Writing Memoir: Scene and Summary

“A crowd dances in the street in Guelph with their arms spread, looking upward” by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

Time is the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.

Summaries compress time to deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.

Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.

For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.

Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.

Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.

I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.

I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.

When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.

She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.

Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.

Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.

Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.

Writing Memoir: Against Procrastination

A sloth hanging out in a tree, probably just being a sloth and not procrastinating at all. Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash

Sloths get a bad name. They move slowly, it’s true, but they’re animals, for goodness sake. They don’t have deadlines or to-do lists.

I’m big on deadlines and lists when it comes to my writing. Although I don’t always live up to the goals I set down, my production would no doubt be lower without them.

Because writers love to write, just plunking down in front of the notebook or computer and getting a few words written is often enough to set the process in motion. The writer’s brain wants to write, like the runner’s body wants to run.

Setting precise goals has helped me overcome procrastination because they jump-start me. Most people who write do so because they love to write. It’s head-games like insecurity, fear of facing some truth, and impostor syndrome that make us procrastinate when we’re otherwise healthy and able to write.

Setting goals that are in tune with the current stage of writing is key. Stages of writing a memoir can include:

  • generating,
  • revising,
  • seeking feedback, and
  • submitting for publication.

The ambitious goal of “I’m going to write a memoir” can be overwhelming. It’s far more manageable when broken down into goals for the first stage: generating. Some general goals for that stage might be:

  • Setting aside time and space to write
  • Collecting materials like journals, diaries, letters
  • Enlisting the support of loved ones
  • Resolving to write for a short time each day.

Some writing coaches believe that writing at the same time every day can condition your brain and spirit to be ready at that time. And if procrastination is a habit, it stands to reason that a new habit can replace it.

Breaking my goals up into smaller goals — what some people call “chunking” has been helpful. For example, instead of swearing to “finish my memoir by X date” (although I do that, too), I’ve set goals about how many words to write in a day.

The words-a-day goal is great when generating new material. But since revision can and often should include cutting material, words-a-day doesn’t work well for the revision stage.

In the revision stage, I’ve turned to a minutes-a-day goal, and for me, that’s been 90 minutes, which is not terribly ambitious. On a few days, I’ve spent less time, but on many days, I’ve spent more than 90 minutes.

[Note: I quit my day a year ago and don’t have childcare or elder care responsibilities.]

I’ve written elsewhere about using a time tracker for accountability and for figuring out when I write best. When procrastination threatens me, though, I’m ready to chase it off with my goals.

Just 500 words now, I tell myself, or Just 30 minutes now. Usually, I end up becoming absorbed and plod past my goal — because I really do love writing.

Writing Memoir: Letters from Loved Ones

Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.

Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.

My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.

Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.

A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.

If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?

I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.

Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.

If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.

I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.

Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking of Christina.

I’m a Writer — Why Write Reviews?

Literary journals are often looking for book reviewers, especially for folks willing to review small press and university press publications. Writing book reviews means investing hours of your time in the serious work of analyzing and evaluating another writer’s book, and if you write them for nonprofit journals, you may be donating those hours, and earning a very modest stipend.

If you’re a reader, though, the good news is that by writing reviews, you get free books. These can be hard copy book, or e-books. Either way, they are yours to keep!

 

But if you’re a writer, you may wonder why you should spend spend time you could devote to your own stuff on reviewing other writers’ books. The answer is simple: it will make you a better writer.

Reviewing a book requires reading a book, and we all know that reading will improve our writing. Beyond the simple reading, though, is the re-reading and analysis that forces us to focus on either theme, craft or genre strategies. I always learn something important about craft while writing a book review, and it’s usally something I can put to use in my own writing.

For example, in this review of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poetry collection, Ornament, I considered how this poet works with form and repetition:

In addition to rhyme and meter, palilogy shapes some of these poems. As subtle as slant rhymes, repetition of individual words resonates like the often-invisible patterns in nature and in housekeeping. The poem “Trillium,” which is set outside of the home, is particularly rich in meter, palilogy, and internal rhymes.

. . . our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to a shimmering white,
flower sleeves that lit themselves and flared

over dark leaves. Like stars, whose light is both
a wailed call and calm response, they leapt
out from shadows as we leaned down to breathe

the barest scent of pepper from their centers
and walked among green leaf and flame-white petal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.

The review is one of several that appear in the December selections of Tupelo Quarterly,  a journal that publishes original poetry as well as reviews of poetry collections. If your chosen genre is fiction, try Necessary Fiction for reviews. And yes – reading reviews of books in your chosen genre will make you a better writer, too!

Writing Memoir: The Arc of Grief

“A little figure toy sitting in front of a window on a rainy day in Indonesia” by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash
In fresh grief, writing can bring a sense of calm, and order, and even, for a time, a sense of closure. It can help us navigate different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.

Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.

This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.

My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.

Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.

But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.

Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.

Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Writing Memoir: The practice of revising

“A fuzzy shot of a man’s hands on the keyboard of a piano” by Isaac Ibbotton Unsplash
Does genius make practice unnecessary? Do great writers do it right the first time, so they never have to do it again?

As a young woman in the 1980’s, I was a Boston Celtics fan. My favorite player was Dennis Johnson, who was known as a “money player,” a guy who came through when it really mattered. I admired how he could turn his talent on, seemingly at will.

But the most well-loved Celtics player from that era was probably Larry Bird, who combined unquestionable talent with a legendary work ethic.

Bird practiced methodically, taking as many as 500 shots from the foul line in a single practice session. In his mind, there was always room for improvement. Johnson, a gifted player, was not as methodical as Bird, but the two men worked so well together, they were likened to great musicians playing a duet.

It’s understandable that after the difficult work of getting a vision down on paper by writing the first draft of an essay or a short story or a poem, a writer wants to feel finished. We invest so much heart into our writing.

But first drafts are rarely the gems we think they are. If you’re like me, whatever you’ve most recently written is the best thing you’ve ever written. From talking with other writers, I know this is a common phenomenon.

To use the language of biology, the phenomenon seems adaptive: writers who adore the last thing they’ve written keep writing. Imagine if we thought the first thing we’d written was the best — we might despair of ever hitting that height again. We might give up.

Revision — a writer’s practice — is what keeps us striving to be better. By examining and re-examining our work, sharing it with other writers, and working to make our vision more and more accessible to readers, we keep feeding the flame.

I loved Dennis Johnson’s style and his heart and his drive to win. But in my writing life, I want to be more like Larry Bird: a methodical, believing that there’s always room for improvement.

Writing Memoir: Going on Retreat

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Corky who shared her house for the weekend, I went on a writing retreat with three friends. We all write poetry, and some of us write prose, too.

When we all arrived, we talked about our goals for the weekend, and then we set up a schedule for the day. It’s a good thing some of us are task-oriented, unlike me, the scatter-brain.

Today’s schedule started with private writing time for three hours on projects of our choice. After this, we came together to talk about how that went. Hearing everyone’s thoughts on what they’d accomplished helped me to see what I’d accomplished, and it helped us all to create another set of goals for the next round of writing later in the day.

Other activities in our schedule include reading poems aloud for inspiration, using a prompt to create lines for a collaborative poem, and a formal feedback session where we’ll share some work we produce here.

Writing retreats can be very productive times, especially for people working on particular projects, like a memoir. Without the distractions of my home, my garden, my husband, my dogs, I have no excuse not to write.

For some people, being in a beautiful place is inspiring. For others, it can be distracting. Corky is lucky to live on a small lake in North Central Florida, so the view is inspiring for me. I love North Florida more than I love jelly donuts. But because I live in this area too, it’s not so unfamiliar to me that I feel I have to get out and explore.

Writing retreats can take many forms. I’ve done the “staycation” retreat when my husband is out of town, hunkering down by myself in my home with a writing goal in mind. Those have not always been as successful as I’d hoped in terms of production. Those darn distractions. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself cleaning the bathroom instead of writing.

Writing retreats taken away from home can eliminate those distractions. One year, I went to a motel with my friend Sandra. We had separate rooms, and we got together for lunch and dinner, again to discuss our progress and goals. Having a time to meet with another writer gave me a sense of accountability.

Some of my writing friends have gone on retreats that are managed by writing teachers or coaches. These sometimes include workshops or seminars on particular topics. An example of that is the Iota conference retreat that focuses on very short nonfiction. It’s held in the beautiful downeast region of Maine.

Of course, you have to be able to afford those professionally managed retreats, or get a scholarship to attend one. If you can’t, going off with a few friends seems to be a good solution. You can have time to write, accountability, inspiration, and positive feedback and camaraderie.

Some elements of a successful group writing retreat include:

  • Private time for writing
  • Time for reading inspirational work, either in a group or individually
  • Using prompts to create new work
  • Formal feedback sessions to share work produced on the retreat
  • Comfortable accommodations, either at home or away
  • Accountability

Food and drink are required too, of course. If possible, it’s also helpful to have a mascot to bring good luck, or a familiar, or a spirit companion. We’ve been fortunate to be visited by these sandhill cranes.

Writing Memoir: Fact or Fiction?

A doll with a cracked face. Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash
Do you remember the popular memoir, A Million Little Pieces? Written by James Frey, it was a national best seller. Then, it was revealed that Frey had made up many of the book’s juiciest parts.

The book became a literary sensation. Originally an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Oprah brough Frey back on her TV show where he confessed.

Today, the book is still listed as nonfiction in most libraries and bookstores, even though Frey and his publishers acknowledged that Frey fabricated numerous events in the book, including a criminal record. Admissions about the fabrications were included in subsequent editions of the book, which continued to sell well. Frey’s statement, in part:

“People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. […] My mistake […] is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.”

Since then, the question of truth in memoir has been raised by readers, writers and publishers everywhere. Answers have varied.

For memoirists who strive for honesty, one issue has to do with composite characters. About ten years ago, I was in face-to-face writing group with other English faculty at a university in the Pacific Northwest region of America. One of the nonfiction pieces I brought to the group for critique ran for about 6,000 words, and 8 different people appeared in it. A colleague suggested that there were too many people in the story, and that I could combine several people into one character to avoid confusion. She called this creating a “composite character.”

I was astonished. I was writing nonfiction, and to me, the very definition of that was, well, non-fiction — true to life and not made up. But others in the group assured me that the emotional truth of the piece was truth enough, and that tweaking the facts a bit for ease of reading was okeedokee.

I knew, of course, that art, and writing, are not the same as real life, which bumbles along without any particular order. Art, and writing, require selection: we select scenes and images and dialogue from reality to include in our memoirs and essays, and we don’t select other scenes and images and dialogue.

There, in my opinion, is the problem with composite characters: in selecting material for our memoir and other nonfiction, we need to draw from the well of what really happened and who was really there.

But maybe I’m not as self-righteous when it comes to reproducing dialogue in memoir. I remember conversations, maybe not word for word, but I remember them. When I can’t recall exactly what someone said, I will, sometimes fill in the blanks.

Now I feel hypocritical.

Memory is not perfect, and different people will remember events differently, or not at all. As memoirists, we have to do our best to relate the truth as we remember it.

Where do you draw the line in your own nonfiction writing?

Writing Memoir: Starting Small

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Lots of people start writing memoir as a book length project, but there are benefits to starting small with personal essays and “flash” memoir.

Essays are usually 2,000–8,000 words, while flash or micro-essays are under 2,000 words. The excellent online magazine Brevity, looks for flash nonfiction pieces (or “micro essays”) under 750 words.

One benefit to starting small is getting our work published quickly, whether on Medium or elsewhere. A book-length manuscript can take over a year, or more, to wend its way through a publisher’s many departments.

Having short pieces published can create an audience for our work, and it can help us become “known.” Book publishers and agents are often leery of “unknown” authors, and even when a writer appears to have sprung from nowhere on to a bestsellers list, that writer usually has a history of publishing short work.

In terms of craft, starting small can also be of benefit. It allows, or even forces us to focus on precise details and images. For folks who are unfamiliar with short nonfiction and micr-memoir, the aforementioned Brevity is a good place to get acquainted. Local libraries have anthologies of short creative nonfiction like In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. These books will often provide observations about the genre and the craft, like this excerpt from In Short.

Zeroing in on a small moment is manageable in a way that a book length manuscript is not. But it also provides excellent practice for writing longer works, which also require attention to physical and emotional details.

In short (hahahaha), the small details can, or perhaps must, be interesting. That doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, although it certainly can. As an Asian history major in college, I came across this curse from Imperial China: May you live in interesting times. As in times of famine, flood, political upheaval, drought, and all the plagues suffered by the people of that vast country.

If you’ve read any of my personal essays, you know I and my family have had interesting lives, which has been both a blessing and a curse. Last year, I had a micro-memoir published (originally in Grist and then on Medium’s HumanParts) about a selfie posted by one of my beloved nieces.

As mentioned in another post, we like to get to know characters in fiction or memoir in the same way we get to know people in real life: by an accumulation of details.

My niece’s selfie included details that made me fear she was using drugs. Those details sent me back to her childhood when she had a scab below one eye that she picked at nervously. The scab looked like one of those teardrop tattoos you see on guys who’ve spent time in prison.

A scab is not a pretty detail, but in this situation it was interesting, and it revealed something about my niece’s character. The micro-memoir about the selfie and the scab doesn’t end happily. But a year after it was published, my niece read it aloud to her cohort as she graduated from a drug treatment program.

And that’s another benefit of starting small — kids these days! And adults. We’re all influenced by online interactions to read short works.

Write on. And read on, too.