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jerrywaxler
10-18-2007, 03:07 PM
I've been reading memoirs to learn lessons about memoir writing, and one of the things I've discovered is that it's often easiest to learn lessons from relative beginners. The masters are so deft you can't see the brush strokes, while the beginners, still creating good pieces, leave clues that show you how to penetrate their techniques.

Today's blog entry for example shows how first time author Dee Dee Phelps uses literary non-fiction techniques to tell about her life as a singer in the 60's. Here's the permalink. (http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/memoir-writing-tips-from-60s-singer-dee-dee/)

Do you have a favorite writing lesson you learned from a memoir?

Jerry

nerds
10-18-2007, 05:37 PM
Well . . . imo the most effective ones are those in which the author has successfully stepped into his or her own life to a point where they're almost viewing themselves as third person. If that makes any sense.

Objectivity, honesty, and clarity. To me those are invaluable in memoirs.

Plus storytelling ability, facility with anecdotes and so forth.

Shwebb
10-18-2007, 11:23 PM
Angela's Ashes, for me, has been a great teacher of what a distinctive voice can do, especially when involving childhood memories.

melaniehoo
10-18-2007, 11:27 PM
Jerry, I read your blog before I saw your post here and I enjoyed your analysis of her writing. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I express myself in my own writing. Thanks. :)

As for others I've read, Alice Seybold stands out only because to this day, I can clearly recall her description of her attack.

nerds
10-19-2007, 03:22 AM
Angela's Ashes, for me, has been a great teacher of what a distinctive voice can do, especially when involving childhood memories.


Yes, for me too, and Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck.

Ritergal
10-27-2007, 08:06 PM
Jerry,

My hubby is great at uncovering writing lessons for me. He has a mind like a laser for analyzing structure and technical aspects of literature, and neatly summarizing his conclusions.

Last spring I nearly wrecked my voice reading Haven Kimmel's memoir, A Girl Called Zippy, aloud in the car on a long road trip. This memoir, written in 1991, came at the early edge of the current spate of women's memoirs, and due to some serious weaknesses, it may not make the publisher's cut today. Despite the flaws, it's a charming and delightful story, and we spent lots of time laughing at the humor found throughout.

I hadn't been sure Hubby would relate to the book, but he did enjoy it. He also rattled off the flaws before I'd even finished reading. Three stand out:

1. She didn't cement her stories in time, and she did not write chronologically, so we often wondered whether she was six or twelve during a particular story. Age was relevant to putting the story in context.

Writing lesson: Be sure to anchor each story in the five W's: who, where, when, why, and what.

2. She repeated material many times, without any indication that she intended to do so. Repetition is okay, but fits in better with an allusion to the earlier event.

Writing lesson: Refer back to earlier mentions of events when you assemble random stories into a collection. Retell them in a way that sheds a different light on things, rather than simply pasting in the earlier account. Best of all, tighten up your writing to avoid the need for repetition.

3. Her dialog was overdone. Dialog was great, but she used highly sophisticated, and very specific, terminology. Perhaps she really was that precocious, but it did not sound like it came from the mind or lips of a seven-year-old child, and it was too specific to be credible. It was splendid creative writing, and except for the fact that it didn't sound age-appropriate, it would have been amazing in a piece of fiction.

Writing lesson: Keep your vocabulary age-appropriate when you use dialog. I recently finished The Albuquerque Years, a composite memoir of my preschool life. It is written in a voice completely different from anything else I've written. Adding analytical thoughts from today, or "grown-up" words jangled loudly. My sense of things was that it had to be told by a very young child, and left for the reader to analyze. I may refer back to events in later works, but that story had to be what it was.

Thanks for the nudge to share this insight. I've been sitting on it for some time.

jerrywaxler
10-29-2007, 03:31 AM
Jerry,

Last spring I nearly wrecked my voice reading Haven Kimmel's memoir, A Girl Called Zippy, aloud in the car on a long road trip. This memoir, written in 1991, came at the early edge of the current spate of women's memoirs, and due to some serious weaknesses, it may not make the publisher's cut today. Despite the flaws, it's a charming and delightful story, and we spent lots of time laughing at the humor found throughout.
.

Hi Ritergal,

Thanks for your insights. I didn't read a Girl Named Zippy, but started to read "She Got up Off the Couch" by the same author. I love the writing, and so I was surprised by my lack of enthusiasm. I couldn't put my finger on the reason on why I quit half way. Now I want to give it another look, informed by your idea about what makes a collection of stories fall together or fall apart. This is especially valuable because many aspiring memoir writers start out with a collection of stories, and wonder how to work them into a coherent whole.

Jerry

johnrobison
10-29-2007, 06:36 AM
I had the same issues mentioned by ritergal in the production of Look Me in the Eye. The chronology issue was largely resolved by my editor, who plotted all the stories in time and we then placed them in proper order, for the most part.

I thought we took out most of the repition, but I noticed all the things we missed when I listened to the audio book. By then, though, it was printed and done. There are not too many repitions.

Finally . . . I heard the same thing about my precise Aspergian dialogue. And people who have not heard me speak in real life have occasionally raised that question. However, none who've heard me speak for real have taken issue with dialoge in my book.

It's certainly true that many people write memoirs by weaving together a bunch of short stories. And that does present its difficulties but knowing that, there's not reason I can see not to write a memoir that way if it works for you.

Susan B
10-29-2007, 07:43 AM
Interesting discussion about the problems when a memoir grows out of short personal essays. That was the case for me.

I didn't find to hard to follow a chronology in arranging chapters. But there are potential problems from having written chapters out of sequence. (I wrote much of what became the second half of the book before I wrote the first half.)

So now that I am doing what I hope are near-final revisions for the publisher, I keep discovering some of those pesky repetitions I thought I'd already weeded out. (Recurring phrases, introducing a "new" character who has already made an appearance, going on a little too long about personal struggles that have been laid out clearly in early chapters. And so on!)

Susan

Ritergal
10-29-2007, 02:52 PM
Kimmel's book was topically sorted, which is a viable alternative to chronology. She may have been chronological within each topic, but didn't do enough to identify when each scene occurred.

In my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0979299802?tag=theheaandcrao-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0979299802&adid=0BPYGBJGGK0QJTQT5BM7&), I use Lori Jakiela's book, Miss New York Has Everything, as an example how you can string small vingnettes together in a coherent, intriguing way. In my very favorite chapter, about a visit from her aunt (an alcoholic, drug-abusing nun), she flits through something like seven vignettes, stringing these pearls masterfully along the thread of the visit.

I won't take the time to find the book and reread, but as I recall, each chapter is a bit later in chronology, embellished with relevant flashbacks and side trips. I can't honestly recall whether the fashbacks are chronological, but they are often howlingly funny. The difference between Jakiela and Kimmel is that Jakiela clearly identifies the time frame of each vignette.

I'm not knocking Kimmel's book. Pioneers are often a bit rough around the edges, and she was a pioneer in the genre of women's memoirs of "growing up different," usually with somewhat peculiar parents.

pollykahl
10-29-2007, 03:42 PM
"Her dialog was overdone. Dialog was great, but she used highly sophisticated, and very specific, terminology. Perhaps she really was that precocious, but it did not sound like it came from the mind or lips of a seven-year-old child, and it was too specific to be credible."

Totally. It distracted me from reading smoothly through the book. (On the other hand, although I sometimes wondered why I was even reading it because it was so laid back, I surprised myself by bursting out crying at the end, so ya just never know...)

I'm finishing up my memoir and rethinking it's being totally chronological. I'm considering starting with a brief "good lord I'm messed up, how the hell did I get here and how do I get out" beginning, then going into the chronological beginning and moving forward from there. I'm a little worried that that's overdone and cliche', so I'm referring back to my large memoir collection to see how other writers shaped theirs. Being able to examine others' memoirs is such a help.

Hi Jerry, I'm in Berks County.

jerrywaxler
10-30-2007, 12:42 AM
"

I'm finishing up my memoir and rethinking it's being totally chronological. I'm considering starting with a brief "good lord I'm messed up, how the hell did I get here and how do I get out" beginning, then going into the chronological beginning and moving forward from there. I'm a little worried that that's overdone and cliche', so I'm referring back to my large memoir collection to see how other writers shaped theirs. Being able to examine others' memoirs is such a help.

Hi Jerry, I'm in Berks County.

Pleased to meet you. Even though the internet is geographically independent it's sometimes fun to know where people are in space, especially when they're right down the road. If you want an interesting model for a memoir with flashbacks, take a look at the memoir of another neighbor of ours, Bill Strickland, Ten Points. A review of his book is going to be my next post. Fasten your seat belt. The abuse is pretty horrific. But it's expertly written, and one of the easiest cleanest examples of using flashbacks that I can recall.

Jerry

pollykahl
10-30-2007, 06:06 AM
Coolness Jerry, sounds like my cup of tea!