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Speechwriter for the president and provost of a university
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Master of Arts in English
Author of A Woman in Time (a memoir) and The Girl in the Leaning Tower (a novel)
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Do you tell yourself, “I’m just not a writer—I didn’t get that gift”? Do you say, “I don’t know grammar”? Have you concluded, “Writing comes easily for other people, but not for me”?
If feelings like these discourage you from writing a memoir, this post is for you. I hope it will also include some useful tips for more confident writers.
No matter how little confidence you have as a writer, know that you have what it takes to write a meaningful memoir.
The most essential part of writing is having something to say. And if you’re planning to write about your life—your experiences and perceptions—you absolutely qualify. Yes, knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation is useful, but good writing comes from having something worth saying and then finding the means to say it effectively.
For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with a chaotic, error-filled first draft as long as it doesn’t become the final draft. (Once you have a fully developed draft of your memoir, then it will be time to turn to organizing your content and improving your sentences and paragraphs.)
For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
Some people express themselves more easily orally than in writing. If this description fits you, you may want to draft your book by first talking into a recorder. Transcribing the recordings will take a lot of time but can be rewarding. In the course of transcribing your recordings, you will find yourself making small revisions that strengthen and clarify the content.
If you’re horrified by the thought of transcribing hours of recordings, you may wish to consider purchasing speech-to-text software. Speech-to-text software—Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a popular choice—allows you to speak into your computer through a microphone and have your words appear in your document. In addition to “training” the software to recognize your voice patterns, you will need to review your document thoroughly to correct any errors.
Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.
As you revise your work, remember your goal: to let your readers put themselves in your place and experience what you have experienced, feel as you have felt, and understand what you have known.
Bookmark an online grammar and punctuation guide and then refer to it when you are unsure of a rule. A comprehensive choice is the Online Grammar Guide.
One of the best style manuals continues to be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with updates, has been around for 100 years. I suggest buying a copy of The Elements of Style (available on Kindle for $.99) and reading it from cover to cover.
Your style considerations should include these:
When a sentence becomes long and difficult to comprehend, consider breaking it into two (or more) sentences. Short sentences are generally more reader friendly than very long sentences.
Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
Use commas and other punctuation for clarity. For example, by reading aloud what you’ve written, you will often be able to see where a comma is needed. (Which is it: “Let’s eat Jonah before we go,” or “Let’s eat, Jonah, before we go”?) Be consistent in your choices: Don’t write “the dog, the cat, and the man” (comma before “and”) one time and then write “the hat, the shirt and the suit” (no comma before “and”) the next.
Be especially careful of your pronoun usage. Follow prepositions with object pronouns (her, him, me, us, them): He gave it to Jon and me (not “to Jon and I”!).
To work out the most effective wording and to check the clarity of your prose, read aloud what you have written. Another choice is to install a screen reader and listen to your written work as you follow along. A free screen reader can be downloaded from NaturalReader.
After doing your best to revise and improve your memoir, you may choose to ask friends and family to read your work to find unclear passages, typos, and other problems you have overlooked.
Improve your writing by writing. Keeping a journal, for instance, is a useful way both to practice your writing and to develop possible topics for a memoir.
If you want to read others’ ideas about how to improve the quantity and quality of your writing (but remember that you are the best judge of what and how you should write), you could read some of the books on the interesting and comprehensive list “Best Books for Writers,” from Poets & Writers, a website that is filled with resources. The site is well worth exploring, as is Poets & Writers magazine. The magazine is available in digital and print editions; see the Poets & Writers site for details.
You may find it useful to join or establish a writers’ group. Sharing your work in progress with other writers can be encouraging and inspiring. I suggest looking for a group that stresses honest positive feedback of this type: “I especially like your use of ___ ,” or “I think your portrayal of ___ works well,” or “I’d like to hear even more about___.” Most members of writers’ groups, no matter how skilled, are not qualified to give negative feedback that is helpful, justified, and not discouraging. Too many writers who critique other writers are trying to turn the other writers into clones of themselves—or they’ve read a “rule” somewhere and imagine that any writer who violates it is absolutely, positively doomed.
If you think you can’t write, you are probably buying into the common myths about writing. These myths would have you wrongly believe that either you have it as a writer or you don’t. They would fool you into thinking good writers never struggle with their writing. And they would lead you to imagine that good writers put all the right words in the right order from the moment they set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Don’t let these myths fool you and convince you that your wonderful story has to stay locked inside of you. Bolster your courage and release your story into the world.
We humans write memoirs because we want to share important aspects of our lives. We want others to understand how the world has looked to us, how we have experienced life. But readers have trouble becoming drawn in by a memoir if the author simply writes down the unadorned facts. Travel memoirs are especially prone to staying at the level of travelogue—where the writer went and what he or she did—but any memoir can fall down in the task of showing the meaning behind the facts.
Even the most fascinating moments can be turned into dry reading material. I once knew a man who spent many weeks traveling through Europe and parts of Asia by bicycle. He sent accounts home, hoping they could be published. I’m sorry to say that my acquaintance excelled in making a thrilling journey sound dull.
I wanted to know who the people were whom he had met along the way, what their lives were like, how they had responded to my friend. I wanted to be able to see in my mind the scenery that had surrounded him as he rode. I wanted to know what he’d thought about as he journeyed, whether he was sometimes homesick or afraid. In short, I wanted to share his trip vicariously.
Instead, I found itineraries listing the cities and towns he’d traversed, accounts of the meals he’d consumed, and statistics about the length and geography of each day’s biking. All this was a start, but it didn’t rise to the level of consistently engaging. I could have looked in an atlas to get a sense of his route. I wanted to be able to find my friend within that route, but he was almost entirely absent.
I’ll share an example of the kind of writing I’m complaining about—writing that is fine for a first draft but does not yet engage the reader. Like any memoir writer, I write because I want others to see how and why elements of my life have mattered. This passage does not yet achieve that goal:
I went to Pisa for two weeks to study Italian in a language school. I stayed in a convent (in this case actually called a “monastery”) a few miles outside of town. My room was inexpensive, but there were a lot of mosquitoes.
The first morning (a Saturday), I didn’t like the breakfast. After breakfast, I walked into town, which took a long time. It was really hot. I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, ate lunch nearby, and walked almost all the way down to the train station so I’d know where my school was when Monday came.
Pisa is mostly famous for the Leaning Tower and the other buildings in the so-called “Field of Miracles,” but I liked the whole city a lot, especially the Arno River, the little church called Santa Maria della Spina, and the Tower of Famine, which is famous for a count who was imprisoned there during the Middle Ages and supposedly ate his sons and grandsons.
(And so on. . . .)
I can take this first draft and begin to pull in my readers. Here are some of the strategies I might use to help my readers understand what the facts I’m presenting mean to me, why they matter. I can . . .
Choose details that help to recreate a mood:
For the first week, I stay about three miles outside the city limits in the guest quarters of a monastery for nuns—the Monastero di Santa Maria madre della Chiesa e di San Benedetto. When I arrive, in the evening light I see the nuns, wearing long gray habits, strolling silently around a lush courtyard behind a high iron fence.
Just before total darkness, before the pink in the sky has completely faded, I hear the high, sweet voices of the nuns singing in their chapel.
Let the word choice convey an attitude:
The monastery-provided breakfast—yesterday’s was two small, bedraggled apples, coffee and milk served in thermoses, a basket of leftover rolls (one already half consumed), and a partly used package of cookies—won’t be available until 7:30, by which time I hope to be drinking tea in a bar near my language school.
Compare one experience to another:
Back home, I commute by car along the congested thirteen miles to work, passing several strip malls, fast-food restaurants, a couple of modern churches, and nondescript entrances to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. But in Pisa, rather than being a necessity to endure, the commute is essential to the experience.
Use pictures to aid the reader’s imagination:
Tell enough about an experience to let readers vicariously come along with me:
Just south of the piazza I find a bar for a pot of tea and a spinach omelet between thin layers of focaccia. I join the half-dozen men and women standing at the counter with their coffee and reading a newspaper or watching the television news on the set mounted on the wall. The morning-show hosts speak rapidly, and I can only get the gist of their words. Even on my first day of school, standing at the bar feels like a routine. And as out of place as tea seems in a nation of coffee drinkers, I will never find an Italian bar unable to supply a small pot, hot water, and a teabag for my tè caldo.
The second week of school, I move to the Albergo Clio, a one-star hotel on an alley near the south bank of the Arno. My sense grows of being a part of Pisa, of the ongoing life of the city. At night, as I do homework exercises or write in my journal, I love hearing dishes and silverware clattering in the neighbors’ kitchens, my neighbors. Teenage boys sit outside in the warm air and talk until midnight. A rock band practices. A miniature garbage truck faithfully, and noisily, collects trash at 6:15 every morning.
Tell what I like (or dislike) about an experience; directly state my feelings about something:
The best part of getting on the bus is the ordinariness of it, as if I do this every day.
The Leaning Tower is to me the most magical and captivating of all structures. Imagine passing it every day, a part of ordinary life! During my two weeks in Pisa, I will walk to the Tower daily to share time with it.
I am uncharacteristically calm and confident today. In Pisa, I find myself relishing the moments as they happen, with no desire to rush toward a more promising future. I stay inside the Pisan moments and savor the experience. I wasn’t nervous about walking into the school, announcing myself to Pier Luigi, and I’m not nervous about working my way through the test choices—the answers I know, those I think I might know, and those about which I haven’t a clue. I just rip along, not second-guessing myself or fearing the quality of my effort.
On the Monday of our second (and last) week together, Simon asks me, “Would you like to go to the bar for coffee during la pausa? Lots of people do.” Riding down on the rickety elevator with Simon and me, Jacek tells me, as if in warning, “I’m a priest.” Yes, I know. What does this fact matter, except to make the jolly company all the more interesting.
Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”
As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”
Tell a story:
The taxi driver who stops for me has been having a bad day, to which I add. As I am getting in the taxi, I don’t think about the fact I am still wearing a small backpack. I bump the car a little with it, but the pack is soft. The driver says indignantly, “Per favore, signora!” I think he is kidding and chuckle, but he really is angry with me. I apologize, explaining that I’m tired. “You’re tired!” he says and launches into a tirade (in Italian) about how tired he is and how terrible it is for tourists like me to have so much baggage when millions of people are starving in the world. He has a point. I apologize again, say that I’m not a bad person and don’t want to hurt him or anyone, and explain about the strike and long trip. . . .
Directly state the effect on me of an experience or encounter:
In Pisa, I don’t change permanently, but I do change for as long as I remain in that Italian city.
I am older than most of my classmates. I am the only American. I am the only tea drinker, the only vegetarian. Back home, I have nearly always tried finding my place in a group by adjusting as needed to fit in. At the Istituto linguistico Mediterraneo, I find my place in the group by being myself. With my first pausa at the Bar Sapori, I join our ephemeral community as a full-fledged citizen, abandoning my role of observer from the sidelines. My usual shyness, giddiness, and exaggerated civility evaporate in the hot Tuscan air.
In other words:
If you think about what the facts of your life have meant and mean to you, and if you work to share this significance, you will probably end up presenting a meaningful account to your readers.
And remember that readers, too, have to do their share. They have a responsibility to try to put themselves in your place as they read about your experiences. For one thing, they need to tune in to the connotations (the emotional overtones) of the words you have chosen to use. For example, in a writers’ group that I attended, a participant complained that a writer in the group had not expressed her feelings about the events she had described. In fact, however, it was the critic who had missed the many cues, such as the writer’s referring to her teenager as her “baby boy” at a point in the story when she was worried about him. We knew from this word choice that she felt tenderly toward her son and was stressing his vulnerability.
So as you write, don’t let the need to include the “whys and wherefores” in your memoir become a burden and undue challenge. Simply do your best to help readers understand not only what happened but also why the scenes you are describing matter, especially to you.
The poem and story I’m sharing here make a companion to my recent post “Embracing Now,” in which I tell about hearing my mother’s voice, in spite of the veil between worlds that separates us for now.
I would know for sure.
Would become vistas
Over all sides of creation.
I could help others,
But above all,
Doubt would disappear
To be replaced by knowing,
By reaching out to you
And finding you,
Not just sometimes
And then forever.
In the fourth grade, our teacher taught us about the Navajos. I loved drawing pictures of pueblos and became fascinated by Native American jewelry.
Under the tree at Christmastime that year, 1958, I found an interesting-looking gift about four inches square and an inch deep. The tag said the present was for me from Mother and Daddy. On one of the long days before Christmas, my impatience overwhelmed my self-control. I slipped off the package’s ribbon and carefully unstuck the tape on the wrapping paper. The box inside was stamped “Marjorie Speakman,” the name of a local store selling children’s clothing. In the box was a turquoise-and-silver pin. My parents had forgotten to remove the price tag, which gave the cost as eight dollars. Thrilled and awed by the present, I reassembled the paper and ribbon around it.
From December 1958 until May 2007, the turquoise-and-silver pin from my parents was my favorite piece of jewelry. The pin—about an inch tall and just over an inch across at its widest point—was in the shape of a three-branch spray of little turquoise leaves, fifteen in total. The silver branches joined toward the bottom and ended in two little silver knobs. I wore my pin on the collars of my blouses, dresses, and sweaters. It came with me to college and to my first apartments. When I was twenty-eight, my parents gave me turquoise earrings for my newly pierced ears, and from then on I wore the earrings with my pin as it continued with me through my years in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Delaware. When my father died in 2004, I moved back into our Wilmington, Delaware, family home to be with my mother. I continued to wear my pretty pin.
On May 7, 2007, my mother moved to the Maris Grove retirement community, and I went to an apartment in nearby West Chester. We shared the same moving van. The movers delivered my mother’s furniture and boxes and then drove the seven miles up Route 202 to my new home.
I had left my clothes, jewelry, and other possessions in place in the dresser drawers. But in my new West Chester apartment, the first time that I opened the drawer where I kept my turquoise-and-silver pin, it wasn’t there. The missing small pin left a cavernous gap. Perhaps the drawer had come open while the men were loading or unloading my dresser. I imagined my pin lying on the bottom of the van, crushed now under the legs of other people’s furniture. Or perhaps, I hoped, I had put the pin in a different drawer or left it on a collar the last time I’d worn it. I searched every drawer and examined every collar I owned, without success. The pin seemed irrevocably lost.
For the four years and three months I lived in West Chester, I missed my sweet pin. In my mind, I saw it as it had been for five decades, among my other jewelry and decorating my clothes. How could I have been careless enough to allow its loss by any means?
In August 2011, I prepared to move in with my mother at Maris Grove. As I was readying my belongings for the movers, I opened my jewelry drawer. Sitting in an open box in clear view at the front of the drawer was my turquoise-and-silver pin.
I cannot unequivocally explain how my pin returned to my drawer after being gone for more than four years. But I have chosen to adopt one of the possible explanations. I choose to believe my late father somehow recovered the pin and returned it to me. The idea is not preposterous. My father in several ways showed my mother and me that he continued to be a part of our lives—as both my parents now continue to be in my life. I believe my father found the means for me to have the pin again. This time, instead of honoring my interest in the Navajos, the gift honored the life my mother and I were to live together, always with my father in our hearts.
“My Turquoise-and-Silver Pin” and the poem “Being Psychic” are from my book A Woman in Time. If you wish to read more about afterlife communication, I recommend the four books I’ve listed at the end of “Embracing Now.”
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Some people hesitate to write a memoir because they fear hurting or angering people who would appear in the memoir. Another barrier to writing can be a reluctance to revisit or reveal painful memories. These are valid concerns—and ones to which writers respond in different ways. In this article, I’ll mention a few of the issues involved and tell you a little about my own decisions concerning them.
Life’s meaningful experiences, both the blessed and the terrible, usually involve others. A memoir writer’s relationships with others are generally at the heart of the most inspiring and fascinating elements in the author’s story. And so if you write a memoir, there is no way around making decisions on what to tell about your family, friends, and acquaintances and how to handle potentially hurtful details concerning them.
My parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, left partially completed memoirs and extensive additional written and oral accounts of their lives. In editing their memoirs (Paint Lick and Growing to 80) for publication, I wrestled with questions about naming names. Almost all of the people who found their way into my parents’ memoirs are deceased, so libel was not a concern, but possibly hurting folks was. Because the memoirs are historical records of their time and place, I kept names unless I felt a portrayal could clearly be hurtful to the person’s children, grandchildren, or other descendants. For example, names I omitted included those of a well-to-do shopkeeper who stole money from my grandfather, a teacher who slapped my aunt so hard she left a hand print on her face, and an annoying young minister who lived next door to my mother and her family.
In my own memoir, A Woman in Time, and in my memoir writing that finds its way onto my blog, I usually use real names only in the case of my family. (And to disguise someone, changing a name may not be enough. Additional changes may be necessary, adjustments that protect an identity while not violating the essential truth of the story being told.) I am blessed to have had a deeply loving family and profoundly admirable parents. For writers whose harshest life challenges emerge from their relationships with their family members, much more difficult choices than I have faced have to be made about what to tell and how to express hard realities.
Before you begin writing, however, you don’t need to make all of your decisions on what to include about the people in your life. I recommend first drafting your story as fully and freely as you are comfortable doing. Then, before publishing it (online, as an e-book or audiobook, or in print), you can carefully edit your work to address all legal, ethical, and personal concerns. Avoiding libel is just one legal issue of importance to memoirists. Writers need to know the law, to ensure their own protection as well as the rights of others. One of many available resources is The Legal Guide for Writers, Artists and Other Creative People, by Kenneth P. Norwick. Whatever your decisions about sparing feelings and revealing truths, these decisions need to be filtered through the lens of the law.
While my challenges have not come from my loved ones, I’ve managed to create or otherwise jump into my share of unhappy times. The bad spells are part of the journey, the source of countless lessons, learned and unlearned. For some periods of my life, though, I simply don’t want to write about the darker moments. I haven’t forgotten them, and I honor what they’ve taught me about empathy and understanding and about self-reliance and courage. But I don’t necessarily want to put those experiences under the renewed, painstaking scrutiny that writing about them would require.
I do not feel compelled to obey each so-called “rule” from books and gurus claiming to hold the ultimate truths of memoir writing. The false edicts include commanding that memoirs include every gory, distressing, titillating (and so on) detail for every scene because these are what sell books, what readers want to read, and what writers must confront. Similarly, the false judgments opine that to leave out some of the distressing facts in a story is to display cowardice, dishonesty, and substandard writing.
My college years at the University of Delaware contained some of the dark moments to which I’ve alluded—bleak patches in my memory in which I don’t wish to linger. My undergraduate days are among the eras I’d like to explore further in writing, but not by including every detail (those bleak patches), even the ones that might be especially interesting to readers. I’m ashamed of some of my college moments, embarrassed by others. So how am I going to be honest about those years, writing about them in a way that brings insight to me and to any who might read what I have to say?
An answer came to me one morning when I found myself meditating on my college recollections. I relaxed into a peaceful trance and let the thoughts float past. As I meditated, I saw in my mind a glass-fronted curio cabinet. Instead of shelves, the cabinet had small compartments, perhaps four or five across and six down, to hold the special objects chosen for display. My subconscious was offering a useful symbol. The cabinet reminded me that I can write about the events and emotions I wish to exhibit, that I can create meaningful images and describe selected scenes without feeling the need to catalog each gruesome moment of my undergraduate career. As the cabinet symbol was telling me, I can share meanings without dragging out every single knickknack in my memory collection.
In other words, it’s not necessary to begin, “On the day before the start of freshman orientation, I moved into Sussex Hall and met my roommate.” Beginning that way, I’d quickly be off into territory I don’t want to revisit. It was hard enough to endure once, without reliving it. I don’t want to explain, for instance, why I saw To Sir, with Love four times and Barefoot in the Park three, sitting by myself in the movie theater on Main Street, or why I spent hours hiding in bathrooms and out-of-the-way nooks in the library and classroom buildings. Maybe such accounts would be more instructive—as excellent examples of what not to do—than the scenes I choose to share. But the point is that I don’t have to write about anything I don’t want to write about, and neither do you.
I, like you, am in charge of what I write and how I write it. Following the “rules” may possibly help you and me to please a publisher, but will it please us? I think, instead, we should follow the often-quoted advice of British author and literary critic Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”*
* Cyril Connolly, The New Statesman, February 25, 1933.