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 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 I took of trees with text about family trees.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 4:30 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
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.
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.
Old journals and diaries kept during a time in your life you want to write about can provide raw material for more formal, refined writing. But even if you weren’t in the habit of spilling your guts out on the page when you kept a journal, a journal can still be useful for detecting certain elements about the character you were in the past, and the settings you inhabited.
“Never throw away anything you’ve written” is advice I’ve given elsewhere. It’s good advice for journals, too, even though they may be an embarrassment.
When I was in my twenties, I destroyed part of a journal written at seventeen.
It embarrassed me. Not because of actions or emotions I confessed in the journal. Because of the voice. I remember thinking it arrogant and overwrought. But I can’t know for sure if the voice was arrogant and overwrought, and I can’t reproduce that voice now because those pages no longer exist.
The most obvious use of a journal or diary for a memoir writer is that a journal can help you fill the blank spots in your memory with details, the sights and sounds of past events in your life. Physical artifacts — the notebooks we used to record our doings — can also spark memories of details. Look at your old handwriting on an old page, feel the smooth paper with your fingertips, and open your mind to memory.
But even for those of us whose old journals are boring and repetitive, finding value in them for a memoir is still possible. An old journal can give you a sense of your voice during the time in question. Were you using youthful slang or professional jargon that you no longer use? Longer or shorter sentences? Odd punctuation like a row of exclamation points or, heaven forbid, a little heart in place of a dot over your “i”? Did you scratch things out, or underline? All these can be keys to your character in the past, and your voice.
The style of the notebook you used can also be telling. It may say something about style or popular colors during the period in question, or it may say something about your personal style back in the day. As an artifact, it can provide a cultural context for your past life.
The two journals in the photo above are from the 1980’s, a time of shoulder pads and cinched waists for women, mullets and Jheri curls for men, glass skyscrapers, glass-top tables, and lots of teal and pink. But these two journals are very plain. In this case, plain didn’t mean cheap; I remember buying the journals at a bookstore near Harvard University. They were quite expensive, and I’ve always been, well, “frugal.” Those two journals-as-artifacts say something about who I was back then, and they also give me a cultural context, even if it’s really an anti-context.
Finally, a third use for old journals and diaries is to find a sensory door in to a larger story. Why did I want that pair of sneakers so badly? Why did my friend and I construct piles of ketchup and salt to dip our french fries in? When that person held my hand too tightly, how did I react?
You may find mysteries, too, like events you wrote about but cannot recall. Yet there they are, in black and white. Or purple and ivory if you had an individual aesthetic.
Being unsure of reality every so often is refreshing. Every mystery is a lesson in human fallibility, something we writers and artists can’t be reminded of too often as we create and re-create reality.
If you’ve wondered about the truth of that, I’m happy to report that there’s a boatload of science behind that saying.
In 2005, for example, British researchers found that short periods of “expressive writing” resulted in better physical and psychological health.
Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.
It makes intuitive sense to me that writing about our tragedies and triumphs can improve our emotional health or bring us peace of mind. But I was surprised at the number of studies showing an impact on physical conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, Epstein-Barr virus, and hypertension.
Most of these studies focused on short, guided periods of expressive writing or guided, written disclosures of trauma. The writing practices were standardized as much as possible in order to achieve some measure of reliability for the studies.
But what is meant by “expressive writing”? In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. John F Evans provides a definition:
It is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions, like spelling, punctuation, and verb agreement. Expressive writing pays no attention to propriety: it simply expresses what is on your mind and in your heart.
This, to me, sounds a lot like the “free writing” technique put forth by teachers from New Age guru Natalie Goldberg to university professor Peter Elbow . Not to mention the thousands (or more) college writing teachers like me who advocated free writing in their classrooms.
The idea behind free writing is that inexperienced writers, or writers who’ve been criticized harshly for things like spelling errors, can sometimes be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes. They can be so fearful that their writing muscles cramp up, or they feel they have “writer’s block.”
The free writing technique aims to remove those fears by de-valuing mechanics like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The goal in free writing is only for the writer to move thoughts from the brain to the page. And that, after all, is the goal of all writing: translating our thoughts into words.
For writers of memoir or personal essays, putting aside fears of being judged can be the first challenge to overcome. Many turn to free writing as a way of silencing the internal editor — at least temporarily.
Expressive writing may be beneficial to psychological and health, but is it more beneficial to brain health than other kinds of writing? Is there a neurobiological reason why translating thoughts into words, in a judgment-free zone, has a therapeutic effect?
By the end of the study, the team saw significant changes in the brains of the people who had learned to read and write. These individuals showed an increase in brain activity in the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, which is involved in learning.
Learning to read also seemed to change brain regions that aren’t typically involved in reading, writing or learning. Two regions deep in the brain, in particular, appeared more active after training — portions of the thalamus and the brainstem.
These two regions are known to coordinate information from our senses and our movement, among other things. Both areas made stronger connections to the part of the brain that processes vision after learning to read. The most dramatic changes were seen in those people who progressed the most in their reading and writing skills.
I’ve heard many writers say that writing has saved their lives. Maybe it’s even saved mine. But one thing is certain: our brains need exercise to be healthy, and writing provides it.
It’s been a political couple of weeks for me in terms of writing. In addition to an op-ed for the Washington Post, I also wrote an op-ed for my local newspaper in support of a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution that would restore voting rights to most Floridaians who’ve been convicted of a felony. If you’re interested in writing for your local paper, the good news is that in most smaller markets, local newspapers will print editorials by citizens who write reasoned articles about relevant area issues. The bad news is that most local papers don’t offer payment to writers who aren’t on staff.
For me, writing occasional pieces for my local paper is a way of doing community service. I’m supporting local journalism, and offering perspectives I think are needed. In the past, I’ve written about the shameful history of lynching in our region and the necessity of training older workers for sustainable jobs.
I was motivated to write the current piece because the 21st century’s trend of mass incarceration is a travesty. Today’s criminal “justice” system is far more predatory and punitive than it was when I practiced as a public defender in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But two things have stayed the same: most of the people involved with the system are addicts or alcoholics, and prison doesn’t work.
Family has been another motivator for me. People who’ve been convicted of crimes find it very difficult to start over once their sentences are wrapped up, as I know from watching my brothers, nieces and nephews struggle to stay clean after being in prison.
If you’d like to write for your local newspaper, get in touch with the op-ed editor to find out if they print citizen articles. You can find contact info for the editor by consulting the paper’s masthead, or by simply calling the paper. Ask the editor what he or she is looking for in terms of word count, and if they have other guidelines. Then put your talent and skill in service of local journalism.
Like many people in America, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. We all bring our experience to the table when analyzing the news, and I’ve been looking at the issues raised by these hearings as both a feminist and a former trial attorney.
Sometimes, anger motivates me to write. I want to figure out why I’m angry, what I can do about it, and whether my anger is valid. I mean “valid” in the logical sense.
This article, published last week by the Washington Post, concerns something I’ve been angry about since I was in law school: special terminology that sets alleged sexual assault victims apart from alleged victims of other crimes. As I note in the article, you never hear alleged robbery victims referred to as “the accuser,” and yet, this is the norm for the media in cases of sexual assault.
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. They 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 cravethat 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 guess 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?
An excellent question — what does compel us memoirists to share our stories with strangers? And is the self we share our real self, or a mask?
Another, related question, is whether memoirists have any responsibility to communicate some purpose or wisdom through their writing.
Judith Barrington, in her book Writing the Memoir, claims that memoirists have a responsibility to pursue meaning:
“If the charm of memoir is that we, the readers, see the author struggling to understand her past, then we must also see the author trying out opinions she may later shoot down, only to try out others as she takes a position about the meaning of her story. The memoirist need not necessarily know what she thinks about her subject but she must be trying to find out; she may never arrive at a definitive verdict, but she must be willing to share her intellectual and emotional quest for answers. Without this attempt to make a judgment, the voice lacks interest, the stories, becalmed in the doldrums of neutrality, become neither fiction nor memoir, and the reader loses respect for the writer who claims the privilege of being the hero in her own story without meeting her responsibility to pursue meaning. Self revelation without analysis or understanding becomes merely an embarrassment to both reader and writer.”
In some memoirs, the writer’s purpose is clear, as is the meaning he is pursuing. Stephen King could have written a memoir about growing up in Maine, or about getting sober. But instead, he wrote a memoir about his writing life. His purpose, I think, was to inspire new writers and to help them become better writers.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Many recovery memoirs — no matter what the author is recovering from — are written to provide other people with a road map: these are the steps I followed, this is what worked for me. My first memoir, Walk Away, is about recovering from family and intimate partner violence. And I did intend it, in part, as a road map for other people who’d suffered violence at the hands of those they loved.
But because both types of violence have been deep dark secrets, I also wanted to bring those secrets out into the light. Brutality flourishes in silence and darkness, as we’ve all learned recently from the #MeToo movement. Bringing the stories out into the light can give courage to others and, perhaps, even prevent future brutalities.
Writing a memoir can also be an integral part of the process of recovery from loss or trauma. The task of writing focuses us on organizing our memories and that can help us to make sense of what happened.
The author Diana Raab wrote an article for Psychology Today in answer to the question “Why should you write your memoir?” She details a number of reasons why people might want to do so:
The memoirists whom I interviewed for my research claimed they had a story to tell and felt they were the only ones who could tell it. Others might have secrets to share, or maybe they want to study or understand certain situations. Additional reasons to write a memoir include preserving a family’s legacy, learning more about one’s ancestors, a search for personal identity, gaining insight into the past, or healing from a traumatic experience. Writer André Aciman believes that people write memoirs because they want a second chance to create another version of their lives.
But I think Tom’s question is more about what compels people to reveal themselves to others.
That, to me, seems a matter of temperament, or maybe even genetics. For some people, diet soda tastes bitter and nasty; for others, it tastes sweet. When I used to teach college writing classes, I always mentioned that different people have different levels of comfort when it comes to self-revelation — not a good or bad difference, just a difference. And like all differences, it needs to be respected.
My best friend (since we were six years old!) is a naturally reserved person. She would no more write a memoir than I would volunteer at a pre-school (the noise!). She’s not comfortable revealing personal details to strangers. Although we’re both introverts, when I meet new people, I’m very open about my checkered past.
Even in casual conversation, telling our stories can be a road map for others in big or small ways. As a teacher, I always revealed that I was a high school dropout, and one reason I did that was to reassure anyone in the class who might have struggled in high school, to tell them in a private way that high school dropouts can become anything, even college professors.
Are the selves in essays and memoirs the writers’ “real” selves? I’d say no. Writing is an art, and while art imitates life, it’s not the same thing. The memoir and essay forms provide us with a scaffolding on which to build stories and meaning.
The scaffolding becomes a part of the voice, and that voice, that self becomes different from the self that meets a friend for coffee. Not a good or bad difference, or even less true. Just a difference. And like all differences, the distinction between the day-to-day self and the self that appears in writing needs to be respected.
Why do you write memoir, or poetry? Why do you reveal your secrets? Or why do you keep them to yourself? Are you the same person on the page as you are in your dreams? I would love to know. And Tom probably would, too.
The stakes of the story are that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected. What can be won arguably amounts to the character solving the problem. What would be lost is that the character has failed to solve the problem and must reap the harvest of his failure.:
What are the challenges you are writing about in your memoir? What are you trying to win, or trying not to lose? Are you writing about recovering from an injury or disease in spite of the odds stacked against you, or about succeeding as an artist, a parent, a worker in spite of the roadblocks thrown in your path, or about finding peace or wisdom or identity in spite of your own stubbornness?
It’s the “in spite of” parts that can help you raise the stakes in your memoir manuscript. Consider pacing the memoir so that the odds, the roadblocks, the stubbornness, and other complications appear one at a time. Each time you reveal one of these challenges, you raise the stakes.
You raise the stakes, too, when you reveal what you have to gain on your quest in a piece by piece way. That’s usually how life goes — we start off looking for one thing, thinking there’s one obstacle to overcome, and we end up finding out that there are other things we need to fulfill our quest, other barriers to jump over, other fences to climb.
For example, I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to represent people who were caught in the criminal justice system. One obstacle in my way was that I was a high school dropout. I got to law school, but then drugging and drinking became another potential obstacle. In law school, I started to see how having power as a lawyer could help me heal from my own past abuse. But then, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job because my grades were bad and I didn’t have connections. So I started my own practice. But then, I ended up representing . . . And so on.
As mentioned in a previous post, you, and the other significant people in your memoir, are characters, and 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.
Raising the stakes means keeping the reader’s attention by revealing goals and obstacles through pacing. How does your quest change with the knowledge you gain from overcoming obstacles? What are the stakes at the beginning of your quest, in the middle, at the end?
The quest you want to write about may have already happened, but you control how that story is told. You select which stakes to reveal, and when.