book, and then describe them.
  5. Map out your themes. For each vignette you plan to include in the book, determine how one or more of the themes plays into that event.
  6. Make a list of the characters in your book. Determine how they play into your themes and into your main character’s development. Also note in how many events or vignettes they show up.
  7. On your timeline, mark the main climactic moments. Where is the plot rising and falling?
  8. Based on your work in step #7, delineate the starting and stopping points for blog posts. (Keep in mind, you will be writing in short pieces, preferably 500 words at most; consider if you need to lengthen posts to fit whole scenes or to make better transitions.)
  9. Begin writing your memoir in a word processing document, post by post, day by day.
  10. Each time you write an “installment,” post it to your blog.

As part of your content plan, create a bit of “extra” content that will only appear in the finished book, not on the blog. This could be a prologue or an epilogue, a few vignettes that you feel can be left out initially, maybe even a whole chapter that isn’t crucial to understanding the story. This provides an enticement to your fans–your blog readers–to later purchase the digital or print version of the finished memoir.

And that’s it! A simple and quick way to blog your memoir–and to promote it at the same time. As you publish your daily or weekly (2-7 times per week is best) posts, you will gain a following of loyal blogged book readers who later will purchase your published memoir.

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ninaamirsmOur Guest Blogger ~ Nina Amir, Inspiration-to-Creation Coach, inspires people to combine their purpose and passion so they Achieve More Inspired Results. She motivates both writers and non-writers to create publishable and published products, careers as authors and to achieve their goals and fulfill their purpose. She blogged her book, How to Blog a Book, Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books), in five months. Find out more about her and her blogs at www.ninaamir.com www.copywrightcommunications.com, or www.purespiritcreations.com.

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Guest Blogger: Three Elements Necessary for a Blogged Memoir (Or Any Memoir)

By Nina Amir

Many writers would like to write or blog a memoir. It’s not that different than writing or blogging a novel, except, of course, you are blogging or writing about your own experiences. That makes your book a work of nonfiction rather than fiction. That said, it must read like fiction to a great extent. It has to have a narrative arc, dialogue, a bit of tension to keep readers turning pages, etc.

In addition, I think memoirs need to have purpose or added benefit for readers. When the reader puts the memoir down, they should have learned something, gained new perspective, gone deeply into their own personal journey through the author’s story, or had their horizons broadened in some significant way. This sets a really great memoir apart from an average one.

If you are blogging a memoir, you are writing about a period in your life–not about your whole life, which would be a biography. A biography could keep you busy blogging for a long time!

Before you begin blogging (or writing) a memoir, take three important steps:

  • Choose a significant time period to write about–one that is significant to you and relevant to readers. As mentioned above, this time period must have a story arc and the character (you) must develop in some interesting manner.
  • Decide if it the story is marketable–one that has a large enough number of potential readers interested in the subject who will read your blog and later purchase the book. This requires that you look at existing memoirs and similar blogs; there probably aren’t too many other blogged memoirs exactly like yours, but there may be other memoirists blogging their stories. Do your research; compare and contrast. Make sure your story is unique, has a market and is viable.
  • Determine if your story offers benefit to readers–some sort of or added value they gain by reading it. The best memoirs touch readers deeply teach them something, or change them in some way. Will yours do this? Make a list of the benefits your book will provide.

If your life experiences and the story you want to write about them have these elements, you are ready to blog your memoir.

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ninaamirsm

Our Guest Blogger ~ Nina Amir, Inspiration-to-Creation Coach, inspires people to combine their purpose and passion so they Achieve More Inspired Results. She motivates both writers and non-writers to create publishable and published products, careers as authors and to achieve their goals and fulfill their purpose. She blogged her book, How to Blog a Book, Write, Publish and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books), in five months. Find out more about her and her blogs at www.ninaamir.com www.copywrightcommunications.com, or www.purespiritcreations.com.

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Guest Blogger’s Story: Heroic Annie Hill

by Karen Hill Douglass

She’s more than a name on the genealogy chart, although I don’t know what she looked like or the sound of her voice, the color of her hair. Her heroic character shows in census records. Her scarred and paint-daubed blanket chest sits in a place of honor in my home. My great-grandmother, Annie J. Reynolds Hill, was born in the northwest corner of Rhode Island in 1861, the sixth child of immigrant Irish parents.

Annie was a year old when her parents moved their family to Davenport, Iowa, where her maternal grandparents and at least one uncle had settled. I imagine that they traveled by train in 1862 and how excited the older children were. Annie likely had no memory of that long train ride, but I hope her McTeague grandparents held out their arms to greet her and shouted a big welcome. Iowa, however, was not to be a good place for the Reynolds family.

They lived in Rogertown, an Irish enclave that no longer exists. Her uncle Patrick is listed as living there and working as a laborer, a hint of the hard, uncertain work her father must have done to support a still-growing family. Her sister Bridget, child number seven, was born there in 1863. James, the oldest child, died there at the age of nine. Probably he was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Davenport. That burial ground has been abandoned and those with no headstone to record their presence were likely paved over.

Ann Reynolds, Annie’s mother, was pregnant with her eighth child in 1865. The War Between the States had ended and soldiers were bivouacked near Rogertown. Three Union soldiers passing by her house insulted Ann, not a rare thing for poor Irish to hear. But Ann reported their rudeness to their commander. Nothing happened. Until they passed by again.

Ann’s husband, Michael, angry and drunk, accosted the three with an axe. The soldiers were, of course, armed and one of them shot Michael. As the newspaper says, “He died in the street in the presence of his grieving wife and children.” Annie, aged four, saw this. Her father, too, was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery and has no memorial to mark his existence.

After baby Sarah was born, Ann Reynolds returned with her children to Rhode Island. She remarried, but her new husband seems not to have nurtured the Reynolds children. Census records show that five of them worked in the textile mill in North Providence. Textilemill

By the time Annie was nineteen, she was living with three of her sisters; Eliza at twenty was the head of the household. Sarah, the youngest, who had started work as a sweeper in the mill at nine years old, was still at the mill at fifteen.

Annie married in 1884 and bore two children, the first in 1893. So she was childless for the first nine years of marriage. Her daughter, Susan, married in a hurry and after her son was born, divorced. In a Catholic family this was yet another disappointment. Annie’s son, my grandfather, married and had a son, only to die of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. He died in Annie’s house. Again, imagination tells me that she helped nurse him and was with him when he died. Her daughter remarried and Annie lived in that house until her death in 1926, after many years as a widow.

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Our Guest Blogger ~ kdouglass“Heroic Annie Hill” was written by Karen Douglass who moved to Colorado after many years in Maine, and many before that all over the country. Her interests are writing, family, horses, dogs, genealogy, and reading. (The order is random and changes day to day!) Her books are available on http://kvdbooks.com.

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Becoming American–why not?

From We Were Not Spoiled, the memoir of Lucille Verreault Ledoux
as told to Denis Ledoux.

My father had not come to the US to stay but that’s what happened. Working here to support his family and buying an apartment building that was his family’s home, it must have seemed obvious to him that this is where he would spend the rest of his life. So,

My Father, Joseph Verreault

My Father, Joseph Verreault

why not become a citizen? Sometime in the mid-1920s, he did just that. Now, he could not be deported and put his family at risk. My mother did not join him in becoming a citizen, but remained here as a resident alien. My father could make himself understood in English, but my mother did not know much beyond what she had learned in her waitressing days in Thetford. She felt this lack of English would stop her from passing the examinations for citizenship. My father was a now citizen, and so they perhaps felt that would save her from deportation, Besides, she did not work outside the home and so was not taking a job away from a citizen.

Although he was now naturalized, my father didn’t understand that he had the same privileges as native-born people—except he could not become President! He was still afraid that the process could be reversed and he could be sent back to Canada. Living in Thetford again with its asbestos dust was out of the question and, if he settled some place else, there would be no one to help him there. No job, no home, no family or friends. Both of my parents, believing they could be sent way (which was true for my mother as she was not a citizen), kept telling us to stay out of trouble. Some part of them never felt at home here.

My Mother, Yvonne Lessard

My Mother, Yvonne Lessard

My father tended to be a worrier, and generally my mother let the worrying be his! Being deported was one of his worries not hers. She herself had a practical nature and spent her energy thinking about more pressing things—like what to cook for supper for her growing children.

Lucille Ledoux raised six children and worked for many years in clothing stores. She is a resident of d’Youville Manor in Lewiston. She has always taken her duties as a citizen seriously.

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My father-in-law’s 100th birthday

On February 24, 2013, I celebrated my father-in-law’s 100th birthday.

Arthur Blowen has been gone now for 28 years, and the people who were his peers and friends are mostly gone. There are many family stories about him. They are told as mythic journeys, Arthur slaying the dragons that assailed him. Here’s the plot line of his early life as a hero’s journey. Below is a brief review of 15 years of his life–the part of his life that makes for an interesting subject for a memoir (vs. autobiograhy).

The stories tell about how he quit high school [seeming defeat at the hand of the dragons]  to help support his family who valued his financial contribution more than they prized his education.  [the hero’s battle] He went to night school because he really wanted to go to college [the hero’s call to which he strives to rise to] and saved his money. At 23, he enrolled in Bates College (Lewiston, Maine)  but had to take six years to earn his BA as he had to support himself [hero’s struggle as the dragons seek to defeat him]. He served as a telephone switch board operator at Central Maine General Hospital and waited on tables at the president’s house at Bates. He sang church solos around Lewiston and Auburn (Maine). Finally at 29, he received his undergraduate degree and went on  to graduate school–Hartford (CT) Seminary. [Hero’s arrival within reach of the prize] Finally in his early thirties, Arthur was ordained and began a career a a Congregational minister. [The hero brings the grail to the world.]

A task I hope you will pick up: frame a story you are writing in terms of a hero’s journey.

Do you have a hero’s journey to share? Write it below.

Posted in Mythic writing | 4 Comments

Writing Time Wasters

I’m no more immune than anyone else to the plague of time wasters. Time wasters are habits we fall into that consume the time we have allotted (or could allot) to writing so that we end up not writing! Here are some of the most insidious that take up too much time and squander my writing energy.

1. Checking on e-mail before I begin to write for the day. Either it takes up a lot of time as I read through the e-notes or I come across an e-mail that gets me charged and I begin to write a scathing (or, depending on your point of view, insightful!) e-mail in response.

2. Needing to research a point “a bit more.” This is a very tricky one as research is essential to a well-written memoir. In this time waster, I forget that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” In my quest to write the perfect piece, I forgo writing a good piece. The solution presents itself when I begin to feel that I already have more material than I can possibly handle–I know then it’s time to write!

3. Letting my best writing time of the day be co-opted. In this time waster, I think, “Yes, I can do both. I’ll do this other thing first and write later (obviously it doesn’t occur to me right then that ‘later’ I might be tired and in no mood to spend time writing!). When “later” comes, I might think “Well, for this one time, it’s ok not to write.” The problem, of course, arises when the “one time” occurs too often.

4. Answering the phone. This leads to much loss of energy and the assumption of all sorts of tasks that need attention “right now!” More productive to let the answering machine or service take the calls and return them at a later time.

Do you have a “favorite” writing time waster that I haven’t mentioned here? Write a post below.

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