My memory resembles Swiss cheese…

baby_swiss memoriesThe bigger the memory, the bigger the hole. Or, maybe it’s the better the memory, the bigger the hole. That’s not really the issue. It’s more of a “which hole represents what” kinda thing. I’ve no problem with stuff I can remember, my problem is with the stuff I can’t remember. Double-check the photo. See all the undocumented holes? Those are the ones I’m talkin’ about.

And, if the Swiss cheese analogy is just too… well… cheesy, consider an alternative. My memory map probably looks more like the Great Plains in the 1600s, shortly after a half zillion bison stormed through. Sorta flat. And pretty thoroughly mulched. Probably smelly, too. So how is one supposed to scrape up enough memories there to build a memoir? How do we remember what we’ve forgotten?

stairs to nowhereConundrum. How does one get anywhere from nowhere? I posed this question to one of my classes and asked them to come up with a list of things someone might have forgotten. Each student contributed five, and I merged their efforts into one big list.

There were surprisingly few duplicates, probably ’cause I listed most of the easy ones in my examples. (Rank has its privileges, right?) Anyway, my loyal followers came up with some gems, and I present their suggestions to the world of memory challenged memoir writers. I hope the items on the list will spark some recollections of things you quit thinking about long ago.

And, if this list causes you to think of still other items I can include next time around, won’t you please take the time to note them in a comment?  I welcome any and all input.

Herewith, then, an incomplete and hopefully soon-to-be expanded list of things a memoir writer might’ve forgotten about (in no particular order). Do you remember:

  • girl-kissing-pigThe first time you kissed someone you weren’t related to?
  • Being lost somewhere, at any age?
  • The day your sister or brother was born?
  • What really went on at Girl (or Boy) Scout camp?
  • Your first visit to an outhouse?
  • The first meal you cooked for your spouse?
  • The first time a world event shook your life?
  • Preparing for your first day of school?
  • Show, striptease. Handsome guys with sexy bodyStupid graduation stunts?
  • The first time you tasted popcorn?
  • Visiting a deserted house, or one that should have been?
  • The first time you tasted beer?
  • Something you did that you never, ever wanted your parents to hear about?
  • What you hated the most about your first job?
  • The first time you went somewhere you weren’t supposed to go?
  • Dollarphotoclub_72098022 smThe first time you hurt yourself doing something stupid?
  • Moving to a new home?
  • The person you never dated, but always wanted to?
  • The first movie star or musician you fell in love with?
  • Learning to drive?
  • Breaking the rabbit ears on the TV when you tried to adjust them?
  • Sneaking into a drive-in movie in the trunk of someone’s car?
  • Burlesque Pin-up Character IllustrationDiscovering that the “show” you bought tickets for wasn’t quite what you thought it would be?
  • When you borrowed something without permission, and it got damaged?
  • The first time you rode a horse?
  • The time you wanted desperately to impress someone, and made a fool of yourself?
  • Seeing the ocean for the first time?
  • The first time someone you loved or respected deeply disappointed you?
  • Your first trip to the dentist?
  • Learning to read?
  • Dollarphotoclub_76668951 smSomething that scared you when you went to the circus?
  • The first time you discovered that something you firmly believed in simply wasn’t true?
  • The “not so proper” things that went on after closing at the “ever so proper” place where you worked?
  • The last thing you loaned to someone that was never returned?
  • The person you’d most like to apologize to?

That’s probably enough for this go-round, but it’s an interesting exercise. If you can’t find some long-lost memories in this list, you’re just not trying hard enough!



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Drama in a memoir?

Shark attack. Life insurance concept.There’s drama in life, so why not in the documentation of a life as well? We’ve all experienced moments where an outcome wasn’t guaranteed. The concept isn’t limited to sports or warfare. Who hasn’t taken a test of some kind, the outcome of which would effect one’s life? In my case, passing an exam meant keeping my job. For others, passing meant gaining a job, or entrance to a college, or med school, or Navy Seal training.

In writing, however, the concept of “drama” is too often downplayed or worse, equated with “melodrama.” The more acceptable term is “tension.” So let’s rephrase the question: Does tension belong in a memoir?

The answer, as some of my vocal Southern brethren might say, is: “Oh, hell yes!”

So, how does one introduce tension in non-fiction, and more specifically, memoir? Several things come to mind, beginning with promises, vows and obligations. These are all common things, and many of us don’t even think of them as motivators, but that’s exactly what they are. We do things for reasons, don’t we? Well, these can be mighty strong reasons. Add desire to that list, and you’ve expanded the whole notion of motivation exponentially!

Okay then, if you’ve established that something must be done, you have to ask yourself, “What’s standing in the way?” What is it that might keep you from reaching your goal? Another key question that deserves an answer is: “What’s at stake?”  scary competitionIf my goal is to get a date with the insanely pretty redhead who lives on the corner, am I willing to compete with all the other guys who are marching toward her door? If I want to become a physician, am I willing to do the work, suffer the long hours and accept the lousy salary that precedes success?

And then there are other techniques which can be employed as needed. Let’s start with foreshadowing. This one can be very handy and creates instant tension. And it’s as easy as saying something like, “I would find out later how wrong I was.” Or, “If only I’d taken a little more time,” or, “That’s what I thought then.” But be careful, this one is easy to overdo. A little foreshadowing goes a long way.

A technique fiction writers use constantly involves tossing out a question, and then leaving it unanswered. The question needn’t be as obvious as, “What would I do?” Simply setting up a situation that begs the question is enough. Your reader will be happy to ask it in his head: “How will she get out of that?” Or, the one most writers strive for: “What happens next?”

Man with clock trying to meet the deadline isolated on whiteThere’s always the old ticking clock, too. How many times have we seen that used? And yet, it still works! Time limits, deadlines, final warnings–all these things have powerful connotations. Use them if you can.

Way back when, Chekov got it right when he advised producing the weapon in scene one that you intend to use in scene 2. Having things appear just in the nick of time is simply too darned convenient. So plan ahead; set the scene. The “gun,” obviously, is rhetorical. It could be anything, or anyone, whose involvement means trouble. Trotting a potential threat out on your stage may be enough to put readers on edge. And that’s a good thing!

Consider, also, the relative values of known dangers versus unknown dangers. The latter might seem to be scarier–what’s more frightening than the unknown? But I don’t buy it. I know how deadly a coral snake is. If one shows up in my house, I’m moving. I won’t necessarily do that for something strange that crawls in. It could be benign. Which would bother you more, a black spider or a black widow spider?

In the wonderful world of writing, stories revolve around a simple formula, the acronym for which is MACMotive, Action, Consequence. I’ve talked about it at length. (Here, in fact.) It works for both fiction and non-fiction. It also requires that the writer strike a balance between action and anticipation. In fiction, readers need a break; much like the characters they’re reading about, they need time to rest and recuperate before the next great challenge arises. Similarly, readers of memoir need time to process. While they’re busy doing that, you can be setting up the next bit of tension which, hopefully, will pull them toward the next episode of your life.

“What happens next?” Man, what a great question!


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It’s not *supposed* to be easy!

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. It takes concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. More than anything else, it takes time. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is fiction or non-fiction, feature or fantasy. Anything that can be written has almost certainly been written poorly. But not everything that can be written has been written well. And there’s the challenge.technical

Technical writing is often cited as the most tedious of all written work, yet I’ve done software documentation that was actually quite readable. At some hideous moment in the darkest annals of technical writing history, someone — probably an overpaid, middle management type — decided that “serious” and “professional” were synonymous with “boring.” Engineers and software designers, it was decreed, must not be allowed to add humor, sarcasm, or even rhyming words to their written work lest it be perceived as something less than the scientific version of holy writ. What utter crap. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing well.

One might argue that scientific types, engineering types and others of a serious and/or scholarly mindset, are rarely capable of writing anything in a lighthearted manner. But that’s absurd. The ability to think clearly and rationally doesn’t preclude the ability Elderly man posing on white backgroundto see the humor in everyday life, or anything else. Why must the difficulty of the subject matter relieve the person writing about it to slack off? Why can’t the writing be as worthy as the topic?

Good writing doesn’t have to be humorous, of course, but it ought to be understandable at the very least. And it must be readable. Great hoary blocks of unrelieved text composed of never-ending sentences, convoluted grammar, and passive constructs shouldn’t ever be the goal. At its very heart, good writing is communicative. If it fails at that, what’s the point?

Scholarly work needn’t be so attentive to the subject that no attention is paid to the literaturefundamental reason for the written description. Being obtuse doesn’t make something profound. It only makes it a greater chore to wade through than it has to be. A writer’s primary job is to connect with readers. It applies to memoir writing, fiction writing, speech writing, and all the other kinds of writing you can think of!

I’ve read humorous obituaries. I hope my own will make readers smile, even if I have to write it myself, which, now that I think of it, isn’t a bad idea. I have no doubt that doing so will require a significant amount of effort. I won’t be able to just sit down and dash off something that’ll do the job. It’ll take concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. It’ll also take time.

But I’m okay with that. Good writing is worth it.


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Sidebars? In a memoir?

SidebarSure! Why not? And just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, check out the contents of the gray box on the right.

Sidebars provide a great way to bring in interesting asides that aren’t directly a part of your memoir, though they’re related. A writer friend who shared her memoir with me mentioned a game she remembered seeing her grandmother playing. It was called Bolita, and while it never became popular elsewhere, it had an intense following in many parts of Florida, especially among those of Cuban descent.

To me, that qualifies as something worthy of a sidebar. But then, I get a huge kick out of discovering things I never knew before. I suspect most people do, and this is a great way to help them do it!

Stop and think for a moment. Those of us who’ve reached middle age have seen an astonishing number of changes in our lives. Driven, relentlessly, by our collective hunger for more and better technology, the world around us has never changed so much so fast. It’s been estimated that of all the scientists who ever lived, better than 90% are still alive!

Yet, most of our children, and certainly our grandchildren, have very little awareness of what life was like before virtually everything became automated. Bringing them up to speed on where we came from, and how we got here, is both an obligation and an ice manopportunity. Our memoirs certainly don’t have to be history lessons in themselves, but bringing relevant bits of history into sharp focus can make our stories more “real.”

I recall seeing a man delivering ice in huge blocks when I was a child. We were fortunate enough to have a refrigerator, but some of our neighbors didn’t. Hence, the ice man. And the ice box. And the little drip pan underneath. All of which seems like so much pioneer stuff to kids today. But it’s interesting.

And while we’re on the subject of refrigeration, another memoir-writing friend told me about the hospital where she was born. It was one of the first buildings in the city of Atlanta to have air conditioning. She later learned that movie theaters were in the vanguard of air conditioning adopters. No wonder even the bad movies were popular in the summertime! It’ll make a neat sidebar.

Another friend recently wrote about her first ever experience pumping gas for herself and lamented the lost days of “full service” filling stations where people not only put gas in your tank but offered to check your oil and clean your windshield, too. Suggest that to kids these days and they’ll look at you as if you’d just grown a second head. But, I can see greater adjutantwhere something like that might be appropriate as a sidebar.

The point of all this is that what we find interesting, and worth including in a memoir, is going to vary widely. One who grows up with a passion for bird watching will likely choose sidebar material that’s nothing at like what a woodworker or a coin collector might choose. (Note lovely rare bird pictured here: the greater adjutant, obviously named by someone with a wonderful sense of humor.)

Sidebars provide a great way to add something odd, unique or special to your narrative.


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It’s Your Memoir, but Where Should it Start?

Tough question. And you thought the toughest one was whether or not to attempt a memoir. Well, I’m proud of you for getting this far anyway. Figuring out precisely where to start can be a tricky proposition for some, and ridiculously easy for others.

Options1The key is to understand who you wish to reach and what you wish to convey. If your concern is family history, and not just your own role in it, then an historical approach is probably in order. Whether or not you break out a family tree or page after page of genealogical charts and diagrams is fodder for another discussion. For now, let’s assume this memoir is about you.

Fortunately, you’re the absolute expert on YOU! Where do you want to take this journey? Perhaps your career has been unusual, or has provided the means to do the unusual, or meet people the rest of us never will. Maybe you traveled to exotic places or were involved in events that shaped history, the world, or something closer to home: your family, your pets, and maybe even yourself.

On the other hand, your life may have been blessed with a variety of influences–far more than could be squeezed into a simple thing like a career. In that case, maybe all you need to focus on are the highlights–a magical journey, parts of a job, an amazing romance. The sum of those disparate parts might make for wonderful reading.

Options2Or, maybe your life has been marked most significantly by hardship, illness, or abuse. More than one memoir has served admirably as a catharsis or even a purgative. Exposing those dark spots in the past to the light of truth can have a dramatic healing effect. (Be prepared, however, for some push back if you name names and reveal secrets. Some folks just can’t handle the truth, especially if they don’t have the means to spin it in their own favor. I refer to people of this ilk as cretins. They aren’t worth the time it takes to worry about ’em.)

Probably the easiest way to move forward is to make a list of the most memorable things that have happened in your life. Write down each event on an index card with enough details to insure you’ll recall exactly what experience/occasion you had in mind. Then move on to the next. When you’re done, you can put them in whatever order suits your fancy. Then you can simply pick out one of those cards every time you sit down to work on your project and focus on just that Options3event.

Look stuff up; contact others who were there; dig out old letters, albums, yearbooks, memorabilia–anything that will help you paint an accurate picture. Don’t worry about length, style, spelling, punctuation, or anything else. Focus entirely on getting the information down in a format you can save. There will be plenty of time later to edit the details and make it all pretty, and hopefully, exciting.

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I’ll have a “MAC memoir”

memoir burgerOkay, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about a manuscript and some rabbit food on a sesame seed bun. What I’m referring to are the basic building blocks of any good story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. The acronym for this magic formula is MAC, and it stands for Motive, Action, and Consequence.

Think about it. Good stories hold a reader’s attention through action–things happen, they happen for a reason, and there’s some sort of outcome, good or bad. (Indifferent outcomes don’t generate any appeal, so they aren’t a good option.) How is any of this different from life experiences?

Little Lord Fahrquar wanted to join the swim team (motive). He begged Lord and Lady Fahrquar to let him participate (action). They gave in; he attended his first competition, swim compositeand was not just beaten but humiliated (consequence). This could be fiction or biography, couldn’t it? Of course. Now, how does little Lord Loser react? Does he man up, attend practice, work hard, maybe even learn how to swim and dive, then enter another race? Maybe. That would provide an easy application of the MAC formula. Or perhaps Lord and Lady Fahrquar pay off the judges to disqualify the other competitors so that their little lamb won’t have his widdle ego bruised any more. Of course, that only leads to the little Lordling morphing into a whiny, toad-like approximation of a human, one who can’t stand up for himself. OR, maybe LLF takes an even lower road–maybe he uses his wealth to sabotage the efforts of those he must compete against? There’s another motive-action-consequence wheel a’ spinnin’….

Obviously, it’s easier to spin the MAC wheel when writing fiction; it’s all made up! Sticking to a script dictated by life and circumstance requires a different approach, one that examines the underpinnings of our past to find the motives. Sometimes it isn’t easy.

That’s all well and good you say, but *my* life just didn’t work that way. See, I had to work from the time I was, oh I dunno, sixteen maybe, until I turned 65. And….

I get it; I really do. *Your* life was different! There weren’t any motivations at all. You got up, presumably because you had to; you went to work, every day for about fifty years, presumably because there weren’t any other options (friends, hobbies, vacations, love affairs, illnesses, accidents–good and bad–birthdays, weddings, celebrations, or anything else). And now you’ve reached a point in your life where you want to talk about it. Right?

young man with finger in his nose at a crowded placeOkay, let me get this straight, ’cause it’s at the heart of this whole business. You want to write about your life even though there were no motivations, no resultant actions, and no consequences to speak of. Is that about it?

If the answer is “Yes,” then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Bubba, but you don’t have much to write about. In fact, I covered it all–in depth–just a couple paragraphs back. My guess, however, is that if you give it a little more thought, you might just find a motivation or two in there somewhere. Dig for it!

You had to go to work at 16? Why? Because you wanted to, or because you had to? Because you needed money for a guitar, or a car, or college tuition? C’mon! If it weren’t for a near constant stream of motivations none of us would survive infancy. Things happen for a reason–it’s simple cause and effect. Whether or not the reason is readily apparent doesn’t matter. What does matter, profoundly, is how we respond to the consequences.

I’m tempted to sign this rant “Captain Obvious,” except that I know some folks who can’t or won’t assign motives–real ones, anyway–to some of the most profound actions they take. The thing is, once you make the decision to ferret out those hidden or perhaps repressed motives, the real story appears, and those are the ones that probably need telling more than all the rest.


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My memoir–my memories

Two eye-witnesses, two conflicting stories. Happens all the time. Right?

me tooHaving watched endless courtroom dramas, either live or via Hollywood, we’ve all heard that witnesses often interpret what they’ve seen in different ways. Defense attorneys love it when witnesses can’t agree on details. Prosecutors hate it. The reverse is true when a single witness sticks to his story like a pit bull on a pork chop. I’m all for anything that’ll drive an attorney nuts, but when it comes to memoir writing, I hate to see writers get “the cringe.” That’s a condition in which the writer suddenly becomes concerned about what dear, old, Aunt Dilemma will say, or they’re convinced one or more siblings will escalate to DefCon 9 (launch mode) when they read the document currently in the works. Hence, the cringe. It’s understandable.

A slightly different version of the affliction is based on the fear that what one writes may upset someone else who’d prefer to keep that particular piece of business out of the spotlight, for you know, just a little longer–like say, oh, the next thousand years, give or take an ice age. cant say thatThese folks–and I’m NOT talking about the writers–must surely have a guilty conscience. Either they did something they shouldn’t have, or they failed to do something, say something, or be somewhere as promised. They broke a trust, and they’ve managed to skate by without much in the way of consequences, and now, suddenly it seems, they expect the injured party to keep quiet. Right? Hey, seems okay to me.

So sure. No problem!  

Except, it is a problem. I know everyone quotes Ann Lamott on this topic, and I can’t see any reason not to join her chorus. To wit: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Even if the memory in question doesn’t involve someone’s shortcomings, there’s always the chance that two people may not share the *exact* same recollection of a particular event. At football games, for instance, I’m quite sure I spend more time watching the cheerleaders than my bride does. On the other hand, she’s guaranteed to have a better idea of who’s wearing what in the seats around us. Unless it’s blinking neon or smells of burning creosote and/or last month’s Catch of the Day, I’m not likely to notice. That’s prob’ly what makes us such a good match.

There’s no reason to fear the truth when writing a memoir, even if your truth varys a bit from that of someone else. Your story evolved through your eyes and your experience, and as Ann Lamott so adroitly points out, you own it. WOW WesternTherefore, you can relay it in any way that suits you. You’re the only one you need to satisfy.

So, don’t worry about crazy old Uncle Naboo. What he says or thinks doesn’t matter. If he feels *that* strongly about it, he can always write his own narrative. But just between you and me, his won’t be as good as yours, ’cause you’ve got me as your coach!

Keep writin’, dang it!



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