Your Story in Verse

The distinction between poetry and prose is not as fuzzy as it might seem, in spite of the prevalence of contemporary poems that neither rhyme nor have a fixed rhythm (meter).  Compared to prose, poetry is typically more focused on

  • The significance and impact of individual moments, singled-out slices of time
  • Images appealing to the senses
  • The essence of an experience
  • The connotations of words (their emotional overtones)
  • The sound of words
  • The rhythm of language (even without a formal meter)

Many poems of the past and present do rhyme and have a fixed structure, of course, and these qualities can have a powerful impact on the reader.  But whether you choose to write a formal poem or free verse, poetry can be an effective way of sharing your memoir—a single story or an entire book.

One of the best-known recent memoirs written in verse is Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson.  Brown Girl Dreaming earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but the book also appeals to adult readers.  If you think you might want to write a short or long memoir in verse, I recommend reading Brown Girl Dreaming to get an idea of the possibilities open to you.  Another approach to memoir through poetry is Ekaterinoslav: One Family’s Passage to America: A Memoir in Verse, by Jane Yolen.  As you will see by looking into these books and others (try Googling “memoirs in verse”), the possibilities range from writing an extended, coherent narrative that reads like a novel to writing individual short poems that, together, reveal the author’s experiences.

Telling stories in verse is an honored tradition.  Shakespeare, for instance, often wrote his plays in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter.  (He added rhyme for various desired effects, such as closing a scene with a memorable rhymed couplet [two lines of poetry].) In iambic pentameter, every line has five “feet” of iambs, which each include two syllables, the first unstressed (short) and the second stressed (long).  As you will note, Shakespeare sometimes varies the pattern, often to create emphasis.  Here, with the stressed syllables in bold capital letters, are Juliet’s most famous words from Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2):

Watercolor by John Massey Wright (1777-1866) of Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, copied from Wikimedia Commons

WHAT’S in a NAME? THAT which we CALL a ROSE
By ANy OTHer WORD would SMELL as SWEET;
So ROmeo WOULD, were HE not ROmeo CALL’D,
ReTAIN that DEAR perFECtion WHICH he OWES
WithOUT that TItle. ROmeo, DOFF thy NAME,
And FOR that NAME which IS no PART of THEE
Take ALL mySELF.

You can see that each line (except the last) has five stressed syllables.  Iambic pentameter is a meter that readily matches the natural cadences in English.  Shakespeare built on those natural cadences to make his words even more powerful than they might otherwise have been.

You can do the same, whether through adopting a formal pattern such as iambic pentameter or through simply paying close attention to the sound of your words and the way they work together.  And you don’t need to know the poetic terms to use poetic techniques.  Read your writing aloud and tinker with it until you like the way it sounds.


Moving from literary heights to everyday efforts, I’ll share a memoir poem that I wrote.  While I make no claims about the poem’s merits, I’ll insert notes in italics pointing out poetic techniques (also indicated by bold type within the poem) that you may want to try.

How I Got Lost
(We lose ourselves in different ways.)

Parallel wording helps readers link thoughts:

Until I was seven,
I was happy to be as I was,
To live as I did,

By considering the rhythm of the words as they’re chosen (here a slow line followed by a flowing line), writers help direct readers’ attention:

Giving and receiving love
In a life made entirely of blessings.


Of course snags came from time to time—
Limitations on going to Sally and Sheila’s,
Mean boys who scared me
(But Mother always chased them away),
Sally’s haircuts for my dolls,
The need for subtraction when I preferred addition—
Yet once past,
Obstacles stayed past,

Here a rapidly moving—anapestic (short-short-long)—line helps, I hope, to conclude the stanza in a way that is satisfying to readers:

Ne-ver TOUCH-ing my SPIR-it and JOY.


But by second grade,
The boys who had been my first-grade pals
No longer played with girls,
And I found that most of our class’ girls
Did not want to play with me.


Now I know what happened,
But I was bewildered then.


We were a nice family—
Mother and Daddy and I—

Alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) can add emphasis:

A comfortably fortunate family
Living in a pretty home
With a yard filled with flowers and my swing set,
Wearing Wanamaker clothes,
Eating Mother’s delicious cooking
After welcoming Daddy home at five.
Santa brought my bike;
Kind Dr. Wagner made house calls;
Ballet lessons had begun when I was four,
Years after I first heard stories and poems
On Mother’s and Daddy’s lap.
We sang at the piano in our living room
And drove to Kentucky to Nannie’s house.


Although most of the poem is unrhymed, the addition of rhyme calls attention to these lines:

Nothing was missing that I could see,
But many of my classmates’ parents
Saw gaps in my pedigree.

Daddy was a DuPont chemist with a PhD,
But the parents of popular Hannah and her court
Envisioned their daughters’ debutante balls

I’ve added more alliteration and another rhyme for emphasis:

Filled with DuPont family familiars,
A future not to be lost:
Tolerating plebeian playmates like me
Could bring too great a cost.
Jane Austen’s world of fiercely rigid social rules
On where to visit and whom to frequent
Had survived 150 years
And crossed the ocean to land in our school.


Hannah and her circle knew:
I was one of the not-our-kind,
And so she critiqued

A repeated phrase structure and another rhyme have, once again, been added for emphasis:

My plaid dresses and buckle shoes,
My classroom questions,
My answers,
My broad-jumping proficiency
And dodgeball deficiencies.
In third grade, she nominated me for class president:
The gesture was a taunt,
Not an affirmation.


By my second grade, Mother and Daddy and I
Had moved to an even lovelier home

A little more alliteration and the use of “and” in place of a comma link the images and improve the line’s rhythm and flow:

With woods and rocks and paths for playing
And neighboring children who played with me,
But being me
No longer felt sufficient.


If Hannah and her friends
Did not like me,
I would work to change;
If not popular, I would be smart,
Even as smart as the boys in arithmetic.
With vigilance,
I might evade censure,
Anticipate every judgment
And match what others
Appeared to prefer.


And in that way
I met the years ahead:
Elementary school and junior high,
High school and college
And every job in my career.


Shorter lines call attention to themselves:

And so I lived,
Even with the love I knew at home
And all my opportunities,
Many realized.


Wherever I found myself,
I could endure the expectations
Only so long,
The barely attainable demands
Required of me,
Or so my fear believed;
The risk was too terrible
For me to test my truth:

Long words can likewise add weight to a line:

Because I am mysteriously but irredeemably flawed,
Matching others’ mix of weaknesses and strengths
Will never be enough
To win acceptance
And sufficiency.


Readers notice and are pulled in by patterns (here and in the closing stanza):

I always tried again:
A new job,
A new romance,
A new plan for finding meaning,
A new spot on the Earth that seemed to promise
Satisfaction and, finally, peace.


I will try again now,
Though, this time,
I pray,
Not in my usual, ever-since-Hannah way.


She was a child and did not understand;
I was a child and did not understand.
Now I am nearly old
But never too old to renew
The Winnie I was
When loving and being loved,
Enthusiasm, courage, and resilience
Were fully enough for anyone,

And finally, as in Juliet’s famous what’s-in-a-name speech, I end with a short, emphatic line:

Even me.

For comparison, here are two paragraphs from my essay “Our First Little White House” that cover some of the same territory as the early stanzas of my poem above.  The poem looks at how my idyllic childhood went awry over the span of my years, beginning in second grade.  In contrast, the essay narrows the focus to examine the joys of my early years within my family.  For both pieces, I hope, the form supports my purpose.

For all of us little girls and boys, our mothers were at home, ironing our clean and well-made clothes, driving the carpool to kindergarten, and protecting us from the bullies. My mother invented games for long, rainy afternoons and read me stories and poetry—about Reddy Fox and the West Winds, and about the elephant whose trunk got tangled in the telephone. To celebrate my birthday, she gathered a dozen neighborhood children to join in eating a cake she had decorated with gumdrops.

In our community, the fathers, too, were exactly the fathers we would have desired. My father pulled me on the sled; repaired my wooden dog that wouldn’t stay upright on its wheels; built me a jungle gym, a marvel where I could do gymnastics; and took me to the ballet.


Will writing poetry—writing free or formal verse—release your creativity and help you to tell your story?  If the approach interests you, why not give it a try?


Next: By writing a new memoir of my own, I am trying to practice what I’ve preached in these articles about memoir writing. My progress can be followed by clicking on the tab above labeled The Next Chapter in the Story.

Writing Your Memoir: Telling by Showing

Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story.  They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.

Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir.  And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings.  More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.

In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history.  In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight.  More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.

Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.

This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:

Daddy's boyhood homeThe drawing here shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.

Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:

Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon HayekFrank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek

 

In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:

Daddy's Perfect-Attendance Certificate, Monroe Jr. High

Daddy's Letter to Santa, 1927

Daddy's Card for His Mother 4

In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:

Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.

Coy Home

My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:

During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.

Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:

CovePenobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine

The section also has this photograph:

Daddy at the CoveMason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay

My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.

What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?

 

Next: Your story in verse

Writing Your Memoir: Dear Love, Dear John, Dear Reader

Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters.  You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far.  Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.

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News from My Lad, by James Campbell, 1858-1859, Walker Art Gallery – from Wikimedia Commons

Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing.  By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work.  Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book.  Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.

Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present.  These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir.  Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful.   You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful.  It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.

Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting.  In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged.  Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).

 

Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now?  You seemed to know me then.  I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City.  You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat.  You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you?  To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more.  I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter.  As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now?  Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be.  I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .

 

Dear _____,
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life.  Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you.  I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters.  A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively.  In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .

 

Dear Sam,
I wonder what life has brought you.  Can you believe we’re now in our 60s?  It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama.  He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class.  You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree.  My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper.  You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance.   With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside.  I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had.  I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date.  (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.)  But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .

 

Centre Meeting - pencil
Site of my almost-wedding: Centre Meetinghouse, drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

 

If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book.  Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?

 

Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings

 

Writing Your Memoir: So What Is a “Narrative Arc” and Why Would I Want One?

Daddy's Paternal Grandparents - Mary and John Hayek
My father’s paternal grandparents, Mary and John Hayek (from Growing to 80, by Mason Hayek)

Perhaps the most vaunted phrase in memoir writing is narrative arc.  If you have read books about writing memoirs or attended a conference focusing on creative nonfiction, you have almost certainly been told that the narrative arc is a sacred thou shalt for memoir authors.  (Creative nonfiction is nonfiction such as a memoir that is written using the tools of effective fiction writing, including strong character development, dialogue, and memorable settings and imagery.)

The term narrative arc refers to the storyline in creative nonfiction;
the narrative arc corresponds to the plot in a novel or short story.

Having a narrative arc in a memoir means telling a true story that builds to a climax and then, at the end, comes to a resolution.  It includes:

  • Setting the scene
  • Introducing the problem or conflict on which the story will focus
  • Putting in motion the events of the story
  • Building to a climax
  • Bringing the story to a conclusion that resolves the central problem or conflict in some way (although not necessarily through a happy ending)

If you are hoping to interest an agent or a traditional publisher in your book-length memoir, you will likely be expected to have included a fully established narrative arc that spans the entire book.  In other words, your memoir can’t simply be a collection of discrete episodes and descriptions.  Your book will be asked to depict the progression in your life (and that of others involved) as you meet and wrestle with challenges, reach a climax in your efforts, and then end up changing in some way.

For instance, instead of telling pretty much everything that happened to you while you were in high school, you would need to focus on a central and especially meaningful aspect of your experience.  Perhaps you were painfully shy and discouraged when you were fourteen, but through a series of notable experiences (belonging to a theater group? having a boyfriend or girlfriend? suffering a terrible loss? working with a memorable teacher?), you gained the confidence that has helped you to go on to a satisfying adult life.  If the story of your growth from painfully withdrawn to impressively confident is the focus of your memoir, you have met the goal of having a narrative arc.

mother-and-me-in-hats.jpg

The beginning of your book will set the scene—providing the background and context for your memoir.  You will also set the book’s events in motion.  For example, maybe the first event to be included will depict your running to hide in your room when the popular girl or boy from across the street appears at your door.  The story will build and build until you reach a turning point—the moment that your transformation from awkward to outgoing becomes fully evident to you and others.  By the end of the book, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the strong person that you have become—that you have become in spite of and also because of your many painful challenges.

If you are planning to self-publish your book-length memoir or are writing it for your family and friends, you can, if you wish, thumb your nose at the need for a narrative arc that spans your entire memoir.  But even then, making sure that each scene or chapter has a narrative arc can add significantly to the impact of your writing.  If a scene, chapter, or essay has a clear narrative arc, you can feel confident that your writing is focused and that the point you are making (your theme) will be clear to your readers.  After all, the narrative arc is fundamental to good storytelling, from sharing a funny or infuriating experience that happened at work to composing the next Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Tuesdays with Morrie.

Here—from my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick—is an example of a short memoir chapter that has an evident narrative arc.  The first paragraph sets the scene; subsequent passages let us know more about the setting and people involved.  In paragraph two, we are introduced to the central problem of the story—robbers are planning to rob the village bank—and the action of the story begins.  Each detail, including the false conclusion that the threat is over, leads us toward the climax: “The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.”  We learn additional information about that climactic event, and then the story moves toward its resolution as two of the robbers are caught, sent to prison, and eventually released.

The Bank Robbery
By Doris Burgess Hayek

Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.

On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.

Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.

One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.”  Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”

Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.

Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.

The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.

Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.

102_0561
Paint Lick Bank (on the right) in recent years, with the building that housed Mrs. Logsdon’s general store on the left

Notice that “The Bank Robbery” does not get sidetracked with details about the Paint Lick telephone exchange, about who among the friends was the best croquet player, and about what the various village businesses looked like.  Other chapters in my mother’s memoir touch on those topics and tell readers about Mrs. Logsdon and Mrs. Goodman.  But in this chapter, all the details support the specific focus my mother chose for the scene.  The account is more than a series of facts and descriptions; it has a plot just as if it were a fictional story.  And so “The Bank Robbery” reflects beneficial use of a narrative arc.

Will incorporating a narrative arc help you to tell your story?  It’s worth considering.

Next: Nontraditional memoirs—letters

Writing Your Memoir: Even If You “Can’t Write”

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.

Doris's Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather McClure
My great-great-grandparents are part of the story I have to tell.

For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.

  1. 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.)
  2. For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
  3. Review the post “Writing Your Memoir: Getting Started” for ideas and strategies to help you explore your story vividly and completely.

What if you talk more easily than you write?

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.

102_1155
How does the world look to you?

Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Your style considerations should include these:
    1. 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.
    2. Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
    3. 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.
    4. 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”!).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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Release your story into the world.

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.

Next: What’s this about a “narrative arc”?

Writing Your Memoir: Giving the Whys and Wherefores

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We can help others and inspire ourselves by looking back–at the end of a day, an era, a life.

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.

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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. . . .)

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Santa Maria della Spina

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.

(or)

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.

Zanzare Heaven
My room in the monastery

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:

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Classmates at the language school

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.

(or)

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.

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My room at the Albergo Clio

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. 

(or)

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.

(or)

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.

Include dialogue:

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.

(or)

Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”

(or)

As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”

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Arno River, Pisa

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.

(or)

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.

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At the Bar Sapori

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.

 

Next: Writing even if you “can’t write”