Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Season as Memoir

Last week, we spoke about ways of structuring longer stories, and we considered parallel story lines, in particular the story of a physical journey that is mirrored by a mental or emotional one as well.

This week, I'd like to consider another structuring: story as description/story as scrapbook. 

For the sake of using an image that those of us in Western Pennsylvania can by and large relate to, consider your story as a Christmas/Holiday tree (or any other thing that is dear to you--a collection, a room decorated in your style, your wardrobe, etc.).  On that tree are numerous ornaments.  Each reflects you to a certain degree.  Each has a story of how it came to be yours, why you have kept, and how it ended up where it has on your tree.  Each individual story tells us something about you.  Moving through these stories should not only give us an overall view of the tree--a photograph as it were--but it ought to give us a new perspective as well--more like a movie taking us from seeing the tree from the outside at the bottom to seeing the room from the tree on top of the star.  Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples follows this structure as does Nikki Grimes's Bronx Masquerade.

For this coming week, consider a collection of sorts--your ornaments on your tree, a scrapbook of photos that you keep, the contents of your fridge.  Choose one of two assignments:
  • Write a story about a single element in the collection and include some kind of transitional moves that show us how it would fit in the overall progression of elements; or
  • Write a short list as a poem, prologue, or annotated table of contents that will outline the descriptive storyline.  

Friday, November 30, 2012


This week, we've been talking about story structures.  One structure that is integral to Western culture is the story of a journey.  Most often, these journeys not only involve a change in location but also a change in heart (often as the result of some sort of quest or mission). 

Since the holiday season is filled with travel, this week's challenge is to write about a journey, anything from a round-the-world adventure (as I know some of you have had!) to a quick trip to the grocery store. 

The goal is to use the literal journey as a metaphor for a figurative one.
  • A trip to the other side of the planet and back may teach you who you really are (a journey to find one's self).
  • A run to the grocery store may not only be about finding nourishment for your family's body but for its soul as well (comfort food, anyone?).
  • A visit to Grandma's over the holiday may remind you of your own days at your grandmother's house (a trip down memory lane).
Can't wait to read what you have to say!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Enjoy, Enjoy, ENJOY!

This week, it is my pleasure to say, "HAVE A HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!"

We will not have class next week, but there will be a post here because...

It's Share a Pair of Stories time!

Beginning next week and continuing until I am out of stories, I will run the collected community stories at  Yay!  I hope you will tune in!

For our next class (Friday, November 30, 2012), we will work at undermining some of our cliches with new expressions, and I encourage you to use the sensory surroundings of the holiday season to come up with fresh similes and metaphors:
  • as happy as... (the cat in the turkey carcass)
  • as sad as... (the broken wishbone)
You get the picture.

I'll see you all again soon!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Playing Around: Those Rhymes!

The other week in class, we worked on ways to get unstuck in our writing.  Years ago I had a social studies assignment that completely unstuck my grandparents' memories.  We were asked to call the oldest coherent generation that we could and ask them about a jingle that they remembered from an old advertisement.

Now, we don't have to remember a jingle per se, but remembering the songs and rhymes of your childhood can unlock floods of memories.

Begin by dredging up a rhyme from your past:
  • How did you select "it?" Did you use "Eenie-meenie-mynie-moe" or "Ocka-bocka-soda-crocka?"
  • What did you say when you skipped rope?  "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear?"  "Cinderella, Dressed in Yella?"
  • How did you tease one another?  "I see London.  I see France?"  "Johnny and Mary sitting in a tree?"
Sometimes the song is enough to pull you into a moment right there, but if it isn't, dig further.
  • Who generally said the rhyme with you?
  • When did you use it?
  • Why did you resort to it?
 Once you are in the moment, be sure to bring us with you:
  • How does it sound and smell?
  • What are your feelings and how were they expressed in your body?
  • What were your interactions with your playmates?  How did their responses reveal their personalities?
After you are in the moment and are bringing us along, don't forget to continue to play.  Allow your sentences to mimic the jingle if you want.  Allow your rhythm to mimic your breathing.  Are you panting?  Use short staccato sentences.  Are you racing?  Give us a long, long sentence that leaves us rushing and gasping at the end.

I look forward to your responses!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Playing Around: Why? Why? Why? Why?

Do you remember those days when you were a child (or you had a child or were near a child) who was about four-years-old?

"Let's go to the store," you might say.


"Because we need food."


"Because people need to eat."


"Because if we don't we'll die."


You get the picture.  Sometimes the child just asks to be annoying, but many times they ask because the world is so new that they truly don't (or just partially don't) really understand.

After you write your story, ask yourself some of these questions.  Pretend that you are being interviewed by a four-year-old.  You may run into some answers that are less than obvious or some details that are obvious to you but not to others.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Share a Pair of Stories: Write Offs!

This Friday, we will devote our normal class time to a Share a Pair of Stories write off!  Come one, come all, invite a neighbor, bring a friend, or just show up by yourself!  This week's time will be devoted to capturing a special day on paper.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Playing Around: Freeze!

Yet another way to pull out your stories is to do so using the same strategies you did when you played games as a child.  Here are just a couple of ideas on how to do that:
  • Freeze tag/Musical statues:Remember how you'd get stuck in awkward positions?  They were awkward because you were stuck in them without moving, but actually, they were the positions that you typically used getting from one place to another.  Think about freeze-framing a moment of your life.  It could be that moment on the playground or one from your adulthood.  There's always an awkwardness to the moment because you have been caught in transit.  Use that awkwardness to your advantage.  Where had you been?  Where were you trying to go?  What were the awkward strains of the moment and how were they finally alleviated?
  • Musical chairs:Many times in life, we find ourselves forced out of our comfort zone into a new realm, much like that moment you try to lower your bum only to discover that you're out of chairs.  Give an example of growing up/moving on that you perhaps faced with resistance, one you were pushed into.  Tell us why you were hesitant to move on--what was the lure of the group and the music that kept you so keen to stay on the chairs?  And in the end, was the new stage an improvement?
  • Hide-and-seek/hot-and-cold:Who hasn't played hide-and-seek or hot-and-cold?  The house suddenly transforms when you begin looking for hiding places, be they for your body or the prized item you will direct others to find.  Think about your life in the same way.  Usually we think of hiding as something dark and negative, but often it is not.  It is something merely off the beaten path, a small compartmentalized piece of your life that may, in fact, be beautiful.  Is there someone, like the mailman or a store clerk, that you joke with every day that isn't a part of your life outside that moment?  Is there a flower garden that you walk past every day that just lightens your heart?  These are the "hidden" moments in your life that speak volumes about your character and the joy you find.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Playing Around: How Do You...?

Let's face it, there's a way to play.  Whether it's the rules of the game, the strategies to win, or simply the way you manipulated your parents, siblings, or children to get what you want, how you do something is vitally important to its success--and to how much fun you have doing it!

For this version of playing around, think about one of the following items and write about it:
  • What was your favorite game as a child?  Why?  What were the rules?  Did anyone cheat?  What was your strategy?  Try to narrate a piece of it for us?
  • Did you have a way of getting what you wanted from your parents?  How did you do it?  If you have children, do they try the same things on you?  Does it work?
  • Is there a certain way that you must do something that everyone else thinks is quirky?  What is it?  How do other people do it and how do you do it?  Why do you insist on your version?
  • Is there a regional way to do something that you follow--a funny dialect, driving style, or eating habit?  Tell us how you do it and why?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Playing Around: Blindness or a Deft Touch?

Okay, so we've dealt with senses for the last couple of weeks, and this week is no different.  Yet it can be incredibly fun.  Again, touch is one of the senses we rely on most early in our lives, and as many new mothers know, the softness of a baby is accompanied by pains in places you didn't even know you had.  A reliance on touch--or at least an exploration of it--can be very helpful to your writing and rather amusing as well.  Consider the following:
  • Looking for something.  We've all gone walking in the dark or shoved our arms deep into a bag or drawer we couldn't see well.  There's always a surprise--and it seems a Lego--awaiting us!  Whether you discuss a literal search in which you must use your sense of touch or a figurative one in which you are "feeling out" future options, the use of this sense in both your writing and your pondering can reveal unexpected sides to even the most common issues.
  • Exploring something.  Whether we're holding an as-of-yet unwrapped gift, your new baby, or a lover, we rely on our sense of touch not only for revelation but also for enjoyment.  Part of our appreciation for something is revealed in how we stroke and finger it.  Take the time to put it in words and allow your reader to appreciate as you do.
  • Wearing something.  Whether it's that pair of jeans that makes you feel incredible or the awesome shoes that give you blisters, the feeling of your clothing not only changes your feelings about yourself but your interpretation of how your clothes feel changes as your circumstances do (haven't you ever felt your collar tighten in a nerve-wracking situation?).  The feelings of our clothing on our bodies--and reports of that feeling--can really heighten the drama of a story when added well.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Playing Around: Soooo Good!

You've all seen a dog tracking something, and we've all licked our lips a time or two in greedy anticipation of some scrumptious morsel.  This week, I'd like you to consider anticipation as expressed by smell and possibly taste.  You don't necessarily have to talk about food.  You can use the smell and taste as metaphor (e.g., "There was something rotten about this," or "Something definitely smelled fishy").

Here are some other ideas:
  • Track something.  Use smell to lead you somewhere.
  • Remember something.  They say smell is the basis of our first memories, and the smell of my loved ones on pillows and jackets is something I absolutely use to console myself when they are gone.  Where do familiar smells take you?  What does the juxtaposition of, say, the smell of your grandfather's pipe in a new city cause you to think or feel?
  • Look forward to (or dread) something.  Whether it's the pre-Thanksgiving aromas emanating from the oven or the scent of lilies wafting in from the funeral parlor, those fragrances foreshadow things to come.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Playing Around: To Hear or Not to Hear

The object of this lesson is to play around with the sound in one of your pieces.  Several ideas jump out at me immediately:
  • Turn the sound off.  Look at a picture or imagine a scene in your mind.  Write it all with no dialogue--no allusion to the spoken word or other noises--whatsoever.  Write it like a silent movie without the captions.
  • Turn the dialogue off.  Use the ambient sound to tell a story.  Is it an argument?  Are dogs barking, children screaming, feet stomping, pans clanking?  Is someone falling to sleep?  Do we hear a lullaby, gentle rustling, even breathing?  What can the other sounds tell us?
  • Use only the dialogue.  Write an entire piece with dialogue only.  Allude to action, but don't tell us exactly what is happening.  Let us guess (kind of what a mother does every time she closes the bathroom door).
  • Use a song.  Write a piece to the general theme of a piece of music.  You could rewrite the lyrics to a well known song or simply write actions or a story line that would fit into the theme of "Jaws" of "Into the Hall of the Mountain King" from the Peer Gynt Suite.  It doesn't matter, but let the sound propel your telling and not the other way around.
  • Use a sound device.  Allow yourself to play with a literary convention.  Maybe you'd like to make a stab at a poem, tell a story in sonnet (or limerick!) form.  Maybe you don't want to be that formal, but you do want to work on employing a rhythm to your sentences.  Maybe you'd just like a little alliteration (beginning words with the same consonant sound) or consonance (just using a lot of the same consonant sound but not necessarily at the beginning--"tatters of litter in bitter cold streets" has lots of ts but not necessarily at the beginnings of the words).
You can apply these techniques to any topic, one that you've been planning to write or one that has just popped into your head.

But have fun with it!  Play with the words and let them delight you.  Your joy will likely tickle us as well.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Before Friday, September 28 and into the future: Playing around

"Some people talk about play as if it were a relief from serious learning or even worse: a waste of time. But for children, play is exceedingly serious…and important! In fact, play is a way for children to learn who they are, how the world works, solve problems, and to express feelings. Yes, play is the real work of childhood..."  Fred Rogers, Children's Museums and the Role of Play

I don't think children are the only ones who need play, and a recent discussion with yet another who seemed to be losing motivation got me back to thinking about joy...and play.  In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection (available from the Carnegie Library here and Amazon here), shame researcher BrenĂ© Brown devotes an entire chapter to the importance of play in a whole-hearted life. And if our stories need to be anything, they need to be whole-hearted.

But, you might say, this is supposed to be a class, and classes are about work and writing is work!

Yes, writing is work.  But we lose something, miss something important, if we don't play a little.

Over the next several weeks, these posts will be about playing with our pieces.  Each week, I will introduce an aspect of our writing that we can play with as well as some concrete ideas for how to do it.  I would urge you to pick one and try to apply it to a story or write a new story, even if it may seem a little goofy.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Week of September 23, 2012: A Day to Remember, a Day to Forget

In life writing and all writing, we often are thinking about where we're going, the climax, the big stuff.  But you can't get to the big stuff--or at least get a big reaction out of the big stuff--if you haven't paid attention to the little stuff that got you there.

For example, before there was your wedding day (if you've gotten married), there was the day of the proposal.  Before that, there was the day you "knew" that you had found the right one.  Still before that came the day you met the man you married.  And even before that came the day you learned what love looked like.  And that day, which may not stand out immediately in your memory at first, is a very important day.

This week's assignment is to write about the day that brings about something else.  Pick one of the major life experiences you've already written about and work backward to uncover the moment that you made the mental connection between an amorphous idea and what it would look like in real life that caused you to take the path leading to your life experience.  As you explore that day, think especially about the following:
  • What were you doing before you had your mental "awakening"?
  • What did you see, smell, feel as you witnessed what changed your mind?
  • What had you thought before (if anything)?
  • How did this specific event influence your later experience?
 You might ask why such an exercise is important, which is a good question.  Quite simply, the different reasons that bring us to the major life experiences that we share with so many others are the very thing that sets our experiences apart from others and makes us unique.  Millions of us have gotten married, yet no one else's wedding, no one else's marriage is exactly like our own.  A story of my wedding may not be much more than a litany of traditions followed by countless others in my family and culture.  The story of how I chose whom I chose or why I decided to consider marriage--those stories--will reveal to my family and others much more of my personality than the simple wedding story can do on its own.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Week of September 16, 2012: How Erikson Can Help

Great news!  Our community initiative Share a Pair of Stories for National Life Writing Month was approved by the library!

You can look at the guidelines at  You are not obligated to participate in this initiative in any way--it is something we are holding outside of our class to encourage others in the community to write and share their stories (although, after hearing about some of your experiences, I would love to hear about your families' thoughts as well!).  And, as you all know, when we write and listen to others' stories, we become more connected and more appreciative as well.  This connection and appreciation is our goal for the community.

But what about us and our writing?

You may have heard of the psychologist Eric Erikson whose work in the psycho-social stages of life profoundly influenced ideas of change in the human mind and behavior.  These same stages can actually give us access to some great ways of interpreting our memories.
Consider his stages:
  • trust vs. mistrust (nursing) - guide for writing:  betrayal, loyalty, danger, safety
  • autonomy vs. shame and doubt (toddler years/toilet training) guide for writing: control, loss of control, pride, shame
  • initiative vs. guilt (preschool/exploration) guide for writing: the quest, disappointment, failure, success
  • industry vs. inferiority (early school age)  guide for writing:  failure, success, the power of one's actions
  • identity vs. role confusion (peer relationships)  guide for writing: strategy, manipulation, coming of age
  • intimacy vs. isolation (intimate relationships)  guide for writing: romance, understanding intimately
  • generativity vs. stagnation (community relationships) guide for writing:  where you were then, where you were now, a new appreciation for where others were then
  • ego integrity vs. despair (reflection on life)  guide for writing: reflection, still living, holes, etc.
  • despair vs. ego integrity (dying)  guide for writing: reflection (looking forward/looking back, echoes, etc.)
Even though you don't necessarily need to write about a day to remember with a partner, you might want to take this initiative as an opportunity to write about a day to remember on your memoir story list or to revise a story or your memorable day in the past.  As you do so, you might want to think about the stages above and re-evaluate what you have written.  What stage were you in at the time the occurrence took place?  What were you trying to do or what need were you trying to fulfill?  How does this reflection impact the step you are on now and the need your psyche is trying to meet?

Hopefully, an example of this will follow in the days to come!

Friday, September 7, 2012

What Has Life Writing Meant to You?

The Allegheny County Library Association is collecting statements on what life writing has meant to you.

You can post your thoughts at

Week of September 12, 2012: Then and Now - What Would Piaget Say?

Last week, we tried interpreting our memories and relating our perceptions using a visual metaphor: reflective surfaces.

This week, I would like to use a different type of reflective approach--a psychological looking back.  Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who did a great deal of work with cognitive development in children.  Piaget's stages themselves, however, can be used to make your writing more interesting, especially if you work them backward.

So, here are Piaget's stages of cognitive development:
  • The sensorimotor stage, seen in children under 2:  The world is perceived through the senses, and the child aims to control his body and eventually to control his environment (and meet his needs) through the control of the body)
  • The preoperational stage, generally seen in children from 2 to 7:  Children begin to understand the world as separate from them, even though they can't quite imagine seeing it from any perspective but their own.  They acquire language in this stage and begin to use it skillfully and also begin to understand that quantities and qualities may remain the same even in different environments.
  • The concrete operational stage, generally seen in children from 7 to early puberty: Children begin to use logic, but they do better applying it in SPECIFIC circumstances, especially ones that they can visualize.  They also can begin to extrapolate a bit (if an apple is a fruit and fruits grow on plants, then apples must grow on plants).
  • The formal operational stage, generally seen in puberty and beyond, although some experts doubt that all people reach this stage:  People in this stage are now able to think in abstract ways, and using general ideas, can use logic to solve problems.
To be honest, I think that we still use cognitive skills from all of these stages, but we tend only to report the last one.

For example:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey spurned her, she knew she must be in love.

Now this is all abstraction.  What if we made it just a little more concrete?

Revision to include concrete operational descriptors:
When Minnie's heart broke after Mickey refused to answer her, refused even to acknowledge that she had spoken, Minnie knew that what she felt must be love.

Okay.  So now we know what Mickey does, but how about seeing the interaction of the objects of the world from Minnie's point of view.

Revision to include preoperational descriptors:
 "Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"
"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey turned to Donald, sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie's heart was breaking.  Mickey had clearly torn it in two.  She must really love him if he could hurt her this much.

Now we get more of the scene.  It no longer sounds like an adult recalling an adult memory in abstraction.  We have the details and some of the twisted logic that make this a middle school memory.  Even if the memory hadn't been from middle school, the additional details in the environment would have revealed far more about the type of story you want to tell.  But how do we really feel that we are there?  Through our senses, of course!

Revision to include the senses and the actions of the body:

Minnie could hear the splintering from her own hard classroom chair.

"Drat!" Mickey muttered.  "I broke my last pencil!"

"I have an extra, Mickey," Minnie volunteered, quickly digging in her purse and producing a sparkly pencil which she held out a few inches from his nose.  "Would you like to borrow mine?"

Mickey didn't blink, didn't breathe, didn't twitch.  He just turned, Minnie's bubblegum-scented pencil actually brushing his nose on his way to face Donald, who was sitting on his other side.  "Donald, do you have another pencil I could borrow?"

Minnie gagged on her own hopes.  Her heart pounded ragged beats.  Clearly Mickey had rent it in two.  It could only be love.  Only love could twist your guts.  Only love could make the sweet fragrance of bubblegum not quite covering the lead and sawdust scent of pure pencil become so nauseating.  Only love.  Only love.

Do you see now how the stages can really be used to put us in a place, can make a moment come much more alive?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Week of September 6, 2012: Then and Now - Looking through the Distortion of Reflection

Welcome back!  I am so looking forward to all of you and hearing all of your great stories!

So let's get right to the meat of the matter:  perception and reflection.

We've all heard the expression, "Things will look better in the morning," which points out that our perspective changes our attitude about any given situation.  That change in perspective is, by and large, one of the main attractions of memoir.  But how do we express that in our writing.

Well, there are actually any number of ways of doing it, and we'll spend the next few weeks doing just that.  But to get going, I'd like to look at a visual strategy to pursuing your own reflections of your experiences.

Getting started:
  • Think of a memory from this summer, a past summer, or an experience that you have repeated across summers.
  • Notice the reflective surfaces around you.  How would you perceive your surroundings from just what you can see in one of those reflections?
  • Now reflect upon your memory.  Consider that you are like the object with reflecting surfaces that you have just been observing.  Try to apply the thoughts you had about interpreting surroundings now to your own "reflective" surfaces.  
    • How has your perception of the event changed since the day that it happened?  
    • How have you changed since then, and what has that change meant to your perception?
    • Thinking of the distortions you have seen around you, is there anyway to flatten out your distortions or point out the fact that your view is distorted without correcting it?
I can't wait to hear your memories!

Monday, July 16, 2012


Hi, all!

Just wanted to write quickly and let you know that our last class for the summer will be NEXT Friday, July 27, 2012.  I repeat, since I have summer brain, that there is NO CLASS this Friday, July 20, and the LAST CLASS will be Friday, July 27.

For that class, the assignment is to apply any of the genres we have discussed thus far (mystery, romance, and action/adventure).  It can be a story on your list to write or it can be a revision of a story that you have written that just doesn't have the oomph you want it to.

I will do my best to throw in a post in here to talk about revising for a combination of these genres, but I'm guaranteeing nothing.  Summer is much more work than I remembered it.

Hope you all are having a terrific time.  I hope to see you Friday, July 27, but if not then, I hope to see you after Labor Day!

Friday, July 6, 2012


Why do we love mystery?  Personally, I think it's because mystery invites our active participation in the story.  Obviously, the protagonist doesn't have the answer and we need to "help" look for it.

How does this translate to life writing?

While there are true-crime memoirs, they certainly aren't the bulk of the genre, yet mystery has a lot to offer us as well. From a life writing perspective, I can think of at least three ways that mystery translates into common stories:
  • The lessons of life--where babies come from, "like liking" someone, understanding what your parents meant by becoming a parent--which tend to be humorous, but not always
  • Coping with/Discovering a hard truth--how far money goes, dealing with a problem that is really unsolvable--these tend to be more serious and cognitive, and they are often poignant as well.
  • Coming to terms with people who are not what they seem--being dumped, divorced, cheated, betrayed--these tend to be traumatic.
A few threads link mysteries, and I hope to look at them in more detail later, but for the moment, here they are:
  • Mysteries are a search for cause and often blame.
  • Mysteries often assume that there is a right answer and that there is justice.
  • Many mysteries, though certainly not all, appeal mainly to our logic and the emotions that they evoke tend to be ones that make our hearts race, not break.
  • While eventually leading to answers and therefore "sight," much of a mystery is about inscrutability.  We never know everything fully--sometimes it is what the protagonist is thinking (take Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie), sometimes it is what the antagonist is thinking (take Crime and Punishment), and sometimes it is a realistic or complete view of the environment (Edgar Allan Poe's work), or something else.
  • Mysteries are about exploration.  If we view a novel as a maze, we never expect to go directly to the center of a mystery.  Truth be told, no novel's protagonist should ever go straight where he/she anticipates going, but in a mystery, we readers expect that we won't get it right from the get go whereas we are more "surprised" when things bomb in other types of stories.
So hopefully this has you thinking, and I will try to give you a practical outline very soon.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


So this week we're learning to get more out of our moments.  Four steps will help you pull out the feeling of "being there" or "seeing it from a different perspective."  Simply, those steps are:
  1. Write down what is actually happening. 
  2. Describe the physical effect of that action on the character/surrounding (i.e., "Show.  Don't tell.").
  3. Describe the emotional effect of that action on the character.  In addition to emotion, this can also encompass the intelligences the character as we discussed earlier.
  4. Refer concretely to other stories in the past that make that incident more significant.
As we have discussed before each of these steps has smaller steps to help you achieve your goal.

I am going to give you an example of how to do this, and I am using the process I followed to write the piece, "Cotton Candy."

Before you can write down what is actually happening moment-by-moment, you need to know what story you're telling so that you have chosen to reveal the best moments possible.  So when you actually begin writing, the first step is to tell, not show:
  • Because I wanted my own bag of cotton candy every year that I went to Kennywood, I bought a bag for each of my sons and nephew when I took them to Kennywood this year.
Then I decide how I'm going to tell this story.  More specifically, which story arc do I want to use?
  • I decide I am going to write this story of longing as a romance.  In other words, I am going to use the primary plot points (1. Boy meets girl. 2. Boy and girl let their characters shine. 3. Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship. 4. Ever after.) to evoke a desirable response from the audience.  In this case, the desirable response is that the audience should share the longing I felt and therefore understand my impulse purchase of three bags of cotton candy.
Now that I have an idea where I'm going, I can actually prepare to add the showing, I need to pull out my plot points.  You don't actually need to do all of this on paper--most of it we actually do in our head.  But for the sake of helping you see it all done, I am putting it down:
  • Boy meets girl: when I encounter the cotton candy.
  • Boy and girl let their characters shine: description of cotton candy through my eyes shows both the character of the cotton candy as well as my own.
  • Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship: I get cotton candy in spite of the resistance of my parents--and I also give it to my family in spite of my mother.
  • Ever after: Mom was right.  We had too much cotton candy.
Now that I have outlined the points, now I move to step 2 and start to show the details.  I begin with the actions--walking past the cart on the way out.  Note that when you describe the actions, you also describe the relevant details of setting.  I spend a great deal of time on the cart.  I don't tell you about the rides I pass, the condition of the sidewalk, or the other people around; those details are unimportant.  Remember that we want to focus on the areas noted in the plot point:
  • encountering the cotton candy and its description 

    The glistening red cotton candy caboose stands immediately before the exit tunnel of Kennywood Park.  With the sunlight of the dying day painting the clean shiny windows of the caboose brilliant shades of orange and gold, the wind tosses the sugary scent from the mouth of the cotton candy drum, out the open front and onto the breezes where its slightly cloying candy fragrance assaults most adult nostrils and nauseates many grown up stomachs.  But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park.
  • overcoming the resistance of my parents
    • referencing the problem:

      No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.
    • Showing the problem:

      Instead, I propelled my parents toward the exit and that beautiful caboose.... It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car....“One.”  That was my mother’s final word.  Just one bag of cotton candy, rationed very carefully to three small children once they were safely in the backseat of the car.... Every year, my mother carefully handed two puffs of the fluffy stuff to us over the back of the seat.  Two meager mouthfuls apiece... “Later,” she would say.  “You can have some more tomorrow.”  ... The morning after Kennywood, the crystalized strips cotton candy would be on the floor, stuck to the linoleum in front of the counter.
    • Overcoming the problem:

      With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags—one each for my two sons and their cousin who went to the car with Daddy.  They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.
  • Mom was right

    In spite of my spite, though, I discovered Mom was right.  Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to).
Notice that I do occasionally tell ("I discovered Mom was right"), but I also back it up here with show ("Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to").  You notice then that my actions are fairly limited (check out the underlining in the passage above where I have highlighted my actions).  Such may be the case in many of your childhood memories with your parents as well.  We are obeying, which often leaves little to say that we did.

But this is where you come into the feelings--and also why I chose "romance" and not "adventure" for my story-arc here.  The emphasis here is on feelings and longing, not action. When I say that we want to know how you felt, I don't mean "I wanted cotton candy so badly I thought I would die."  I mean is"But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park."  This selection isn't explicitly how I felt, but it does refer to the pull of the candy on children of which I am one.

Here are some explicit examples of adding feelings (or feeling-like additions) to the same story-arc:

  • encountering the cotton candy and its description 

    Fascination:  I can clearly remember how the aching in my feet evaporated once that smell hit my nostrils on those summer nights as my parents literally dragged us from the park. 

    Longing/Magnetism:  Somewhere around the Jackrabbit, I would catch the scent and no more pulling was necessary.

    Desire: Even now, my mouth waters at just the thought of that ubiquitous aroma, like a fog of fluff blanketing the area.

    Desire:  His eyes filled with longing. The sweetness was so stuck in his throat he couldn’t even make words.

    Excitement: revived by the prospect of sugar. 
  • overcoming the resistance of my parents (Note:  The story actually shows this section three times--initially we overcome Dad's resistance, then Mom's, then my kids overcome mine.  Your story will likely have more than one obstacle as well.)
    • referencing the problem:

      Parent doesn't care:  Mom was immune to whining,

      Other parent is hostile:  and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
    • Showing the problem:

      Longing/Begging:  “Please!  Please!” I cried. (This is the show.)

      Frustration:  I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, (This is a tell, and I will get to this later.)

      More frustration: Every time I heard that word, my watery mouth went dry and my heart, which had been in my throat with anticipation, plunged into my stomach where it attempted to fill the area that would never get enough cotton candy.
    • Overcoming the problem:

      Sympathy: No one ever refused my sister. (tell) Without ado, my sister turned her big brown eyes on my father.  (show) Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either. (show and tell--we can see the mother and sister but I don't actually describe my father's response much.)

      Sorrow/Mourning (not overcoming my problem): Two meager mouthfuls apiece.

      Triumph:  there was a gleam of satisfaction in Suzy’s eyes.  She was not sorry.

      Spite:  With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags

      Satisfaction:  They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.
  • Mom was right

    Resignation/Frustration: In spite of my spite
Notice that I actually have used very few "feeling" words, but you note the feeling from reactions, implications, and actions which are further supplemented by description (for example, the "revived by the prospect of sugar" modifies "'Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!' shrieked the little one".  Therefore the concrete which could be taken a variety of ways is given an emotional meaning with the tag "revived by the prospect of sugar." 
 Aside:  Some writers would argue this point and would leave off the tag.  I would tender that those writers (1) don't write romance (the ones that I know who actually endorse leaving off emotion write literary fiction); and (2) they trust their reader (although they don't spend too much time with the average reader).  I, who have spent a good deal of time tutoring, working cross cultures, listening to a variety of close readings, and hanging out with readers of all kinds of stuff (not just high literary works), submit that many readers don't get the writer's point.  And I don't mean that in a bad way.  In fact, the ones who miss the point with the most atrociousness are sometimes academics (not all, just some) who are so invested in their interpretation, not only miss the point but try to invalidate everyone else's interpretation.  Other interpretations, though, can be enormously helpful.  As a writer, I love that literary works have the ability to survive their times and affect those of other languages, countries, and periods.  Other interpretations are no less valid or useful to life.
Based on the aside, though, I suggest that if you have a point that you don't want your reader to miss, state it a little forcefully or provide enough hints that it's much harder to miss.  If it's not important, let it go and don't overstate.

Now, I want to take a quick look at the second part of step 3.  Not all of our reactions are emotional.  Sometimes we are dealing with other ways that we process our world, and that also reveals our inner character.  These will become especially important when we come to talking about mystery, so I want to really point them out here:
  • Whoever designed the park must have had children in mind.  It was absolutely unavoidable.  No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.
    • Personal intelligence:  understanding the thoughts of children
    • Kinesthetic/Spatial-Visual: understanding how people had to move through the park
  • Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding motivation
  • I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, but I could alert my sister to begin begging.  No one ever refused my sister. ... Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding my own lack of communication and my sister's expertise. Understanding my father's motivation.
    • Logical-mathematical: developing a plan to get what I (we) want using my sister's abilities
  • I think she hoped we would fall asleep in the car if she limited our sugar.  You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope (and maybe even convinced her that she could avoid whining with more cotton candy), but she never gave up.   
    • Logical-mathematical: my logic about why Mom should give up.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding Mom will never give up.
  • Without fail, our dogs would get it.  Suzy, our small standard black poodle would greet my mother at the door and follow her every move until she put down that cotton candy.  My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape. 
    • Logical-mathematical: Suzy's trailing of what she wants
    • Kinesthetic: Suzy's ability to escape
  • Again, you would think Mom would give up.  But she didn’t.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding Mom never gives up
    • Logical-mathematical: "You would think..." Appeals to the logic of the reader.
Some of these could be expanded if you wanted, but I don't think it is necessary.  Moreover, I do think that having the background is helpful, and I think that its inclusion is one aspect that separates written work from movies.  This is not a movie, and your appeal to thought-processing adds an additional layer of humanity.

Finally, step 4 is telling, but an important kind of telling.  You are going to support your story with back story that helps reveal information regarding character and situation that would take far more time to show than tell--time that would detract from your point (and this time constraint is key.  If you can show without detracting, then show.  But if your impact is lacking and you need more, then look for ways to tell "telling" details or stories to bolster your point).  This kind of telling can actually be a kind of showing if you do it right. 

Usually, two types of telling are in play here:
  1. Allusion to stories and events in the cultural memory
  2. Brief synopses of stories in the characters' pasts
Each has advantages and disadvantages. 

  1. Advantages
    1. You can very quickly evoke emotions and morals associated with complex stories.
    2. You can place your story in a genre, align a character with a protagonist or antagonist, or hint at an outcome in just a few seconds.
  2. Disadvantages
    1. When you are referring to the emotions surrounding an event in the cultural memory, you need to remember that there is a "lifetime" to those feelings.  V-J day has a completely different connotation in the US now (fear--of the power unleashed by the atomic bomb, guilt--at the wide-scale murder of innocents, faux-triumph--at the upcoming problems with Russia, the rebuilding of Europe, the establishment of Israel, and the problem of releasing all the colonies of Europe around the world as independent nations and incoprorating them in international organizations) than it did at the time it happened (joy, relief, triumph, hope).
    2. The allusion is only as inclusive as the cultural group that shares it.  Common limiters are ethnicity, class, gender, and age.
Examples of allusion in the sample:
  • Pied Piper:
    • Advantage:  it immediately calls to mind the helplessness of the children lured by the piper as well as the strength and desirability of that lure
    •  Disadvantage: it limits my audience.  Most likely, my non-European-heritaged friends may not recognize that story as it's not popular enough to learn in school and it was not a story told them by their parents.
  • Visit to Kennywood Park:
    • Advantage:  For those who grew up in Pittsburgh going to the park, the place names will clearly indicate exact distances and the experiences will likely invoke similar experiences of their own.
    • Disadvantage:  It severely limits my audience to those who have visited Kennywood Park, namely those who have had geographic and economic opportunity to visit the park.
 Story Synopses:
  1. Advantages
    1. You quickly give a concrete illustration of a specific character trait.
    2. Like spicing a soup, these back story pieces allow you to introduce wildly different flavors in a very short space.
  2. Disadvantages
    1. It's very hard to maintain a balance between showing and telling and very easy to resort to full telling rather than showing within a short space. 
    2. These bits can be a distraction that can detract from your point if you don't use them well or if they get too long.
Examples of synopsis in this sample:
  •  It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
  • I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents
  • No one ever refused my sister.
  • Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.
  • You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope
  • My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape.
  • as if he had forgotten that I had just given him a piggyback ride from the Log Jammer to the arcade where he was so tired that someone had to wiggle the butt of his motorcycle while he raced it, 
All of these stories share one advantage and a couple of disadvantages.  The advantage is that I was able to very quickly reveal something about the history/character of our family that explained motivation in this story that would otherwise not have been possible.  The disadvantages are that these synopses often disrupt the rhythm of the action, slowing the story, and distract from the main point.  I might be able to eliminate some of them, and that's something that I can revisit when I revise it, if I choose to do so.

One final advantage to adding these synopses though is not one related to the story itself but to your future stories.  Often, these synopses reveal crucial aspects of your history or your family's history that would be worthwhile expanding in a story of their own, which is something to consider as you proceed.

Happy writing!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Romance and Life Writing

When I first began life writing, I didn't really think that there was much romance as a genre could teach me.  I was incredibly wrong.

If you are ever interested in reading a terrific article outlining what romance is as a genre, then please read "The Basics of Romance" by Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.  They do an excellent job of pointing out the story arc and characteristics that differentiate romance from the other fiction out there.  I will be going through their points in a moment to explain how these relate to your memoir in a moment.

Another terrific article which has relevance to our last assignment is "Emotion: Fiction's Connecting Link" by Kathy Jacobson and comes from the same book.  This article bridges that "show vs. tell" gap in a way that helps you know what to show and what to skip.  We'll look at pieces of this advice later.

But back to romance and your memoir...

What's it good for?

Essentially a romance is really a story about how two people come together.  They may be tied in many ways.  It may be a fairytale ending, or it may make Romeo and Juliet look positively optimistic.  But the basic plot of a traditional romance is simple, as explained by Estrada and Gallagher:

  1. Boy meets girl.

    We all know this part of the story.  Estrada and Gallagher make the important point that in a true romance, "there are no other men for here--just as, from that point on, there are no other women for him..." (sorry, I haven't figured out a way to get a page number on the Kindle, but it's 61% of the way through the book).

    The relation to your memoir?  Well, you don't need to be writing a romantic romance, but you need to pick the moment that you recognize that the person you have introduced will be important to your life.  In other words, you don't actually have to begin your romance with the moment you met this person, but with the moment that they became important to you.
  2. Boy and girl let their characters shine.

    Before we can care about them as a couple, we need to care about them individually.  Similarly, as you are writing about the development of the relationship you are writing about, you need to let us get to know the characters individually before we care about who they are together.
  3. Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship.

    This last bit can take a whole variety of courses, but essentially, it boils down to what Estrada and Gallagher call sexual awareness and sexual tension.  In a memoir, however, if you are simply discussing the development of a relationship, this awareness and tension need not be explicitly sexual.  The four rules Estrada and Gallagher pose, however, still hold very well:

    1. From the first meeting, they are aware of one another.
    2. When discussing this relationship, spend time in the relationship.  Show scenes together or scenes in which each person is thinking about, preparing for, or learning about the other.
    3. Every scene should bring about a change in feeling.  Estrada and Gallagher suggest, "Their emotions should strengthen, shake, threaten, and, as the book progresses, solidify the relationship."  Now, you are writing memoir, not fiction, so your scenes need not solidify the relationship, but each scene you choose to show should reveal the why and how your relationship has become what it has.
    4. Estrada and Gallagher post the last of these rules as, "The senses of the hero and heroine are sharpened when they are together."  I don't know that I would go that far, but I would definitely say that there should be a qualitative difference in how you or the other person in the relationship thinks and acts when you are together.  In other words, I wouldn't say that your senses have sharpened but that they are qualitatively different--or perhaps the other person allows a space within which new things become safe or possible for you to try.
  4. Ever after.  Imply a future for your couple.  It does not need to be a happy future, but in order for us to feel resolution, we need to be pointed in some sort of direction.  And for that direction to feel satisfying and true, we need to have some preparation for it.  You need to have hinted you were heading that direction.  Of course, you could have thrown hints in all directions, and that's okay, too.  But we need to clearly know that there was some indication that we were going to head up in the place you suggest we will end up.
Do you have any relationships you can see this working for?  In my life, it definitely corresponds to the development of several friendships and in-law relationships.  In some ways, I can even see it working for understanding and bonding with my children.

So give it a try!  Soon, I will be posting on how Paedar's comment from the last post will work together with the emotional tension we want to achieve in romance.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adding a Little Action to Your Adventure

When you're writing adventure, you almost always have action scenes.  What would be the fun of a quest if your knight never gets to slay his dragon?

But how do you make that dragon-slaying exciting?  I'm assuming that we've all heard our favorite fairy tale retold by a preschooler, and, let me tell you, much of the suspense and excitement is GONE in that version (except for in the mind of the little one).

There are a couple of really great articles on writing action, but so far, "Writing Action Scenes" is the best I've read.

In addition to Mice's (the author's) concerns about description, believability/logistics, and point-of-view, here are a couple of other considerations that I have seen used in excellent action scenes.

And before I get into these, let me admit right off the bat that I am action-deficient.  Something about action scenes generally makes me lose my way and get lost.  So the considerations below are strategies which seem to keep even the most hopeless action followers in the moment.

And they all boil down to this:  To enable the action to move quickly in your action scene, introduce the reader to everything important BEFORE you get to there.  Excellent examples of this strategy are found in J.K. Rowling and in Rick Riordan.

  1. Make sure we know where we are.

    Often, in action scenes, the surroundings--what is hidden and what is not, who is where, what props/weapons are at hand, etc.--are very important.  It may be too much to take in at once.  Many of the best authors either build in a slow scene just prior to the action to allow us to take it all in before it becomes important, or they may gradually show the place throughout the story so that we know what's what when we get there.
  2. Make sure we know everything important about what we're fighting with.

    If that gun only has six bullets, then we need to have seen that problem before the final fight so that after that fifth shot, we all know what's riding on the accuracy of the final try. 
  3. Make sure we know who's fighting and their strengths and limitations.

    Come on, we all know what happens when Velma loses her glasses and we all know that Shaggy and Scooby are going to bug out of there when the monster shows.  We're always waiting for the dawn in vampire pictures, and everybody knows the guy in the black hat is in for it.  When we know either our specific character's weaknesses (Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby) or the weakness of a general class of characters (vampires and cowboys), then it allows us to just focus on the scene and not the justification for the characters' actions because we already know their motivation.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Adventure and Non-linear Writing

One of the first things we teach children when we teach them to read is left-to-right orientation.  In essence, we are saying, "Start at the beginning."  But we all know that much in life doesn't start at the beginning.  We all walk in on conversations in the middle.  If you're not the firstborn, it may really annoy you that people in your family remember what happened before you were born.  And I've certainly be remonstrated, "Can't you just use what's come before you?  Do you really have to reinvent the wheel every time?"

When you're writing, sometimes you want to start at the beginning.  But when you're only at the writing stage, it doesn't actually matter if you start writing there! Sometimes it's best to start in the middle or at the end.  Adventure is one of those times.

Because adventure is about change, sometimes it is best to start with who you want your character to become (or the aspects of yourself/character experiencing change that you want the reader to see) rather than beginning with how that character began.  Two of the reasons for taking this approach show its clear benefits:
  1. By emphasizing the traits which the character develops through the quest at the end,  you can be certain that when you write the beginning at a later date that you pick actions, descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that illustrate either the absence or opposite of those traits.
  2. By recognizing what has changed in the mind and actions of the changing character, you can make certain to highlight those moments of high action/drama with the thoughts/reasoning of the main character which brings him to the conclusion that he draws.  For example, a car accident in itself is not enough to make anyone come to any conclusion.  It is the rationalizations and reactions to the car accident that cause the protagonist to forego all future driving, decide to get driving lessons, or develop a feeling of immortality.  We all react differently, and it is not enough to show the event and expect us all to arrive at the same conclusion (yes, I know "show; don't tell," but you also need to show the thought process or we may miss your point! And, honestly, the longer I live the less obvious I think it is that people will just understand.  Most of us don't.  Really.).
So how would you go about picking the scene to begin with?  Here are some ideas:
  • Write the scene that's bouncing around in your head first.  It should come out the most easily.
  • Write the ending you would like to see, one that you feel will make you feel "full," as if you've just finished an excellent meal.
  • Write a simple description of your character's philosophy/outlook on life at the end.  Then elaborate on that feeling by expanding those ideas to how your character's appearance might reflect those feelings--what bumper stickers would he have?  What kind of car would he drive, shoes would he wear, place would he live, etc.?  Then expand that to dialogue.  What jokes would he find funny now?  What things would he say or NOT say?  Finally, channel that into actions.  On the basis of his inner changes, what outer behaviors would manifest themselves?  What would he do if a homeless person begged him for money, if he had a gun in his face, if he was given incorrect change?
Once you have begun writing your scenes, be sure to plot them on your story arc so that you know where you're going and what you still need to do.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Reading and Life Writing

One of our fellow life writers mentioned a visit to a fiction writing group and a point that she felt certainly carried over into life writing:  reading other books in our genre.  And now, with summer reading starting this week, is the perfect time to jump in!

You can easily register for summer reading on Plum Library's website.  You do not need a special card from Plum Library, but you do need a library card with the Allegheny County Library Association.  You can check to find your closest ACLA library on their site.

Some memoirs recommended by your classmates were (check the Carnegie Library for availability.  You can request to have the books delivered to the library of your choice.):
  • The works of Frank McCourt:  Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man
  • Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic
  • Tracy Elliott's Unbroken  
You can also find award-winning memoirs at A Reader's Place.

Memoirs I have enjoyed even if they haven't changed my life include:
  • Steve Rushin's Road Swing  
  • Anthony Youn's In Stitches  
  • Margaret Overton's Good in a Crisis 

One caution I have heard about reading anything within the genre of your own writing is to take it all with a grain of salt.  Use what you find as a guide, not gospel.  Look for conventions.  How long are the chapters?  How does the narrative unfold?  How do they give you caveats?  Note what you like.  One comment from a colleague of mine also made me take notice.  Memoir and fiction are different.  Memoir involves a certain bit of your own thoughts--essay if you will.  Too much essay and we get bored or lost.  Not enough essay and we wonder what the point was.  Note which memoirs you really love and the balance of these two aspects.  Remember it as you write and also as (or "if") you query publishers.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Hi, all Plum Life Writers!

Next Friday (June 15, 2012), I will be picking up a very important visitor in DC, so I won't be able to meet you on the 15th at the library, but I will definitely be there Friday, June 22, 2012.

This blog will still be active in the interim and beyond.


Let's Write: Week of June 15

Last week we looked at humor and suspense.  This week, I'd like to look at the idea of adventure.  I am specifically not going to address action right now because action is a separate topic.  Many adventure stories have action scenes, but adventure is an overall arc with specific steps whereas action is movement on a micro level, an appeal to our senses within a scene.

Therefore, we will start with the basics of adventure.  We've all had adventures in life, and some of the stories I enjoyed most as a child took the form of adventures.

What are some adventures in our lives?
  1. Learning to do something new--walking, riding a bike, driving a car.
  2. Beginning something major--the first day of school, heading to college, the first day on the job, waking up in your new home the day after you're married.
  3. Trying something new or coming up with a plan of your own--making up your own recipe, building something yourself, fixing your own mistake.
  4. A commitment to something--your new diet, your exercise plan, a vow, a promise to do better at something (your marriage, parenting, being a good son/daughter)

How does that translate?  Well, if you think about those childhood adventures, you can probably easily identify the key components an adventure in them.  An adventure has six main parts:
  1. The point of departure, home, or where we start.  We need to see ground zero before we're ready to take the adventure or we won't appreciate the departure.
  2. The quest.  Most adventures begin with a goal.
  3. The journey.  An adventure requires leaving the bounds of our home and what we know and embarking on a journey into the unknown (and the difficult).
  4. Challenges/obstacles.  If the journey is easy, it's not very interesting.  Most adventures require at least three of these.
  5. The obtaining of (or the failure of obtaining) the goal.  We need to see it won or lost.
  6. The return home.  We need to see how the adventure has changed our hero and how that change translates back in his home environment.
Can you think of one?

Writing your lifestory: Worksheet 1

Before you decide how to set aside time to write, it often helps to decide what you want to write about.  This helps to prevent that “blank page” syndrome in which we are daunted by the pristine white space before us.  But how to decide?

Selecting the stories you want to tell need not be intimidating.  You can take several tacks to select what you want to tell.  Feel free to refer to my May 30, 2012, blog post to see some of the top experts’ advice on how to set a list of stories.  Below are some of my own ways of making lists that I have found helpful:

Keeping the list—overall hints:
  1. Always keep a pen and paper with you.
  2. When you write, keep an extra sheet of paper to the side.
  3. Attend a group and use it as a deadline.
  4. Whenever you read the stories of others—be they published stories or your colleagues’ work in class—keep that pen and paper beside you.
  5. Any time you get an idea—a memory of your past that you feel is worth passing on—of something that you want to write about, jot down the topic on that paper. 
  6. Find a central place to collect that list—notecards, a document file, a notebook—and make sure that you copy over your smaller lists to that master one.
Starting/organizing the list:
  1. The spider web method
    1. Begin with ANY memory—the very first one that crosses your mind—and write it down quickly.
    2. Think of a memory that spins off of it and write that down.
    3. Repeat step two until you draw a blank.
  2. The chronological method
    1. Separate your life into sections.  You can use set numbers of years (0-5, 6-10, etc.) or general classes of time (preschool, grade school, high school, etc.).
    2. For each group of years, try to come up with 2-3 story ideas.
  3. The topic-related method
    1. What are the big topic areas—things, people, places, ideas—of your life?  Food?  Childhood?  Work?  School?  Your parents, siblings, spouse?  Try to list at least 10.  If you can, list 35.
    2. For each topic area list 3-5 story ideas.
  4. The story arc method:
    1. Is there a lesson that you want to tell with your story?  If so, what is it?
    2. Can you identify a beginning, middle, and end to that story?  What are they?  Mark each one with a concrete story idea.
    3. Flesh out the middle.  What is the climax of the story?  The rising action?  An event that foreshadowed the outcome?  A moment when it seemed all was lost?  A moment that you became determined to see it through?  Set down these ideas and coordinate them along a timeline.
You try it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Suspense and Humor: Timing and Hints

At their core, suspense and humor are essentially the same thing but with different anticipations--how one chooses to see the outcome.

In the case of suspense, the outcome is usually negative, and we wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop.  We have an inkling about what is coming.  If we didn't have any clue, there would be no suspense.  But we don't know when it will happen or exactly what will happen.  It is these two items that create the tingle of suspense.

See this strategy in effect here (I will discuss it below):

For you to completely appreciate what's happening, you may also want to see clips from the beginning of the movie (like Chrissie's last swim) and the end (Brody kills the Beast).

Similarly with humor, we have some idea what should be, but for some reason, that "should" expectation is not being fulfilled, is being thwarted or perverted, in some other way.  We don't know exactly what will happen next or when the problem will come to a resolution.

See such a comic strategy in effect here:

How do we achieve these effects?
  1. Play with your timing.
  2. Spend some time with the fake out.
There are currently two excellent articles on these topics.  For suspense, I highly recommend Carol Davis Luce's chapter, "Writing Killer Suspense," in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing available on Amazon and from our own library.  For comic timing, I have both deeply enjoyed and found extremely helpful Backstage's article, "Can Comedic Timing Be Taught, or Is It Innate?" While the article is written for actors, it provides many helpful bits for writers.

Boiled down, though, these are some common tips to pull us through:
  1. Make sure your reader is aware of the situation.

    In "Jaws," before we get the Alex's death, we've already had Chrissie's, and just in case we're not as concerned as we ought to be, we have brooding Captain Brody to remind us that worrying about the possibility of danger in the water is important enough to ignore the neighbor with a problem, brush his your wife, and insult an old man.

    Also in the "Jaws" sequences, note that the music builds as the audience's awareness builds.  There is no music in Chrissie's last swim unless you count the buoy's bell.  We don't know of the danger, so there's no sense in drawing our attention to it.  By the time Alex is attacked, we know the shark is out there, so the music immediately before the attack sets us up for the immediate action, even though we see very little of it.  When we are ready for Brody to kill the shark, the music is a constant undercurrent--just as is our awareness.  You have to bring your reader with you for the suspense to work.

    In "Mr. Bean," we have strategic double takes and the laugh track.  We know he can't get out the instant he pulls in because of the laugh track, but just in case we didn't know, he's going to bang the door, look at it, and bang it again--and again and again and again.
  2.  But also divert that awareness (or fake us out).

    The best "Jaws" clip for this technique is Chrissie's last swim.  First we are diverted from danger in the water by the possibility of danger on the land.  The boy is drunk.  Is Chrissie running away to escape him or is she really interested?  Then we are diverted by where the real malice lies.  Does Chrissie really want him to follow her or is she kind of hoping that, drunk as he is, he will hurt himself?  Finally, we are diverted by blame.  Is it really the shark's fault he ate her?  If she had had a little more sense (or, depending on how you perceive her intentions, if her intentions had been a little less malicious), would she still be alive?  If he hadn't been drunk, would he have been eaten also or could he have saved her?

    Similarly, in watching Mr. Bean in his car, we are not paying any attention to movement in the car beside him.  We don't pay attention to the fact that the man who walks in front of his car clearly gets into the car beside him, as we can see from the slight lowering of the red car when he gets in and shake as he slams the door.  Thus, because we are diverted by Mr. Bean's antics, we are surprised when the red car pulls out and drives off.
  3. Up the stakes.

    Did you notice how many kids went in that water as soon as we had established the fact that it was unsafe?  There was hardly anybody in there until that point.

    How about Mr. Bean?  I think the upping of the stakes here is with the work and intention.  We see the plan.  We know that it's a ridiculous plan, but it's a plan nevertheless.  And the more he does, the more deliberate he is, the more he has lost when a better parking space opens up.
  4. It's not over till it's over.

    Just when we sigh with relief, there's more.  In "Jaws," that's the story of the whole movie.  First it's one death, then another.  First swimming is unsafe, then boating.  A harpoon won't kill that shark; neither will bullets.  He must be blown up.  How long can you prolong the problem (with caveats--this is where Luce's advice comes in)?

    In comedy, it's that natural reaction AND a breath moving on.  It's not over until Mr. Bean is really done.  First, he could have pulled in, seen the problem, and pulled through.  But no.  Second, he could have climbed out the window, but no, he banged the door and then pulled back.  Third, he could have just left the car there and then walked away, but no, he pushed the car forward.  Fourth, he could have walked away immediately, but no, he stuck around just long enough to see the offending car drive away.  By waiting all that time, by taking all those detours, by adding all those "ands" instead of "ends," we are pulled along.
  5. Whose fault is it?

    This last is not necessarily needed, but our culture has a tendency to assign this and it often end caps our stories.  In the "Jaws" clip, we have seen Alex's mother on the sand not watching Alex.  Do we blame her a bit?  To some extent, this blaming strategy not only throws a spotlight on prevention but it also allows the perpetrator to continue his/its reign of terror.  Because it was someone else's fault, I can prevent it from happening to me (which of course is only partly true, but that's why you have the rest of the book, movie, story, or whatever).

    In "Mr. Bean," this fault functions as an instance of needless suffering.  If Mr. Bean had just waited, then he would have been fine.  But he didn't, so we've all had a good laugh.  Sometimes this circumstance makes our protagonist out to be a fool.  Of course, that's Mr. Bean's hallmark.  You might want to watch this tendency in your own stories, though, and play around with caveats unless you really want to implicitly criticize your protagonist.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Let's Write: Surprise for the weeks of June 7 and June 15

John Lennon said (or borrowed), "Life happens when you're making other plans."

As life story writers, we can take full advantage of the truth in this statement by focusing on two genres:  humor and suspense.  In essence, they both hinge on a single element:  surprise.

For the story to work, however, the surprise cannot be completely unsuspected.  Instead, it should be hinted at obliquely as you go along.  We shouldn't guess it, but we should experience the mouth-watering-like pleasure of smelling something good just around the corner.  Your hints in the story should be specific enough to keep us from feeling misled but vague enough that we don't guess either.

Thankfully, life is full of surprises.  Pick a suspenseful or humorous moment and write about it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Continuing on a theme: week of June 1 and beyond

Okay, so I have been in a real quandary lately about how to continue between notes here on the blog, assignments, and possible guest speakers.  Feedback from the members in class seems to indicate a desire for more information on how to finish a book, either for publication or for one's family.  There's a whole lot of advice on that, which I can reference at a later time, but it basically comes down to two points:
  • Make a list of the stories that you want to tell
    • You can start with the most compelling one, list 5 more you want to write, and move forward (per the advice of Linda Joy, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers).
    • You could make a list of 100 stories you want to tell (per Sharon Lippincott in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing).
    • You could identify the basic plot points of most books and work from there, filling in with your own memories (an adaptation of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat approach).
    • You could start from your concept and work through an outline to a gradual filling in (per Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method which can be adapted for memoir if one is creative enough).
  • Sit down and write them (by whatever means necessary).
    • You can set aside time.
    • You can set aside a page/word limit.
    • You can use a maximization approach (as suggested last week on this blog).
But really there's not much more to say here.  What I feel I can contribute, though, is the way our archetypes--the characters and plotlines we know as a culture--can help us in writing our own stories either as an ordering principal of an entire manuscript or as single pieces.  I haven't really seen this approach detailed anywhere, and I have been using it a bit.

So, to begin exploring that option, because I always feel one should start with research, I looked at Writer's Digest's some of the top publishing companies and their list of fiction genres.  This is the list of genres that were common across several of the groups:

  • Action & Adventure 
  • Classics 
  • Comics & Graphic Novels 
  • Contemporary 
  • Fairy Tales, Folklore, Allegory, & Mythology 
  • Fantasy 
  • Historical 
  • Humor 
  • Literary 
  • Movie or Television Tie-In 
  • Mystery & Detective 
  • Occult/Ghost/Paranormal 
  • Political 
  • Psychological 
  • Religious 
  • Romance 
  • Science Fiction 
  • Short Stories 
  • Suspense 
  • That which appeals to a certain religious, cultural, or ethnic group—Christian, LGBT, Jewish, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, multicultural 
  • Thrillers 
  • Westerns
My plan, starting Friday, is to pick one every week and give a few ideas how you might use these genres to start a story and then another post on Tuesdays (hopefully *crosses fingers*) to give some extra ideas about how the finer aspects of the genre might relate to your memoir.

Happy writing, and thanks for your patience!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Let's Write: June 2 class and beyond

Just so we're clear, I want to make sure that you all know that these classes are now come as you can and these a assignments are suggestions ONLY.  You are always welcome to bring any piece of life writing you are working on.

This week's project is a combination of something suggested in last Friday's class and a challenge by a friend (Sharon Lippincott--check out her blog, The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, if you haven't already) on a life writing Yahoo! Group.

The assignment?

Write your birth announcement in retrospect.  Include what will be important in your lives but also how that would have been important to your parents and the community that welcomed you into the world.  Do not exceed 750 words.
Once again, this assignment is a suggestion only.  I look forward to hearing anything you choose to share!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thought for the Week of the May 25th Class: Finishing and Behavioral Economics

"Huh?  Behavioral economics?" you ask.

"Yes," I say.  "Because I have seen the light."

For years, I (and much of my family) have wondered how I could be so good at math (although I admittedly dislike it) and still have so little common sense when it came to money.  And I stumbled on the answer a few months ago:  behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics examines our behavior regarding our fiscal responsibility in terms of what we know intellectually, how we process it psychologically, and what we do (and how we feel about it) finally.

Behavioral economics is slightly more than common sense, and in this case, one of the lessons I learned from behavioral economics has direct bearing on one's ability to write and finish.  Here is the case:

An example of suboptimal behavior involving two important behavioral concepts, loss aversion and mental accounting, is a mid-1990s study of New York City taxicab drivers (Camerer et al. 1997). These drivers pay a fixed fee to rent their cabs for twelve hours and then keep all their revenues. They must decide how long to drive each day. The profit-maximizing strategy is to work longer hours on good days—rainy days or days with a big convention in town—and to quit early on bad days. Suppose, however, that cabbies set a target earnings level for each day and treat shortfalls relative to that target as a loss. Then they will end up quitting early on good days and working longer on bad days. The authors of the study found that this is precisely what they do.  (Excerpted from "Behavioral Economics."  The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.  2008.  Available online at
 So what does this have to do with us as writers?

Simply, it teaches us five things about maximizing our efforts:
  1. Go to work.  Every cab driver actually had to go to work to get anywhere.  They had a time planned to work; they got into their cab; and they want to work.
  2. Have a strategy.  Every cab driver went out every working day with a route planned.  In order to make any progress at all, you need to plan a route.  You may not stick with it, but you at least need to have a plan.  Several other authors, experts, etc., have offered advice on creating plans, and we'll get there eventually, but for now, let's just accept that we need a plan.
  3. Set realistic goals.  Each cab driver had an expectation about how much they wanted to make.  The expectation in and of itself was not a bad thing.  And we know that the goals were realistic because the drivers usually attained them--although the time it took to attain them varied.
  4. Adjust your plans to the circumstances.  This step was the kicker.  This is where I have my gripes as a teacher and where I fail sometimes with money.  But the strategy for both (and for us with writing) is very simple:
    1. Recognize the progress you are making.  The cabbies knew how much money they were bring in, obviously, because they knew when they could quit.
    2. Adjust your practice to maximize the time you are spending.  Here's the rub.  Instead of just plugging away and plugging away on the rotten days, there needs to be a point of no return where you just call it a day.  That doesn't mean never plug away.  It means recognize when your wheels are just spinning and you need to call the tow truck or wait for the mud to dry.  On the other hand, though, you also need to recognize when you are making progress and build in ways to put in more time on the days that you are succeeding.  Don't quit early when you're doing well.  Plug at it a little more.  Go until you have to stop or just challenge yourself to keep at it for another half hour.
  5.  Recognize that your work is not a one-day deal.  The cabbies' initial goals were for single-day revenues.  Yes, we should have single-day goals.  But we aren't only working for a single day, and so
    we need to recognize that profits and shortfalls will occur and can balance one another out--without our killing ourselves over it--if we are smart in how we work.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Let's Write: For the May 25th Meeting

Dear all,

So sorry for the delay in posting, but here is the assignment for this week.

Pick one:
  • Write something that you have been wanting to write and present to the group but haven't because you have been writing other assignments.
  • Finish or revise something that you weren't happy with the first time around and present it to us again.
I look forward to seeing you all (or as many as are not on vacation) on Friday! Our first joint class beginning at 10:30 AM and lasting until 1:30 PM with a break from 11:50-12:10 to allow for people to come and go as needed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 5 - Postponed

Hi, all!  I need to make a quick unexpected run, so this post will be delayed slightly.  You should see it before 5:00 PM EST.

Hope all is well, and thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 5

In the case of a personal essay, few items are technically "wrong."  You will primarily be sharing your perceptions of events in your life as they convey a basic truth or belief to you.  Therefore, what we will examine this week is your word choice and how it colors your essay.  Word choice works in two major ways in an essay:
  •  It clearly shows to what extent you feel something or to what extent we as a reader can believe something.
  •  It creates metaphors and allusions likening these perceptions to things and stories we already know.
When it comes to word choice, the easiest way to insert your beliefs regarding strength of feelings is through the choice use of adverbs, which can, by definition, tell "to what extent."  Now, some authors swear of adverbs.  In a now famous essay on writing, Elmore Leonard writes, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin."  Leonard, however, is discussing creative writing and not essay writing.  While using a strong verb is often more powerful than using an adverb, some adverbs can truly aid the telling of your tale through essay by establishing your credibility in your honesty of how much we ought to believe.  Was it "rather" windy, "fairly" useless, "radically" altered, or "slightly" different?  Before you choose your adverb, though, see if a synonym might not make it unnecessary.  Was it "gusty" or "breezy?" Was he "inexperienced" or "inept?" Sometimes your adverbs should stand as they are, but use the sparingly and to be honest with your reader.

Far better than the use of adverbs, however, is the use of precise, vivid verbs.  When we're talking about belief, these are the words you might use:
  • maintain, suspect, doubt, question, adopt, espouse, believe, think, assert, imply, infer, accept, admit, confess, affirm, charge, assume, presume, posit, postulate, ponder, mull over, suppose, understand, trust, waver, fear, reject, disdain, esteem, respect 
More than any single word choice, however, metaphor and allusion have the ability to sway us powerfully by drawing us into stories and experiences we have already made up our minds on.  This can be used to sway us or engage our sympathies.  From Kennedy's Camelot to the simple line "happily ever after" or "Cinderella story," we are pulled to side with someone, to draw comparisons between modern participants and the characters of the past.  The only problem with this technique is that it assumes (1) that we share the same stories; and (2) that we interpret the stories the same way.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Write Order: Week 5

Once again, like the epiphany, the ordering of most "This I Believe" essays is fairly straightforward.

It usually begins with a statement of belief.  It often begins, "I believe," but not necessarily so.  Sarah Adams writes, "If I have one operating philosophy about life it is this: 'Be cool to the pizza delivery dude; it’s good luck.'"  Howard Spalding begins with an introductory paragraph before he gets to his statement of belief.  Peifong from Holmdale, New Jersey, omits "I believe" and simply begins, "Always try your best."

Generally, the statement of belief occurs quickly and is then followed with elaborations.  Each topic sentence is generally general (hehe) and is followed by startlingly specific example. Often, but not always, one paragraph is a story while the others are collections of moments, images, or sayings. 

The essays often go from personal to general and return to personal again or vice versa, going from general to personal back to general.

This isn't to say that every one is the same or that you can't write it a different way.  Amy from Middletown, Maryland, saves her statement of belief until the very end.  Many of the essays from the fifties are far richer in vocabulary and allusion but slightly less specific--perhaps because of our changing beliefs in a common background.  Some of the current essays can be slightly overly specific (in my opinion) as if a clutter of details is better than a clear link to our thought pattern.  But both are style choices, and they are not "wrong."  The essays are in the first person, but how personal they are differs greatly.  Some are told with long twisting sentences, others are told with quick jab-like sentences.  They are all "right." 

One of the dangers of workshopping your writing is that it all starts to sound the same.  This is a chance to follow a guideline but to let your own voice shine.  I can't wait to hear your stories.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Words Become Flesh: Show, Don't Tell, Week 5

This week, you are not writing creative fiction.  You are writing a personal essay, and now you need to


What you want to do is make an assertion strongly--use vivid words!  Paint the pictures with your examples.  Be very specific.  The tell us again what you feel and believe in a way that has already been validated by what you have told and then shown us.

Again, not to totally reiterate yesterday's post, but Sara Adams's essay is the epitome of this.

She tells us exactly what she believes:   If I have one operating philosophy about life it is this: “Be cool to the pizza delivery dude; it’s good luck.”

She tells us that she has four reasons why she thinks that way, and then she tells/shows us these reasons:
  1. "Principle 1: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in humility and forgiveness."
  2. "Principle 2: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in empathy."
  3. "Principle 3: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in honor and it reminds me to honor honest work."
  4. "Principle 4: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in equality."
Then she shows us each of these four in action: (I have bolded the showing and underlined the telling and italicized them both.)
  • Humility and forgiveness:  "I let him cut me off in traffic, let him safely hit the exit ramp from the left lane, let him forget to use his blinker without extending any of my digits out the window or towards my horn because there should be one moment in my harried life when a car may encroach or cut off or pass and I let it go."
  • Empathy:  "I’ve held an assortment of these jobs and was grateful for the paycheck that meant I didn’t have to share my Cheerios with my cats."
  • Honor:  "They never took over a company ..., artificially inflated ...the stock ,,, cashed out their own shares, bringing the company to ... bankruptcy, resulting in 20,000 people losing their jobs while the CEO builds a home the size of a luxury hotel. Rather, the dudes sleep the sleep of the just."
  • Equality: "I am the equal of the world not because of the car I drive, the size of the TV I own, the weight I can bench press, or the calculus equations I can solve. I am the equal to all I meet because of the kindness in my heart."<--as shown in the rest of the essay
How do you do this yourself?  Well, you start like you did yesterday, and then, once you have found your metaphor/illustration, you expand on it three ways:
  1. With concrete sensory perceptions (images, words, sounds).
  2. With the intelligences (rhythm in your words, strategy, description that reveals personality, movement that solves or exacerbates problems).
  3. By bringing 1 and 2 together with the butter of the bolded section:  tying concrete observations (#1) to feelings/needs (the feelings they evoke in you and why--usually a response to meeting or failing to meet a need) and how you go about meeting those needs (#2).
So, for example,  my belief is "squirt unto others."  It illustrates my underlying values:
  • Sharing
  • Not going too fast/Allowing things to take time
  • Using rules as guidelines and letting empathy decide your actions in the gray areas
I can hook those to images:
  • Sharing:  all the guns in a bucket, children running with two guns to avoid handing over one, guns held high above the head of a younger one (and the younger one biting to get it back)
  • Not going too fast/Allowing things to take time:  getting rid of the super soakers, trying to coax bubbles out of the little holes to allow the water to come in.
  • Using rules as guidelines and letting empathy decide your actions in the gray areas: letting the biter run away with the gun he won, tackling the runner, giving second chances in the form of refilling the bucket...
I can add intelligences:
  • logic:  the one who waits for the others to run out of water and then squirts them while they try to fill up
  • kinesthetic:  running, holding above head (not just the actions, but how they change things)
  • personal:  sibling rivalry
  • visual:  the conjured up images and placement in action (not just the images, but what they can tell us)
I can link the two with the feelings and needs they demonstrate:
  • feelings:  anger, frustration, joy, excitement, surprise
  • needs:   rest, fun, friendship, competence, fairness
And hopefully I will have this essay for you to read at a later date!