UNCLE JIM'S FOR MEMOIRS

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sommemi

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Use this post for discussion/translation of Uncle Jim's lessons for writings, adapted for memoir writing. As we all know, memoir is just a different animal all of its own. But the basic rules of writing, storyline, interest factor, etc all still apply. The question is, how to adapt these rules when telling a TRUE story without adding in false details to try to make it 'more'? How do you tell a story about your life in such a way that it is entertaining to read even if it doesn't involve high speed car chases and vampires? ;)
 

sommemi

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I just want to post the first reply by defining BIC.

Butt/Bum In Chair

The hardest part of writing something is simply the sitting down and writing part of it. The words will never get from your head to the paper unless you dedicate the hours to doing that. This involves committing to the writing... whether it means scheduling time every day at the exact same time, or logging hours, or dedicating your lunch hour every day, or whatever. But it means your butt is in the chair, and you are writing. It doesn't have to be good writing, but it has to be writing, because it's always easier to go back and edit something that you wrote than it is to get the words there in the first place. The one thing that most authors struggle the most with is simply sitting down and doing the actual writing of the words on the paper/screen.

Please correct me if I'm misinterpreting, or if I'm shortcutting a point too much. But this is the general idea I've gotten from BIC. Comments??? Discussion?
 

Wayne K

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My biggest problem with memoir writing is too much tell and not enough show. I wrote it like a diary. I'll use one of your lines that you said was tough Sommemi.
"My Mom tried to hide her superstition, but sometimes it was obvious. I saw the nervousness when one of those letters came in the mail."

This may be bad but here goes.

Her hand shook as she picked up the letter. "oh, it's nothing to worry about." she said. I knew she was lying.


I pulled that out of my arse, but can you see what I'm saying?

It needs to read more like a novel.
 

the addster

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Just marking this for future reference.

I'm finding this very interesting. I'm showing more than I tell, but I'm getting lost. Reading like a novel isn't the problem, I'm just a very weak MC, right now.
 

Chrisla

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I just want to post the first reply by defining BIC.

Butt/Bum In Chair

The hardest part of writing something is simply the sitting down and writing part of it. The words will never get from your head to the paper unless you dedicate the hours to doing that. This involves committing to the writing... whether it means scheduling time every day at the exact same time, or logging hours, or dedicating your lunch hour every day, or whatever. But it means your butt is in the chair, and you are writing. It doesn't have to be good writing, but it has to be writing, because it's always easier to go back and edit something that you wrote than it is to get the words there in the first place. The one thing that most authors struggle the most with is simply sitting down and doing the actual writing of the words on the paper/screen.

Please correct me if I'm misinterpreting, or if I'm shortcutting a point too much. But this is the general idea I've gotten from BIC. Comments??? Discussion?

Uncle Jim suggests that you pick two hours each day and during those two hours "you will sit in front of your typewriter or computer. You will have no distractions. You will write or you will stare at the blank screen. There will be no other options. Writing letters does not count. Reading does not count. Doing research does not count. Revising does not count. Yolu will write new stuff, or you will stare at the screen. No TV in the room. No radio going. No internet. Fill the pages or go mad."
 

jerrywaxler

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"Show not tell" an advanced skill

The problem with "show not tell" for me is that it is actually an advanced storytelling skill. I started in life not as a storyteller, but an essayist, journal writer, letter writer and technical writer. I've come late to the storytelling craft and as a result have to bend my mind in all kinds of new ways.

I'm happy to make the effort. Climbing this endless mountain keeps me strong and supple. But I can only go one step at a time.

It's almost inevitable that a new writer, could do more telling than showing. I don't think that's ideal, nor is it horrible. It's a step along the path.

If we discourage new writers with the drum beat of "show versus tell" we can end up chasing them away. I'd rather have someone tell me their life story than to stay silent about it. If they then gain the skill to show me, so much the better.

Jerry
 

Wayne K

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I didn't mean to say we should discourage it, it's just that memoir is by nature telling rather than showing, so we should find ways to tone it down where we can.
 

Wayne K

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From Uncle Jim.

You can use the novelists' techniques: 1) Keep it entertaining. 2) Start with a person in a place with a problem. 3) Keep it entertaining. 4) Don't tell the readers anything before they care. 5) Keep it entertaining. 6) End with a climax, to reward the reader for following you all this time and to let the reader know that the book is over. 6) Keep it entertaining.
 

Wayne K

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I love "Keep it entertaining" twice. It really is about that.
 

jerrywaxler

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wow, fascinating thread

I was a bit confused at first by the Uncle Jim reference, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. So here are a couple of thoughts.

One, the two hour a day rule is a lot easier if you pick the same time each day. Your body and mind will actually start to crave the writing time. Of course most people don't feel they have the life-freedom to do this. It requires an almost monastic commitment - that level of involvement is one of the secrets of successful writing. (A good book on this subject is, "War of Art" by Steven Pressfield.)

Two, since yesterday's "show don't tell" interchange, I thought more about why memoir is different from other genres. It's the only writing that lets us share what's going on inside our own mind. And inside my mind, "show" and "tell" blur terribly. When I look at a dust bunny in the corner, I do think "yuck" or "God, I need to stop writing and start cleaning." I don't think, "My heart sped up, and my ears started ringing with echoes of my mother who was a lousy house-keeper and I vowed I wouldn't let the same thing happen to me, etc." We think largely in "telling" - or at least I do, and so it has been a long hard journey to transition from my own thinking style to this stylistic 21st century show-don't-tell rule. Of course, I want to keep learning and improving, and giving readers as much entertainment as my skill-level can generate. Along the road, I'm discovering and sharing fascinating things. And as a reader, I'm reading and enjoying memoirs that contain a lot of telling. They help me understand people, and it doesn't really bother me that they read differently from a novel.

(Sommemi, you're like a professional thread starter or something. Good job.)

Jerry
 

Nandi

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In doing some internet research for a writing class I'm teaching, I found the following by the writer Lawrence Hill:

1. Come to terms with what you are prepared to write, and what you are NOT prepared to write. Writing a memoir honestly will likely make the people close to you squirm, object, or feel offended for reasons justifiable or otherwise. Defining your territory and deciding its boundaries will be an important part of your work as a memoirist, although you may not have final answers until you have written a draft or two.

2. Juggle this paradox: the things that are most intimate and uncomfortable for you as a memoirist -- the very revelations that make you feel the most vulnerable and exposed -- are likely to be among the most engaging sections for the reader.

3. It may be a memoir, but write it like a novel. Scenes have to lift off the ground, and characters have to step off the page. Many of the elements that make for compelling fiction should also be present in strong memoirs: drama, conflict, uncertainty, bold characterization, vivid scenes, and pertinent and lively description of people and things. Generally speaking, showing a scene unfolding step by step engages your reader more immediately than editorializing or telling the reader things from a narrative distance.

4. Prepare to write adventurously and critically about yourself and to be open to learning something about yourself as you set your life down on paper. Treat yourself as a character -- make yourself interesting on the page. Avoid using the memoir as a soapbox. Placing yourself in a strictly noble light and lambasting your adversaries will alienate you from the reader. Write without judgment. Allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

5. There may be sections of your life that mean much to you, but that bore the reader. Share your work in early draft form with a trusted reader. "Trusted" doesn't necessarily mean "intimate friend." What you truly need is a friend or acquaintance who can step away from your actual life and tell you what sings and what seems uninteresting in your memoir. Receiving such advice from one (or more) people may help guide you toward more effective drafts.
________________________
Lawrence Hill is the author of three novels, including the acclaimed The Book of Negroes (2007), winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Canada Reads competition. He was named author of the year at the 2008 Canadian Booksellers Association's Libris Awards. His memoir, published in 2001, is titled Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada.
_______________________

When I was writing my own memoir, I got bogged down with TMI. Eventually I found that thinking and writing in scenes was what helped me move forward. I made a rough outline of the scenes I wanted and needed to include. Then it wasn't so difficult to keep going. Often the scenes were separated by paragraphs of summary, and there were still plenty of opportunities for the reflective narrator to offer her observations.
 

Nandi

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More about scenes

We know that memoirists and writers of creative nonfiction borrow tools from the novelist's toolbox. As I mentioned above, the tool I found most helpful was learning to write in scenes.

Here is an article that might be helpful:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

Although a memoirist would not strictly follow this advice, Dr. Ingermanson offers a formula that is useful to consider when you want to know how to move the action forward.
 

Red Bird

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Another great thread. Thanks, sommemi.

BIC + entertain = happy writer/happy reader. Sounds like a formula for success to me. But, do you all think there is an element of writing to entertain, when writing memoir, that is dishonest. Or, by entertaining, do you simply mean drawing the reader in.

Cheers,
Red Bird
 

Nandi

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Another great thread. Thanks, sommemi.

BIC + entertain = happy writer/happy reader. Sounds like a formula for success to me. But, do you all think there is an element of writing to entertain, when writing memoir, that is dishonest. Or, by entertaining, do you simply mean drawing the reader in.

Cheers,
Red Bird

Hmmm. Entertain has never been a word or a concept that I've held in my mind during the process of writing. I'm either absorbed by the content or working hard on revising and rewriting. Entertaining a reader feels more like something that one hopes will happen when the work is completed, but I guess I've never thought of it as a piece of the process.
 

Chrisla

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One, the two hour a day rule is a lot easier if you pick the same time each day. Your body and mind will actually start to crave the writing time. Of course most people don't feel they have the life-freedom to do this. It requires an almost monastic commitment - that level of involvement is one of the secrets of successful writing. (A good book on this subject is, "War of Art" by Steven Pressfield.)

Jerry

Jerry, there's also the Page-A-Day thread. I can't remember what forum. Maybe novel writing? It was started by people who can not or will not devote two hours a day. Many of them are having success with this approach. I think the important thing is to spend some time each day writing.

When I was writing my own memoir, I got bogged down with TMI. Eventually I found that thinking and writing in scenes was what helped me move forward. I made a rough outline of the scenes I wanted and needed to include. Then it wasn't so difficult to keep going. Often the scenes were separated by paragraphs of summary, and there were still plenty of opportunities for the reflective narrator to offer her observations.

Nandi, this was a great post. I turned to scene-writing, too, when I realized I had too much narrative, and when I did, most of my "telling, not showing" problems disappeared.

But, do you all think there is an element of writing to entertain, when writing memoir, that is dishonest. Or, by entertaining, do you simply mean drawing the reader in.

Cheers,
Red Bird

Red Bird, I think by "entertain," Uncle Jim is referring to the dictionary's first definition: "to keep the interest of and to give pleasure to; divert, amuse. And if we don't do that, nobody is going to read it, anyway. But I think, too, that there's always the danger, for the memorist, of veering away from truth in the quest to make the story even more interesting, more entertaining. Something else to look for in revisions.
 

Wayne K

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I think of entertain as an entertainment of thought. Keep them interested. Keep them thinking. Whatever you do, don't make the reader put the book down. I don't think Uncle Jim is talking about entertainment in the show biz glitz and glamor way.
 

Susan B

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Very interesting thread!

I too struggled with the idea of writing an "entertaining" book and turning myself into a character. And I had to be pushed to create scenes.

My writing mentor used to add that as a comment pretty often. I'd be sailing along, in some perfectly reasonable stretch of narration (also perfectly dull, I now see!) and she'd write/say something like:

Slow this down
You need to open this moment
We could use some scene here

I eventually got the hang of it, but for a long time it felt--fake, somehow. Partly because creating scene inevitably pushes you to enhance/embellish details. We don't walk around with tape recorders/cameras to act as reporters of our own lives. And sometimes you end up creating a representative scene that condenses the experience of many such scenes with the particular person, situation, etc. That was hard for me to accept at first, hard to give myself that much license.

(Maybe that's why I'm now getting such a kick out of writing fiction. So liberating--no reality to act as a constraint!)
 

Red Bird

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Susan B,

It's so nice to have your input here.

Although I love what my wip, I cannot wait to explore fiction writing. I have had a story brewing for nearly two years, and though I've done an outline, I'm trying to stay with this memoir throughout the revision process.

I've had some fears about being pegged as a memoir writer. My story isn't a story about drugs, rape, or mental illness exclusively, but those are all aspects of the book. My goal, from the start, was to create an artfully told, but true to life account of what I believe to be true about humanity as a whole. It's my theory that everyone has a story and has to find a way to overcome it and move into a more meaningful way of living. It's my hope that it's seen as something more than what happened to me.

Do you have any recommendations for the memoir writer who wants to transition into fiction writing? What were your biggest challenges? Was it hard to get over the idea of truth telling? Did you still pull from life experiences in your fiction? I'm looking forward to overcoming the need to put everything in chronological order!

So many questions!

Cheers,
Red Bird
 

Newport2Newport

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I just want to post the first reply by defining BIC.

Butt/Bum In Chair

The hardest part of writing something is simply the sitting down and writing part of it. The words will never get from your head to the paper unless you dedicate the hours to doing that. This involves committing to the writing... whether it means scheduling time every day at the exact same time, or logging hours, or dedicating your lunch hour every day, or whatever. But it means your butt is in the chair, and you are writing. It doesn't have to be good writing, but it has to be writing, because it's always easier to go back and edit something that you wrote than it is to get the words there in the first place. The one thing that most authors struggle the most with is simply sitting down and doing the actual writing of the words on the paper/screen.

Please correct me if I'm misinterpreting, or if I'm shortcutting a point too much. But this is the general idea I've gotten from BIC. Comments??? Discussion?

Yes, yes, yes!

I once read a book that taught me about BIC in a way that really made sense: Ron Carlson Writes a Story. From Amazon's product description: “This is a story of a story” [Ron Carlson] begins, and proceeds to offer practical advice for creating a great story, from the first glimmer of an idea to the final sentence. Carlson urges the writer to refuse the outside distractions—a second cup of coffee, a troll through the dictionary—and attend to the necessity of uncertainty, the pleasures of an unfolding story.

BIC is all about staying in the room with the story, and all that implies.
 

Wayne K

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I have the flu so none of you people make any sense to me.:D

Ugh.

I can't wait to get back to this thread, apologise for the derail and now return you to your thread in progress.
 

Chrisla

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I eventually got the hang of it, but for a long time it felt--fake, somehow. Partly because creating scene inevitably pushes you to enhance/embellish details. We don't walk around with tape recorders/cameras to act as reporters of our own lives. And sometimes you end up creating a representative scene that condenses the experience of many such scenes with the particular person, situation, etc. That was hard for me to accept at first, hard to give myself that much license.

QUOTE]

I suppose that's why we have the term "creative memoir" or "creative non-fiction." But the kind of scenes you describe can go far in developing characters. We don't really know them until we hear them speak. And it's in the speaking that we can show not only their thought processes, their speech patterns, their education level, and perhaps the region they come from, but also their mannerisms while they're speaking.
 

Chrisla

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I have the flu so none of you people make any sense to me.:D

Ugh.

I can't wait to get back to this thread, apologise for the derail and now return you to your thread in progress.

I'm so sorry, Wayne! Get well soon.
 

Wayne K

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I'm writing a prologue that describes in great detail how when I write "He scrunched up his face, and said , Blah blah blah..." not to take it literally. No! the gravel may not have made me lose my footing, I don't remember. But that it's the way I remember it. None of it is made up. It's just that to ask for verbatim after the drugs and long years past is unreasonable to expect. I like being literary, so I need to have leeway with unimportant details.

Then again I've been on Nyquil for two days :D
 
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