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: 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.

New Essay – A Short History of Fraud

This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.

If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.

If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.

You can read the full essay here.

Writing Memoir: Where’s the End?

A girl reading a book with the title “Where the World Ends.” Photo by Annie Spratton Unsplash

Where do I end the world of my memoir? The ending keeps getting further away from me.

Some well-worn advice is to end on an image, or an action, or with dialogue, or (very carefully) with a reflection.

I’ll stay away from the reflection possibility because of my bad habit of wrapping up any story or poem with a cutesy little bow.

One of the best essays I’ve read so far about ending a memoir is Leigh Stein’s HOW TO END A MEMOIR WITHOUT
GETTING MARRIED
. It appeals to me because Leigh shows herself struggling against the neatly tied up ending.

I love it when a book’s conflicts and themes get resolved. But not too resolved.

Author and writing coach Lynette Benton agrees and asks whether resolution is even necessary:

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

I have to choose an endpoint, and maybe I should choose based on the memorableness of the end-point. So here goes with examples of how I might use imageaction, and dialogue to conclude my memoir draft. Coming up with these examples may prove helpful, but right now they are just making me more indecisive.

My first instinct is to end on an image. In one scene from the middle of my current draft, I’m on the Tybee Island beach at night and the ocean has turned phosphorescent. My aunt starts telling the little kids that it’s magic fairies in the water, but my uncle starts explaining bioluminescence to them. When his wife objects, he says “They make their own damn light. Isn’t that magic enough?” I’d love to return to that image.

Vultures in a tree. by Casey Allen on Unsplash

Writers are such vultures, by the way. Another reason I can’t decide is that events keep happening that make me think “This would be a great ending to my memoir!”

I have a very big family, and someone is always saying or doing something that relates to my themes of finding identity and figuring out what makes a family stick together.

Maybe dialogue would work. Like when I was with my nephew and two of my nieces just before Christmas. They had a playful argument about “whose story was best,” of the ones I’d written about each of them: Alan MichaelTheresa, and BeeBee.

The joking conversation they had touched me deeply. I’m very lucky that my family supports my writing unconditionally, even when they know I’m in vulture mode, thinking about how I can use something they’re saying or doing in a poem or essay. I could end the memoir with their dialogue about their stories!

Or maybe an action is how the memoir should end. I recently published a short piece with Shondaland about searching for an Elvis tapestry that belonged to the mother I never met. If I use that action — the searching — I might be able to slap that already-written-essay onto the end of of the 80,000+ words I’ve written so far. So tempting!

What are your thoughts — are stories best when all their loose ends are tied up? Or do you like some ambiguity at the end? What are some of the best endings you’ve read or written?

Writing Memoir: Creating Suspense

A suspension bridge over a green forest. Photo by Cayetano Gil on Unsplash

Don’t you love it when you can’t stop reading because you must find out what happens?

Mysteries are propelled by this sort of suspense, of course, and in a great mystery (I recommend Tana French!), the suspense is expressed in more than just plot. It’s also expressed in character arcs.

A sense of mystery and suspense can also propel a memoir. In memoirs about surviving an illness, for example, the mystery to be solved can be the cause of the illness, or the efficacy of a cure. Often, the memoir’s central character also unravels an emotional or spiritual mystery.

I’m very invested in making my current memoir project readable, so I’m trying to be conscious of how I handle mystery and suspense. Although I’m sticking to the facts, of course, it’s up to me how I arrange those facts, and if and when I reveal the solution to the mysteries. But writing toward suspense has been challenging for me, partly because I’m inclined to put all my cards on the table at once. But to create suspense, we have to dole out information piece by piece.

In a Writer’s Digest article about the elements of suspense in fiction, Steven James writes:

Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.

Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.

Making readers worry about characters? This might be another reason why it’s been so difficult for me to exploit the suspense related to me-as-character in my own story: I don’t like people to worry about me, maybe because it feels intrusive, or maybe (more likely) because it calls my competence and strength into question.

My memoir is about reuniting with my birth family, and one mystery is my father’s identity. My mother passed away before I could meet her, and she’d kept my existence to herself for the most part.

But clues popped up here and there as I got to know my family. The first story I heard was from an aunt who liked . . . to tell stories. She made up a very happy relationship for my teenage mother with a man she modeled after one of her favorite television actors.

But of course, I don’t tell the story that way — I let my aunt speak in dialogue, I let other family members have their say, I question the story, and ultimately I do my own research using the name my aunt gave me. All of this information is paced out over a number of chapters. Pacing is the key to giving readers the pleasure of discovery.

Later in the memoir, I come back to the daddy’s identity mystery when relating my experience with DNA testing. Again, the information is spaced out in order to make the mystery and the discovery more interesting for the reader.

In real life — and memoir is about real life — not all mysteries are solved, and those that are solved often turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now that I think of it, though, that’s often the case for mysteries in fiction. Maybe the line between real life and stories is even thinner than I thought.

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: 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: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.

Writing Memoir: The Heroic Archetype

Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.

Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.

Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.

Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.

All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.

By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.

Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.

But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.

Photo by Andrew Dong on Unsplash

The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.

Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.

At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.

If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.

Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:

  • What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
  • What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
  • What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
  • What monsters did you face?
  • What barriers did you overcome?
  • Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
  • What did home look like when you completed your journey?

Write on.