Writing Memoir: Self as Character

Photo by Grace Madeline on Unsplash
Why should you write about yourself as if you’re a character in a story?

Memoir is story, it just happens to be a story that’s true. And one thing that’s easy to forget when writing memoir is that your readers want to get to know you. And to them, you’re a character.

Just as in real life, that getting-to-know you happens gradually, through what you wear, where you hang out, what you say, where you work, who your friends and family are.

In any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Currently, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s craft book Damn Fine Story. It’s stuffed with clear and practical advice for writing stories that sweep readers off their feet and glue them into the comfy chair, or bed, or where ever the reader prefers to read.

Wendig is primarily a novelist and screenplay writer. So far, I haven’t seen him mention memoir, but IMHO, advice about writing stories (and that’s his focus) apply to memoir as well as fiction. I anticipate quoting from him often in this series about writing memoir.

Anyways, here are some points he makes about character development:

  • Characters are their problems. For example, in my adoption reunion story, my problem is that I don’t know where I came from.
  • Characters face internal and external complications. We’re talking about conflicts. In my story, my internal resistance to dependence on others was further complicated by my birth family’s external expectation that I would depend on them for love.
  • Characters create a story by interrupting the baseline, the status quo.Every story begins with a static situation and goes from there. Even if the original static situation is chaotic, it’s still the baseline from which the story begins. No interruption in the baseline = no story.
  • The best characters end a story changed. And isn’t that what memoir is about? How we, the writers, have been changed by a particular series of events?

So how do you turn yourself into a character? One way is to imagine readers are meeting you for the first time. Show them a picture (in words) of the person you are at the beginning of your story, and use plenty of concrete, sensory details. Here’s a current paragraph from my memoir draft that tries to do that work:

To ease my anxiety at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was in silk. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a twelve-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The nineteenth-century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, and the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age nine.

The bold-faced words are, of course, those sensory details. The reader will know I’m a lawyer, I’m willing to take a long train ride, and as a twelve-year-old child, I was a bookworm and a drug user. But, I notice, there’s nothing in this paragraph that says what I look like.

Straight physical descriptions (I was short, plump, and had dark hair) can sound forced, or boring, or both. Some writers think that physical descriptions are unnecessary for main characters because readers like to visualize them on their own.

But if I tie a physical description of myself to an action or emotion, that might work. Let’s see.

Anxious at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d twisted a section of my dark brown hair around one finger until it formed a spiral curl. To distract myself, I spent much of the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Balancing a folder on my ample lap, I paged through it with my skinny little chicken fingers.

Better? Maybe so. Let me know if you feel so inclined. Here’s an example from a better writer, Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Housekeeping.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

Notice how each characteristic is paired with a verb and given an action.

Ways other than action to describe yourself as a character are:

  • Let other characters describe you. “Her friend turned to me and said ‘Your sister says you’re bizarre, but your brother-in-law says you’re merely eccentric.’”
  • Describe objects near and dear to yourself. “I held my teddy bear, which I’d received on my first birthday.”

Any other ideas?

Write on.

Memoir Writing: Tie Your Story to a Significant Issue

“Black and white photograph of the back view of street protesters in a rally in Washington.” by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Why have so many memoirs of recovering from addiction been published in the last fifteen years? I’d say it’s because addiction and recovery are significant issues for many contemporary families. In other words, those memoirs are personal stories touching on a big-picture issue. As such, they become more relatable for people who are concerned about those issues.

In the same way, memoirs about people who survive a serious or chronic illness can give hope to people who are experiencing health-related challenges, or whose loved ones are suffering.

People read memoirs to identify and clarify their own stories, as well as for the beauty of language, the pull of story, or the memorable characters. Touching on significant issues in the context of a personal story helps to alleviate any “me, me, me, it’s all about me!” in a memoir, and it also makes the personal more universal. Or, to quote the second-wave feminist movements, it shows us that the personal is political.

Currently, I’ve divided my memoir draft in three sections. The bigger issue in the first section of my memoir is family separation and reunification. In the second section, it’s addiction’s impact on families. I haven’t figured out what it is in the third section, which so far covers the deaths of many family members, DNA testing, what happens when kids who were in foster care have kids of their own, and mass incarceration in the American prison system, among other things.

Maybe that’s a heads up for me that I’m covering too much ground in that third section.

Or maybe if I choose one significant issue, that can become my organizing principle for the third section.

But because I’ve had editors tell me (sometimes) that I sound like a bossypants, I know there’s a danger for me in deliberately exploring a significant issue in a memoir.

The danger in tying your story to a bigger issue is that you might fall into didacticism, better known as being a bossypants.

And no one likes a bossypants. So let’s say I decide the third section of my memoir is connected to the issue of mass incarceration. It’s tempting for me to haul out my old lawyer identity to argue against mass incarceration using evidence like studies showing how expensive it is, or international comparison statistics.

But my memoir is a personal story, not an editorial. Instead of taking the easy way out by arguing the evidence against mass incarceration, I have to rely on the details of the story.

So let’s see — how am I doing? What are your thoughts about the prison I describe in this scene from an essay about visiting my niece BeeBee at a women’s prison in Florida? Am I being a bossypants?

It was no place like home, but it was a place for families. They sat on metal benches in the processing room, waiting for their loved ones, hoping the next face would be the one they’d longed to see. As if to extend the suspense, the guards released inmates one by one through a gate in a chain-link cage. My niece BeeBee strutted out in a yellow t-shirt and chinos, and I stood up to hug her. 


Like every woman I’ve ever known who’s done time, BeeBee had put on weight. This is usually a good thing; most women who get sentenced to prison have worked their bodies to the bone for drugs. When our hug ended, she stepped back and bounced on the balls of her feet like an athlete. Her thighs were thick with muscle and her arms were round, but her waist was still trim. When she lived on the outside, she’d made a living selling drugs and dancing in strip clubs; in prison, she made her way by winning dance challenges, and by winning fights.


We walked outside to the visiting area in the prison yard. Concrete tables squatted under a roof for shelter from the rain or the hot sun, but we didn’t need protection that day. The sky was clear, and the air was warming, but I already felt locked in and ready to leave.

Across the yard, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a massive concrete block building was going up, a construction project that wasn’t visible from the road. BeeBee told me it would be an addition to this women’s prison, and it looked as if it would be ten times as big as the current facility. The grapefruit I had for breakfast congealed in my gut, rose up, and burned my throat, as if I already knew that once construction was completed on this monster, it would rank as the largest women’s prison in the entire country.


Then she started talking about the times when I used to rent a beach house on Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia, and our whole family stayed together for a week. In those years, my nieces and nephews — eleven of them — were all children, running wild on the sand, rampaging through the ice cream parlor, and tearing up the rental house. I’d sometimes get the middle-class heebie-jeebies when they were too loud in a restaurant, or too daredevil on a playground, but mostly I sat back and admired their untamed joy.

How about you? What bigger issues do you grapple with in your memoir, whether it’s written or planned or somewhere inbetween?

Writing Memoir: Using Dream Images

“A silhouette of a man holding a smoke bomb on a deserted beach, with a pink sunset sky in the background” by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
Do dreams have a place in nonfiction?

Since childhood, I’ve had occasional vivid dreams — the kind that are so weird, or colorful, or fantastic that they woke me up. When I started writing poetry (also as a kid), I thought those dreams and their images belonged in poems.

The dreams seemed so meaningful to me. So I wrote.

Later, more than one poetry teacher told me to ditch the dream poems — they didn’t mean anything to anyone but me. The teachers were right: without a context, dream images don’t translate very well for an audience. Of course, if you’re writing only for yourself, that’s different.

But dreams can work well for an audience in fiction and in creative nonfiction writing. They work as long as we make clear that they are, in fact dreams, and connect them to our stories and the people in our stories. I’m not a dream-interpreter, but when people reveal their dreams to me in real life, I feel as if I’ve gotten inside their heads a little. I feel I know them better.

Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to know the people — or characters — in the stories they read. Reading a good book, we actually crave that knowledge, especially knowledge of a character’s motivations and how those motivations interact with plot. It’s why we stay up past our bedtimes and keep reading. We’re trying to figure out what will happen next.

Some literary theorists believe we read fiction to exercise the part of our brains that guesses at motivations, and that our brains have been programmed by evolution to want to guess at motivations.

Lisa Zunshine, in her book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, applies this idea specifically to novels, although I believe it can apply to any kind of writing that includes characters. She argues that understanding motivations, and then predicting behavior was an adaptive strategy for early humans seeking to survive and reproduce.

Zunshine’s theory is similar to Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo’s theory of dreams. Revonsuo believed that dreams were resulted from the brain practicing for flight-or-flight situations. In other words, our dreams are simulations of stressful situations we might face in real life.

Human beings have long believed dreams are powerful, either as predictors of the future, as revelations of past mysteries, as expressions of repressed wishes. They seem to come with a built-in significance.

For a writer of memoir or nonfiction, relating a dream can help to communicate something about motivation, or obsession, or desire. Instead of telling the reader “I felt trapped in my lifestyle,” I can show the reader how it felt by describing a dream related to that trapped feeling. Here’s an excerpt from one of my essays that attempts to do this:

Night after night, I dreamed of walking under streetlights in Boston, after the bars have closed, when the streets are deserted. I have trouble walking, but not the kind of trouble I had in the dreams of my twenties. In those dreams, my feet were as rigid and heavy as flatirons, and I couldn’t lift them to run away. In these new dreams, I’m drunk and wobbling. The busses have stopped running, and I stumble and curse, desperate to find a way out of Boston that will take me to the North Shore. I have to pee badly. I’m under the Southeast Expressway, surrounded by concrete Jersey barriers and I-beam steel, and there is no one to ask for directions, no taxis, no traffic. The city is silent. Should I walk up onto the expressway if I can find a ramp? Can I walk over the Mystic River Bridge because there are no cars? In the dream, I’m angry that the city is so hard to leave, and I never find the bridge.

In the context of the essay, this dream excerpt demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than reality could, how trapped I felt, and how frustrated. The dream itself may sound familiar to you — dreams about being lost and trying to find a way out of somewhere are common, as are dreams of trying to run with heavy feet. Perhaps they signal some common fear we share as human beings of being stuck in place.

What are some of your favorite examples of dreams in fiction or nonfiction? And what do you think about using dreams in your writing?

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

“A large heap of broken antique watches and clocks” by Heather Zabriskieon Unsplash
How do creative people find the time to write? Or do they “make” the time?

Years ago, someone asked me how I managed to do so much. “It’s easy,” I said. “I don’t have kids!” The people who amazed me with their productivity — and who still amaze me — were the ones who parented young children.

Writing a memoir, or even a stand-alone personal essay, requires a huge investment of time, especially for slow writers like me. If it took me less than 40 hours to write a ten page story, I’d be very surprised. This month, I’ve committed to finishing a coherent draft of my 80,000-word, rough memoir draft. How will I manage my time to insure I meet that goal?

Strategy 1: Getting on a Schedule

This was effective for me when I worked a full-time, 8:30 am to 4:00 pm job. I was already on a schedule, so creating another one for writing made sense. Off and on, for months at a time, I got up at 5:30 am and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Scheduled writing has been famously successful for authors like J.K. Rowling, who also had a day job when she began the Harry Potter series. If you are subject to an external schedule, whether it’s related to school or work or family responsibilities, a writing schedule may do the trick for you.

But once I resigned from the day job to work for myself, the external schedule that kept me on track disappeared and I found myself floundering.

Strategy 2: Figuring Out When You Write Best and Write Most

Although I’m not trying to lose weight because that ship has sailed, I know that food journals are an effective way for people to track calories. So I decided to keep a time tracker to see where I was spending my time.

Like many people, I squander time on social media, mindless eating, and passive entertainment. When I’ve squandered enough, I get resentful when those I love interrupt my thoughts about writing or the writing itself. As if those people (and dogs) are the cause of my fribbling.

Decades of working day jobs created a habit of writing at odd hours: early mornings, nights, and weekends. Breaking from that pattern has not been easy, even though I expected to have nights and weekends free once I was “just” writing. But I’ve been writing at odd hours still, and not making enough headway on the memoir to satisfy myself.

Data is powerful. The time tracker showed me I was working on my memoir early in the morning and late at night, for about 90 minutes at a time. Ugh. Old habits are hard to break. It also showed me that I was working on paying writing projects during the day, like that was a day job. Ugh, again.

3. State Your Writing Goals Publicly

This month, I’m writing about writing memoir every day. And I put it on my Medium profile.

Two popular month-long writing marathons, NANOWRIMO and NAPOWRIMO inspire many people to successfully find or make time to write novels and poetry, respectively. I participated in NAPOWRIMO this year in April. Thirty poems later, I think 4 or 5 of them are actually worthwhile.

But, I’m convinced that 30 days in a row of writing a poem, or at least a wannabe poem, was helpful exercise for the poetry part of my brain. I even continued the process through the first week of May. Now, I’m slacking off again.

I heard that you’re more likely to meet your goals if you announce them publicly. Oh wait, I also heard that announcing your goals publicly makes itless likely that you’ll meet those goals.

4. Going on a Writing Retreat

A retreat doesn’t have to be anywhere but your own home; it’s a big chunk of time (a day or more, preferably) devoted to writing. I’ve done stay-home retreats, and cheap motel retreats. Some writers go on organized writing retreats.

For me, these chunks of dedicated time seem to work best when I have a specific goal to meet. That’s especially true if I go somewhere besides my home, where I may be tempted to check out a new ice cream parlor. For this reason, I advise going on a retreat in a place that’s not very appealing to your interests.

But even on a stay-home retreat, I can be distracted by chores that suddenly must be done. I’m not talking about walking the dogs or watering the plants, which really must be done to keep everyone alive. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself scrubbing a toilet instead of writing.

 


The best piece of advice about finding or making time to write is to experiment to find out what works best for you. We’re all different, thankfully.

And if you’re wondering about the right time to begin a memoir, that’s something I’ve thought about this week because two former students got in touch to say they are thinking of writing memoir. They were both curious about “the right time” to start.

My response was “Now is the time.” When an idea about doing something creative pops up, that’s a hint from the part of yourself that’s smarter than the rest of you. Go with it.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Photographs and Images

The boundaries between genres are blurring.

Fence. Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash

Why shouldn’t we include photographs in memoirs? The only reason I can think of is that some (maybe many) publishers don’t want the hassle. Publishing images is more complex, more expensive than publishing text only. Unless, of course, you’re publishing on the internet.

That damn internet. It’s changing everything.

Some publishers are welcoming work that combines text and image. Some of them are here on Medium. Many others can be found in this list of cross-genre publishers curated by New Pages.

Here’s my attempt at a cross-genre piece combining photographs of trees with text about family trees.


Twisted branches. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
Maybe it was me who doctored this photograph, trying to give it an heirloom appearance.

I see a “B” in this tree. Or maybe a “D,” or a sideways “A.”

Or a man, hanging face down with his arms extended, reaching for something on the ground.

Or a lizard with its tail curled up behind it. Or the predictable snake.

Or a tree, twisted by snow and ice, and the deaths of other trees, and by forces I cannot imagine, putting forth the predictable new growth in spring.

Unknown Dead Tree, North Central Florida

I leaned against trees, wrapped my arms around trees, swung from trees and hid in trees, and walked on limbs as if they were tightropes. I prayed to trees, I raged at trees. Far away, the half-brothers I now know cut trees down for very little pay.

In my private forest, which isn’t mine, but belongs to the town, I watch this tree, and the spiral of fungi around its trunk that curves around in question marks and other symbols. It might be my family tree: no hierarchy, no single ancestor, and certainly no single pattern.

Living Turkey Oak, fallen, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree took the earth with it when it tipped over in a windthrow. It is the only tree in this quadrant that fell. Maybe another trauma, like heart rot fungus, affected its anchorage and prepared it to let go.The letting go starts a new creation story: a hole opens in the canopy, and sunlight pours down on the forest floor. Saplings stuck in the pole stage may wake up and start to grow gain.

New stories mean new names. The earth ripped up with the tree is now called a tip-up mound.

Dead Cypress, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree has been dead for so long, you can see right through it in spots. How did that happen? I imagine the branches fell first, then the crown, and then the bark sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and then the core collapsed on itself. What’s left is a suggestion of the strong column it once was, a gesture toward how the column once spun upward in helix fashion.

What’s left of the tree has the pocked and scored look of the karst limestone under the ground around these parts. Maybe the tree has taken on some characteristics of the stone.

Even long dead, and even taking on other characteristics, the tree is still a tree.

 

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

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.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.