It’s Okay to Write for Yourself

I sing a lot. I sing in the typical places—my car, the shower, my kitchen. Most of the time no one hears me sing; those who do tend to be members of my family, and one of them is likely to ask me to stop singing. They are not even polite about it but, to be fair, I should add that my singing voice can be grating. Yet the reviews have not always been a disaster. Although my choir auditions bombed in both grade school and junior high, by high school somehow my voice had become minimally acceptable, and for three years I was a bonafide alto. Ever since then, it’s been back to my car, the shower, my kitchen and a trio of daughters wailing, “Mom, stop!” Fortunately, they now live in their own homes and I get to sing for the simple reason that I enjoy singing. People who enjoy singing get to sing, just as people who enjoy painting get to paint.

Do you enjoy writing? Then you get to write. Writing is something I know from the other end of the talent spectrum. I’ve always had a gift for writing, and then I added degrees and professional experience, so I’m pretty good at writing. When I read other people’s writing, it can be a little like a bad singing voice shattering my ears or a poorly painted picture assaulting my field of vision—but it rarely strikes me that way. Usually I hear passion in the words and authors’ urgency in sharing their thoughts. I can ignore the missing apostrophes, run-on sentences and weirdly used semicolons. I can overlook the favorite word that gets repeated and repeated and the paragraph that really belongs on the previous page. But it doesn’t matter what I think unless the writer asks for my input.

Have you kept a diary or journal that you’ve revealed to not a single other person? You may have written a full memoir that you have no intention of publishing, preferring to keep it in its original notebook or computer file. Or maybe you do take it out of hiding occasionally to show to a spouse or trusted friend. Perhaps you’ve broken off a chapter that stands alone and submitted it somewhere as a short story. But if all you do is reread your own work, your writing is worthwhile. If all you do is write out your thoughts and never bother reviewing them once you’ve had your say—just to yourself—that’s also fine. The writing process is cathartic and creative and endlessly revealing of who you are, and who you are is someone who enjoys writing, so you get to write.

Ideas for Memoir Structure

For many memoir authors, their life story isn’t their first stab at creating some form of art. When those authors decide to write a memoir, it’s natural for them to want to include their other artform. So let’s say you’ve written poetry all your life, or you have a file of newspaper clippings of your op-eds published in your local paper. Maybe you’re a painter or even a composer. Perhaps you have a file full of your essays or you’ve kept a list of favorite quotes by other people. Today, even tweets or Facebook posts could be considered a body of work. Can you incorporate your work or favorites into your memoir? Yes, of course you can.

“Most memoirs read like a book, chapter by chapter with some photos added somewhere,” writes Nancy Julien Kopp in her review of the memoir Wingin’ It Beyond the Veil by Joan Breit. “Ms Breit’s book offers a series of vignettes that give us a slice of her life at a time. Between the vignettes, she has included scripture verses, poetry (both her own and others) and photos. I found all that is included to be delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed piecing her life together via the individual vignettes.”

If you’re a photographer—professional or hobbyist—it’s obvious to picture how you can use your work in your memoir. But through photography you also can share with readers your paintings or a page of musical staff from a song. You can begin each chapter with a pertinent piece of your past writing. You can pepper your memoir with lines of your poems. Sharing yourself as a creatively multifaceted person will bring readers closer to who you feel you are, which is exactly what you want your memoir to communicate.

What You Can Learn From Olivia de Havilland

We all want to own our legacies, but we’re not fully in control of that. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would not consider 102-year-old “Gone With the Wind” actress Olivia de Havilland’s claim that a TV show needed her permission to present her likeness and character. The FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was based on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed de Havilland as somewhat of a gossip, which the elder actress found offensive. The Supreme Court let stand a California appeals court’s decision that de Havilland had no say in how she was depicted in art. The decision read in part: “Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star—‘a living legend’—or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history. Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

You’re probably not famous, and you most likely will not find yourself portrayed as a character in a movie or TV show. But you still could be mentioned in someone’s memoir. Right now, someone who knows you could be writing up an account of your actions. Maybe in that person’s eyes you were the unfair boss, nerdy cousin or mean girl in high school, while you recall a completely different dynamic to the relationship between the two of you. Go to any of the memoir discussions on social media, and a common question is: Should I change the names of the people I include in my memoir? The thing is that changing the name doesn’t necessarily hide the identity. People who know the author are likely to recognize the person whether the name is real or not.

Sometimes these authors will approach the people and ask whether they mind being included in the memoir. If you’re approached, you can always plead with the author not to include you. That may work, or it may not. Sometimes all the author is doing is giving you a little advance notice, but the mention is a done deal. So what can you do? Write your own story. Own your truth. Provide the narrative of your life as you recall it. That way, you’ll at least have your version and, unlike Olivia de Havilland, won’t have to ask the Supreme Court to decide whether you’re a gossip or just a really open person.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 8: Silence Your Inner Critic

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 8: Silence Your Inner Critic
We’re getting toward the back of the pack here with our look at Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing. We’re all critical of our own work. Should we heed the caution of that inner critic or push “ignore”?
James Scott Bell recommends following this rule. Otherwise, he predicts, “you’ll freeze up.” Take classes, study with a good teacher, practice a lot. But once you’re on course with the piece you’re writing, Bell advises, just “go with the flow and trust what you’ve learned….Write freely; let the characters live and breathe.” But that’s only while you’re writing. After you’ve completed a first draft, Bell says it’s time to take out the red pen and fix the problems. “But when you write, write,” he concludes. “That’s how you truly learn.”
In the opposite corner and taking the position of a realist is John Smolens, who maintains that your “inner editor” is running all the time you’re writing whether you like it or not. With every word, you’re making a choice.
“It’s a matter of perception,” Smolen argues. “Your Inner Editor is there to help you, but too often you behave as though her sole purpose is to ruin your fun and make you sit up straight at the table. Instead, consider her a gentle, benevolent influence, the flashlight in hand as you wend your way down the dark path of each sentence.” Think of your inner critic, he says, as the Word Whisperer.
As usual, I see agreement here more than dissension. You want to give yourself license to write and not be bogged down with doubt at every sentence. But your editor is marching through your head to some degree anyway. I backspace constantly to change a word or a sentence, but I still get a good momentum going. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Your eye becomes sharper as you review your first draft. I think the hard part is finalizing. Eventually, you do have to silence that inner critic or you’ll never finish a “last” draft!

We’re getting toward the back of the pack here with our look at Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing. We’re all critical of our own work. Should memoir writers heed the caution of that inner critic or push “ignore”?

James Scott Bell, a writer and writing teacher, recommends following this rule. Otherwise, he predicts, “you’ll freeze up.” Take classes, study with a good teacher, practice a lot. But once you’re on course with the piece you’re writing, Bell advises, just “go with the flow and trust what you’ve learned….Write freely; let the characters live and breathe.” But that’s only while you’re writing. After you’ve completed a first draft, Bell says it’s time to take out the red pen and fix the problems. “But when you write, write,” he concludes. “That’s how you truly learn.”

In the opposite corner and taking the position of a realist is novelist John Smolens, who maintains that your “inner editor” is running all the time you’re writing whether you like it or not. With every word, you’re making a choice.

“It’s a matter of perception,” Smolen argues. “Your Inner Editor is there to help you, but too often you behave as though her sole purpose is to ruin your fun and make you sit up straight at the table. Instead, consider her a gentle, benevolent influence, the flashlight in hand as you wend your way down the dark path of each sentence.” Think of your inner critic, he says, as the Word Whisperer.

As usual, I see agreement here more than dissension. You want to give yourself license to write and not be bogged down with doubt at every sentence. But your editor is marching through your head to some degree anyway. I backspace constantly to change a word or a sentence, but I still get a good momentum going. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Your eye becomes sharper as you review your first draft. I think the hard part is finalizing. Eventually, you do have to silence that inner critic or you’ll never finish a “last” draft!

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 7: Develop a Thick Skin

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 7: Develop a Thick Skin
Of the rules we’ve critiqued thus far in this series devoted to evaluating the writing rules that Writer’s Digest asked a panel to comment upon, Rule 7—“develop a thick skin”—is even more critical to memoir writers than fiction and other nonfiction authors. After all, you’re laying it out for all to see—your lifelong behavior and thoughts.
Author Steve Almond agrees with this rule. He says, “The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.” No matter how you react privately—tears, resentment, anger—ultimately you should calm down and consider the criticism because it can help you. “If nine out of ten readers think your opening page is confusing or your plot never goes anywhere,” Almond continues, “they are almost certainly right.”
Writer and writing teacher Sheila Bender thinks there’s a way to break this rule and still tease out the critiques that will help you polish your writing. You won’t need a thick skin if you ask your test readers for specific feedback: 1) “Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger,” she recommends. “It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.” 2) Ask readers about the feelings they get from reading your story. They can express good feelings or say something such as feeling confused. 3) Translate any negative comments into helpful language for yourself. Bender says you should think of “too wordy” as “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” Accept “incoherent” as “something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” And think of “awkward” as “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these “translations,” you can revise your work without feeling resentment toward your test readers.
Despite Bender’s advice to break this rule, when you do what she advises you are developing a thick skin. Accepting criticism in a way that helps you to learn and improve is the whole point of the rule. Don’t develop a thick skin in a way that lets comments roll off your back without bothering you. You do need to take readers’ comments seriously. But don’t take them personally. Understand that all writers need editors. For a memoir in particular, you will be dealing with criticism not only of your writing style but of the content itself. Some people you include in your story will not want to be there. They may get angry at you. But only you can decide whether to respect their point of view or write your life story the way you want to write it, despite what others may say.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Of the rules we’ve critiqued thus far in this series devoted to evaluating the writing rules that Writer’s Digest asked a panel to comment upon, Rule 7—“develop a thick skin”—is even more critical to memoir writers than fiction and other nonfiction authors. After all, you’re laying it out for all to see—your lifelong behavior and thoughts.

Author Steve Almond agrees with this rule. He says, “The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.” No matter how you react privately—tears, resentment, anger—ultimately you should calm down and consider the criticism because it can help you. “If nine out of ten readers think your opening page is confusing or your plot never goes anywhere,” Almond continues, “they are almost certainly right.”

Writer and writing teacher Sheila Bender thinks there’s a way to break this rule and still tease out the critiques that will help you polish your writing. You won’t need a thick skin if you ask your test readers for specific feedback: 1) “Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger,” she recommends. “It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.” 2) Ask readers about the feelings they get from reading your story. They can express good feelings or say something such as feeling confused. 3) Translate any negative comments into helpful language for yourself. Bender says you should think of “too wordy” as “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” Accept “incoherent” as “something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” And think of “awkward” as “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these “translations,” you can revise your work without feeling resentment toward your test readers.

Despite Bender’s advice to break this rule, when you do what she advises you are developing a thick skin. Accepting criticism in a way that helps you to learn and improve is the whole point of the rule. Don’t develop a thick skin in a way that lets comments roll off your back without bothering you. You do need to take readers’ comments seriously. But don’t take them personally. Understand that all writers need editors. For a memoir in particular, you will be dealing with criticism not only of your writing style but of the content itself. Some people you include in your story will not want to be there. They may get angry at you. But only you can decide whether to respect their point of view or write your life story the way you want to write it, despite what others may say.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings
Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If you’re not doing either of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.
Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”
Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”
I have to agree with breaking this rule. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If a sentence or more does neither of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.

Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”

Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”

I have to agree with breaking this rule. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life, but your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 5: Write Every Day

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 5: Write Every Day
In the middle of the pack here with Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing and commentary from a panel of experts, this rule is one you hear a lot: write every day! The idea is to make writing a habit, not a chore and not even necessarily goal-driven.
Fiction writer John Dufresne advises following this rule. “Writers write,” he says. “Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” Dufresne feels that if you’re a true writer, the daily routine of writing will come naturally to you and, if it doesn’t, you can’t really force it. “The good news,” he continues, “is that…your writing…goes on while you’re out in the world. Carry a pen and a notebook; gather evidence….The notebook becomes a repository and a source of material….Writing, you realize, engenders more writing.”
Novelist and writing teacher James Scott Bell disagrees. He explains that he used to set a daily word quota for himself, but there were days that life took over and he simply ended up doing something all day that left no time for writing. He’d get angry and disappointed at himself. Then he changed his daily quota to a weekly quota. “That way, if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up,” he says. “I write a little extra on the other days.” Bell also has found it valuable to take off one day a week and one week a year from writing. He comes back reenergized and adds, “Plus, my projects have been cooking in my subconscious. The boys in the basement, as Stephen King puts it, are hard at work while I’m taking time off.”
I’m with Bell on this point. This is a lot like dieting. If you set very strict rules around your long-term goal, failing just once to obey them can derail you from your project altogether. And here on Write My Memoirs, you may not be “a writer.” Your memoir may be the only lengthy manuscript you’ll every write. So give yourself a break. I think a weekly word or page quota is a great idea, but writing every day? That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself and probably unrealistic. I want you to stick with your memoir, so set realistic goals.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

In the middle of the pack here with Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing and commentary from a panel of experts, this rule is one you hear a lot: write every day! The idea is to make writing a habit, not a chore and not even necessarily goal-driven.

Fiction writer John Dufresne advises following this rule. “Writers write,” he says. “Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” Dufresne feels that if you’re a true writer, the daily routine of writing will come naturally to you and, if it doesn’t, you can’t really force it. “The good news,” he continues, “is that…your writing…goes on while you’re out in the world. Carry a pen and a notebook; gather evidence….The notebook becomes a repository and a source of material….Writing, you realize, engenders more writing.”

Novelist and writing teacher James Scott Bell disagrees. He explains that he used to set a daily word quota for himself, but there were days that life took over and he simply ended up doing something all day that left no time for writing. He’d get angry and disappointed at himself. Then he changed his daily quota to a weekly quota. “That way, if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up,” he says. “I write a little extra on the other days.” Bell also has found it valuable to take off one day a week and one week a year from writing. He comes back reenergized and adds, “Plus, my projects have been cooking in my subconscious. The boys in the basement, as Stephen King puts it, are hard at work while I’m taking time off.”

I’m with Bell on this point. This is a lot like dieting. If you set very strict rules around your long-term goal, failing just once to obey them can derail you from your project altogether. And here on Write My Memoirs, you may not be “a writer.” Your memoir may be the only lengthy manuscript you’ll every write. So give yourself a break. I think a weekly word or page quota is a great idea, but writing every day? That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself and probably unrealistic. I want you to stick with your memoir, so set realistic goals.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 4: Write Very Rough First Drafts

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 4: Write Very Rough First Drafts
Continuing with Writer’s Digest 10 writing rules, as you can see at the top of this blog, I changed Rule 4 from “Write Shitty First Drafts” in order to make our blog title a little less, well, shitty.
Author and Pulitzer Prize nominee John Smolens recommends following this rule as long as you never let anyone else read your first draft. Writing is a lonely occupation, Smolens observes. You’re on your own to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Writing a first draft, he says, lets you “see what you can’t (or shouldn’t) do before you discover what you can do. And with revision and a little patience, no one will ever know that your first draft existed.”
Providing the opposing view, fiction writer and teacher Nancy Kress rebels in much the same way I did—against the word “shitty.” She does more or less agree with the rule’s intent of advising writers to power through a first draft without regard to how much may need to be fixed as you get farther into your story. “Relax and let it flow,” she says. “Trust that your voice, imagination and sense of character will be present from the first paragraph on. Then, in the second draft, sure, you can a) rewrite everything that doesn’t fit your final concept, b) change any word choices that need refining and c) research details you neglected while you were so caught up in writing this exciting tale. A mess can be fixed. Shit is just waste. And a first draft is never wasted.”
On this rule, really the two panel members agree; Kress just quibbles with the terminology. And I agree as well. Getting yourself to sit down and write is hard enough. Expecting the first draft to be usable will serve only to make you procrastinate writing your memoir—perhaps forever. Have no fear with that first draft, because you’ll change it and polish it. Once you have something in writing, the tweaking comes more easily.

Continuing with Writer’s Digest ‘s 10 writing rules, as you can see at the top of this blog, I changed Rule 4 from “Write Shitty First Drafts” in order to make our blog title a little less, well, shitty.

Author and Pulitzer Prize nominee John Smolens recommends following this rule as long as you never let anyone else read your first draft. Writing is a lonely occupation, Smolens observes. You’re on your own to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Writing a first draft, he says, lets you “see what you can’t (or shouldn’t) do before you discover what you can do. And with revision and a little patience, no one will ever know that your first draft existed.”

Providing the opposing view, fiction writer and teacher Nancy Kress rebels in much the same way I did—against the word “shitty.” She does more or less agree with the rule’s intent of advising writers to power through a first draft without regard to how much may need to be fixed as you get farther into your story. “Relax and let it flow,” she says. “Trust that your voice, imagination and sense of character will be present from the first paragraph on. Then, in the second draft, sure, you can a) rewrite everything that doesn’t fit your final concept, b) change any word choices that need refining and c) research details you neglected while you were so caught up in writing this exciting tale. A mess can be fixed. Shit is just waste. And a first draft is never wasted.”

On this rule, really the two panel members agree; Kress just quibbles with the terminology. And I agree as well. Getting yourself to sit down and write is hard enough. Expecting the first draft to be usable will serve only to make you procrastinate writing your memoir—perhaps forever. Have no fear with that first draft, because you’ll change it and polish it. Once you have something in writing, the tweaking comes more easily.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 3: Show, Don’t Tell

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 3: Show, Don’t Tell
Reviewing the Writer’s Digest list of 10 writing rules, we come to Rule 3—“show, don’t tell,” advice you’ve probably received from an English teacher at some point in your schooling. It’s an important rule, which author Natalie Goldberg recommends following. Goldberg provides an informative example to illustrate the difference between how a timid student might fulfill the typical “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” assignment when compared with a fearless writer. The former would tell, Goldberg says, writing something along the lines of, “I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun.” The bold describer would show, not tell. Regretting her own timidity, Goldberg wonders how much her teacher would have preferred if she’d shown instead of told and written the truth: “My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.”
That’s the difference between telling and showing, and you can see why showing makes for a vastly more interesting memoir. But what happens when you want to reveal what’s going on in your mind? There’s no action to describe, but it’s critical to your memoir to share your thoughts about a situation. Literary agent Donald Maas address this, maintaining there is an effective way to keep the reader interested while conveying, for example, “ the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.”
Maas’s solution? “The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.” I agree with Goldberg that showing beats telling every time, but I also agree with Maas that when telling is your only available choice you can include a bit of candid emotional turmoil and still keep your readers engaged.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Reviewing the Writer’s Digest list of 10 writing rules, we come to Rule 3—“show, don’t tell,” advice you’ve probably received from an English teacher at some point in your schooling. It’s an important rule, which author Natalie Goldberg recommends following. Goldberg provides an informative example to illustrate the difference between how a timid student might fulfill the typical “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” assignment when compared with a fearless writer. The former would tell, Goldberg says, writing something along the lines of, “I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun.” The bold describer would show, not tell. Regretting her own timidity, Goldberg wonders how much her teacher would have preferred if she’d shown instead of told and written the truth: “My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.”

That’s the difference between telling and showing, and you can see why showing makes for a vastly more interesting memoir. But what happens when you want to reveal what’s going on in your mind? There’s no action to describe, but it’s critical to  your memoir to share your thoughts about a situation. Literary agent Donald Maas addresses this, maintaining there is an effective way to keep the reader interested while conveying, for example, “ the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.”

Maas’s solution? “The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.” I agree with Goldberg that showing beats telling every time, but I also agree with Maas that, when telling is your only available choice, you can include a bit of candid emotional turmoil and still keep your readers engaged.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 2: Hook Your Readers on Page 1

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 2: Hook Your Readers on Page 1
On these diminishing fall days, we’re analyzing 10 writing rules, one by one, as they apply to memoir writers. The rules are listed on WritersDigest.com, and we’re up to Rule 2: Hook Your Readers on Page 1. Yay or nay?
Follow the rule, advises author Jerry B. Jenkins. As a reader, Jenkins says on the Writer’s Digest site, “I want to be engaged from the first sentence and held throughout. I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, ‘I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …’ Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?” Further, Jenkins asks, “Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, ‘When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye’?”
However, author Steve Almond recommends breaking this rule—especially if you’re a new writer. He views the rule as a landmine writers fall into; in an attempt to hook the reader, writers jump into the middle of a vignette and offer the reader no backstory whatsoever. The reader becomes confused and, responding in direct opposition to the writer’s intent, gives up on the book within the first chapter.
While I solidly side with Jenkins that a first sentence should grab the reader’s interest, I agree with Almond that you can’t go too far into a random vignette before you begin giving it context. I urge memoir writers to find something more fascinating as a first sentence than “I was born in St. Louis during World War II.” Even if that’s the first fact you provide, throw in some more information to give it some oomph: “My birth came as a welcome event to my family not only because of the healthy baby boy delivered that day at a St. Louis hospital shortly after the United States entered World War II, but also because having a child come into the world excused my father from reporting for duty to the U.S. Navy for two full weeks.”
We’ll tackle rule #3 next week!
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

On these diminishing fall days, we’re analyzing 10 writing rules, one by one, as they apply to memoir writers. The rules are listed on WritersDigest.com, and we’re up to:

Rule 2: Hook Your Readers on Page 1. Yay or nay?

Follow the rule, advises author Jerry B. Jenkins. As a reader, Jenkins says on the Writer’s Digest site, “I want to be engaged from the first sentence and held throughout. I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, ‘I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …’ Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that?” Further, Jenkins asks, “Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, ‘When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye’?”

However, author Steve Almond recommends breaking this rule—especially if you’re a new writer. He views the rule as a landmine writers fall into; in an attempt to hook the reader, writers jump into the middle of a vignette and offer the reader no backstory whatsoever. The reader becomes confused and, responding in direct opposition to the writer’s intent, gives up on the book within the first chapter.

While I solidly side with Jenkins that a first sentence should grab the reader’s interest, I agree with Almond that you can’t go too far into a random vignette before you begin giving it context. I urge memoir writers to find something more fascinating as a first sentence than “I was born in St. Louis during World War II.” Even if that’s the first fact you provide, throw in some more information to give it some oomph: “My birth came as a welcome event to my family not only because of the healthy baby boy delivered that day at a St. Louis hospital shortly after the United States entered World War II, but also because having a child come into the world excused my father from reporting for duty to the U.S. Navy for two full weeks.”

We’ll tackle rule #3 next week!