Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Have you found your voice?

Here’s your Tuesday Tidbit, your 15 seconds of inspiration:

Many writers, especially new writers, struggle to find their “voice.” What does “finding your voice” mean?

It means writing the way you speak. Your goal is to make your writing sound authentic—to sound like yourself.

Jeff Hines says it this way: “You don’t need to search for unfamiliar language…. Simply be yourself and write the way you speak.”

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” says Elmore Leonard. “Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” 

To read more of Theo Nestor’s thoughts on finding your voice, click on this link at Kathy Pooler’s blog.

To read more of Elmore Leonard’s advice to writers, click on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Your memoir’s all-important takeaways

People will read your memoir for its takeaways.

What’s a takeaway?

It’s a gem you unearthed that provided you with clarity and helped make sense of your life—a universal truth you discovered—which you offer to your readers.

Takeaways are what readers “take away” from your memoir, the important lessons they’ll carry with them after they’ve read the last page and closed the back cover.

When a reader stumbles upon a takeaway, a meaningful sentence or two that speaks to something deep inside, he will pause to think, to re-read the words, slowly. He might underline the passage. Or maybe highlight it. Or write notes in the margin.

So how do you create a takeaway?

Think back. At some point you had an A-ha moment and a light came on. Puzzle pieces began falling into place. You were not the same person after that.

That’s good, that’s exciting. Such discoveries can be defining moments, life-changersbut go beyond that. Share the benefits of that experience with your readers by crafting a takeaway. Offer them their own A-ha moment.

In other words, in a concise way give words to the principle you learned—think of the takeaway as a precept, a moral, a proverb, a saying, a guideline, an adagesomething readers can live by, a principle that can be life-changing for them, too.

Use your takeaway to offer readers hope,
or wisdom,
or courage,
or laughter,
or a solution,
or a new way of living or loving.

You, the writer, encounter such precepts—such truths to live by—through epignosis. To gnosis (compared to epignosis) is to have head knowledge of something, but to epignosis something is to know it from experience. (Read my earlier post about epignosis: Understanding epignosis can help you write your memoir.)

Your takeaways, then, communicate to your readers: “I know this is true because I have experienced it, I have lived it. It changed my life. Perhaps it will change your life, too.”

Where do you put takeaways in your memoir?

Takeaway happens within a reflection,” point out Brooke Warner and Dr. Linda Joy Myers. (If you missed our recent blog post about the importance of reflection in memoir, click on Reflection and the words we use.)

Takeaway can be a reflection, but not all reflection is takeaway,” they continue. “… [W]herever there is reflection, there is an opportunity for a takeaway, but that doesn’t mean that necessarily all reflections are going to be takeaways.”

In other words, takeaways accompany segments in your memoir in which you reflect. You will probably have a number of reflections throughout your memoir. Some if not all of them will be opportunities for you to include a takeaway for your readers.

Avoid Christianese—jargon that might be distasteful to readers, or lingo that might hinder your readers’ understanding.  For example, resist using phrases such as “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Instead, use everyday language to make your point.

And don’t beat around the bush! Pinpoint your message. Clarity is your goal. (Please, please, read my blog post about writers who circle all around The Point but never state The Point. Click on What’s the point?)

Dedicate quality time to crafting your takeaways. Specify what was the most important message or lesson you took away from that experience (the one you’re reflecting on). Boil it down, write a concise message for your readers.

Here are two examples: 

“We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.” (Frederick Buechner) 

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the ed of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow. (Mary Anne Racmacher)

Most memoirists scatter takeaways throughout their memoirs. If you have a conclusion, a post script, or an epilogue in your memoir, reiterate your most important takeaways in them, too.

Your takeaways are the most powerful part of your memoir
they’re packed with punch.
They’re the part of your memoir that
makes a difference in people’s lives.

At first your takeaways will resemble diamonds-in-the-rough. Your job is to cut and polish and make those gems sparkle. Doing so adds to their value for both you and your readers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Listen for “a deeper sound, a different beat”

The process of writing a memoir changes our hearts.

It changes the way we hear.

It opens our eyes. 

It helps us recognize a bigger, higher, deeper, broader story. 

When we start writing, we have no idea where our memories and ponderings and writings will take us.  

“The written word
preserves what otherwise might be lost
among the impressions that inundate our lives.
Thoughts, insights, and perceptions
constantly threaten to leave us
before we have the opportunity
to grasp their meaning.
Writing can keep technology-driven,
fast-paced, quick-fix,
ambiguity-intolerant modern life
from overpowering us—
and give us something palpable
upon which to reflect.

Reflection slows matters down.
It analyzes what was previously unexamined,
and opens doors to different interpretations
of what was there all along.
Writing, by encouraging reflection,
intensifies life.

Editors Ben Jacobs and Helena Hjalmarsson,

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reflection and the words we use

Reflection is a key part of every memoir—a key part of your memoir.

Without reflection,” writes Amber Lea Starfire, “you do not have a memoir—you have a vignette or series of vignettes that describes events, but does not imbue the events with meaning and relevance. Meaning and relevance come from reflection.”

So, you, the memoirist, reflect on the past:

The first part of reflecting is the kind you do privately: introspection.
  • You set aside time to take a new look at what happened in the past—to search for something you missed that was hiding just under the surface, or something that went over your head.
  • See with older, wiser, more mature eyes.
  • Unravel, analyze, look for meaning, and piece together.
  • Make sense of the event.

The second part of reflecting is sharing with readers what you’ve discovered.

How do you communicate to your readers
that you’re interrupting the flow of your story
to reflect on the past?

These phrases help readers know you're pausing to reflect:

  • Reflecting on this now...
  • I couldn't have put it into words back then, but now...
  • It occurs to me now that...
  • Back then I didn't understand that...
  • Though I didn't understand it forty years ago, now I see that...
  • It would be years before I understood that...
  • I didn't notice it at the time, but...
  • Looking back now, I see that...
  • Now I see that I...
  • Remembering those days/weeks/years, I...
  • When I remember those events, I...
  • I had never known that...
  • If I had known then...
  • I wish I had known then that...
  • Little did I know back then that...
  • If only I'd known back then that...
  • We couldn't have known at the time that...
  • I never realized...
  • I came to realize...
  • It took me many years to realize...
  • While it happened three decades ago, I realize now that...
  • I have come to realize, over the years, that...
  • If we could've looked into the future, we'd have seen...
  • It didn't occur to me back then...
  • Ten years later I would ask myself...
  • Years later I discovered...
  • Over the years I've come to accept...

A word of caution from Brooke Warner and Dr. Linda Joy Myers

“Some critics of memoir believe that reflection is the navel-gazing part of memoir, and it is possible to be overly reflective. In an article called ‘Writing the Z-Axis,’ Sean Ironman refers [to] overly reflective writing as the ‘bar essay.’ This kind of writing, he says, ‘reads as if the writer is on the barstool next to you rambling about their life over a Guinness.’” 

So, consider your reader:  Reflection is a must for memoir, but avoid navel-gazing and rambling. Discern how much reflection is just right.

Be sure to come back next Thursday when we’ll look at the connection between reflection and takeaway.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: The sacred importance of remembering

Here’s your Tuesday Tidbit, 15 seconds of inspiration:

“It is through memory that we are able 
to reclaim much of our lives 
that we have long since written off 
by finding that in everything 
that has happened to us over the years 
God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing 
which, though we may have missed them at the time, 
we can still choose and be brought to life by 
and healed by 
all these years later.” 

Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Avoid writing for revenge

We suffer pain for various reasons—sometimes we bring it on ourselves, sometimes it’s no one’s fault, but other times it’s the fault of another person.

If we’re writing a memoir that includes pain caused by a person or organization, we need to be cautious about our motives. And honest about our motives.

As a memoirist, avoid writing for these reasons:
  • to get revenge, settle the score, retaliate,
  • to humiliate a person or organization,
  • to get readers to pity you,
  • to get readers to take sides with you, or
  • to indulge in self-pity.

Examine your heart and if you find even traces of wanting to write for any of those reasons, stop!  That’s not what memoir is about.

I have two pieces of advice: (1) Go ahead and write everything, but write for your eyes only.  Write about the injustices, write about your mistreatment, hurt feelings, anger, scars, and tears. Write about destroyed dreams, confusion, hopelessness.
Write it all. Write it as a prayer. Write until you know God has heard you. Write it as a way of asking God to help you forgive and move on.

Because such resolution usually takes time, set aside your private writing for a week or a month or a year. Listen for God, let Him work in your heart and mind.

Your goal is to move from anger to forgiveness, from pain to compassion.

“The marvel of Frank McCourt’s childhood is that he survived it…. The second marvel is that he was able to triumph over it in [his memoir] Angela’s Ashes, beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language. Those same qualities are at the heart of all the good memoirs of the 1990s….”

Zinsser mentions three such memoirs, A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

He continues, “Anyone might think the domestic chaos and alcoholism and violence that enveloped those writers when they were young would have long since hardened the heart…. Yet they look back with compassion…. These books…were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the authors are as honest about their young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know…. We have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives….”

Zinsser offers advice to today’s memoirists: “If you use memoir to look for your own humanity and the humanity of the people who crossed your life, however much pain they caused you, readers will connect with your journey. What they won’t connect with is whining. Dispose of that anger somewhere else. Get your intention clear before you start and tell your story with integrity.” (Writing About Your Life; emphasis mine)

When you can write that way—
when you can write with compassion 
and love and forgiveness
when you can write without self-pity or whining 
or revenge or being judgmental
 rewrite your rough draft
Strive to write like Frank McCourt: 
Write words full of grace, and maybe even a bit of humor.

This brings us to my other piece of advice: (2) Don’t let anyone read your manuscript until you have rewritten it.

Your first draft was for you alone,
but later drafts are for your readers.

“Ursula K. Le Guin,
when dealing with painful subjects,
makes a distinction between ‘wallowing,’
which she says she writes but does not share publicly
and ‘bearing witness,’
which she does share.” 
(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir; emphasis mine)

So rewrite. Rewrite with integrity. Delete the wallowing. Instead, bear witness. Write not as a wounded victim, but as one who has triumphed, as one who has forgiven, healed, and moved forward in a good way.

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