Monday, June 23, 2014

Minerva Rising: Memoir Lessons from Poetry



I encourage all prose writers to read poetry. There are inherent writing lessons in all genres, and poetry offers examples of how few words can create great ideas and images.

In this month's guest post for Minerva Rising Literary Journal, I write about just this from a memoir perspective. Hope you'll spend some time on Minerva Rising's website while you are there. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Writing Prompt: Organization

There are many ways to organize your manuscript (poems, chapters, essays, etc.) that it can be overwhelming. Here's an exercise I offer in my memoir writing workshop at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Memoir Manuscript Organization:

You've started writing a number of scenes that don't immediately fit together. How do you order and connect these scenes? You might choose to order them chronologically, chronologically with flashbacks, character, place or theme or something else.

Start by writing a list of 8 - 10 main "things" in your memoir. These "things" (such a bland word, but you are meant to define it for yourself) can be any characteristics that you already have in mind: chapter titles, main characters, main events, central research or other related ideas. List each item on a separate index card.

Spread out the index cards in front of you and move them around to see what your options are.

Answer the following questions in writing:
Write a short paragraph that summarizes the list.
This leads you to the ultimate question: What is the coherent, unifying idea that connects each item? This is your thesis. Can you write it in a single sentence?

Now you know how these items connect. The next goal is to determine how they can be best presented and in what order.

Items put next to each other change based on their proximity and relationship to something else. For example, placing a plastic drinking cup next to a gas can might suddenly make the cup look cleaner and smaller.

With that in mind, move your index cards around on the table. Put them in different orders and see how the relationship between each item - and the item on its sown - changes based on its location.

Write a short paragraph that explains the (or "an") order that you might follow.

Congratulations! You now have a potential, skeleton outline for your memoir. Remember to keep your outline updated as you write since writing is a form of learning and you'll better understand your purpose (thesis) as you continue to write and better understand your project.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reading Lists?

It is summer and many students are looking at their summer reading lists, either for specific classes or a campus-wide read. I'm looking at the piles of books I've bought and hope to settle into some of them this summer under a tree. (Or in the air conditioning, since we live in D.C.)

What classics or contemporary collections haven't you read? Rebecca Makkai wrote about this topic for Ploughshares and David Ebenbach responded on his blog. I'll comfort myself with the excuse that it would be a waste of reading time to list the books I haven't read. Or that I've read and forgotten.

Makkai describes why there are so many "great" pieces of literature she's missed:
Of course, I know I’m not actually deficient, any more than you are, or any more than anyone who reads widely but only has ninety years on the planet. You and I could spend our whole lives reading great literature and never overlap on a single book. We’d try to converse and both come away feeling like under-read slobs. If we were lucky, we’d remember that the problem isn’t our ignorance or apathy but our embarrassment of riches.

Ebenbach focuses on the books he's read, but can't exactly remember:
But what about the books that I can’t even recall? Well, literature affects you in all kinds of ways, some of which might be subtle and hard to recognize but nonetheless important and lasting. Who knows how a book changes your sense of language and life, even if you can’t name the main character two years later? Years later, Eudora Welty’s stories are somewhat hazy in my memory, but I know I learned important things about storytelling from her (and the same goes for Chekhov); I can’t quote too many different Emily Dickinson poems from memory, but I know she’s changed the way I think about sound. And even if I don’t remember what happened in To the Lighthouse I know how powerful it felt to settle into the minds that Woolf helped me inhabit.

It isn't possible to read every great piece of literature, just as it would be unlikely that we'd settle on one list of "great" literature in any genre. It does take more than one reading, hopefully at different phases of life, to have a deeper understanding of a piece. As an undergraduate Italian major who learned the language in college, I was reading novels, short stories and poems in Italian with a dictionary by my side. While I might have understood (most) of the individual words, I missed many of the finer literary and cultural points. I hope to have time one day to return to those and English-language, as well as books in translation, that touched me years ago.

What books do you remember reading? What's next on your reading list and why?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Memoir Writing Prompt: Writing from your enemy's point of view

It is easy to write someone you dislike into a one-dimensional villain. While this might be initially satisfying, this approach doesn't serve your final manuscript or help you to sound like a reliable narrator. 

Try this writing prompt to better understand those you haven't (yet?) forgiven:


Write about yourself from the point of view of someone who disagrees with you. Maybe you hold a grudge against this person or haven't forgiven the person for something. This exercise is meant to help you see that person's point of view and present the person as more of a three-dimensional character. Try to sympathize with this other person and show that person’s motivation.

Do this for ten minutes without stopping and then re-read what you've written and underline the main ideas. Don't worry about grammar or punctuation as you're writing. You might even simply write down a list of words or sentence fragments. Focus on the ideas, rather than the sentence structure.

Perhaps this won’t fit into your memoir, but it will help you to better understand the situation. You don't have to forgive the person; after all, I'm not a therapist doling out free (and maybe bad) advice. In order to develop the character, you do need to try to find some insight into his or her motives and emotional state.