Monday, April 30, 2012

The Word Became Flesh: Show, Don't Tell Week 3

This week, I have asked you to include dialogue, and so this post is more about what not to show.

Let's face it.  Most of our conversations are patterned, tell fairly little unique information, and can be pretty boring.

Consider the phone:

"Hello.  May I speak to Paulo?"
"I'm sorry.  He hasn't come in yet.  Would you like him to call you when he gets here?"
"Oh, no thank you.  I'll call back later."
"Okay.  Goodbye."

Now, if we were writing fiction, we would have perfect license to make that scene a whole lot more interesting.  We could have the person receiving the call interrogate the person calling.  We could have the person calling demanding to know why Paulo isn't there.  We could do a million things to mix it up.  But in this case, we are writing memoir, and we can't just do that.

So what do we do?

We can gloss it over.  Sue Grafton often writes, "We made the appropriate mouth noises...."  You could do that here:

We made the appropriate mouth noises, and the caller agreed to call back later.

You could leave the whole thing out entirely unless it reveals something necessary.  Perhaps Paulo had said he was going to be at that location and this call blew a whole in that story.  In that case, you can gloss it over but say why it's important:

I had no idea that Paulo would lie to me until I called Frank's house where he said he was staying and he wasn't there.

Or, if the knowledge conversation produces is important--not so much the words--then you can dramatize it but make certain to paint out the action:

"Hello?"  I heard Frank's mom answer the phone.

"Hello.  May I speak to Paulo?"  

Paulo tutored Frank every Tuesday evening, but he'd left really early today, saying that Frank's mom had called for an emergency session to make certain Frank was ready for his math test.  "It's his last chance for him to get his grades up before they make the decision for the AP classes!"  said Paulo, imitating her voice.  Now that I was hearing Frank's Mom on the phone, I realized that Paulo was a pretty good actor.

Frank's Mom paused a minute before answering.  "I'm sorry.  He hasn't come in yet.  Would you like him to call you when he gets here?"

My head was suddenly reeling.  Did Paolo lie to me or did he have an accident?  Why wasn't he there?

"Oh, no thank you,"  I stuttered, my hand now clutching the phone.  "Umm, I'll call back later."

"Okay.  Goodbye."

The phone clicked in my ear as I echoed, "Goodbye."  

I stared at the phone in my hand for a few minutes before sprinting to the car, determined to retrace Paolo's steps and ensure he was all right.  If he hadn't died on the way, then I was determined to kill him when I found him.

Not everything needs to be dramatized.  There are things that you can gloss over.  But when the role of the conversation is important, as it is in this last hypothetical example, then you might want to take the time to draw it out and help the reader gather insight into the situation and the characters you want us to know.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Heart of the Matter: Week 3

How can you make a crystalline moment?  Well, you want to make the images more vivid and take things one moment at a time.

But, if you're like me, you get really, really, really tired of thinking about feelings, even though they really are one of the reasons I read what I read.  Even non-fiction information is arranged around what someone thought was important, which often (though not always) gets back to a strong emotion evoked by the topic.

So how do you find the important emotion/point without actually thinking about feelings or reliving those emotions?

Well, here's a straightforward, simple way of making your images more vivid and locating the emotions lurking beneath the surface of your story.

Look at your passage.  Identify the most common verbs in the English language (those listed below are from the General Service List of the English Language).  For ease of use, I have linked all verb forms together as one entry.
  • be
  • have
  • do
  • would/will/can/could/may/must/should
  • make 
  • take
  • come/go
  • know
  • see/look
  • use
  • get
  • like
  • give
  • think
  • find
  • own
Once you find these words in your story, try to replace them with synonyms, which you can find easily in an online thesaurus like , the thesaurus provided by your word processor, or in a hard copy thesaurus.

For example, I might write: 

Getting on the sofa, my youngest son burped loudly and looked at me to see what I would do.

 Going back to my list of verbs, I have "get," "looked," "see," and "do" in my sentence above.  If I want to upgrade this passage, I can replace them.  I review the moment in my head for a second and try again:

Leaping onto the sofa and rearranging himself into a exasperated flop, my little son released an enormous burp. smirked with satisfaction, and then glanced at me from the corner of his eye to see if I was going to punish him.

Perfect?  No, but better.  Not only is it better, but, in seeing the action more vividly, I am able to more clearly recognize what feeling motivates my son's actions--anger (frustration from boredom seen in the flop and antagonistic gaze) and joy (burping is fun, as evidenced by the smirk).
Finding better verbs provokes your memory and helps you add more details as well as helping you locate the emotions.  Most emotions fall into one of the following six categories:
  • joy
  • sorrow
  • anger
  • fear
  • shame
  • longing
Noting the feelings gives you more material to fill out your story:

Sighing in protest and leaping onto the sofa and rearranging himself into a exasperated flop, my little son released an enormous burp. smirked with satisfaction, and then glanced at me from the corner of his eye to see if I was going to punish him.

I ignored him and continued typing.  Wriggling over to the arm of the sofa nearest the laptop, he draped himself over the side and positioned his nose one inch from the screen, head blocking a third of the view.

"You promised, Mommy!  Aren't you done yet?!" he demanded for the third or fourth time.  

"Yes, dear," I answered, choosing not to notice the small fist he was starting shake.  "This post is done.  The computer's yours now."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spark Your Memory: Week 3

This week, we're asking you to write a school story using description, immediacy, and dialogue.


I find that many people have strong memories of school regarding these topics:
  • Indignation.  Were you falsely accused?  Falsely punished?
  • Excuses.  Why wasn't your homework done?  Were you really sick?
  • Tattling.  What kind of bargaining went on to make sure the teacher didn't find out?
  • Your best friend.  Most of our early best friends were ones we met at school.  What did you and your best friend do?
  • Your enemy.  The later elementary school years are partially characterized by "enemies."  Who was yours?  What sorts of battles did you fight?
Perhaps you don't want to write about your own school years.  For those of you who are parents, you might also consider these topics:
  • Your first parent-teacher conference or phone call from school.
  • A brush with other school parents
  • The absurdities of the PTA or other school organization.
  • The difficulties of "helping" with homework. 
Still not feeling it?  Consider a day in the life of an inanimate object. 
  • What does a school desk see and hear?  What makes it cringe?  You could get a very immediate feeling for the school/house/whatever from the vantage point of something that cannot move, that is always there, and that is integral to daily activity (the kitchen sink, for example).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Let's Write: Week 3

Assignment:  Write a story about school using description, immediacy, and dialogue (this can be internal).

More info:  I initially used school as the example, but the more I think about this (and look for good examples), I think that "school" may be over-rated.  We are looking for description, immediacy, and dialogue, and a feeling of the time in question, something that takes us away from where we are now to where the story is happening. 

Some examples:

This I Believe:

Other well known:

Other contemporary blog:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 2

Overcoming roadblocks:

Revision is hard.  It is more than proofreading.  It is RE-vision--seeing again.

  1. So first, ask yourself:  Do you want to go through revision? 
    It's okay to answer no.  Sometimes all you want is to get something down.  Something is always better than nothing.  If this is your goal, then it's still a great goal and worth being happy about.  However, do take the time to proofread (, the Purdue OWL grammar and punctuation, or Strunk & White's The Elements of Style will all help you), put down names and dates, and include pictures if you have them.  Others may not be able to do so.
  2. Who is your audience?
    Who are you writing for?  I am mainly giving advice on how to be clear and how to express your feelings and beliefs in your writing, but when we critique as a group, we certainly may come at it from difficult angles.  Make sure you know who your audience is and angle your revisions that way. 

    When it comes to memoir, for example, I write three kinds of stories.  (1) I write about my kids a lot, but it's often for myself--for understanding what is going on with them, with me, with family dynamics.  What is important for that kind of writing is details--what I did, what the kids did--then why I did what I did, what I think now, what I might have missed, what the kids said they felt, how they reacted, or how I think they might have felt.  It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks of it but the kids' therapists.  (2) I also write about my relationship with my mother-in-law.  These stories are for open reading, and it very much matters what others think of it.  I care a lot about being fair in cultural difference, across generations, and across the in-law lines.  When somebody comments about these items, I take it into consideration.  (3) Finally, I write stories about my own childhood memories.  Many of this are strictly for laughs and nostalgia.  For these stories, I care mainly about dramatizing (i.e., showing) the moments without too much commentary and about writing with some care for living participants.  I care what people have to say with regard to these aspects of the story.
  3. How much do you want to change?This is a choice you have to make.  It is your story.  If you don't want to change it, that's fine.  If you do, then you may want to follow the steps below.
So if you've decided that you want to revise, what do you need to do?

  1. Allow yourself time.  Even the best critiques can be painful, and even if the critique is not, sometimes you are facing memories themselves that are painful.  Be compassionate with yourself.  You are allowed to be hurt, but don't let the hurt keep you from the revision.
  2. Try to be more specific.  For me at least, a revision generally means drawing out the moments and details.  Sometimes it takes time.  Sometimes it takes focus.  Most of the time it takes more work and more words and a lot of attention to details.  Who said what, when, how, why, where?  How did it look, smell, taste, feel?  How did I discern what I know--through movement, music, strategy, etc.?  Do not edit yourself here.  Put it all out there.
  3. Cut (and save it somewhere else).  Remember how I just said, "Do not edit yourself?"  Well, now it's time to edit yourself.  After you have it all there, you might not need some of it.  Don't worry about cutting.  It really does make it better.  (But save it in another file where you can access it later if you need it.)
  4. Let it sit.  After you've done what you can do, put it away and get it out later.  You'd be amazed what you see and, sometimes, how easy it is to fix.
Best wishes!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 2

Want to find that crystalline moment?  Can't remember the details?

Try Googling.  You can find information about the weather, the headlines of the day--national and local (if you want to pay), and even the pictures and names of the local plants and animals and their growing seasons if you want them.

Here's an example of how you can weave it in to a story from Sue Grafton's Q is for Quarry excerpt (book available from our library here and from Amazon here):

It was Wednesday, the second week in April, and Santa Teresa was making a wanton display of herself. The lush green of winter, with its surfeit of magenta and salmon bougainvillea, had erupted anew in a splashy show of crocuses, hyacinths, and flowering plum trees. The skies were a mild blue, the air balmy and fragrant. Violets dotted the grass. I was tired of spending my days closeted in the hall of records, searching out grant deeds and tax liens for clients who were, doubtless, happily pursuing tennis, golf, and other idle amusements.

I suppose I was suffering from a mutant, possibly incurable form of spring fever, which consisted of feeling bored, restless, and disconnected from humanity at large. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private detective in Santa Teresa, California, ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. I'd be turning thirty-seven on May 5, which was coming up in four weeks, an event that was probably contributing to my general malaise. I lead a stripped-down existence untroubled by bairn, pets, or living household plants. 

One of the things that Grafton does well in this passage is give us an exact name as well as a general description.  I didn't have any clue what bougainvillea was, but with "surfeit of magenta and salmon," I was able to get a feel for it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Write Order: Week 2

How-to's and retellings of concrete moments most likely need to be related chronologically.  Your feelings, however, do not, or they can be foreshadowed to have the same arc as the physical activity.  Indicate and add feelings/feeling markers to help us see as you saw then or as you see now.

A great example of this reflection, though fictional, is O'Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief," excerpted below.

IT LOOKED like a good thing: but wait till I 
tell you. (1) We were down South, in Alabama 
Bill Driscoll and myself when this kid- 
napping idea struck us. It was, as Bill after- 
ward expressed it, "during a moment of 
temporary mental apparition"; but we didn't 
find that out till later. (1)

There was a town down there, as flat as a 
flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course.(3) 
It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious 
and self-satisfied(3) a class of peasantry as ever 
clustered around a Maypole. 

Bill and me had a joint capital of about six 
hundred dollars, and we needed just two 
thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent 
town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. 
We talked it over on the front steps of the 
hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is 
strong in semirural communities; therefore, 
and for other reasons, a kidnapping project 
ought to do better(2) there than in the radius 
of newspapers that send reporters out in plain 
clothes to stir up talk about such things. 
We knew that Summit couldn't get after us 
with anything stronger than constables and, 
maybe, some lackadaisical bloodhounds and 
a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers
Budget. So, it looked good. (1)

We selected for our victim the only child of 
a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. 
The father was respectable and tight, a mort- 
gage fancier and a stern, upright collection- 
plate passer and forecloser.(3) The kid was a 
boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair 
the colour of the cover of the magazine you 
buy at the news-stand when you want to 
catch a train. Bill and me figured(2) that 
Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of 
two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait 
till I tell you. (1)

Some people would call this amount of foreshadowing heavy handed, but it not only works here, it also emphasizes the moral vacuity of our protagonists and sets us up for the character of both Johnny and Ebenezer Dorset, who are fitting antagonists.

The passages marked (1) show simple foreshadowing--wait till I tell you.  The passages marked (2) are verbs which mark uncertainty--we thought it was a sure thing...but it wasn't.  The passages marked (3) are either sarcastic, showing that things are not as they appear, or revealing of double-edged details--have you ever met a kind or sentimental forecloser, who "melts"?

How can you use this in your story?  Exactly the same way.
  1. Add your current feelings.  Consider again the idea of writing memoir as fishing--you always have that reflection of the world above the water on the surface between you and the fish.  What are your feelings now?  Feel free to write them down in snippets as the story plays out.  You may need to revise, but there are very few who don't, so don't worry.
  2. Revise your verbs.  Choose "might" instead of "will," "could" instead of "can."  Show us the uncertainty.
  3. Follow the double-edged details.  If you are about to be surprised, then make sure you seed the story with details that will help us see that the possibility for surprise was indeed there.  Sometimes this happens the second time through, and that's okay.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Words Become Flesh: Show, Don't Tell Week 2

First of all, what is "show" and "tell?"

It's easiest to explain by demonstrating in reverse.

Tell:  My sister is not a morning person.  She gets it from my father.

Show:  I clearly remember weekday mornings in high school.  5:30 AM.  My eyes squeezed shut a little tighter as our bunk bed slowly progressed from vibrate to a full-bed quake in response to the deafening bass throb of my sister's turbo-powered alarm clock which she kept in her bunk five inches from her head but which never seemed to bother her.  

I kicked the bottom of her bunk lightly.  Nothing.  I kicked again.  


I used both feet as I kicked the wooden bottom the third time.  This time I raised it two inches before it fell back to the slats.

"Five more minutes?" Or at least I thought that's what she said.  In reality, it sounded more like, "Fibe mo mints?"

"Never mind," I muttered.  Grumbling to myself, I lumbered down the hall to the bathroom shower.  I wondered, Would it be wrong of me to use up all of the hot water?

Do you see the difference?  In the first example, you have to trust me.  In the second example, you have the chance to decide for yourself--and the evidence is there.  Chances are that you believe my sister is not a morning person.

Secondly, can I tell you that I hate the phrase "show, don't tell?"  There are far too many people who use it non-specifically.  Some writers think that they are giving you good advice when they write "show, don't tell" next to your words.  It may be true that you need to expand, but, truthfully, we don't actually want or need to be shown everything.  We need to pick the moments and images that help us clarify what we want to say.  And sometimes the best way to do that is, in fact, to tell first (particularly when you are writing about something very close to you or something very emotional) and then think of your examples.

Don't want to take my word for it?

As Sharon Lippincott writes, "Anything you write is better than writing nothing. The only wrong way to write is to not write."   Getting it down is by far more important than getting it perfect.  Thomas Farber writes, "A writer is someone who finishes."

So how do you know when you need more?  Here are three thoughts.

  • Many Ly, an author of two young adult novels, one of which won the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award for Youth Literature for 2008, recently wrote on one of my chapters, "Where I have questions--show more."  And that is an example of how to know where to expand.
  • Find two or more paragraphs of reflection but no action.  I find that one paragraph of reflection can be okay.  Two or more is pushing it.  Look at the points you are trying to express in your paragraphs and see if you can't think of any scenes which will illustrate them.  I always find this harder in memoir than in fiction.  In fiction, I can look at what I need and make up an incident(s) to illustrate it.  In memoir, we are constrained to things that really happened.  Sometimes I need to take time to let it ruminate before I can pull out the incident I need.  You may too, and that's okay.  Write something else while you're thinking.  Show the original piece to a friend.  In one instance, my mom knew the perfect way to end a piece, but I had completely not connected the incident. 
  • Let the piece sit and come back later.  Writing some pieces, particularly those about joyful or painful experiences, can be very difficult.  Get it down, then give yourself some time before you revisit it.  I often find that, having faced the piece and the difficulty the first time, I am able to expand on it with each subsequent return.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Heart of the Matter: Week 2

When we remember, often one particular moment, like a snapshot, stands out in our minds and crystallizes the emotion or lesson of the incident.  But how to get there?

One way to do that, especially if you took my advice and picked an emotional moment, is to identify the primary emotion of the moment.  Even if you want to pass on the information that you learned or the events that were happening, locating the emotion will help you paint them.

After you identify the emotion, think about your physiological response.  What happens to your body?
  • arms
  • hands
  • feet
  • jaw
  • head
  • eyes
  • throat
  • stomach
  • back
  • neck
After you have a list of exactly what you are feeling, think back to the incident you are writing about.  Which of those bodily reactions happened to you and what was the exact inciting incident?

By pairing these items together, you can begin to zero in on your moment.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spark Your Memory: Week 2 Suggested Topics

So we're using immediate moments in our writing this week.  


I find that certain emotional topics lend themselves to moment-by-moment recall:
  • Impatience
    • Can you remember waiting in a line?  Perhaps at the grocery store when there is a price check, then coupons, then something that needs to be voided or returned, and then you have to go to the bathroom...
    • Can you recall being approved for something?  Often, the hurtles and unexpected problems as you attempted to gain admission or achieve a goal will pop into your mind with startling detail.
  • Nostalgia
    • Is there a moment that you find yourself missing from your past?  For instance, does smelling someone's cigar suddenly remind you of a specific moment with your grandfather?  These nostalgia triggers, particularly smell triggers, can often bring back detailed memories.
    • Is there a lesson that you continually try to impress to your children or grandchildren based on your experiences as a child?  If so, try telling it the other way--as a child looking forward.  You may be surprised at what you suddenly remember, particularly as it is brought into relief by your wisdom and experience now.
  • Saying hello or goodbye
    • You don't get a second chance to make a first impression.  Occasionally, our first impressions of something seemed burned on our brains.  This would be a good time to take advantage of that detail.
    •  Often when I say goodbye, I am consciously soaking up every detail so that I will remember later when I predict I will miss the person or place I am leaving.  These instances can provide a wealth of immediate moments.
  • Longing
    • Have you ever been away from home and longed for your mother's home cooking?  I bet you can recall the smell, texture, sight, taste, everything possible from that missed meal.  This is the time to put that in writing.
    • There is nothing to make you remember the benefits of the great outdoors like being stuck inside on a beautiful day.  Use one of those moments of longing to pull out the details you need for this piece.
Other moments that crystallize for me are "Milestone" moments:
  • Your wedding
  • The first day of school
  • Holding your child for the first time
  • The first day of your first job
  • Overcoming the neighborhood bully
 A third way to write this piece, and a way that mitigates a good balance between showing and telling, is to pick something in your daily routine and then write a how-to and then turn it into a how-not-to:
  • How to brush your teeth
  • How to clean up your room super fast without your mom knowing you didn't really clean it.
  • How to make breakfast
  • How to get ready for bed
  • How to get dressed up

Friday, April 20, 2012

Let's Write: Week 2

Assignment:  Write a simple story including a specific immediate moment.

More info:  What is an immediate moment?  An immediate moment is one in which we are on the second-to-second level of the story, the real-time action.

Immediate moment:  "Ouch!" yelped Sarah as she skidded across the pavement after shooting over the handlebars of her bike. She yanked her shin toward, propelling her knee toward her nose where she carefully examined the frayed edges of her skin cradling gravel in a small pool of blood that was welling to the surface.  Over the horizon of her knee, she glimpsed the twisted wheel of her bike and forgot about the sting of her knee over the sudden stabbed to her heart.

Less immediate:  Sarah skinned her knee and looked at her bike sadly.

Note:  If you're thinking that the immediate moment looks a lot like writing in images and actions from our revision, you're right!  You've had a preview, now we'll be working a little more closely with it.

Some examples:

This I Believe:
Other well known:

Other contemporary blog:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 1

NOTE:  I am giving you information about how to revise, but be aware this often takes more than one session, and these assignments, which are given each week for the sake of the class, could easily take longer.  Not every person hoping to write their life stories will want the same level of revision either.  Feel free to pair these lessons in ways that help you and satisfy your needs.

Today, we're going to talk about one of the simplest ways to improve your writing:  being more specific.

Look at your piece.  Find a sentence.  What can be more specific?  Look especially at the nouns and verbs.

For example:

"Often our evening meals were interrupted by random noises outside.  We would look out the back door to discover our dog in the pool."

First, look at the nouns/pronouns:
  • meals
  • noises
  • we
  • door
  • dog
  • pool 
Several of those are boring.  By asking myself what is more specific, I can upgrade some of those words easily:
  • meals = suppers
  • noises = swishes
  • door = screen
  • dog = poodle
You don't need to upgrade every word.  Some will suffice.

That would change the passage above to "Often our evening suppers were interrupted by random swishes outside.  We would look out the back screen to discover our poodle in the pool."

Next, I can look at my verbs:
  • interrupted
  • look
  • discover
"Look" is terrible.  In fact, I try to avoid the following words which are simply too common:
  • be
  • have
  • do
  • look
  • go
  • come
  • get
  • made
  • take
  • see
I know that I will want to switch "look," but I don't like "we" either.  It is both boring and general.  I will need to review the whole sentence, so I will leave it.  "Discover" is okay, and so is "interrupted."  But "interrupted" isn't exactly what I mean.  In my mind, "interrupted" means to forcibly intrude upon.  The dog was in the pool, not at the table.  So I want a different word.  In this case, I may visit for help.  Whenever you use a thesaurus, you want to do so with a bit of knowledge.  You are not looking for a completely new word but a spark for a memory of that word sitting elusively on the tip of your tongue.  I like "disturb," "distract," and "disrupt," even though they are the results of secondary searches.  Many times, my first search is fruitless.

Now, I get "[o]ften our evening suppers were disrupted by random swishes outside.  We would glance out (still thinking of changing that) the back screen to discover our poodle in the pool."

Now, I look at my adjectives and adverbs as well.  Could they sound better with my new nouns/verbs?

After these thoughts, my first rewrite looks like this:

"Often our summer suppers were disrupted by subtle swishes from outside.  A gaze out the screen door revealed our poodle wandering in the pool."

I like the sound better here, but I cannot "see" what's happening.  Now I try to think in images and actions.  When you think in images and actions, you often suddenly get a lot more words.

"During our summer supper, my little brother's eyes slide past his golden corn, dripping margarine between its two corn cob spears.  Mouth still open, he turns toward the curtains where subtle swishes waft in from the backyard.  Mom sweeps the sheers aside and chokes on a laugh.  We all rush to the screen to discover our aging poodle wandering in the wading pool, belly inches from the water.  She glances back to us as if to say, 'What?  I thought it was my turn now.'"

Oops, though.  I'm still missing something.  I've gotten more specific in my images, but not more specific in my character.

I think back to the intelligences.  The personal intelligences!  Dinner in my family is about interactions.  Time to put those in and characterize these people.

"During our summer supper, my little brother's eyes slide past his golden corn, dripping margarine between its two corn cob spears.  Mouth still open, he turned toward the curtains where subtle swishes wafted in from the backyard.  He's always noticed everything first, from the fire in the kitchen to the boys in the driveway for my sister.

"'What's that?' he asked.

"Mom swept over to the door.  Late as always and still moving things to the table, she hadn't even sat down yet.  She brushed the sheers aside and chokes on a laugh.  We all rushed to the screen to discover our aging poodle wandering in the wading pool, belly inches from the water.  She glanced back to us as if to say, 'What?  You got your chance.  It's my turn now.'"

It will need more revision later--I know I have repetitive words here and in earlier portions of the piece, but this is a good example of getting more specific in a revision.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 1

Whenever you deal with memoir, you also deal with facts.  To some extent, you will never be able to objectify everything.  Some people would even argue that it is impossible to objectively report anything.

But without getting into further ideological discussion on perception and reality, we can take some measures to help us be more true to our story as well as remind us of things that happened.

During this first week, I would encourage you to avail yourselves to visual cues:
  • Review old photos. 
    You will remember things previously forgotten as well as begin to parse out a timeline for some events.
  • Create maps and/or charts.
    Where were things?  How far did you actually need to walk to school?  Whose house was behind yours?  Who did you sit next to in class?  Etc.  Knowing what was where and who was there often reminds me of side activities and comments that make my story richer.  All those years spent trapped by the alphabet sitting behind a pen-whacking drummer and in front of stat-muttering baseball fanatic adds color to my stories of making it through high school classes.
  • Draw pictures.
    It's not so much a chart, but consider drawing diagrams of things like your Christmas tree.  Where did the ornaments end up every year?  Or review your dining room table for Thanksgiving or Advent.  Did anyone ever light a sleeve on fire reaching over a candle?  Were there holiday accidents--things accidentally lost in the gravy or dropped in the corn, or dripped in the dressing?
At this point, these simple procedures will help you verify your memories a little and prompt you toward events you may have forgotten.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Write Order: Week 1

We have to live chronologically.  There's not much we can do about that.  But we don't remember that way, and, while we do need to be clear enough that our readers can easily discern beginning, middle, and end, we don't have to tell our stories that way.

This week, we are considering one specific, compelling memory.  What makes it compelling?  Our order should reveal that.

Below are a few common ways to reveal what is special about your memory:
  • There are the cheap ways:  "I will always remember...," "I'll never forget...," "It seemed like any other ordinary day...."  These rarely work well, but they can depending on your memory. 

    "It seemed like any other ordinary day...." works well if your memory is a stark contrast to the way the day seems--if your ordinary day ends with an earthquake, if a beautiful day is studded with tragedy, or if an ugly day holds unexpected promise.

    "I'll never forget..." and "I'll always remember..." are harder.  I find they work well with a trait carried over several memories rather than a single one.  "I'll always remember Mom and her half a stick of Dentyne.  The torn half-inch piece of cinnamon pleasure shared between two girls was the epitome of thrift and Mom's war on sugar."  But even so, I'd prefer "Mom always had a half-stick of Dentyne" or "Ask Mom for gum and you'd take your chances of getting a half-stick of Dentyne."
  • Say it straight.  Make some straightforward comment and then plunge into the memory.

    This happens all the time in fiction.  Consider Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson" from Gorilla My Love.  The first sentence is obviously reflection as an adult when the main character confides in us, "Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup."  The remainder of the rest of that paragraph is ambiguous in the time of its telling--reflection or description--before the story settles into the point of view of a child narrator. 

    You can easily replicate this strategy in your own stories.
  • Start in the middle with dialogue and then inform and move forward.

    At a loss to find a good example on the spur of the moment (but I will update later), I'll write one like this:

    "'Your going to be in big twouble,' my brother warned my little sister, who sped up her activities rather than slowing them down.

    We were sitting downstairs arranging booby traps..."

    You don't want to continue with a full blown conversation because that tends to drag at the beginning, but a line of dialogue spoken in this way serves to immediately alert the reader to underlying tensions and activities.  Using relatively few words, dialogue is a quick introduction to the mind of a character and his or her situation, which can then be vividly elaborating upon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Words Become Flesh: Show, Don't Tell Week 1

Now that we've got our story down and we've begun to get to know why we have written what we have and how to make that purpose more apparent to the readers, we have to help our readers feel that they are there.

One of the best ways to do this is through our senses:  sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.  And those are easy enough for you to locate.

Another way to draw in our readers, and one that takes a little more work but is definitely worth the effort, is through our intelligences.

In 1983, Howard Gardner posited the theory of multiple intelligences in his book Frames of Mind, available at through our Allegheny County libraries here or through Amazon here.  Gardner's idea was that people learn, express themselves, and solve problems in multiple ways--or through multiple intelligences.  These intelligences are:
  • Visual-spatial - working through by what you see, re-expressing things through visual composition, understanding how things fit
  • Logical-mathematical - deduction
  • Bodily Kinesthetic - movement
  • Musical - expression through music and rhythm.  Poems often exploit musical intelligence through rhythm.
  • Inter- and Intra-personal - understanding the emotions and drives of others and yourself
  • Linguistic - words
Gardner later discussed these other intelligences in subsequent works:
  • Naturalistic - understanding similarities and differences, seeing patterns
  • Existential (possibly) - understanding that which is "more" or "beyond"
Using these intelligences helps us to do more than simply make our reader "sense" where we are and how we feel.  It invites them to reason with us.  For example, consider this passage from my revised portion of writing from Friday:

"As the still hot sun began to wane ever-so-slightly around the baby-neighbors' naptime, the pool always confronted us upon our return from snacktime, Ritz cracker crumbs still clinging to peanut butter puckers on the corners of our lips.  A seeming jungle of grass clippings always greenly coated the top of the water.  It didn't matter if it had been ten full days since Dad had cut the grass in the late summer dryness, clippings still managed to invade our ten-inch water hole.  Daily we eyed it with that surprise that always comes of re-seeing that which you have most recently been parted from.  Was it really that gross when we climbed out? we wondered.

"But within a few minutes, we abandoned our towels and leapt over the edge beginning our whirling dance around the pool's outer edge.  Faster and faster, we raced in circles, seeing the house and tree whiz by on the outside and feeling the grass glide toward the center and the edges as the water swelled and pressed outward.  Like the world's largest bathtub, a whirlpool slowly materialized in our wading pool.

"We again leapt over the edge, ever so gently so as not to disrupt the whirlpool.  We all rushed to our mammoth sandbox where our neighbor retrieved the sand sieve and ran back to scoop out the grass, now clustered in the swirling center of the water.  After all, 7 months older than me, she had the longest arms.

"Finally, grass removed, we now stepped into the tepid water and sat down.  On grit.  Oops.  We'd totally forgotten about wiping off the sand."

Is it perfect?  No.  But I have expanded using the intelligences.  The discussion of our motion not only appeals to the reader's sense of sight but to his or her actual muscle memory and kinesthetic sense of how and why things move--the peanut butter sticks, the water spins, the sand clings.  The reader has a better understanding of this world and its workings. 

Other intelligences (not all, but some) are there as well:
  • Visual-spatial 
    "still hot sun," "Ritz cracker crumbs still clinging to peanut butter puckers on the corners of our lips," "seeming jungle of grass clippings," "greenly coated," "ten-inch water hole"
  • Logical-mathematical
    "Daily we eyed it with that surprise that always comes of re-seeing that which you have most recently been parted from.  Was it really that gross when we climbed out? we wondered."  Also, the logic of using the whirlpool to collect the grass.
  • Musical
    The long sentences of the second paragraph speed up your reading before the next paragraph slows them down again.
Considering these intelligences and adding a few of them in or simply emphasizing ones that are already there will help draw your reader into your world.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Heart of the Matter: Week 1

 The purpose of today's post is to help you identify the purpose of your story.  This is a very long post, so stop when you need to.  You can always come back to this lesson later when you have time.

Stories express the struggle (success or failure) of someone or something to meet a need.

Without going into too much detail (and, let me tell you, there is detail to be gone into!), let me just say that, in my experience, it all boils down to that struggle.  Even non-narrative books, if they are to gain acclaim, must somehow address this issue. Want examples?  I certainly would if I were reading this assertion for the first time.  So see them toward the bottom of the post.

The question is, though, is there a place for this struggle in your memoirs, and how do you find this struggle in your own story?

Yes, there is definitely a place for it in your memoirs (scroll to the bottom of the post for some guidance), and you start finding its place there by starting to find its place in the first of your stories.

To find the struggle in your story, answer these questions:
  1. What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?
  2. What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?
  3. What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?
  4. How are you trying to meet this need?
Sound confusing?

Let's try working it through first with an excerpt from a great piece of literature that we will not try to rewrite:

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt."
~ Lee, H. (1960).  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Chapter 1, paragraph 1.

Now let's answer the questions:
  1. What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?Relief.  We know because "Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged."  In addition to being directly told, we are also shown; "he could pass and punt" even though "[h]is left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh."
  2. What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?"Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."
  3. What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?Jem wants to meet the need to fit in (I am assuming) and to be physically whole in his own eyes (we are told, "he was seldom self-conscious about his injury" and "[h]e couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt").
  4. How are you trying to meet this need?In this case, he just has to wait and see.  We know he has to wait because we are told "[w]hen it healed," indicating that a time period passed in which Jem presumably could not do anything.  We can assume he had to "see" in the more active sense because "[h]is left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh" so he probably needed to adjust his prior throwing motion.  The adjustment worked, however, because we are told, "he could pass and punt."
The explanation ("how you know" parts in italics) of these answers are what you will want to add to your story to bring it to life and get the point across.

Now, we're not all Harper Lees, and even Harper Lee was so intimidated by her first novel that she never wrote again.  So how do we proceed with our imperfect stories?

Well, I'm going to show you through example.  After a brief brainstorming session on the smells, activities, sights that represent childhood in our minds, we each wrote briefly about these childhood memories (myself included).  Here is my first draft from our writing time in the first session:

"August was Bandaids and Bactine, no shoes in the backyard even though my father constantly warned us that we would step on a bee and I actually did once.  It was throwing all caution to the wind and doing summer till it hurt because there were only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started.

"Every morning was dedicated to filling the wading pool with icy hose water and changing into our swimming suits even though we knew we couldn't get in before lunch or risk chattering teeth and blue lips.  It was the promise of swimming that was important--that and the sunscreen which really turned us into greased pigs and made it impossible for Mom to actually catch us by the upper arm.  I'm sure she knew this every morning as she slathered us with Johnson & Johnson's, but she must have figured preventing skin cancer was more important than discipline--or maybe she decided to screw throw discipline to the wind.  After all, there were only seventeen-and-a-half more days till school started."

So now I answer those questions myself.
  1. What is the overwhelming emotion of your story?I'm not sure I have only one "emotion" here, and you may not know in your story either.  But I feel fun, carefree-ness, whimsy, and a certain wildness/urgency.
  2. What specific incident/observation has provoked you (or the central character) to feel that way?I think it's a few things.  We are told wildness with "August was Bandaids and Bactine" and "doing summer till it hurt" and shown with "we would step on a bee and I actually did once."  We are also told urgency with "only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started."  The fun, carefree-ness, and whimsy aren't shown yet.  I will need to add to get this done.
  3. What need are you trying to meet that has caused this emotion?The need for rest and relaxation, particularly before school's structure is reimposed.  We are told this with "only seventeen-and-a-half more days until school started."
  4. How are you trying to meet this need?
    By cramming in as much fun as possible.  So far all I've shown is filling the pool and alluded to running from Mom.
Now you are ready to rewrite.  

1.  What emotions have you not revealed through showing?

My first draft, initial write, above did not reveal these emotions:
  • fun
  • carefree-ness
  • whimsy
I immediately realize that I need to re-evaluate them because carefree-ness and urgency are at odds with one another.  The more I think about this, the more I think that I (who am actually very high-strung) have probably never had a carefree moment in my life (although many may be whimsical).  Therefore, I will eliminate carefree-ness and focus on "fun" and "whimsy."

2.  What other aspects of these memories will bring out/illustrate these emotions?

So now I remember back to those August days and look for other aspects of them which show fun and whimsy.  I remember and could write about:
  • the dog in the wading pool during dinner
  • Queen Anne's lace wedding rings so my sister could repeatedly "marry" our neighbor to the tune of "Roly Poly Fish-heads"
  • Becoming butterflies with beach towels
  • going house to house to get popsicles, claiming each time we hadn't gotten any before
  • catching butterflies
  • the agony of wasting precious time at the grocery store in the morning (and the coldness of the freezer section when you're wearing shorts)
3.  Write out these memories in your draft.

Before I move on to tomorrow's work of revising, I am going to need to write more.  Between now and then, I need to commit to putting at least some of these reminiscences into words.

Examples from earlier:
Let me give you some recent/popular examples of the struggle to meet a need:
  1. Harry Potter:  The sacrifices of earlier generations pay off as Harry succeeds in providing peace for his world by consistently choosing mercy (which ends up backfiring on the bad guy).  (Need:  peace)
  2. The Hunger Games:  Katniss succeeds in aiding the rebellion and securing freedom for society at-large through sacrificing her own personal freedom and those she has loved.  (Need:  food, belonging, freedom)
  3. The X-Files:  Mulder and Scully occasionally save the world as they satisfy their need to know in their search for the truth.  (Need:  knowledge, truth)
  4. The Beverly Hillbillies:  The Clampetts amuse us as they carve a place for their kind of people in Beverly Hills.  (Need:  authenticity, belonging)
  5. Roots:  The family of Kunta Kinte attempts to regain their freedom and secure their dignity.  (Need: freedom, dignity)
Here are some nonfiction examples:
  1. The Diary of Anne Frank:  A young girl struggles to come of age while growing up under extraordinary circumstances.  (Need:  security, mature identity)
  2. Black Boy:  Richard Wright struggles to overcome discrimination by rising through his own intellect.  (Need:  authenticity, respect)
  3. Walden:  Thoreau seeks peace and enlightenment through solitude and rustic life.  (Need:  authentic peace)
  4. And the Band Played on:  As the conflict over morals wages on a political front, Shilts captures the struggle of marginalized populations to combat AIDS while the government looks the other way.  (Need:  life, moral sense)
  5. Dr. Benjamin Spock's New Baby and Childcare:  Spock plays on our desire to protect our offspring as he shows us how to successfully raise our children.  (Need:  generativity, security for the young, confidence for parents)
And, of course, here are some literary examples:
  1. The Odyssey:  Ulysses seeks his way home despite a curse.  (Need: home, family)
  2. Pride and Prejudice:  Elizabeth Bennett seeks to order her surroundings (and her future) in spite of vexations and limited control.  (Need:  security, belonging)
  3. Jane Eyre:  Jane seeks love and belonging despite all (numerous) obstacles.  (Need:  love, belonging)
  4. Frankenstein:  Dr. Frankenstein seeks the secrets of life before realizing that they only bring death.  (Need:  knowledge, empathy, love, safety)
  5. The Complete Sherlock Holmes:  The hyper intelligent Holmes unravels mystery after mystery while secretly seeking a true challenge to his wits.  (Need:  order, understanding, challenge)

Finding purpose in a memoir:

If you are looking for this direction in a larger work, which is essentially a collection of incidents which are all smaller stories, I would suggest listing between ten and twenty of these incidents and going through the same questions to help you find purpose in stories. As you complete these questions across your stories, you should see a pattern. This pattern will help you find the purpose of your story.

Once you find the purpose, I find it helpful to look to other unifying theories, such as genres of fiction, Blake Snyder's beat sheet, or the Snowflake Method to help you collect and organize your work.  Even though these theories are primarily designed for fiction, they also simply describe the types of narratives that we tend to understand and expect as a culture.  By structuring your stories or telling your memories within structures that are already understood in your community, you make your stories more accessible to your audience, and I, personally, find this to be a worthwhile goal.  I have also found that the more I am able to conform to a narrative pattern, the less my readers can "put down" my story.  I think that this interest is caused in part by meeting expectations which leads to a built in suspense ("Oh!  The girl has met the guy!  When is the kiss?  What problems will they have with the parents?  Will they get married?" or "The crime has been committed, and they've questioned the first suspect.  What are they missing?  When will they strike again?").

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spark Your Memory: Week 1 Suggested Topics

So we're writing about childhood this week.


Consider the following objective topics:
  • sports or games you played as a child
  • your first pet or strange pets
  • your first friends
Consider the following subjective/developmental topics:
  • When did you learn your parents were human?
  • Was there a misconception that colored your thinking for many years?
  • In what ways did you overcome your early obstacles and gain confidence?
Consider the following sensory prompts:
  • What is the first smell you remember and what comes to mind?
  • What kind of pleasure did you get out of your first favorite foods and how did you eat them?
  • Which songs, cartoon themes, or video game music got stuck in your head as a child?  What actions went along with the tune?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Let's Write: Week 1

Assignment:  Write a simple story about a compelling memory from childhood.

More info:  Do not worry about form or length at this point.  Reach back.  Grab a moment from the ocean of your memory.  Try to capture its wriggling fish-like essence and somehow convert that to words on a page.  That in itself is hard enough.

Some examples:  Do not feel compelled to read all or even any of these.  These examples are merely here to show you what this assignment *might* look like.  Your writing will not look like these stories.  That's good.  Your voice is your own and we like it that way.  That said, sometimes hearing a story is like the bait that lures stories of your own to the surface.  If you feel stuck or insecure, give one of them a try.  Conversely, I find that when I have finished but feel something is missing, reading another's story sometimes shows me what I left out.  Feel free to refer to these later in the process as well.

This I Believe: 
Other well known:
Other contemporary blog:

Getting Started

Once again, welcome to Lives in Letters!  As we get started in our class (and/or you get started at home), we will look particularly at life writing.

Many writers or workers in creative fields have likened their endeavors to hunting.  Jack London famously maintained, "You can't wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club." 

In the case of life writing, I find fishing an appropriate metaphor.  It takes time.  Says author Jane Yolen, "Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer."  The stories, like fish, are already swimming in the oceans of our memories.  The key is finding ways to drag them out.  Sometimes they seem to jump right out of clear waters and into our nets.  Other times we must wrest them from the murky deep fighting all the way.  Still other times, the reflection of our own world above water obscures our view of what lies beneath.

These thirty-five posts, to be published every day at 1:30 PM EST (if I set it right!), are designed to improve your "catch."  I can't wait for you to taste the results!