Taking a zippered pouch containing my favorite ink pens and my leather-bound journal, I sit on a rustic picnic bench shaded by a few Jeffrey pines in a state park at a mile high in Idyllwild, California. A few cumulous clouds dapple the light blue sky and a mid-morning breeze cools enough but not too much. I have to be wary of splinters, for the picnic bench has been here many years, probably since the park opened in the 1920s. It’s the old fashioned kind, two eight-foot board benches on either side of a tabletop of equal length, about eight feet, of five wide two-by-six inch boards held together by six-penny nails that poke out of the holes. The bench has seen at least twenty coats of paint in its years. Dad came here as a youngster with his parents and seven siblings. I came here with dad and mom as a youngster in the 1950s and 1960s with my seven siblings. Grandpa and Grandma, hardy folks from the mid-west, came here with their eight children and sometimes with their fourteen siblings and their spouses and children. When my great grandma Rebecca passed away in Montebello, her obituary mentioned fourteen children, fifty grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren; all of whom attended her services at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
I spread a few newspapers out on the rickety park table-top and put chunks of granite around the edges to hold the paper down, protecting my arms from the splinters. Thick denim jeans protect my backside and legs. I open my thermos and pour a cup of coffee, black Columbian, into a thick hairline cracked cream-colored mug I have had and remember my dad drinking from. The aroma of pine and cedar trees, the thinner air, and the sharp contrasting coffee focuses me. I select a wood carved Wahl fountain pen, black ink, made by Eversharp, to put ink to lined page. In 1926, this same pen sold for seven dollars, It’s iridium and solid gold tip has not been replaced and still writes beautifully. Christmas is about here, just eighteen days hence, I write. James Cass and Rebecca Jane “Isabelle” Dutton are in the surgery room of the doctor’s office in Moffatt, Texas, awaiting the birth of my grandfather, Edward Byron, who has stubbornly stayed entombed in the womb the full nine months. Stubbornness, I know, runs in the men in my family. Truth be told; the women, too.
I feel a gust of chilled mountain air and goose bumps spring up on my arms. I have always wanted to watch that happen; to watch them suddenly pop up on the skin. But I have never been able to predict the right circumstances, so that I am watching my arm before they leap into being. I watch them as the breeze skims across the skin. The gust is past, the warmth of the sun returns, and they are gone. Amazing. A sip of coffee and I feel that today, I will write something worthwhile, something worth reading, something to be read by someone other than me. The year is 1876. It has been a hundred years since the Revolutionary War. It has been only fifteen years since the end of the Civil War. James Cass remembers when he heard that his father, a Union Captain in charge of a company of Tennessee men, was taken captive by the South Carolina Rebs and imprisoned in one of those god-awful prison camps in Georgia. How the old man survived there for a year and a half, he didn’t know. It was the damned stubbornness; that’s what it was. Never damn quit on yourself, he would yell at the boys. You never quit!
A great big red ant stomped across my newspaper, heading straight for my arm, as if it owned the world. No you don’t. I sat the flat bottom of my still steaming mug of coffee on it and left it there for a few minutes.
“James. James!” Rebecca yelled. “It’s time. Get the doctor. Get Doctor Kuykendall! Now!”
“Yes, mother.” James dashed to the door just as it opened and Doctor Pierre Morgan Kuykendall walked in, a big smile on his face.
“Now, Rebecca, calm down. Everything’s going to be fine. James, would you be so kind as to call Mrs. Kuykendall in for me? She’s outside hanging the laundry to dry.”
My great grandfather, a man hardened by years of work as a blacksmith, who himself had watched as a young boy as his father went off to war and came home a different man, skinny, barely able to wear his own clothes, dashed out the door like a chastened child to obey the doctor’s order. This was their third child, the first two girls, and he so wanted a boy. A boy to teach his trade. A boy to watch grow into manhood and marry and have children of his own. As he hit the ground outside off the three wooden steps of the porch at the back of the doctor’s house, Mrs. Kuykendall looked over at him. Before he could say a word, she was hurrying his way, shooing him back inside.
“James, you get that big pan of hot water off the stove and bring it into the room. Then you come back out here and sit and wait. Everything will be fine,” she said with the astonishing authority of a woman who has helped birth many children.
“Yes, ma’am,” said James Cass Dutton Junior. “I’ll get it right now.” He rushed to the kitchen.
I can see that happening, I thought. I pictured my great grandfather from the latest photograph of him. A tall, six foot four, white haired, man who worked in his blacksmith shop in Montebello, California, until five months before he took ill. Eighty-two when he died. I have a picture of him at about thirty years, too, and he was a handsome fellow. Man, he was going to have eleven more kids and move the whole lot from Texas to California after his sons became adults. It was sure different back then. I sipped my coffee. The thick mug kept it hot. No ant on the paper. I held the mug up. Ah, there it is, squashed flat, all bug-eyed, on the bottom.
The heavy cream colored paper in the journal held the ink perfectly. It didn’t soak or spread or blot. These days most people have no idea what the properties of a good ink are and how to select a writing paper that will retain the ink without problems. It was an art in itself. I knew because I loved to write. I loved high quality writing instruments and there is something exceptional about reading well scripted sentences written by a steady hand. I received a hand written letter from a ninety-five year old retired teacher from the northern part of Iowa a few days ago. She wrote five pages of beautiful script, telling me stories about my music teacher uncle, who is still alive and a bit of a curmudgeon. He taught music and use of music instruments to children in the K-12 system for thirty-seven years. He has incredible patience. Can you imagine teaching a class of, let’s say twelve,, eight year olds, how to read music and play an instrument?
I had another story to work into this piece. Not a story; more like an occurrence, but to us in the year 2011, we can’t imagine what it would be like. It went something like this. In the wooden and thatch topped houses of the plains in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, the Indians were mostly of the Cherokee lineage, known as the civilized people. My great grandmother used to tell stories about how, some evening or at lunch, they would be in their home doing something, like eating or whatever, and suddenly an Indian would poke his head in the window, look around and watch a minute or so, then leave. These wooden teepees, with holes in the walls, were a novelty to the Indians. Most of the plains and desert homes didn’t have glass panes. Glass was not common for many years.
Can I work this sort of imagined dialogue into a family history work? Family history is creative nonfiction. I wasn’t there. I don’t know if the birth was at Dr. Kuykendall’s house or not. This is pure imagination. It is imagination based upon implied facts though; facts implied from stories told and inferred in letters between family members. Evidence shows Dr. Kuykendall lived two houses west of the Duttons. Letters and pictures between and of family show that the Kuykendalls were included in family events and celebrations. Dr. Kuykendall delivered nine of the fourteen children birthed by Rebecca Jane Isabella Dutton nee Tucker. She and James Cass Dutton were so honored they name a son after him: Doctor Pierre Morgan Kuykendall Dutton. Ain’t that something? What a name to saddle a kid with! It is modernly acceptable and I can use creative writing skills to infer conversations and events based upon the facts possessed. This is very different from times past, when accuracy was demanded of memoir, personal essay and family history.
Memoir writing is typically a secluded affair between the writer and a pad (I have many), typewriter (mine is an IBM Selectric II) or computer. It's one person writing a story. Seclusion is best for the depth of though usually necessary for a memoir. It's not unlike meditation at times. Everyone I know has something or time in his life that is interesting. Sadly, most people don't believe that anyone else would be interested in reading about their experiences. To write a memoir, you need motivation.
Finding your source of motivation is the first great step before you write a word. Without knowing what will motivate you to continue writing, through so-called writer’s block (which I do not believe exists) or research hurdles, you will have difficulty dragging yourself in front of the keyboard or typewriter, or putting pen to paper, which is the most difficult form of drafting. For the purpose of memoir writing, motivation can come from what you find interesting, driving, compelling or exciting about a time or event in your life. Maybe your life seemed boring to you but, rest assured there were moments in which your innermost self was contemplated, some revelation realized, or an experience treasured. It does not have to be a thriller. Your motivation comes from deep within. Don’t be concerned about selling the memoir to anyone.
Let's first figure out what story you might write or what event or memory it is with which you might begin. As we do this, keep in mind that just because someone else already wrote a memoir on the subject means nothing whatsoever. Yours will be different.
Here is a partial list of topics that have been the subject of memoirs:
- Ø Relationships involving love or hate – or both
- Ø Memorable persons
- Ø Fear, terror, horror
- Ø Crime (a specific crime, a criminal, victim, or in the legal arena)
- Ø Law enforcement
- Ø Pilots (private planes, fighters, bombers, transports)
- Ø Catastrophic events (earthquakes, serious auto accidents, fires, hurricanes or tornadoes, avalanches, airplane crashes)
- Ø Combat (military, police, citizen partisan, militia)
- Ø Careers or career subspecialties
- Ø Illness or disability
- Ø Animals or, to be broader, mammals
- Ø Moths, flies, fish, trees
- Ø Religious experiences – faith, spirituality, miracles
- Ø An experience with a stranger
- Ø A strange experience
- Ø An experience that is memorable for any reason
- Ø A startling event that produces a lesson
- Ø The words of wisdom spoken by someone
"Can I write about … ?" "Yes!" "Would anybody be interested in reading about … ?" "Yes!" Better still, ask yourself, "What has happened in my life, what event, what person, what year, what life-changing event, what the ---- happened, that made a difference to me?" The answer to this question is the very subject about which you may want to write. The list I provided are things others wrote about. Take the time to pick your own, unique, intimate moment in time. Memorable personal experiences don't need to be earth-shattering. It is enough that they're interesting, insightful and thought or emotion-provoking. Your story might make someone happy, mad, upset, horrified, sad, fascinated, humbled, or, unable to find an emotion, the reader just says, "Wow!"
Memoirs are rooted in experience and emotion, and structured around a theme (not a thesis). Can it have a thesis? Sure, why not? Like all satisfying stories, memoirs have a theme that runs through them and come to a conclusion. The story's theme may be self-exploration, an outdoor exploration or adventure, an exploration of a relationship, or show how one person exploits another. The end of the memoir is not unlike a fable. It brings understanding, insight, which may be life-changing or just a slight shift in self-awareness. Use your experience to craft a story of sweeping relevance to many. While following your theme, find the extraordinary moments when emotions or views changed for you or another. These are often moments when:
- · You were alarmed
- · Your stomach clenched
- · You felt like throwing up
- · Your hair stood on end
- · A warm flush overtook you
- · You held your breath
- · Your heart pounded rapidly
- · You wept
- · You realized your life had changed
- · You recognize you will never see this person or event the same way again
- · Your feelings have changed towards someone or something
Memoir writing, unlike other writing, is more conversational than conventional literature. While a memoir may be called an informal or personal essay, its length may vary from one page to book length. The voice with which you write should be engaging, capture emotions and personality, and draw the reader into an entertaining story. The modern memoir comprises many fiction characteristics, creating credible dialogue, using setting and descriptive scenes and drama to heighten tension and conflict, and slowing and speeding up the pace of the story.
In fiction, we usually have a protagonist and an antagonist; the good guy and the bad guy. The good guy is usually the narrator or the voice – you. The bad guy may be a person, an animal, a car, a town, a city, a state, a public or private entity, an airplane – anything with which you had a relationship, or there may be no bad guy at all. The relationship may be one of threatening or non-threatening conflict, with the highs and lows of life, but should be an emotion changing or life-changing event or time. Adolescence to adulthood is such a time. Marriage is such a relationship. Crime victims are subjected to the relationship. A parachute that doesn't want to open fully becomes a "#%(&@)^$!!!!"
Memoirs are written from the writer's point of view. Unless you're an experienced writer, I don't recommend trying to write from another's point of view. Parts might be written from another's point of view to show conflict but, doing so may jar the reader – make the reader pause and wonder how you could possibly know what someone else was thinking or feeling. Sometimes we know because we were told. The point of view of a story is the expression of what the story teller sees, hears, touches, feels, and smells.
Let's take an author named Mary, touching upon a weekend that was memorable to her because it preceded an end to a marriage. Her point of view and voice can change as she writes, depending upon the telling of that small piece of the story. She wants to dramatize the memory and events so tries to find a way to show readers the conflict underlying the story. Married to John for many years, she knows how he thinks and how he expresses himself. As a writer, stepping into John's mind for monologue, she writes:
Forty-two years wedded to Mary, John sat on a white Adirondack chair under the Italian fresco umbrella on the redwood deck. He watched her walking in the garden, strolling past the J.F.K. roses; his favorites. She wore a yellow sundress and carried a white handled trowel, wore pink gloves and shaded her delicate features with a broad pink hat. A monarch fluttered past her, nearly grazing her right shoulder. She didn't seem to notice. The early morning breeze brought her scent to him, a faint aroma of musk and cinnamon. He thought, my God, what a beautiful woman I married. He fell in love all over again.
To suggest the horribly difficult and heart-breaking conflict that is to come, juxtaposing or conflicting monologues, and to increase drama and tension, she writes in the next paragraph:
While he sat there on his fat ass drinking a Manhattan at 7 a.m., I was getting ready to weed the garden, thinking, this is the last time I have to pretend to enjoy this weed-ridden garden that son-of-a-bitch stuck back here. Starting Monday, this woman is taking her life back. The idiot doesn't have a clue in his mean old bones. He'll never hit me again These damned JFK's don't even have an aroma. Anyone who had a brain would know that.
The memoir is about a woman who found the strength, with the help of fellow members in a community club exclusively for women, to end an abusive marriage. After John left for work that Monday morning, she moved to an apartment, had John served that day with divorce papers, and began the long process of healing. Point of view changed from John to Mary, from third person to first person, and the voice changed. Both paragraphs are in monologue form. Knowing him for years, she writes his voice as the one of a man who thinks he has everything under control and can fantasize about a great marriage (that actually doesn't exist because it's an abusive marriage) and about a spouse whom he adores in his alcoholic and controlling haze (who actually has come to hate him for his cruelty). She changes voice to show her unique voice, her anger and eagerness for freedom, and shows her willingness to do what is necessary to get through that last long weekend. Ultimately, he tried to murder her and now resides in a state prison.
Imagine writing a scene from the point of view of a narcissist. A narcissist is some who deeply believes he is better than everyone else, smarter, better looking, no matter what reality may be. Self-delusions of grandeur prevail and he tries to control, or thinks he does, everyone else because, after all, he is the only one smart enough to know the solutions to all problems. This is not a temporary condition and is one of the most difficult to treat in psychotherapy. Another is a borderline personality. It’s amazing how common these personality disorders are and how the other half of the relationship is fooled by the one who seems self-confident. It’s when the disordered person is obviously and flat wrong and cannot face it or deal with it that the depth of the disorder becomes apparent.
The illustrations used above about Mary are representative of the same scene, viewed from two separate points of view with two separate voices. A well written memoir, especially one written for publication, might use the fiction technique of a scene-by-scene story, not necessarily linear. The word scene, as used here, does not refer to the beginning, middle and end. There may be as few as three or four and as many as a few hundred scenes in a memoir.
For creative nonfiction writers, a scene is a presentation of a moment of the story as viewed by the narrator. The moment presents a challenge, a potential reversal, and has a resolution (not necessarily good or productive, and even suspension of belief can be a resolution). While it is not recommended that the writer present a memoir in a screenplay format, consider the analogy of the screenplay format (over-simplified):
Scene One. Dialogue between John and Ruth. Setting – kitchen of home.
Scene Two. Overhead view if John backing rapidly out of driveway and then driving reckless down residential streets. Children playing.
Scene three. Five year old child on tricycle rides into street.
This approach to writing is one way to draft an outline of a memoir. There are no rules for how you start writing. I use a mental outline, back it up with heavy research (nonfiction and fiction), then spend time contemplating the opening sentence; all before I put pen to paper.
A scene comprises where, when, what, who and why people (or characters, e.g., animals, trees) interact. All do not have to be in each scene; it may comprise only a few of these possible components. Scene is a term of the art and craft of writing. The common definition is not applicable. A scene usually occurs in one place or setting, which may be described (e.g., sitting in a small kitchen …) or implied (e.g., sitting down the eggs, she picked the pot of boiling water up off the range …); where. A scene usually takes place at a specific time (given or implied); when. It usually occurs with at least one character (a monologue) but may be more (dialogue between two or more), many (a briefing before police patrol), or masses (police quelling a riot); who. Something happens in a scene (e.g., accident, crime, horse ride, hiking, conversation, argument); what.
 Most of us think of conflict as some sort of confrontation, e.g., a fight, argument, or in the extreme, war. In writing creatively, conflict can mean any disunity (e.g., one person snaps at another – the other says nothing and walks away), divided loyalties (a friend says something that makes the other realize the person is not someone with whom he or she wishes to associate), or, of course, an actual physical struggle. It can also comprise a mere verbal exchange, even a romantic one.
 “Historical” need not refer to hundreds of years ago. A year, ten years, or twenty-five years (or more) constitutes history. Things were different then. Do research to get it right.
TIP: When you're working on a scene and decide some dramatization is appropriate, many of us tend to minimize emotions or events; or exaggerate them. It's okay to increase the tension of a scene but, use caution so that you don't end up fictionalizing the entire scene; making it something it clearly was not.
When a significant change occurs in the story line, it's a good idea to begin a new scene. While your memoir may begin with a specific sentence of dialogue or narrative or setting description, each scene begins with a new line of text, sentence, or dialogue. It is important for the memoir writer to understand and know how to apply, right from the start, the rule, show, don't tell. My first fiction efforts were replete with telling rather than showing. As a cop then a lawyer, I was used to writing in informative descriptive terms and it was hard for me to change.
Nearly all explanations of what show, don't tell means are illustrated by story bits. The phrase seems to defy definition because it's applied to all parts of creative writing, e.g., description, dialogue, monologue. As a dictionary aficionado, the inability of writers to write an adequate definition bugs me. The best I have found is:
Show, don't tell is an admonition given to beginning writers who use too much exposition instead of using action and dialogue. If the writer uses action and dialogue to reveal a character, the story should be interesting to the reader. The reader should feel like he is experiencing the scene unfold. As a result, the reader can interpret the meaning of the story on his own.
When applying show, don't tell, the writer does more than just "tell" the reader something about a character; he unveils the character by what that character says and does. Showing can be done by:
- Writing scenes
- describing the actions of the characters
- revealing character through dialogue
- using the five senses to bring emotion into play
Instead of telling:
Mrs. Parker was nosy. She gossiped about her neighbors.
The writer could show:
Turning the blinds ever so slightly, Mrs. Parker could just peek through the window and see the Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. She squinted her eyes so she could get a better view of the tall, muscular man getting out of the vehicle and walking up to Mrs. Jones' front door. He rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Jones opened the door and welcomed the stranger into her home with a hug, Mrs. Parker gasped and ran to her phone.
"Charlotte, you are not going to believe what I just saw!" Mrs. Parker peeked out the window again to see if the man was still inside.
This is "telling:"
"Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown up in Brooklyn and didn't want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended a party at their neighbors' house."
And this is "showing:"
"I told you I didn't want to go to this," Linda said as she stood beside John on their neighbors' steps. "It's just going to be as lame as every other party we've been to since we got here."
"You used to love parties," John said, avoiding eye contact.
"Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn't Brooklyn."
"No," He looked at the mountains colored flame by the setting sun, the sky he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had.
He pressed the doorbell."
Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. "It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience."
When to tell:
"Show, don't tell" as a rule, like all rules, has exceptions. "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted." A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative (story) can and should contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes, or when a new setting is brought forward, it can be told so the story can progress to the next more important showing scene.
For example, if George is a character in a story, he could do the following things:
- Have an argument with his boss
- Drive to his girlfriend's house
- Have an argument with his girlfriend
The writer could show the arguments with George’s boss and girlfriend, but tell the reader that George drove over to his girlfriend's house in his described car, perhaps with told emotions, without excess narrative embodying a showing of his drive. As long as nothing important to the story happens on that drive, then the writer need only tell the reader it happened.
Scenes and Scene Changes.
Significant changes in a story, for the purpose of beginning a new scene, can be illustrated with two examples from Fathers, Sons, and Brothers. Bret Lott's publisher elected to depict internal monologue by printing it with italicized type font rather than regular. The author made the choice, however, of beginning his monologue as a separate paragraph from the story, because a change from narrative or dialogue to monologue is significant and is a change of scene: who – voice, point of view). This example shows two ways to show scene change.
Within a chapter, Lott wrote some dialogue between him, his wife, and a son. The carefully planned parents-to-child conversation was to be the talk, i.e., sex, the birds and the bees. After the dialogue, he changes scene to when he was a boy and the talk arose for him. Bret writes in first person and he is the narrator. The time is contemporary and the characters are Bret, Melanie, and Zeb, their son. It went like this:
"Do you know where babies come from?" Melanie went on, smiling.
"Yes," he said, too quick. … "I know," he said.
"Where?" I said, and he looked at me. …
"We just want to tell you," Melanie said, … "so that when somebody at school tries to tell you something crazy, you'll already know the truth." …
Then, slowly, she turned to me. "Bret?" she said, and smiled. "Go ahead."
I looked at her. I took a breath, swallowed. I said, "Oh," then turned to Zeb.
He was looking at me, his eyes thin slits. Then he put his hands up to his ears, covered them.
I remember looking at my mom one night at dinner and asking flat out, "Where do babies come from?" [Lott tells this story as a separate scene to show the different ways in which parents handle this issue. His father reacted angrily and said, "Hey, don't talk like that! … This isn't the time or place. It's rude." His mother handled it more tenderly, saying, "Bill," giving his father a look, "He just asked." Lott never got an answer.]
Lott shows the story of his son's discovery of the talk in detailed dialogue and with humor. He changes scenes to when he was a child and asked about the talk and received a very different response. The latter scene involves anger and a parental election to ignore the child's question. Is this life-changing? Could it have been shown more dramatically? Yes, it could have, but Lott elected not to do so. You might make a different choice. I suspect Lott wanted to demonstrate the importance of his better parental choices and handling of the talk. To contrast it with an equally shown scene might take away the importance of the former scene for the reader. Also, did you notice the extra space in between the scenes? A worthwhile way to depict a change of scene is shown by this illustration. The author or the editor made an editorial decision to separate these two scenes with an extra space, as depicted above. Separation of scenes by an additional space is a very common method.
A new scene should begin when there appears a significant (e.g., apparent, ostensible, seeming) change of place, voice, point of view, setting, or time. The Lott illustrations should help you see when to begin a new scene. A new scene is not like an act in a play requiring a new "scene" although there may be similarities. Play scenes have different meanings in the art of presentation and production of a work; even when the play may be based on a memoir. Scene changes in creative nonfiction are more subtle. As you outline your story before writing or as you write, keep in mind that a new paragraph or sentence, perhaps separated by an extra space, is needed when there is a change in change of place, voice, point of view, setting, or time.
How do you begin a new scene? Consider using a different method than the way in which the previous scene ended. This allows the reader to recognize that something has changed and no confusion occurs (like the dialogue of he said, she said, we discussed earlier). For example, confusion may result if a scene is comprised entirely of dialogue then an extra space appears and dialogue begins but, different people are talking and the time (e.g., year or generation) of the characters has changed. Bret Lott may have named his son Bret Lott Jr. So if a Bret is speaking in one scene and a Brett is speaking in the next but, they are first father then son, the reader can become confused.
A scene may begin with dialogue. Although you have probably read dialogue in its many forms, you may not have recognized that there are different forms.
The most common dialogue is direct dialogue. If you sit in a restaurant and listen to the two people at the next table talking, their conversation would be direct dialogue. Each person's utterance appears in quotation marks. If you also watch these two people as they talk (hopefully without being noticed), you will be able to jot down things about them that would help you add details, facts and inferences of character when you write their dialogue. Doing this and considering the emotional or psychological aspects of the people is what writers refer to when they say, "I study people."
As an observer studies people, the following observations might be noticed:
race; skin tone; eye color; hair color length, style; height; weight; body symmetry; dress, value of clothes, choice of clothes, purse, wallet, jewelry; mannerisms, gestures, eating manner or style (e.g., holds utensil in fist vs. fingers, rapid eater, slurps soup or drink, pokes at food, rearranges food on plate); right or left hand dominant, ambidextrous; speech, accent, dominant talker or listener, attentiveness, often/rarely interrupts another who is speaking, speech rapidity, dialect, primary language, bilingual, multilingual, stutter, hesitations (e.g., uh, um, er), slang, idioms, up-talk (each verbalization ended with an upward tone, as if a question was asked), voice octave level (e.g., high pitched, bass, tenor, childish), speech qualities (e.g., slurring, lisp), non-starter; eye movements (e.g., glances around, speaking with closed eyes, no eye contact with other person, eyes the opposite sex); vocabulary, use of sentence disruptors (e.g., "you know," "like," "uh-huh," "yes," "nods," "totally"), formality or informality of speech; poor table manners as judged by the writer- narrator or observer, e.g., speaking with mouth full of food, smacking lips loudly, making sucking noises, elbow(s) on table while eating, odd use of eating utensils, fingers in ears or nostrils, passing gas, use of napkin or non-use, wiping mouth with sleeve, using napkin (cloth or paper) for nasal discharge, courtesy or lack thereof to waiter/waitress or others, demeanor, demonstration of relationship, method of securing attention of waiter/waitress, use of curse words while speaking, nervous manners (e.g., tics, twitching, hand movements, shifting in chair), body posture, personality, emotional states, and other things people are and do.
If you printed this as a single item list, it would be a few pages long. You might make it into a table. However, then you're not observing, you're watching for specific things and looking at your list. Practice is what makes you a good study of people. These observations can be used in one or more, or many, characters to add detail and uniqueness to each.
Using the direct dialogue method, writers develop the character of the person within dialogue passages. For example,
"John, pass me the salt," said Beth in her high-pitched voice, "and don't take forever to do it." She stabbed the air with her fork, one eyebrow cocked.
What can you deduce from this line of dialogue? Who is the narrator? What judgments can you reach about John and Beth?
Is it dialogue if it's not written inside quotation marks? Summary dialogue appears as a narrative report of conversation that suggestions the conversation was longer. No quotation marks are used. Summary dialogue is useful to bring the focus of the reader into the dialogue of main characters because summary dialogue addresses preliminary conversation, then direct dialogue is used for drama, character development and to increase tension. There are three forms of dialogue I wish to address: summary, indirect and direct. In the following example, from 54-55 of the war memoir, Pathfinder – First In, Last Out, I have depicted summary and indirect dialogue with italics and direct dialogue is depicted with quotation marks.
The flight of helicopters darted onto the LZ laden with troops. More paratroopers bounded from the choppers, tumbling into the elephant grass. Their leaders quickly began to bark orders. So much had happened since we landed with the first lift, it was hard to believe that only a few minutes had passed.
Joe had just completed relaying landing instructions to the third and final flight of helicopters when a different voice crackled over the radio.
"Pathfinder Control! Pathfinder Control! This is Medevac One-three, approximately five miles to the northeast. Request landing instructions."
Joe called out, "Richie, there's a dustoff inbound!"
"Yeah, I heard! I was monitoring! The unit commander must have called for it! I'll find out where he wants it to land."
Turning to the command-and-control frequency, I contacted the unit commander. I learned he was assembling casualties who needed evacuation on the southwest portion of the LZ near the tree line. There were six in all, one critical, another KIA.
"Their leaders quickly began to bark orders" is summary dialogue comprising a brief reporting of several brief orders by patrol leaders to the soldiers jumping from the helicopters. "Joe had just completed relaying landing instructions to the third and final flight of helicopters when a different voice crackled over the radio" is an example of summary dialogue (the dialogue between the final flight of three helicopters guided in by Joe) combined with a foreshadowing of more dire dialogue – the arrival of a Medevac or dusty helicopter. Finally, indirect dialogue containing details and dramatic voice is illustrated by "I contacted the unit commander. I learned he was assembling casualties who needed evacuation on the southwest portion of the LZ near the tree line." These sentences evoke drama, describe dialogue between the commander and Burns, and provides direction to the reader of what is coming next.
Burns chose the more immediate and personal to be heard in direct dialogue and the less immediate to be heard in summary or indirect dialogue. Although some readers might enjoy hearing dialogue with the unit commander who informed Burns of the six casualties, the dialogue with the commander would have been depicted in abbreviated jargon with acronyms and is likely to be more poorly comprehended by non-combat experienced readers. The summary dialogue reflects all the information in words comprehensible to the average reader and yet carries a sense of drama; in the first few minutes of the assault insert, six men have been wounded badly enough for immediate evacuation - four seriously wounded, one critically wounded and one fatally wounded - killed.
Choices to Consider Before Writing.
There are major choices to be made before you begin writing. These choices relate to, among other things, voice, point of view, your motivation or choice of story, and your choice of the persons to be included. People may become anxious when and if you tell them that you are going to write a memoir about an event in which they were involved. They may want editorial or revision rights or the right to tell you that you cannot write about that topic. Please remember that others do not have these rights. You may have to deal with the consequences of your choices but, you have the right to make the choices.
Voice and Point of View.
Changing voice and point of view in the middle of a paragraph happens with many novice or learning writers. It's confusing. As a novice writer, you have probably written a lot in your life but, perhaps not a memoir using creative nonfiction techniques. When you write in first person, I am referring to first person singular. The writer is writing about her viewpoint of what she sensed. That can change depending upon the story. This list of first person examples might be helpful:
The narrator (writer) uses "I."
1st person (singular) I I woke up.
2nd person (singular) You You woke up.
3rd person (singular) He/she/it He/she woke up.
Mary woke up
The puppy woke up.
1st person (plural) We We woke up.
2nd person (plural) You All of you awoke.
3rd person (plural) They They awoke.
Mary and Joe woke up.
Everyone and the puppy awoke.
The memoir narrator (writer) should not jeopardize credibility by venturing into outright fiction. Recall is imperfect and it is perfectly acceptable to re-create or create dialogue to its nearest approximation. To create dialogue that did not happen at all would be writing fiction and is frowned upon in memoir writing. You've probably heard the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. As a memoir writer, you really don't need to create things that didn't happen. It's reasonable to spice it up or dramatize the emotions. You're allowed to fill in memory gaps. It's not easy to be truthful and practice limited reasonable deception to make a story complete (memory gaps) or more forceful (heightened emotions). Fiction writing has been called lying for fun. Memoir writing might be called truthfulness with white lies for fun.
For example, in my day-to-day life I tend to minimize pain, grief, fear, and emotions that distract from my being able to focus on the task at hand. My repression or suppression of emotions comes from things that happened to me beginning when I was about 15 years old and my father died from cancer. Facing the Vietnam era draft, I joined the U.S. Air Force and became an air traffic controller and was in combat in Vietnam. Leaving the USAF, I became a cop. It is only after the events and people involved have been brought under control and the occurrence was past that I could experience emotions. Since age 19, I have had to make many life or death decisions and that numbed me from emotional experiences others enjoyed or felt. Whether good or bad for me, I recognize these issues as an essential part of my personality and can look back at those experiences with better recall (objective recall is better without interfering emotions) but, I have to work to inject the appropriate emotion into the event. I don't need to create from complete fiction but, when I can't recall names, the exact words, the exact chronology, its okay to fill it in with reasoned and carefully conceived deception, perhaps even making a comment that my recall may be inaccurate or have gaps.
You have likely heard that children who are abused often block the memory of abuse, especially sexual abuse. Once recalled, however, it is a horrific experience for them. It changes their lives forever. A memoir written by an adult looking back on a childhood of sexual abuse can be riveting, gut-wrenching, and terribly sad. On the other hand, the memoir may help others face abuse in their lives, get help with the psychological consequences, and live life more fully.
A memoir does not need to be dramatic or horrible, like some of the things I listed. The discovery and experience of hearing for the first time because of new medical technology can be heart rending. Returned sight is an amazing thing. Coming out of major depression and finding joy in the greens of flora and the blue, purple and red of dusk can be enthralling. It is for you to elect how you will imaginatively transform your experience.
The following story illustrates how you use truth and deception to create a story about something no one alive witnessed. A great grandmother was killed in an accident when a horse-drawn wagon, reins held by great grandpa, lost a wheel. The wagon upset and she was thrown clear but struck a tree. Never regaining consciousness, she died while waiting for the town doctor who came by horse from his home 30 miles away. The newspaper account of her death was merely four paragraphs, her great grand-children filled in the story with facts concerning the family oral story about it, where it happened, where they were coming from and going, where she was born and raised, her education (all giving me a good sense of dialect, slang, idioms, local speech patterns, and vocabulary), which, together with additional information, allowed me to create far more accurate and not entirely fictional scene description and dialogue. The emotions of such an event were easier to create because of my own life experience and those of others who experienced the loss of a loved one in a sudden and tragic accident. This was actually a great grand-aunt of mine.
It's acceptable to speculate about the facts. No memory or record is ever perfect or complete. Witnesses to events are notoriously contrary and unreliable. Witness testimony is well known to be the least acceptable and reliable evidence in court cases. It's not that witnesses are untruthful (though some are), it's that they see, hear, and sense things differently, from different perspectives, with different emotions, and recall varying amounts of information, often filling in gaps with what they want to believe or guess happened. Memoirs often reference the author's quest for truth, frustration with not finding every fact, and lack of corroboration.
Who Cares About My Story? This is the wrong question to ask yourself. The right question to ask is "Why do I care about this story?" The answer to this may become the theme or focus of the memoir. It's not egotistical to think you know what is more important to you simply because it is less important to someone else near you. Egoism is irrationally exaggerated self-importance. Egoism has no relation to your career(s), income level, education, or other factors that bring attention to people. It is internally generated excessive self-love which is projected to everyone else. Egoists usually make stilted and obnoxious writers. Many lawyers I have known were narcissistic or egoists. If you have a healthy ego; great! There's nothing wrong with loving yourself and respecting yourself.
Write about something for which you feel a strong emotion - life, passion, fear, love, anger, or hate. Emotion helps recall. It helps the scribe compose more passionately. It helps sell the story, if that's a goal. It catches the attention of readers and editors. It brings intimacy, depth and realism.
Tip: Read several memoirs for stimulation, inspiration, illumination, methods, creativity, and insight into why the authors wrote their memoirs. While or after reading for enjoyment, study the work for ideas you can use. Jot down your impressions, perceptions, and thoughts.
Research for your memoir is not very different than research done for any nonfiction topic or fiction. Readers of today's nonfiction do not expect an entirely objective treatment of the topic. They expect subjectivity and creativity. They want the complete picture but not the picture in its totality, e.g., they don't want every single minute pathetic detail. What is best discussed here is what research might be appropriate for a memoir.
Documentation. If you mention a specific event that is commonly supported by a document, check to be sure the document and your version of the facts are consistent. A story incorporating the birth of a child loses credibility if the birth certificate for the child does not corroborate the facts in the story. "Smith" owns the home at 1234 Elm Street – check the recorders officer to verify that "Smith" is the deed holder. If you said "Smith" lived at 1234 Elm Street, there may be no document to find. Smith might be a tenant or a long term visitor. If your memoir is about an accident and you refer to "XYZ Beer Company" as the owner of the semi that struck your car, check motor vehicle department records to be sure that this company in fact owned the semi. Another source might be the police report; look under registered owner of vehicle. If you're writing a story that involves the history of an organization (e.g., school, business, nonprofit), verify each fact by studying corporate records, incorporation papers on file with the state, newspaper articles, and business press announcements.
Baby-Boomers and the Military. As baby boomers, a term which I don't care for (I am one) mature, they will begin writing memoirs about
v what it was like to be a teenager in the sixties
v what is was like to be subject to a draft for a war which many protested
v what it was like to be in that war
v what it was like to evade the draft by moving to Canada
v the history of a military unit
v a specific military commander or a politician.
There is an idea floating around that the late 1990s saw an explosion of memoir publishing. Some reason that, as a result, some might find it difficult to find a publisher for a memoir. People in the age range of early fifties to mid-sixties represent the senior management or owners of many publishing houses (certainly not all).
The memoirs of this age group will be on topics much written about by journalists (limited factual reporting) and some written about by screen-writers (e.g., movies, Alice's Restaurant, starring Arlo Guthrie, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Chuck Norris and his Braddock movies about a U.S. Army officer taken captive by the Vietnamese and his escapes and efforts to free others, and many others), fiction writers, and memoirists (e.g., the Vietnam combat and non-combat memoirs). My point is that I feel that there is a great deal more to write about from that era. Topics and events, survivors and those lost, who haven't begun to reveal the depth of the great tear in this country caused by the politicized Vietnam war. For example:
- Spouses, sons, and daughters who have visited or have not visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall to read their relative's name and the loss of never knowing that person
- Through F.O.I.A. requests, many have discovered their relative died in Vietnam or the SEA area as a result of friendly fire, an accident or were murdered
- Some have relatives who fled the draft and want to write about their perspective of being related to a person who fled
- McNamara wrote a memoir about his great mistake – encouraging the Vietnam war and his shame and sense of responsibility for the losses – how many others in government feel or felt this way? How many military men gave orders for pointless battles in which many lost their lives (we haven't heard from them), e.g., taking and retaking hills of no consequence, or holding a remote post or camp that wasn't needed
- The sailors, airmen, and soldiers who were REMFs, noncombatants, whose combat record doesn't exist because, while their bases were hit repeatedly by mortar and/or rocket and small arms fire, they didn't personally take up arms and return fire and cannot now receive benefits for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (the modern military recognizes the foolishness of that posture – REMFs die often and are exposed to hostile fire)
- The families of men or women in the combat zone who, here in the safety of the U.S., protested the war. Journalists have written about some of them – but little is known about their point of view and how their views affected the man or woman in the combat zone
- Many journalists encouraged war protest and published information about people and military units in the combat zone, this aiding the enemy by making public information that could harm someone. The men and women in combat didn't deserve to be subjected to those risks – what about the shame of those journalists?
- Personal accounts of the explosion of illicit drug use in the U.S., the use of LSD, marijuana, and other drugs. We've read heavily factual or political opinions – where are the stories from those who were caught up in it or the stories about the people who generated and supported the drug explosion?
All of those stories will require serious research, particularly interviews!
Interviews. If a writer is going to author a memoir on any of these topics, what interviews need to be conducted once the documentation research is completed (or while its being completed)? How do you interview someone? Some of us have conducted interviews. Some of these have been done by people in the position of journalists, historians, police, lawyers, paralegals, and others. If the person you wish to interview has already been interviewed, you will want to obtain a copy of that record. If not, do you ask questions the same way or focusing upon the same result or content, as those professions?
The author of a modern memoir will not want to use the interview methods of these professions. Surely the interviewer does not want to ask questions directed toward a certain, previously decided, result. That would not be ethical or honest. The truth cannot be told by those methods. Interviewing will often be the largest part of research. A competent interview reveals facts and motives hidden from the facts only researcher. You will hear about photographs, diaries, letters, journals, specialist language, jargon or slang, and view points unique to that person, all of which provides the author with information and materials from which the writer can more deeply and truthfully portray the people (e.g., personalities and the character of the interviewee).
There are books and articles you can read that will help you prepare to interview people. Pick one that is not specified for a profession. John Joseph Brady wrote The Craft of Interviewing. Ken Metzler wrote Creative Interviewing. I strongly recommend you study interviewing before actually doing it. Perhaps even practice with a friend or someone close who will cooperate with the process and give you honest feedback. You will miss a lot of information, a lot crucial to your writing, if you don't prepare effectively. These will help you prepare and think about your questions before you conduct an interview. Yes – write them down in an outline form with lots of space so you can take notes and expand the outline in new directions during the interview. Think about how to get them to relax with a tape recorder running or a videotape. Think about what notebook you'll use and how you'll use it. People don't like revealing personal feelings and information. Think about ways that might work for you, as a unique person, to let the interviewee be comfortable with you, develop rapport, relax, and trust.
TIP: You need a release form so you can have them sign it and you need to plan how you're going to get that signed at the end of the interview without the person suddenly freezing up and changing his or her mind. You might get it signed before the interview begins.
It happens – people change their minds; especially if they realize they have said or talked about something they regret. Caution is wise. Here's a list of things to consider:
ü What kind of tape recorder? How long are the tapes? Will digital work (probably too short)?
ü Where should you meet?
ü How should you dress and how do you decide this?
ü Should you bring pictures, etc., to show the interviewee?
ü If some facts or issues may be confrontational or present an emotional problem, how will you handle it?
ü Handle the interview so that it feels like a conversation and not a question and answer session or an interrogation
ü When you have an answer, THINK ABOUT IT, because most people (especially at first) give very short answers. Go back and get the rest!
ü What questions go on your MUST ask list?
ü Leave space for answers and evolving unasked questions to follow-up.
ü If the person avoids or sidesteps the question, what will you do?
ü Keep your answers easy to understand.
ü Ask for anecdotes – stories beget stories and people relaxed enough to tell anecdotes will usually give more information.
ü As for examples if an answer is that the person may do one thing or another.
ü If the person refuses to reply to a question or questions, what do you do?
ü What do you do if you have reason to believe he or she is lying?
ü Is the person's body language consistent with honest answers?
ü Does the person use repetitive words or gestures that might be helpful to you when you begin writing?
ü Keep your opinions to yourself, even if the person asks for it. Your opinion doesn't matter.
ü If they ask what you're going to write regarding an area, tell them that if you use that particular information, what you write will be entirely truthful and treat the issue fairly and with respect.
ü Be willing to ask "why?"
ü Is the setting of the interview affecting it?
ü Have you gotten all the details and emotions you can out of the person?
ü How will you persuade the person to approximate dialogue if the answer is that he or she doesn't remember?
ü For an in-depth interview, you need to take the time to establish good rapport with the interviewee. How will you do this?
ü If the person uses words, acronyms, idioms, or slang you don't understand, how will you handle getting an explanation without embarrassing yourself?
ü Have you planned and prepared well enough?
ü BE GRACIOUS AND CARING right from the beginning, regardless of what you come to think of the person. Don't show dislike in any form or expression.
ü After the interview, what did you learn to do and not to do?
This is merely a partial list. Depending upon the people, it grows.
Resources and Research Locations.
People are wonderful resources. Sometimes they have documents, pictures, or can refer you to someone who has more information. Memoir is about your experience with the event and the people in it. To make it a fully enjoyable and truthful memoir takes work and persistence. Some places where you can find information that can be helpful include:
- Ø Good ole libraries (public, law, and private collections)
- Ø Tax Assessor (property values, taxes paid, ownership)
- Ø State Vital Records offices
- Ø City, County and State web sites
- Ø Chambers of Commerce
- Ø State corporations office (state office that handled incorporations and maintains reporting requirements and records)
- Ø State Franchise Offices
- Ø With releases - medical facilities, physicians, mental health professionals
- Ø Library of Congress
- Ø Law enforcement agencies (depending upon information needed and release available)
- Ø University, college and other school web sites (private schools)
- Ø Genealogy web sites
- Ø Web sites for the work or professions of the people
- Ø News and data archive web sites (West Group, Lexis, Journal database sites)
Watch for key words and references in resource materials and locations that might produce more information. Talk to other people, disinterested in the event or personal episode which is your memoir topic, who have experience in areas (work, education, other) related to your topic and ask them questions. Ask for advice. Tell them you're writing a story for publication. Many people are fascinated by it, even though they would never do it.
In summary …
The essence of the memoir is in the province of our intimate experiences. Poetry which reflects deep feelings and shares observations of beauty or horror uses metaphor and other literary devices for exploration. Today's memoirs make use of fiction techniques and tools. Writers commonly use a conversational tone to talk about everyday events. Choice of voice and tone depends upon the facts of which the reader is informed. A more formal voice might be useful for discussing a professional event, e.g., taking the oath of office as an elected official or as an attorney.
Today's creative nonfiction form of memoir writing allows the writer to use fiction techniques to legitimately show the drama of an event with:
v dialogue - based upon reasonably calculated expectations of the true circumstances or dialogue,
v summary and scene - summary describes location, time, place and scene shows the persons or people in a monologue or interacting,
v person, voice and tense – Third, second or first person; masculine, feminine, regional or local dialect, slang, idioms, and past or present tense,
v tension and pace – a slower pace with longer sentences reduces tension for romantic scenes or scenes deserving of relaxed reading and a faster or clipped, shortened, sentences can be used to speed up the pace, increase tension, and create suspense for dramatic effect.
Do your research and your preparation before you begin writing your work. If you write a draft before you verify things, the changes may be disheartening. You may discover you have to toss your first draft and write a new one. Don't make it hard on yourself. Talk to people who have written a memoir before, or a personal story for a journal or newspaper, and ask them about their experience. Take the stress off yourself!
There are a couple of rules about getting started - rules upon which you can depend and will make a difference.
I. Indulge yourself in what you want to write – be selfish!
II. Never ask family for their opinions or thoughts about your memoir ideas – that is – whether or not your idea is a good one.
III. If you ask family or friend to read your writing, be prepared to not listen to a word they say!
IV. Maintain your sense of entitlement to write your story.
Those are the rules which I suggest you follow.
For many writing a memoir for the first time, composing with authority may feel difficult or pretentious. Get over it. Who else is going to tell the story? Criticism can be devastating; even if you think you're hard skinned. If you're writing with passion, some may react negatively because of their own discomfort, hidden motives, perhaps not understanding it themselves. Constructive criticism that helps you improve your writing is good. Celebrity generally or being a famous author is not a prerequisite for writing or publishing a memoir. Be tenacious and persistent. Don't quit on yourself or your story.
Be patient with yourself and keep in mind that it takes time to learn to write a memoir well. If you have ever learned to play a musical instrument, you didn't learn it overnight just because you like music. You have probably been writing all your life – but not memoir. You could just start writing, without an organization plan and without deciding how best to tell your story. When you are finished with this method, you will have an essay or story. It may be interesting to you and immediate family will probably tell you it's "fine" or "interesting." There may be a one in a thousand shot that a magazine editor might say, "Interesting story. Work on it some more and polish it." However, the chance you will be able to produce a well written memoir that might be accepted for publication is quire remote (unless you're a naturally talented and unique writer who comprehends memoir writing exceptionally well). I recommend that you take it step-by-step and read or even study some memoirs and practice writing a few before subjecting yourself to editorial rejection and criticism.
Tip: Get some 3X5 or 5X7 lined cards and keep some with you everywhere you are and go (on you, in the car, on the nightstand, at your desk, in your office, perhaps even in the living room where you watch television – with an inexpensive pen. As you muse before, during and after memoir writing, memories, expressions, humor, ideas, and things other people say will be worth writing down. Collect these the next time you sit down to write and skim through them. You'll be glad you did.
When you visit bookstores, libraries, or relatives, gather memoirs, ideas, and information that strike you as helpful. Who cares if someone thinks it's odd that you pull out a 3X5 card and start jotting notes? From other memoirs, regardless of the subject, you can glean ideas for organization, thematic approaches, use of narrative or dialogue, and innumerable other possibilities.
How Do I Start Writing?
Don't be overly concerned about your first sentence when you begin writing your memoir. Relax and enjoy telling and showing the story. After you have finished your first rough draft (it will likely be very rough), read it aloud to yourself and make notes in the margins to begin your revision process. Some things will stand out more than others. Not infrequently, a writer discovers within the writing the real focus and point of the story. In other words, the story was not about the vacation in the mountains at a cabin by a lake but, about the Labrador retriever discovered that had been lost by another visiting family and was successfully returned to the family.
First sentences become important only after completing the first rough draft. "I was born June 14th, 1927 – an auspicious day." No, you're not writing an autobiography - a life story – so it's not preferable to start with your birth. It is probably not a good idea to publish your birth date to a world thriving in identity theft. Let's look at some sentences that begin a few memoirs:
"This is the last room: the garage."
Fathers, Sons, and Brothers – the men in my family" Bret Lott
"A blast of music from WABC-FM blew my eyes open."
over my head – A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out – Claudia L. Osborn
"In 1985 my husband Robert and I were rearing twelve-year-old Sonia and fifteen-year-old Erik in Princeton Junction, a New Jersey suburban community, with the attendant pressured and opportunities typical of professional suburban commuter families."
Listening in the Silence, Seeing in the Dark – Reconstructing Life after Brain Injury – Ruthann Knechel Johansen
"This insanity really happened."
Guns Up! – Johnnie M. Clark
"As a child I had dreams of levitation."
Chickenhawk – Robert Mason
"Exactly twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam, I stopped worrying about dying."
… and a hard rain fell – A GI's true story of the War in Vietnam – John Ketwig
"March 2002 Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan – The sun rose over the mountains to the east."
This Man's Army – A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism – Andrew Exum
"I go to the basement and open my ruck."
Jarhead – A Marines Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles – Anthony Swofford
"At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been "Gabriel," because the archangel and I have a lot in common."
Shooter – The Autobiography of the Top-ranked Marine Sniper – Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin, USMC
"Wiley waved to me from across the ramp as I stepped off the C-130 shuttle plane from Bangkok."
Flying Through Midnight – A Pilot's Dramatic Story of his Secret Missions Over Laos During the Vietnam War – John T. Halliday
"On 5 March 1970, the venerable Shangri-La departed Mayport, Florida, for what would be its last cruise."
Afterburner – Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War – John Darrell Sherwood
These titles and first sentences provide clues to the organization of the memoirs and the authors' writing styles. Lott tells us that his memoir begins with a search of boxes in the garage of his home. The things he discovers will round out the stories. The title tells us his organization: fathers, sons, and brothers. The first sentence offers no drama or suspense. It offers the hope of discovery. He wants the reader to come with him as he finds things and memories.
To write well takes effort and practice. It is a myth that it is easier to tell a story you have lived than creating fiction. Consider the following thoughts before you put pen to paper to begin a memoir:
ü Have I set clear boundaries of time?
ü Have I decided who will be in the story and who will be omitted?
ü What might the reaction be of the people I will include?
ü Have I chosen a specific enough topic?
ü Will I use an outline to generally follow as I write?
ü Have I made notes about which emotions best serve the story?
ü Have I made notes of words that will best emphasize the action and emotions of the story?
ü What form will I use?
Wow! Is writing a memoir really this much work? If you want to produce a memoir which will be fun, interesting, or bring a tear to the reader's eyes, you will likely have to put some effort into learning to do it and actually doing it well. Did you notice that two very different memoirs in the table of first sentences used a similar room in the home to begin the story? Bret Lott wrote a memoir about multiple characters in his family – all men. I'm sure the women were equally interesting people and this wasn't a choice made by discrimination. Rather, the men shared common characteristics, interests and the choices they made in life had similarities, giving Lott a central theme. Lott began his story with discovery of objects, found in the garage (a room in which we store our sundry clutter and keepsakes), which shows the thematic similarities and comparisons. Lott's time boundary was the relevant periods of life of each man or, to look at it another way, generations of men.
Swofford begins his memoir by going to the basement, another place we store things. He goes to the basement to get his ruck, short for rucksack, the back straining back-pack in which a soldier carries the objects of war and survival. Many characters are in his work as well – virtually all men. Swofford was trained to be a Marine sniper and he wrote about his experiences in that elite unit. The Marines with whom he served are major characters. His time boundary begins when he started his sniper training and ends when his time in Iraq ended. Swofford mentions the generations of Marine snipers he followed.
Why would Jarhead be applauded by literature departments but not those who enjoyed Shooter? The first sentences are:
"I go to the basement and open my ruck."
"At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been "Gabriel," because the archangel and I have a lot in common."
Jarhead is not seen by all Marines as a complimentary word to use to describe a U.S. Marine. Swofford, a sniper who killed no enemy, fit it; by his admissions. Coughlin killed many enemy and his title implies just that: Shooter. Swofford's memoir was made into the movie, Jarhead. Swofford's memoir is written with criticism of the Marine Corps but reveals some odd experiences and unhappiness with the military. Coughlin's memoir focuses on the efforts of snipers to do their job in the midst of sometimes contrary or conflicting orders. A major difference is that Swofford obtained an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, the most prestigious M.F.A. in the U.S. Simply having the Iowa M.F.A. is enough to persuade an agent or editor to read a submission. Swofford didn't like being a Marine and he confessed it in many ways; confession is something many literary critics love. Coughlin liked being a Marine and was a good one; one of the best. His work received no complimentary critiques by literary academia. Swofford's Jarhead is a work of the 1990s – suited to the past generation of memoir literature, the nature of which is inviting to liberal views. Someone who is good at killing would not commonly be welcome in such circles.
John Ketwig wrote, "Exactly twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam, I stopped worrying about dying," in his memoir, … and a hard rain fell – A GI's true story of the War in Vietnam. Ketwig was an Army soldier unhappy with his lot while serving in Vietnam and then Thailand as a mechanic. Ketwig's memoir won literature awards. Literary awards for war memoirs seem go to memoir writers who reveal their faults, humanity, or errors. Confess drug addictions and you get published, as a rule. Ketwig was a conscientious objector who didn't want to be drafted, hated being in the Army as a mechanic, and in his memoir demonstrates a sense of immaturity similar to Swofford in his depiction of his military service. He subsequently taught English composition in a community college as an adjunct professor.
Modern memoirists do not focus on confession as a model for publication. They focus on writing interesting memoirs driven by hearts, romance, the lessons of dissolution, or conflict, whether in a home or school, in the streets, or at war. They bring real lives before readers, lives that succeed before challenges of death (e.g., cancer, cardiac arrest, or drowning). They are about contemporary issues viewed from a historical perspective of comparison, e.g., "when I was a boy, I walked five miles to school, uphill both ways." What it's like to be a Muslim in a country assaulted by a relatively small radical sect of Islam. They address the question of patriotism – does the modern polyglot American citizen care enough to die for the freedom the national history represents? Or is there a divided sense of patriotism, whether French-American, Russian-American, Mexican-American, or other-American?
If your goal is to win literary awards, you make choices to write to please those critics and readers. If your goal is to sell books, you write to attract the majority of the population interested in your topic. If your goal is to please family, you don't write about the skeletons in the closets (especially their closets), even if those will sell your memoir. If your goal is to write an accurate dramatic family history memoir, the skeletons are jangled before the reader! What is your goal?
Structure or Form.
All well written stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some writers create an outline before writing. The outline might be summary – comprising topical ideas and some structure to guide the writer. Others create a detailed outline that specifies details about each chapter, character, place, scene, and the structure. I don't outline before writing. I make notes of my ideas in a sort of free-writing way. As I write, I create a chapter by chapter set of notes for the purpose of returning to earlier writing to see what I wrote without the necessity of reading everything again and again. That might some sort of outline. What works for one writer may not work for another. Find your own way by practicing and thinking about what makes you most comfortable.
Chronology. Which of the memoirs in the table begin at a fairly specific time? These memoirs use a chronological form:
"In 1985 … ," Johansen
"A blast of music … blew my eyes open," Osborn
"March 2002 … ," Exum
"I stepped off the C-130 shuttle plane … ," Halliday
"On 5 March 1970 … ." Sherwood
At first glance, one might think another starts with his childhood as a part of a chronology: "As a child I had dreams of levitation." However, Mason uses the idea of levitation to emphasize his interest in flying. His memoir is not an autobiography although there is just enough about his adolescence in the work that some might call it that. Mason became a decorated U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who flew many combat missions and saved many lives.
Which use an event that is used to foreshadow the story, which begins much earlier? These use a foreshadowing event to begin the memoir to catch the readers' attention and show the reader the theme of the story. These are war memoirs: "At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been 'Gabriel, … ' ," "I go to the basement and open my ruck," "Exactly twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam, I stopped worrying about dying." When John Halliday got off the C-130 from Bangkok, his adventure began. Chronology is the most popular approach to memoirs. Osborn started her memoir when she awoke from a coma to a blast of music. She used that event to catch the reader's attention then returned to her discovery of her brain injury and how her life had changed.
Why does Clark begin his memoir with, "This insanity really happened"? It appears to be twofold. First, to show that the theme will be about something any sane person would believe is insane (e.g., amazing, incredible and horrible things that he has trouble believing) and, second, to catch the readers' attention – this story will be interesting so read on.
Why would Johansen's memoir begin with a sentence as lengthy as this (thirty-four words)?
In 1985 my husband Robert and I were rearing twelve-year-old Sonia and fifteen-year-old Erik in Princeton Junction, a New Jersey suburban community, with the attendant pressured and opportunities typical of professional suburban commuter families.
Johansen is a doctoral educated university literature professor. Her son, Erik, suffered a severe brain injury that changed the lives of everyone in their family for many years. The sentence does not foreshadow the brain injury tragedy to follow. It does not seem particularly eye-catching. Nothing in it shows the reader anything about the terrible story. Why was the sentence still acceptable to the managing editor? What first caught the attention of the reader when he or she saw this book on the shelf or on an internet search page? The title: Listening in the Silence, Seeing in the Dark – Reconstructing Life after Brain Injury. A title comprised of thirteen words but, a title that cries for attention. How can we listen in silence? How do we see in the dark? Brain injury is always a terrible thing. Most people don't know that a brain injury survivor must reconstruct his or her life, indeed, his or her self, to a significant degree.
As you can see, you can start your memoir anywhere. Most follow a chronology even when the first sentences catch the readers' attention by dramatizing an event that occurs later. Once the event is summarized (significant details are omitted), the writer returns to the time when he or she wishes to begin then proceeds chronologically. Chronology is the most common structure for a memoir. It allows the writer and reader to discover the events in the sequence they occurred.
Some memoir writers choose not to follow a strict chronology and impose in their stories an erratic linear pattern, rather than a strictly linear one. Doing this allows the story to be read with a sense of fictional quality because fiction writers use many devices in fiction. Some memoirs read almost like a journal or diary augmented with explication. Some read like family histories, replete with old and contemporary photographs. Family histories often include narrative by the memoir writer and replicated interviews of relatives or others. Internal monologues, in which authors muse about the past, family, or events, can elucidate intellectual processes.
Flashback. Authors of books on the topic of memoir often assert that flashback is a different structure from chronology. However, if one thinks about it, flashback is merely a way of catching the reader's attention then proceeding chronologically to tell the story. A few of the authors in the table use flashback.
"A blast of music from WABC-FM blew my eyes open."
over my head – A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out – Claudia L. Osborn
"Exactly twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam, I stopped worrying about dying."
… and a hard rain fell – A GI's true story of the War in Vietnam – John Ketwig
"I go to the basement and open my ruck."
Jarhead – A Marines Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles – Anthony Swofford
"At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been "Gabriel," because the archangel and I have a lot in common."
Shooter – The Autobiography of the Top-ranked Marine Sniper – Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin, USMC
"Wiley waved to me from across the ramp as I stepped off the C-130 shuttle plane from Bangkok."
Flying Through Midnight – A Pilot's Dramatic Story of his Secret Missions Over Laos During the Vietnam War – John T. Halliday
A flashback is a scene from the past that informs the present and tells the reader something important about the character (usually you). It may not be the best way to begin a story because flashbacks are sometimes difficult for the reader and may cause confusion. If you read fiction, you have probably read many and may not have known what it was called. An illustration will be shown.
Dr. Osborn begins with one. Osborn awoke from a coma then began her discovery of brain injury, returning to pre-injury times, and then on to the major changes in her life the accident brought. The seminal moment she chose to begin her memoir was the event of awakening. When we face death and become unconscious, suddenly realizing we are alive is a moment never forgotten. Ketwig was in Vietnam for 342 days of his 365 day tour of duty, many in which he was in combat, continually worrying about getting killed - before he realized that there was no need to worry about dying. That realization, that he had stopped worrying about dying, is a story flashback. It connotes a life changing event for him. Anyone in a combat zone, in a secure base or in the field, worries about getting killed. At some point, those involved in combat stop worrying about it. Of course, when the combatant nears his or her departure date back to "the World," often the response to that realization is withdrawal and near paranoia of not making it out.
Parallel Stories. Some memoirs focus on a special relationship. The lives of the two people are separate and, in a sense parallel, until they converge at some point in time at some place. The idiom, "It's a small world" is frequently used to refer to meeting someone as an adult whom you may have met briefly or known well earlier in life – or perhaps you knew the person's parents or sibling(s). In fiction, a criminal's story may run parallel across from that of a police officer. When I was a cop, I ultimately arrested a few men with whom I had attended high school or elementary school. Once, when visiting a relative in Iowa while attending the University of Iowa's Summer Writing Festival, I ran into an attorney who I knew who was also attending the Festival (separate seminars) and who happened to go to Amana, Iowa, at the same time as me, with his relatives to have a German dinner. Our stories had run parallel, unbeknownst to us, up to that point. Complex parallel stories involve more than two persons and each character may come in and leave the story at different times.
Rules – Everything Has Rules!
Grammatical rules are nice to follow generally because it allows readers to comprehend stories. Spelling rules are similarly wise. If it's your first attempt, the idiomatic rule, "K.I.S.S.," may be a good idea. Truth, as a rule, is crucial for a memoir. Corroborate whenever possible and verify when you can. To see an example, when you read magazines, in each issue the editor usually inserts at least one correction, sometimes with an apology. If you can't verify the fact, you may consider (1) not using it or (2) saying in the paragraph or in a footnote that you could not verify the fact(s), it may not be true, and invite readers to send information.
Reflect upon ethical considerations. Ethics relate to truth but may be more subtle. Ethically, you may want to consider whether or not you should write the story or the particular facts about an event or someone. Although not libelous because truthful, will the revelation hurt someone or shame them? Always consider the consequences to yourself and others, including businesses, when writing a nonfiction work. Most families already have communication problems; you may not wish to worsen the situation. On the other hand, if that's what makes you world go around, as the lyrics go.
What Is Creative Nonfiction?
Nonfiction is understood by most to refer to factual, non-dramatic, unemotional, and accurate prose most often seen in newspaper and magazine articles, how-to books, historical works, and other report format works. The text may present exciting facts that generate passion, e.g., reporting on the terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere but, the creative and imaginative talent of the writer is not applied. Creativity refers to the writer's use of imagination, speculation, art, humor, and his or her word repertoire to dramatize and excite the reader. Most frequently associated with fiction, the humor, dread, anger, anxiety, fear, love, endearment, and other emotions is usually driven by creative and imaginative writing.
Creative nonfiction comprises writing that remains true to reality but, is reasonably dramatized with the tools applied by fiction writers. Creative nonfiction writers use dramatic method, drafting the story as a series of scenes connected by brief descriptive narrative. The writer can bring movement, action, and energy to the memoir. Use the senses in narrative, summary and dialogue to bring life to the written word. While smell is our strongest sense for purpose of memory, vision is the most used sense. The writer (narrator) can only tell what he or she sees, hears, and senses. Most detail is about what one sees.
Developing the story scene by scene allows the writer and the reader to avoid the disinteresting and unfulfilling. An illustration may help understand this. Using simple summary telling,
In his office, Sam gets a phone call and the caller, who refuses to give his name, tells Sam that his 13 year old son is selling drugs at school. Sam is about to get off work at 5 p.m. and knows his son, Seth, should be at home. He calls but there is no answer. Upset, Sam drives home, a 45 minute commute delayed further by an accident but finally arrives home. He opens the front door, walks in, and walks down the hall to Sam's room. He knocks on Seth's door, able to hear loud music, but there is no answer. He opens it and confronts Seth.
In his office, Sam gets a phone call and the caller, who refuses to give his name, tells Sam that his 13 year old son is selling drugs at school. Distracted with anxiety, he rushes home. Opening the boy's door, he confronts Seth.
No dialogue is in these examples, for simplicity and to show a more dramatic summary method but, you see the point. If the story begins with the dialogue of the stunning phone call, summary narrative is avoided and the reader is brought immediately into the action. For example:
Harried, in the middle of a business crisis, Sam answered the phone. "Yes? Sam Harrelson." He looked out his office window and wished he was out on Mission Bay with those sail boats and a gorgeous sunset.
"Sam? I'm not telling you my name," said a boy's quaking voice. "Seth is selling dope at school. I had to tell you." The words came out rushed.
"What? Who are you? How do I know you're telling me the truth?" Suddenly Sam's heart was pounding, ready to burst from his chest. Seth selling drugs? His boy? God, no!
A sob. "No, I won't say my name. I know because he tried to sell me some. He threatened me if I told!"
Hearing the boy cry, Sam believed him. Selling drugs? Threatening kids? Oh, Lord. What do I do? "Okay. No name," he said. "What did he try to sell you?"
"He, he … said it was crystal. I don't know. I don't use drugs. I told'im to get lost. I don't wanna get hurt! I gotta go." Click.
Sam fell back into his chair, nearly toppling. A chill ran down his back. Still holding the phone, he clicked a line button a rapidly dialed home. He felt chilled against the sun-warmed window. Seth, be home, he prayed.
The difference in drama and emotion (showing vs. telling) is apparent. The boy making the call is upset, crying, trying to do the right thing. Sam is stunned and afraid. As for character, the dialogue shows the reader something, too. While we don't know much else yet, the boy has good intentions, i.e., good character. Sam is a good parent, concerned for his son, and takes steps immediately to find out what is going on. These are important qualities. The writer would build on each character, including Seth's, as the story develops.
Summary or Descriptive Exposition.
The first of the above illustrates, however poorly, expository writing. Sometimes a few words of dialogue are included mid-paragraph; a brief exchange, for some reason important to the writer. Ancient fiction, e.g., Dickens, Faulkner, use exposition heavily. That was the nature of creative writing of their times. Modern fiction and creative nonfiction use summary or exposition in a planned and more crafted manner. Examples always seem to work well to illustrate what is meant when a general declarative statement, like the sentence prior to this, has been made.
The PowerPoint™ sample showing expository memoir writing comes from Fathers, Sons, and Brothers …, by Bret Lott. In his book, he spans three generations, from the east coast to the west, re-creating and evoking moments of "anger and love, work and play, intimacy and distance." He shows the reader the similarities and differences amongst the men, and with "extraordinary depth" presents arguments, conspiracies, triumphs, and humiliations. Lott's work contains segments of dialogue but, the segments come far less frequently than other works. A generation ago, virtually any amount of dialogue was frowned upon because no publisher and few critics believed that a conversation could be recalled precisely and exacting truth was paramount. With in-depth interviewing, study of how people speak, and excellent recall, a close approximation is today acceptable.
Summary exposition or summary descriptive writing combined with effective use of dialogue is shown by the segment from Claudia Osborn's book, over my head … . In this illustration, we see brief summaries of facts, followed by to-the-point dialogue. The combination is the most common form of modern memoir. Osborn uses significantly more dialogue in her work, compared to Lott. One of the major deficits faced by brain injury survivors is that of short and long term memory. Readers and critics could well ask, therefore, how is it that brain injury survivor Osborn recalls all these post-injury conversations so well? I selected this illustration for this reason. We have varying ability to recall under different circumstances. Upon reaching a reasonable state of maximal recovery, Osborn returned to the available witnesses to the conversations and compiled dialogue that achieves the closest approximation for dramatic purposes. Her dialogue is used to illustrate brain injury facets and her choice of methods is arguably far more effective than a mere declarative statement that, e.g., brain injury results in short term memory, organization, speech, and other deficits.
For similar reasons, I am showing you a segment from Richard R. Burns' memoir, Pathfinder. In the heat of combat, when a combatant is focused on doing his job and surviving, neuroscientists tell us that time seems to slow, tunnel vision occurs, and the mind focuses on minute, a scream, things flying through the air, streaks of red or green from tracers, the vortex of airborne dust left by bullets whizzing past. How could someone later, years later, recall conversations that took place during combat? The answer is not complicated. Memoir writers recall the most possible, digging deep, and they interview others involved, again digging deep. What comes out is a concession that such-and-such was said. This evolves into a truthful approximation of what was said, i.e., dialogue. This method is modernly deemed fair and truthful, holding to the ethics of truth in nonfiction.
There are good reasons for well written description. Description can create a memorable setting. It can bring nuances of romance to a love story or stark darkness to a crime story. How do you know when enough is enough? Or when it's not enough? Here are ten ways to put description to work for your story.
I. The unfamiliar needs explanation. If the topic is about an event, an act, or someone who is not well known to general readers, some education is appropriate. Selgin uses what it's like to mainline heroin as an example. Most people don't abuse drugs but, many of us are familiar with it because of jobs, family, or other exposures. A brief quote from his illustration is:
It hit all right. It hit the heart like a runaway locomotive, it hit like a falling wall. Frankies whole body lifted with that smashing surge, the very heart seemed to lift up-up-up – then rolled over and he slipped into a long warm bath with one long sigh of relief.
II. Breathe life into the familiar. We don't recall places or events with the same familiarity, depth, or emotion with which we may have first experienced it. Writers can refresh the familiar with sharp details that evoke the sense of smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste. Metaphors and anecdotes work well here. Bring the reader a fresh sense of the generally known.
III. Authentic details are crucial. Unique, specific, even startling details are convincing to readers. Sure, green pine trees cover a mountain-side but, what about the many shades of green? The varying green shades of different trees? In fall, the colors are abundant. What about the dead trees? One at a time or small clusters, killed by beetles. Where are the boulders of grey granite? The hues of moss covering the north sides of trees and boulders? Where is the smell of the pine? The wood fire carried on the breeze? Where's the breeze? What does it feel like? The water in the mountain spring tastes – what? Like what? Metaphors work well here.
IV. How can description be used to build character and evoke emotions? The moods and emotions of the characters, as they progress through the story, give you opportunities. It is how a narrator or character sees and, in description, monologue, or dialogue, senses what is seen that allows the writer to build character and emotion. How many ways can a person describe a gravesite or a car? The gravesite can be described with hatred of the person buried: "The weeds growing on his grave, sparsely but tenaciously in the otherwise bare dirt, gave resonance to how Alan felt about his despicable oldest brother." On the other hand, he might have loved his oldest brother and been in anguish about the condition of the grave. Or the car: "She saw Alan pass her, driving a rusted out dent covered old wreck of an Oldsmobile that belched smoke in what had to be illegal quantities, as it weaved down the street. Still a no-good drunken bastard not worth a dime, she thought." Or perhaps she is stunned to recognize how far he had fallen – someone she had loved without end, and still did.
V. Abstractions out! Concrete details in! Vivid (which does not mean only color) is a word to keep in mind when adding detail. Details should be vivid, intense, animated, clear, colorful, dynamic, eloquent, energetic, graphic, lucid, meaningful, realistic, rich, sharp, shining, spirited, striking, telling, theatrical, expressive, vigorous, and true-to-life. Don't use these words. Think of ways to describe the fine details so that those details are perceived by the reader in one or more of these states.
VI. Good writing is a story based mixture of the many devices writers bring to the table. Detail, description, dialogue, monologue, metaphor, anecdote, and summary, are all writing choices. If a writer creates a work with only one or two, e.g., detail and summary, the work reads dryly and without emotional drama. On the other hand, if a writer uses dialogue, monologue, and detailed description, the story may become too long and nothing is left to the imagination of the reader. Consider other writing devices, the McGuffin, implication, simile, and personification. If one thing is like another, you have a simile. Never state what you can imply. Is that hard to grasp? Sometimes it's a good idea to sit back and play with one sentence for awhile so you can begin to use these devices. For example:
"She looked up at me from underneath the rumpled pile of blankets." OR "She looked up at me from underneath a tattered revolution of blankets."
Some readers may prefer the concrete "rumple" while others may prefer the less concrete.
VII. The six senses. Writers can appeal to the five senses with which we're all familiar: smell, sight, taste, hearing, and touch. Stories come from the 6th: extrasensory perception or whatever else a writer wants to call it, e.g., intuition, feeling, sudden wariness, or "just knowing," to name a few. Scientists have studied why, when someone suddenly feels the hair stand on the back of their neck and breaths come quickly, it means danger is very near. Some feel it and some don't. I felt it in Vietnam and as a cop. I felt it when I interviewed a few of the murderers I represented. Scientists concluded that one of the five senses picked up a subtle but strong signal from the threat, e.g., when peripheral vision catches a glimpse of a man with a gun but, the conscious mind doesn't recognize the fact and signal the brain to react. Or when a psychopath calmly stares at you from across the table and smiles as he says that the only mistake he made as a murderer was changing his victim from adolescent girls to adult women just because he grew up. Or when you step into the doorway of a room where prisoners are being kept before interrogation and all five of them are hog-tied so that their stomach is on the floor but, their legs are bent upward towards their back, where the knees are tied to a rope which holds their elbows, pulled back far enough that their torso is up off the floor, they're blind-folded, and duct tape covers their mouths. The only sensations they are aware of, other than pain, is that their lower abdomen and groin are touching the floor and they can breathe, with difficulty, through their nostrils. Use the senses, all of them, with imagination and intensity.
Here are some ways to question the senses:
a. Words describing the atmosphere or ambiance – the temperature, light source(s) and quality, shadows, air quality.
b. How did you feel about what was happening?
c. What was your mood? Describe it as it shifted.
d. What color or rhythm describes your feelings?
e. Focus and recall smells in the immediate surroundings and from more distance.
f. How did things near you smell?
g. How did the people smell? How about you? You've heard the expression, "Dog's smell fear." So do people.
h. What odors were produced by the event?
i. Did any scents briefly appear then disappear?
VIII. Use details judiciously to create impressions, not an immersion the reader can't escape. When you write the word picture of a very old home, you can describe every dry rotted, broken, wood-chipped and peeled side-board, every facet of each broken window pane, and each rusted piece of door hinge, nails, and other metal, or you can write it in a broader swath that vividly imprints the old home artistically. With the former excessive detail, you bore and lose the reader. With the latter, you appeal to the reader's imagination, emotions, and memory of or images (pictures) of similar homes. There is no quantifiable rule to use. Trust your instincts and be willing to cut words, sentences, paragraphs or whole sections if reading improvement will be accomplished. Presumably, you are writing for the readers, not for yourself. Selfishness has no beneficial place in creative writing. While you read your work aloud to yourself or someone willing to actually listen, be alert for writing that slows the pace to a crawl or stops it altogether. That is where you revise to return or increase the pace.
IX. Active description almost sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? How can descriptive language be active? As Selgin pointed out in his article, "A warm breeze blew through the open window" blows only for itself. How does the breeze feel to the character? Does it bring a memory, a smell on the breeze, a sense of comfort, a sense of despair? Selgin's revision was "The breeze through the open window warmed Maggies flesh and swept her off to summers on Martha's Vineyard."
TIP: When you see "it was" or "there were" in a sentence, revise it to more active verbs.
X. Some things don't need describing. This is what I call the "judicial notice" rule of creative writing. The practice of law is the precise use of the language and the rules of law. Sometimes lawyers ask the court to take judicial notice of a fact, rather than compelling the lawyers to produce a document or witness to prove the fact, the court must grant the request (thus the fact becomes proven evidence which must be accepted by a jury).
A fair definition is "recognition by the court of a fact that is not reasonably disputable and without the introduction of other evidence," e.g., judicial notice that January 1 is a legal holiday, or a motion for judicial notice of the fact that the high temperature in San Diego on July 12, 2006, was 81°F.
Let the reader imply or infer what's left out. It's surprising what some writers think they have to include. "He nonchalantly put his hand out and leaned against the furnace. Screaming 'Help! Help! Water! Water!,' he dashed up the basement steps." Some writers would insert in the sentence, or add an entire sentence, about the furnace, e.g., it's outer temperature, what it burned, of what it's made. The reader can see the image of a furnace constructed so that it could be leaned upon and that its outer temperature would be very hot, such as the old coal and gas furnaces and boilers still heating some old tenements in some eastern cities. It doesn't matter whether one reader visualizes it as round and another square. Or one black and cast iron or one made of polished steel. A furnace is a furnace – leave it alone.
These suggestions, if studied and considered as you plan a story then write, can improve your finished product.
Dialogue or, Dialogue.
When an author writes dialogue and makes it realistic, grammatical and spelling rules may be virtually ignored. People don't usually speak in a very formal manner. The author should consider speech influences including:
- o Character's education and vocabulary level
- o Nationality and unique pronunciations
- o Regional and local accents, dialect, colloquialisms, jargon
- o Age and maturity
- o Idiomatic expressions
- o Expressions known to few ("inside" humor)
- o Lack of expression or emotion
- o Emotions felt when speaking, mood
- o Specialist or technical language
- o Rhythm, tone, emphasis
- o Grammar
- o Unequivocal or precise speech
- o Stilted, formal, pompous, pretentious, monotone
- o Excited, blathering, stuttering, piece-meal
- o Pressured, stressed
- o Speech special to the character
TIP: Only use dialogue that accomplishes one of these: advances or moves the story along (doesn't stall or stop it for some pointless comment or observation); or, develops character (the narrators, the person to whom or about whom the narrator is speaking, or a character in the story – remember objects can be "characters").
Well crafted dialogue is interesting, captivating, and dramatic. By the words spoken, intimations are drawn about the characters, the reader understands things unsaid about the characters, or the words hint at hidden motives. A real conversation might begin with:
"Hi, how are you?"
"Fine. How are you doing?"
"Okay. Good. Everyone's well, so that's good."
This might be realistic but, it doesn't do anything for the story. It's boring. If you haven't noticed, most of the time it's lies anyway. Superficiality engaged in for the sake of courtesy. Usually, the person asking how you're doing doesn't really want to know. Good dialogue gets to the point immediately. The preceding pointless portion is assumed by the reader. Isn't it more exciting when a character gets to the point right away?
Avoid the "said" traps and pronouns that lose the reader. A story may begin with only Gus and Betty talking. They do things and, along the way, have conversations. In sentences in which Gus is thinking or narrating, the writer writes "He thought," or "He was surprised." The same applied to Betty. For some dialogue, the writer wrote:
"Hey, give me back my keys," he said.
"No, I'm not," she said.
"Hey, stop yelling!" she said.
"Yeah! Knock it off!" he said.
"Why not?" he said.
"Because you're drunk, stupid!" she said.
"Am not!" he said.
They started fighting, fists flying, the fur flew.
I wrote this and I barely know who said what. You have read novels. This is not how dialogue is written. Despite the appalling alliteration in the last line, this needs work. Yet, novices often don't notice opportunities to be creative. This could have been written:
"Hey! Give me back my keys!" Gus slurred. He was standing, but barely.
"No, I'm not," Betty said, glancing around to see who was watching.
"Hey, stop yelling!" An anorexic blond yelled from a bar stool.
The bartender, a disheveled old timer who had seen much, backed away and disappeared behind the register.
A muscled and tattooed skinhead on the bar stool next to the blond, turned and stood. "Yeah! Knock it off!" He snarled.
"Why not?" Gus carried on, unaware of the skinhead making his way toward them. A few other patrons, shadows in the dark, laughed at the developments.
Betty raised her hand, palm out, at the skinhead. "Because you're drunk, stupid!"
The skinhead walked up, snatching an empty beer bottle from a nearby littered and filthy table.
"Am not!" Gus whined.
"I said knock it off," growled the skinhead.
A sudden, from-the-floor, roundhouse fist from Betty sent the muscled meddler mounting a table and into the murky shadows.
All speakers are identifiable. Action is brought into the scene. The character of Gus, Betty, the blond, the bartender, and the skinhead is implied. The character of the bar is implied. Despite the atrocious alliteration at the end, it's still a better scene.
Monologue, or Monologue.
Monologue takes place when one person is speaking to no one or a person is thinking. It is a writing technique that reveals or shows a character's mental state or thoughts. Fiction writers use internal monologue as one of the most effective ways of showing a person's character. Characters not only think as a process (e.g., what will I do next) but, think as a form of recall (e.g., I remember my daddy told me …), and as a form of emotional expression (the pilot about to crash his aircraft, "Oh, damn," he though). For a memoir writer, recall is straight forward since no one must be interviewed and the writer can focus of other writing devices to make the monologue good reading:
- § Words
- § Diction
- § Emphasis
- § Punctuation or the lack thereof
- § Emotions
- § Language and speech patterns
The very best monologue I have read is James Dickey's To the White Sea. Though fiction, it is an award winning fictional memoir of a soldier who must parachute from his bomber during the bombing of Tokyo, Japan, during World War II. His escape and evasion from capture and his journey across much of Japan elucidates war time Japan and the attitudes of the Japanese soldiers and people to Americans from the unique point of view of a Native American. I have a PowerPoint™ slide that shows an example.
An illustration I can use from a draft memoir of an experience I had follows:
I can't hear a thing. My right leg hurt likes hell. It feels warm but is in spasms. I raise my right hand to wipe the sweat and dirt from my eyes. Except my arm doesn't move. What the hell happened? Oh, okay, my arm's trapped under me. That's all. I roll a little and drag it out. Damn! That hurt. My head is pounding. It's hard to think. Ernie! Where's Ernie? I wipe my sleeve across my eyes, blinking furiously. Dust hung in the air. I close my eyes. I am tired, so f-----g tired. My head jerks off the ground. Stay awake! There's an acrid stink. A metal-like bitter taste. Something is laying across my legs – heavy. I wriggle out from under it. Heavy. It rolls off. I rest. Breathe, breathe. What happened? I cleared Bookie 25 to land. Then I woke up. Mortars. Mortar rounds were hitting the runway. I have to find Ernie. Hands grab me and pulled. I slide several feet. Water is splashed in my face. That feels good. I cough. Someone is right in my face yelling. What? I point at my ears and shake my head. I realize I'm sitting up.
Internal monologue can be what a person is thinking, seeing, smelling, feeling and tasting. Writing this passage, I hope a reader can see and sense what has happened. The internal mental life, thoughts and emotions, are accessible to a memoir writer. A creative nonfiction writer penning the monologue of another can access the internal life by a thorough interview. Monologue is intimate and can reveal more about a person's character that dialogue. We don't think in the complete sentences we create when we write. In a monologue, a writer can use the devices of dialogue without the two-way conversation.
Dramatic Truth in Story.
A methodical and non-dramatic factual recounting of events was the traditional model of nonfiction writing for many years. Texts from a generation ago demonstrate the dry nonfiction of past generations. Nonfiction read much like technical writing or police reports. Actually, police reports were probably more interesting because of the crimes they reported. I can only teach with passion from my personal experience, otherwise, I would merely be using samples from decades past to illustrate nonfiction writing. How boring would that be? However, I was a police officer and remain an attorney, so I'll begin with those nonfiction forms.
L.A.P.D. Detective Jack Webb, in the television series, Dragnet, frequently interrupted the emotional outpouring of a witness story with his mandate, "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." That's what police reports generally comprise: facts. I came from the U.S. Air Force into civilian police work. Police reports use an uncomplicated writing style that disfavor creative embellishment. Opinions are included for limited purposes, e.g.,
- Ø Witnesses can opine approximations or estimates concerning colors, speeds, descriptive data, level of intoxication
Legal writing could be creative at times but, only to the extent that the writing was appropriately persuasive or argumentative. Pleadings often contain a section described as a "Statement of Facts." For ethical reasons, I placed only facts in this area. However, in the section usually called "Points and Authorities," lawyers are supposed to state the relevant points of law they wish to make, following each point of law with a narrative of the facts and law pertinent to that point of law, creating persuasive argument. This is where we could become creative in a written pleading.
Arguing the facts using dramatic language - in the "… Facts" section, I might write, "the blue Ford F-250 pickup, driven by defendant, failed to stop at the limit line for the red light." But, in the "Points" area, under the point of driver negligence, these facts might become "Defendant Dilsworth was awake and, if he had been paying the slightest attention to the traffic controls and glaring red light facing him, he might have at least slowed instead of speeding past the light at 70 miles per hour or faster, recklessly endangering everyone. Defendant Dilsworth slammed his heavy and powerful truck into the side of Julia Richards' compact car, demolishing the driver's side, crushing it inward nearly two feet. The horrific impact caused Julia serious lacerations from which blood flowed, covering the steering wheel and seat. She was thus trapped in front of her ten year old son, who sat in the front passenger seat, screaming and sobbing, believing his mother was going to die."
Of course, the most creativity came in the form of oral argument during the closing argument of trial, when I could get as dramatic as I pleased for the purpose of persuading the jury.
When I began writing for academics and publication is when my creative juices flowed. In fiction, we write creative lies for profit. Nothing is true and a disclaimer in fiction books avers that there is no intent whatsoever for the story, characters, names, or other facts to reflect real facts, people, or stories. Creative nonfiction writing compels the writer to not distort facts but to try, with imaginative and vivid writing and sufficient details, to place all the pertinent facts before a reader. If this is done effectively, a reader who may not read anything about a topic may enjoy your topical work anyway.
In an advanced creating writing class taught by a well published fiction author, Duff Brenna, I wrote a memoir essay about a particular hour or so in combat in Vietnam. In the class, we wrote creative works, fiction or nonfiction, and everyone in the class provided written and verbal critiques for the purpose of helping each other improve our writing. A few of the women I mentioned studiously read my work and provided feedback. To my pleasant surprise, a few of them commented that, first, they did not read or like to read military or combat stories, however, second, they read and then re-read mine, enjoying it thoroughly, and for the first time, finding something they liked about the genre. These were unusual and very pleasing comments.
Realistic and concrete details will evoke reader emotions. The truth of the emotional context of an event or dialogue shows the reader how it feels. Fiction and creative nonfiction writers have a similar goal: to portray life accurately. The more emotion weaved into writing, the more the reader will feel and see the characters and the story. My research into cognitive science and the impact of reading and writing has shown that writing which expresses and implies emotions may increase the mind's ability to recall the related facts. Dialogue showing an emotional conflict or event will make a vivid emotional impression on the reader. Readers learn to like characters, to the point that some name their children after fiction characters (much less those in creative nonfiction). Creative nonfiction writers try to stimulate as many emotions and senses as reasonably possible when we show the reader a scene.
Truth and Lies: Does the Creative Nonfiction Writer Deceive the Reader?
The deception used by the creative nonfiction writer isn't the deception of a thief or perjurer. Rather, it's not deception, e.g., fraud, falseness, or cheat, at all. Neither is it misleading. Readers are not deceived or misled to believe something to be true that is not. As a lawyer, I sometimes asked witnesses what their recall was of a conversation with another that took place many years before the trial. I had no expectation of perfect recall. All I asked for was their best recollection, their best expression of what they believed was said. That is all anyone can ask. In Richard R. Burns' memoir, Pathfinder, written in the late 1990s and copyrighted in 2001, he writes dialogue representing radio traffic and conversation that occurred in a combat zone, some during combat, some thirty years earlier. He represented the dialogue as accurately as possible from his recollection and those of others whom he interviewed and were there at the time. Combat fairly well dramatizes its own scenes so little needs to be added to achieve the result desired. This is a good example of honest and truthful creative nonfiction writing.
Pertinent and realistic details, in all forms of scene, bring readers close to the characters and help to establish the relationship to the story and characters desired by readers. To write truth in your story, you need to have the words to tell the story. Your voice is the way you tell your story; your language, idioms, syntax, adjectives, vocabulary, accent, and the other qualities that makes your story telling unique. To be sure that your readers understand what you mean when you say something, you need to use language precisely. How many times have you had to say something like, "That's not what I meant" or "I know that's what you think I said but it's not. I said … ."
An example I like to use of improper word usage is one of my pet peeves: the use of the word literally. The word means "in a literal sense." Literal means: of a letter, adhering to ordinary construction or meaning of a term (word) or expression, as expressed in letters, or, reproduced word for word. Literally has never meant physically or actually as related to a physical act. Most people and many experienced writers misuse the word literally in many ways. Since the word refers only to letters (e.g., literature, word, writing, the art and craft of the written word) it cannot be used to say, e.g., "Literally, the bus carried me to school." The physical act of riding on a bus, which carries one to school, is not a reference to letters or words. Rather, it is a physical act. Yet, Susan Carol Hauser, in her book, You can Write a Memoir, uses the quoted bus sentence as an example of the correct use of the word, literally. I can say unequivocally that, literally, this usage by Hauser was improper! Nor does the word refer to the acts or emotions of a person. So when mom makes the teenager made because mom grounds her, and the teenager says, "Like, literally, she makes me so mad!" This usage is also improper.
The point is this: check your grammar and word usage so that when you write something it can literally be understood. The meaning of your words is crucial to readers understanding what you mean in your memoir. When I was a kid, my parents punished me when I erred; in a special way. Rather than a belt or a stick, or making me sit in a corner, they had me read a page or pages of a dictionary or encyclopedia. I recall we had a set of Funk & Wagnells at the time. Later, I graduated to reading pages from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. After I read the page(s), I had to discuss what I read with mom or dad to show that I learned something from reading it. And yes, there was a test at the end of the week. I learned to enjoy reading. To this day, when I find a new one, I purchase and read dictionaries about words, word usage, idioms, slang, dialect, accents, and anything else I run across. This hobby has provided me with a fount of words and knowledge of word usage which benefits my writing.
Hauser accurately wrote, "I want to tell the truth. But the truth is, when I write, I create truth" (15). Writing a memoir about an event or person in your life can be a journey of discovery or sometimes surprising in-depth self-analysis. Writing the truth about how you felt or your impressions of what you saw is a creation of your version of the truth. Like the witnesses to an auto accident, each witness tells a slightly different story. As you write, be aware that your truth may not be the same of others who were involved. Using words precisely and checking your facts helps to achieve the best representation of truth.
Writing Life with Mother, author Russell Baker faced the challenge of what truths to write about – his answer: it was a matter of knowing too many details and the problem was what to omit. All events were accurate but he recognized that omission is also a form of deception. Since there is always a danger of hurting someone's feeling when you write a memoir, one author, Jill Ker Conway, waited until her mother had passed away before writing The Road from Coorain. Conway points out that a majority of literary critics maintain that "[t]here is no fixed history, no history that is true." This is because "you change the story by where you begin it and end it, and … you impose your own meaning on events that's different from the meaning [others] in the story puts on the events." Eileen Simpson, a psychotherapist wrote a memoir titled Poets in My Youth. Simpson discovered that the way (that worked for her) to recall the minute details of past events, to stimulate a memory of the past, was to "assume the position of a person being psychoanalyzed – to lie on a couch and associate freely." She found that it was hard work. The value to the memoir writer is that the method allows the writer to choose a topic, one that is emotionally charged, to write about.
Toni Morrison, whose fiction routinely hit the best seller's lists, said that the authenticity for her fiction is her literary heritage – autobiography. She describes her effort to recall the past as literary archeology. She then reconstructs the story from what is known and what can be guessed. She then fictionalizes her memories to create her works. The truth is only a foundation – the dramatized fictionalization becomes the work.
What is the difference between claims of "exact" truth as made by another and the emotional and recalled truth of the writer? Difference in choice of recall is the likely answer. If another person disagrees with the truth written in a memoir, there is no arbiter to decide who is correct. No one can say. If two other people agree on a different truth, do they numerically outweigh the truth of the writer? Not in a court of law and not in the public's view. Ultimately, readers will decide if they enjoy the work or not and whether or not it seems truthful. As far as the memoir writer is concerned, it should make no difference. Some do extensive research, some rely on their memory and what verification is immediately available. No one can say which is better or more truthful. If a memoir writer interviews five people about an event, there should be five different views of the event. If two are entirely consistent, there has likely been collusion between the two that agree.
You are the expert on your life and the people who make record about events get facts wrong. The truth is your burden to decide as you see fit. If memory revises a story and the memoir writer detects difference facts he or she believes, then revision may be appropriate for the sake of clarity. Furthermore, once you have written in detail about an event, bringing out and laying on the table before you all the details, good and bad, the process changes your memory. The truth is hard to find and, once you decide what stays in the story and what is omitted, it is hard to tell.
Believe it or not, you will remember an event or conversation differently at different times. The reason for this is emotions. With neuroscience studies able to focus on brain activity, the hypothesis is that the brain (mind) is in a slightly different emotional state each day or night. As a result, different neural pathways activate to search for memory. Once the memory is accessed, if the mind reflects upon it for a while, the mind will recover more each time the memory is accessed. Furthermore, because more is being accessed from different emotional states (e.g., elation, well-being, slight anxiety, slight blues), the memory will be framed a little differently each time. Complicated, but true. So it's true; your memory is what you make of it!
It is the essence of the memory that is important to truth in writing, not every single, sometimes complicated, detail. Finally, the act of writing about the memory, with its creatively necessary changes, permanently changes the memory deep within your mind. If you handwrite the memory changes, the act of handwriting further embeds the changes so that they become permanent. The truth, however we define it, is hard to tell in a story.
Western novelist Zane Grey wrote about the purple sage and the lavender shaded mountains more eloquently than many poets.
For a short time, Grey lived just north of here in Lake Elsinore. My father used to go fishing with him on the lake in an aluminum flat bottomed boat. On the boat from chilly twilight to an hour after dawn's fog layer rose, under what was in 1943 clear black star-lit skies. A Coleman's kerosene lantern gave a yellow cast to their figures, quietly sitting, talking in hushed tones, waiting for the bite of a perch or bass. They used night-crawlers as bait, ate red hot chili from a large cast-iron pot that cooked twenty-four hours a day over a campfire, and drank beer from cans kept in a mesh bag strung to a branch on the shore and chilled by the lake waters. For breakfast, they heated a cast iron skillet on the fire, threw in a cube of butter, and fried up fresh filets, the aroma drawing juices before a bite was eaten. On the other hand, they spent their three-day weekend without a bath, too.
The descriptive scenes in your memoir should draw on all five senses – not all five in every scene, but draw on as many as fit the setting. The setting can say volumes about the character of the person in the scene.
Grey and my father were confident and mature men who lived life to its fullest and enjoyed companionship and fishing deeply. Their talks sought no remedies for troubled times, only stories of how much simpler things used to be when the west was wild. I became intimately familiar with these stories when my father and I sat in an aluminum flat bottomed boat, drifting freely on Lake Henshaw, not far from a big black iron pot of red hot chili that I could smell out on the lake. After spooning down a large tin bowl and drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola kept chilled in a mesh net in the lake, I crawled into my blue night-sack, zipped it up, and slept until mid-afternoon.
Whether it is an aroma-filled kitchen, a mountain meadow, an ocean beach, or the pitch-black darkness of a back yard when your brother screamed, "Run! Wolves!" and you were only five, wherever it is, write it with the details available from all your senses. When you were a child and sat on hay in a barn, day-dreaming of the magnificence of hunting like Daniel Boone, and you became aware that it had grown dark and strange noises emanated from dark corners, boards creaked with no one there, animals skittered and ran from you knew not what, did you worry about the bear that would come crashing through the old wooden barn wall? Did your heart pound? These are the senses that make scenes and settings come alive.
Don't overkill the word picture with adjectives. Use just enough of the right adjectives and nouns to deepen the senses. Use words that touch memories of smells and sights that carry emotion to your reader. "The five-year old girl cried. She was standing next to the body of her mother." This is a descriptive sentence but, does it wring the reader's heart? Does it create a strong emotional reaction in the reader? Write to generate emotions by using as many of the five senses as is reasonable, so that readers feel the emotions and feel the fear, horror, and anger, not dissimilar to your own.
I watched the four-year old, dirt smeared her cheeks and showed me tear streaked rills down her neck. She wore a tattered blue sun dress and one broken blue thong on her right foot. The other thong lay nearby, the toe piece ripped from the sole. She held tightly in her left hand the gooey remains of a milk-chocolate Hershey bar. Chewing it slowly, she sniffed, deeply and with a sudden sigh and cry for happiness that eluded her. At the same moment a big bubble of snot grew from her right nostril, she looked up at me and smiled. She looked at her mommy, who lay unconscious on the floor in front of the beaten sofa. Mommy was sick. Four year old Jeannie didn't know the sickness was from a heroine overdose and that mommy wasn't going to wake up. She had sat by mommy all night, since mommy fell off the sofa in the afternoon of the day before.
"Mommy's cold." She frowned. "I gave her my binkie."
The child's worn pink cotton blanket covered mommy's back providing no warmth but hiding the pale dead skin. The living room was filthy. Cockroaches crawling down the cigarette smoke stained wall waited for dropped bits of food. The carpet, with its many small burned holes, had not been cleaned in years.
I picked little Jeannie up. "Come on, sweetheart, let's go outside for a minute."
She squirmed in my arms and a shrill cry of anguish, "Nooooo," burst from the little body. "I wanna stay with mommy!"
No one knew who the father was of little Jeannie. No father was named on her birth certificate. Her mother, Diane, told the doctor she didn't know who was the father. Jeannie went to live in a foster home. I don't know what became of her. I wrote the report that detailed her mother's death from drug overdose. The county office of the Public Administrator cleaned out the mess in the house. A few things worth keeping were kept for the child; her broken dolls and a few pictures of her mother with different men. The rest was taken to the city dump.
These stories are true. They can be told without detail, without feeling, and without senses. Doing so would prevent the reader from feeling anything about the people depicted. While you're writing, don't assume something to be true without checking it out. Remember, this is nonfiction. Like a detective, you want to verify facts; at least the ones that seem to need verification. Naturally, I have an illustration from one of my works:
The picture of the golden mound struck me because it was a rare blossom, one come and gone so quickly, few local residents of the southern Arizona desert ever saw it. Something about the article troubled me but whatever it was eluded me. I'm the type that can't let this sort of puzzle go unsolved. It seemed more like something I forgot than something about the article. The article was the stimulus. What was it? By Professor Alfred Ruggins, a botanist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the article recited the history of the extremely rare blooms of the golden pincushion cactus.
Found only here in Santa Cruz County, he said that the cactus had most recently bloomed between March 14th and the 17th of 1973. It had disappeared by the seventeenth. The last time it bloomed before the dates in March, 1973, was February 7th to the 9th, 1972. Confounding me was the fact that the golden pincushion rarely bloomed two years in a row. It was usually four years between blooms. If it wasn't a drought resistant cactus, it wouldn't survive the time between pollinations.
I sat back in my deep LazyBoy, exhaled, closed my eyes and relaxed. What was it? After a few minutes, my mind drifted.
Ah! I grabbed the phone and punched numbers.
“Bob? Walt. Didn’t you tell me that the DB, the custodian, we found in that shed off Ruby Road had a yellow flower in one of those plastic envelope things in his wallet?”
Walsh laughed. “Yeah, the one that had been decomposing about three weeks to a month? Did you want it for a souvenir?”
“I know this is going to sound really strange but I think its flower petals from the golden pincushion cactus.”
He laughed again. What was so damned funny? "Okay. So?"
I explained and read Walsh the dates from the article.
Silence. I figured he thought I was losing it. "Damn," he said. "Are you serious?"
"Absolutely. Let's take this thing up to U. of A. and show it to the professor."
Professor Ruggins examined the delicate petals, which had retained their moisture in the plastic insert of the wallet. He showed us identical blossoms he had collected from some cacti a mile away from our DB location on Ruby Road. We had fixed the time of death to within a few days. With a flower. We got a conviction for first degree murder. With a flower.
This is a true story. Strange, but true. With this evidence, we were able to get testimony from a grocery store clerk who placed our suspect with the decedent on March 16. The good professor was certain the flower could not have been from an earlier bloom. It would have rotted in the plastic sleeve if it was that old. Ultimately, we used it to confront the suspect, got a confession, and from that a conviction for first degree murder and armed robbery. The first two paragraphs are descriptive narrative. They are necessary to set up the scene, describe a setting, and compel the reader to read on to find out why this cactus article is bugging the narrator. The last paragraph is descriptive narrative. It winds up the event. It serves to place a point of humorous emphasis on a serious topic: homicide: "We had fixed the time of death to within a few days. With a flower. We got a conviction for first degree murder. With a flower."
Details make your story but, they can break it, too, if you don't verify them. Writing this story, I could have gone into a lengthy description of the cactus, the article, his biography, the geography of the area where the cactus grows, and other facts. The reader would be lost in the quagmire of detail and bored to tears. By bringing out the pertinent details in this fashion (a brief narrative of reading the article, my consternation, and the bolt of recall that struck me as I concentrated), I was able to dramatize it and keep the readers attention, letting the reader join me in my laughter about solving a murder case and getting a conviction based upon a cactus flower. Truth can be stranger than fiction. I was fortunate to have witnessed such an event.
A word of caution: don't fall in love with your details or a turn of phrase that you especially like. If you're writing a memoir for yourself and it will never be published, then ignore this caution if you wish. The problem is that if you're not willing to cut out excessive details or narrative that doesn't move the story along, you're likely to end up with a verbose tome containing excess and hidden drama. There is no equation or rule for how much is too much. It's a question of reading the work aloud and asking yourself as you read: does this move the story, dramatize an event or scene, or build character?
Descriptive narrative can apply to a summary of a portion of a scene, summary dialogue, or setting description. Zane Grey's verbosity of setting narrative is no longer the expected method for salable fiction or creative nonfiction. If the memoir event or period is going to take place in one locality, it's a good idea to spread out the narrative describing the setting. The setting may be a small town, a city block, a mountain canyon, or a desert plateau. As you begin the story, generally narrate the setting then, as the story unfolds, add bits about the setting, comparing past to present, one area to another, so that the reader is shown setting information a it becomes useful to the story. A complete picture is more slowly built, rather than being constructed at one time, in exhaustive detail.
A change in setting can become a driving point for the plot of the story (yes, memoirs have plots, just as they have beginnings, middles, and ends).
In April, 2003, I met my wonderful bride for lunch midway between San Diego and Escondido. I was driving north on I-15 when something unusual happened. On the inside lane of the freeway, the traffic was light, as it was for the second and third lanes. A black car to my right and slightly ahead of me suddenly swerved into my lane, clipping my front right. My car was sent fishtailing into the median just before an overpass. I tried to keep control, aiming for an eighty-five foot guardrail that barred cars from going off the overpass. Two seconds after being struck, I heard nothing. No sound. Where there had been dust and brush in front of my car, I saw a four-lane street rushing at my windshield. My life did not pass before my eyes. I did not say, "Oh, shit." I wondered why a street was in my windshield. My car exploded. Smashing and shattering glass and metal flew across my vision. I could not breathe. I woke up about fifteen minutes later. A tree branch was sticking through my windshield and into my face. I could see sky past the tree in which my car rested. Pain was horrific. I struggled for every breath. I moved my hands. I moved my feet. I couldn't see any blood. Every strained breath hurt incredibly. My chest felt like a giant hand was squeezing it. I got a chance to believe I was going to die.
Weeks later, I found out that Cal-Trans had done some work on the drainage for the median. As they lay concrete, they elected to remove fifty feet of guardrail and did not replace it. My car had gone right past the guardrail, through the tops of two trees, become airborne at forty-two feet, and did a slight arc into the street below. After my car was demolished on impact, it bounced into the trees on the opposite side of that four-lane street, landing in a tree, facing skyward. I had no windshield by that time. Five fractured vertebra, four fractured ribs, two collapsed lungs, a contused heart, internal injuries, and years of pain, I survived.
While this summary narrative illustration does not dramatize the event, it illustrates the change in setting that was an essential part of the plot. If the guardrail had been replaced, my car would have stayed on the freeway and my injuries would likely have been far less. However, I survived to be here today.
Character and Objects.
What do these words have to do with each other? There are many possible answers. The objects or things a person owns or possesses say things about who they are and why they are unique. When you interview someone in their safe harbor, their place (the best place), be observant. Potentially, all around you may be objects that say something about the person. If you take this home, snuggle into your favorite place to read at home, and look around you. What do you see? What do these things say about you? What isn't there? Why? These objects can also become topics within your interview.
What books does the person read? Magazines? What e-mail news or special lists is the person on? If you're writing a war era memoir, what does the person think of war generally, the Vietnam war, the Gulf war (1991), the war on terrorism? Why? Doesn't the viewpoint expressed in the interview bias his or her view and perhaps memory of the person or event about which you're writing? It should; it does for normal people. As interviewer, you have to look through the verbalized story and opinions to ferret out the truth – what axiomatic expression best synthesizes the person's deep feelings; not just those he or she has come to believe with the passage of time.
Objects appear as details in every story. Sometimes they become life-or-death focus, sometimes ignored to the peril of the character, and sometimes the cynosure of marvel, delight, despondency, anger or hatred.
Scenes have a purpose beyond providing a segment of the story, e.g., to move the story forward, to create drama and crucial points in the story. The main character in a memoir is the narrator, the author: you. From your viewpoint, virtually all is shown to the reader. Dramatic tension generates reader enjoyment. There are many different ways to create dramatic tension, which can come from something inside or outside the character.
It's unlikely your feelings were flat or unaffected during the experience you're writing about or you would not have chosen it. What did the experience mean to you? Did your feelings about it intensify during it? How did the experience fit into your life as a whole? Did it cause changes? What were they and what do they mean to you now? Explore the emotions and expressed feelings of everyone. Was there tenderness, grace, compassion, mercy, humiliation, or any of the other emotions? When experienced, did they intensify? Were they sudden and accompanied by physical manifestations, like crying, laughing, snickering, coughing, sighing, or gestures?
Writing dramatically refers to taking facts, e.g., description, dialogue, et cetera, and making them live, developing characters so they're memorable. Conflict is the centerpiece of story tension. Tension appears when you create a scene in which a character struggles with something or someone and you place the outcome in doubt. The more you draw out the major conflict, perhaps with mini conflicts as the story develops, tension increases. What sort of struggles do characters have in which the outcome is in doubt? Here are some examples of the things and people with which characters struggle (or combinations of these):
ü Internal doubt
ü Depression - suicide
ü Anxiety – panic attacks
ü Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
ü Addictions – each consumption can be a point of tension
ü Phobias – height, spiders, darkness (see http://phobialist.com/)
ü Manias – theft, arson, sex, risk behaviors
ü Mental illnesses – see the Diagnostic & Statistics Manual for Psychiatry, 4th Ed, Text Revised (DSM IV-TR). Each illness has traits and characteristics listed for a writer's use
ü Survival – desert, cold, drowning, injuries
ü Disasters – earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes, avalanches, airplane crashes, building collapses, fires
ü Writer's block
ü Relatives – spouse, sibling, parent, in-law, grandparent or grandchildren, children, nieces, nephews
ü Friends – phonies, well-intending, manipulative, secret love, brotherhood
ü Law enforcement – sheriff, city police, constable, FBI, military agencies, state police, highway patrol, park rangers
ü Criminals – For categories, look at your Penal Code at the library, then add: serial, habitual, recidivist, psychopath
ü Strangers – the key here is that people pretend – they are not what they appear to be
ü Law – being a litigant (plaintiff or defendant) is not fun. It creates stress in many ways
ü Education – professors, teachers, students, administration, librarians, student activists, reading, writing, research, studying, test taking
ü Neighbors – use your imagination
ü Inanimate objects – How many times have you seen someone losing it because of their lack of emotional control regarding an inanimate object, e.g., "This damn bolt just won't go into the threads!" They curse, throw things (golf clubs), & break things.
ü Finances – income (too much or lack thereof), stocks, investments, negligent or thieving accountant/book-keeper
This list is far from complete. Life is full of consequences. Every act has a consequence (potential conflict) if it is done in relation to a person or thing which is able to react. Other acts are without consequence and, because they are inconsequential, may or may not be interesting for a story. Of seemingly inconsequential acts, I call upon the mythic hypothesis:
"The hummingbird flew from flower to flower, adding to the breeze. The breeze combined with other breezes in a gust, the gust combined with other gusts and wind to become an air flow. The air flow acted against other air flows to become a storm. The storm became a hurricane, which spawned tornadoes and flooding. The hurricane hit Florida and leveled thousands of homes."
Inconsequential acts can become something more with imagination. Who can say these things do not happen? The possibilities are not irrational.
Similar story-lines can become the basis for novels and creative nonfiction. In today's world, in which we fear terrorist attack, the acts of few can have a substantial effect on many. Let's take a look at points of conflict:
A Catholic man named John Burnette, father of two teenage daughters, is standing outside a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Janice and Jeanette, ages 21 and 23 respectively and his daughters, are standing in the shade of an Elm tree. John sees a young man approach them. He sees an Arab. He starts their way. Beth, his wife, is lingering inside, talking to friends. John is an agent of Homeland Security and works in the vaunted counter-terrorism unit as a senior supervisor. His team of ten agents, mostly former FBI or military Special Forces, has been responsible for the arrest of eleven terrorists captured while gathering their weapons for attacks in the mid-west region of the U.S. With his left elbow, he nudges his 9 mm. Berretta, hidden in a shoulder holster, to verify he's armed, a habit he picked up while an FBI agent. Funny, the kid looks familiar. Where have I seen that face?
Janice and Jeanette, both five five, stunning, blond, and blue eyed, are well dressed in identical deep blue sleeveless dresses. They don't look scared. How many times have I told them to be aware, to be afraid? Burnette hurries.
A silver haired man, deeply tanned, dressed in an Armani suit, Italian loafers, and carrying a Coach briefcase, watches from a new black Mercedes Benz SL550 with darkened windows parked in the church parking lot. Jacob ben-Al Fad gets out of his Mercedes when he sees John walking toward the girls, who Jacob knows to be John's daughters, and Jacob's son, Josh, short for Joshua. John is frowning. Jacob is curious.
Janice, who knows Josh from classes in the University of Oklahoma literature graduate program, says, "Hey, Josh. How are you?"
Shy despite his 22 years, Josh replies, "Good, Janice. Nice to see you. Uh, is this Jeanette?" He nods his head at Janice's sister.
"Introduce me, girl," demands Jeanette, raising her eyebrows. Who's the cutie, she wonders.
Janice flushes. Stay away, Jeanette. "Jeanette, this is Josh. He's a grad student and we took creative writing together."
"Hi, …" Jeanette begins.
"Hi, Josh," a baritone voice surprises them all. John Burnette steps between his daughters. He sees the Arab boy's startled look. The boy is about five eight and a has good build. He quickly registers that the boy's dressed in levis, a Pendleton plaid shirt, brown hiking boots, and a green Hunter jacket. His hair is long for John's taste and curly. Aha, I surprised you, huh?
"Hi, dad," both young women chorus.
Josh holds out his hand to the six-foot three Burnette, who looks intimidating. "Hello, sir. I'm Joshua. I know Janice from the University."
John takes the boy's hand in a firm grip. "Hello, son. Do you attend our church?"
"No, sir. I'm Jewish. I attend Temple Beth-Israel."
Woops, John is taken aback. There I go leaping to conclusions. Suspicious son-of-a-gun that I am. He raises a graying right eyebrow.
"I asked Josh to meet us after church, dad. We're going to have lunch."
"Oh?" Jeanette's curiosity is peaked.
"Oh. Uh, okay," stammers John. "When can we expect you at the house?"
"I'm having lunch with Josh and his father, dad," Janice sighs. Her father can be exasperatingly protective.
Oh, my God. Is she serious about this kid? "Oh? When do I meet him?"
Janice blushes. John notices that Josh is blushing, too. Okay, he seems like a good kid.
It's a sunny warm day. The slight breeze and the faint aroma of someone's barbecue brings a reminder of the filet mignons John has ready at home. A hand lightly but firmly grips John's right elbow from the back, turning him slightly. He automatically jerks away.
"Didn't mean to startle you, John," Jacob ben Al-Fad reaches over and offers his hand to each of the Burnette girls.
"Jesus, Jake!" John shakes Jacob's hand. "How are you? What are you … What did you say?"
Shaking each girl's hand before responding to John, Jacob says hello to each, introducing himself. "Jacob ben Al-Fad, I work with your dad." Seeing their surprise, he laughed. The deep laugh John knows well from the office.
"This is Josh, my errant son. But I love him, anyway. So you didn't know these two were coming to lunch, huh?"
John looks at Janice. "Oh?"
The girls burst out in giggles.
"Dad, you're blushing," Jeanette observes.
"You surprised me, kids. You know I don't like surprises."
"And you probably thought this was one of our local Arab terrorists, right?" Jacob tussled his son's hair.
Josh ducked away. "Dad! That's not funny!"
Jacob could see that his trusted friend had indeed been suspicious. That's okay, he thought. His paranoia helps keep us all alive.
"How about lunch at our house, instead, Jake?"
"Sure. Okay with you, son?"
Josh and Janice exchanged a glance. "Sure, dad," Josh speaks up. "Good. Let's go, okay?"
"Oh, hi, Josh. How are you?" Beth smiles at Josh. She has appeared beside her husband. "And you bust be Agent Jacob ben Al-Fad. Hello. John has said wonderful things about you."
John wonders again at his world. Beth walked up and he didn't even notice. And she already knows this boy! What the hell is going on? Is this a conspiracy? He sighs.
In this scene, there are five people. The setting is the front lawn at a Catholic church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What points of tension or conflict can be found?
- Ø Burnette sees Josh and suspects he may be a terrorist
- Ø Al-Fad sees John head toward Josh and the girls
- Ø Jeanette is envious – "Introduce me …"
- Ø Janice is defensive – "Stay away …"
- Ø Burnette forces his way into the conversation
- Ø Josh thinks Burnette looks intimidating
- Ø Burnette demands to know if Josh attends the church
- Ø Jeanette's curiosity is peaked
- Ø Al-Fad steps in and, gripping Burnette's elbow, surprises him
- Ø Jeanette points out Burnette is blushing
- Ø Jacob tussles his son's hair, jokingly mentioning terrorist
- Ø Josh is irritated
- Ø Burnette didn't know Beth knew Josh and wonders about his world
Tension ebbs, different for each character. There are at least thirteen, fourteen if you want to include Al-Fad pointing out that Burnette didn't know about the lunch plans. Since the question confronts Burnette with his lack of knowledge, it might be considered a point of conflict. This novel is about Homeland Security Counter-terrorist agents investigating possible terrorist acts against the U.S. Since terrorists shoot first, these men and women are trained to be equally lethal. Since terrorism is multi-national and irrespective of religion, they are trained to be suspicious of everyone. These mini conflicts help move the story along. Does Josh turn out to be a terrorist anyway? The son of a senior Homeland Security agent?
Escalation. The ebb of the tides of tension in a story can be compared to the tides of the ocean. For each story line (major plot and each sub-plot), even in a memoir, each character has tension with people, objects, or concepts. As he or she relates to and with each, you should escalate the tension to keep the readers attention. This does not mean that you continually escalate throughout the story until the explosive climax of the end. In a very short story (one or two pages), that may be the case, but not most of the time. You don't escalate tension in every scene of dialogue, because some dialogue needs to exist to set up a conflict or the confrontation that will show conflict, e.g., two daughters talk about their mother's history before marriage to dad as they go through old boxes from the garage. Characters interact and explore, discover, and reveal facts and character as the story progresses. With each interaction, there should be an increase in tension until a discovery or change occurs then a new scene develops with new building tension. Ultimately, they may come to a box in which they find papers showing their mother was convicted of felony embezzlement when she was 19 years old. Mom didn't marry dad until she was 25 years old. Then they find out dad was her attorney!
If the conflict of the interaction is immediate, the character feels the immediacy and expresses it with action, monologue, and dialogue. Characters can be people, a place (apartment, lab, city, room, classroom, library, etc.), or a thing. Steven King creates fictional things based upon our fears and experiences, to which he applies the concept of personification - giving the objects human traits and characteristics. His things act and react with humans, creating horror, e.g., Christine (car), Trucks (trucks), The Shining (a Hotel), Bag of Bones (cabin on Dark Score Lake), Black House (house), Pet Semetary ("Micmac burial grounds," a pet cemetery), among others. In these things and places are ghosts, goblins, and the living dead, all of which are characters in their own right.
In creative nonfiction, horror and personification are a useful theme and an interesting device. Memoirs can be about horror, but not fictional horror – the horror of your car flying off a freeway overpass 52' up at 60 MPH, of a spirit standing at the foot of your bed, a parachute streaming and emergency chute failing, falling out of an airplane with no chute, waking up in a body bag on a morgue autopsy table, waking up in a casket after being buried, watching your friends being torn asunder by explosions and gun fire, waking up to a murderer or rapist in your home, home invasions, among others. Personification can be applied to lived experiences. Pets are commonly personified. We talk to them, confess to them, cry with them, and grieve for them when they die. Pets (dogs and cats) can have a vocabulary of about 200 words of comprehension. Vehicles are personified, e.g., Navy and private ships and boats are called she and her. Reconditioned old automobiles are treated with great care and spoken with, as if they could respond. Vehicles do not comprehend, or do they? After patting the dashboard of a coughing and sputtering car and saying, "Come on, baby, I need you to get me there," the car suddenly runs smoothly then dies upon arrival.
The more we develop the feelings and reactions of characters, the more readers become involved. Look for opportunities in your memoir, concerning the theme, to have the event occur unexpectedly, unusually, and out of the ordinary. In creative writing transitions are place or time changes. This is also when a scene change occurs. It should be done smoothly. An extra space between paragraphs will work (supra). Transitions can help build conflict and tension because they let you switch between people (points of view), places, and times. Transitions can begin and end with dialogue, monologue, or narrative, although it's probably best to use both within the scene.
TIP: Have the transition or scene change occur at a tense moment, just before a dire discovery, a terrible event, or a tragic statement by a character. Transitions never end a conflict; they imminently precede the resolution of it.
The ebbing tension in a story comprises the pace of the story lines (see scene and story line, supra). You create the pace of the story as your write. When you describe setting then introduce descriptive narrative to precede dialogue, the pace is smooth and unhurried. In much dialogue, the characters interact routinely to build the story. Don't rush the story. Stretch it out so the scenes of action and suspense building are meaningful.
TIPS: > Write some nice easy playful or amicable summary dialogue and dialogue with interspersed monologue to hint at romance
> Write in character thoughts, monologue, or summary description so that the reader is uncertain what will come next
> Stretch out the solution to solutions so that there is uncertainty whether the characters will be successful, e.g., people do not always immediately leap to the correct solution
> When you get to the point where a solution would present itself, because people are imperfect, let the first, or more, solutions be imperfect or unsatisfactory to the narrator, e.g., as a memoirist, you probably didn't get it right every time or you made a bad choice or decision
You don't want the end of the story to arrive before the story is entirely revealed. Many novice writers want badly to get to the interesting or exciting part of the story because those memories are clearest (they were embedded deeply because of emotions), or the rest of the story is boring to write (perhaps true, but it's still part of the story).
Depression, as an emotional issue (everyone suffers it to some degree during their lives – whether clinically or not), can precede tension building. Remember the DSM-IV-TR I mentioned before? It's a great source for helping you remember the things we do and the moods we display when we are in a state of minor, mild, moderate, or major depression. Don't use the criteria given literally! Doing so displays in the character a clinical depression, which commonly requires treatment (if this was so, then okay). For example:
v Mood is depressed most of the day, every day, for a while (week, weeks, month or months, or more). Often happens with excessive grief.
v Mood can include irritability, sadness, emptiness, tearfulness.
v Not very interested in doing anything, not interested in pleasurable things, most of the time the depressed period lasts. Perhaps sleeps late or much of the time.
v Not eating much, losing weight; or eating fast foods and ice cream and sweets, gaining weight.
v Trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or getting back to sleep when you awake during the night or while sleeping.
v Slowed activities, motor skills are slowed, e.g., much signing, slow to get up, walks slowly, sits slowly, eats slowly.
v Frustration, feels restless but doesn't want to do anything.
v Fatigue, loss of energy, seems to have no motivation.
v Feels worthless, has excessive or inappropriate guilt feelings about something.
v Indecisive, can't focus or concentrate, can't think or process information clearly or can't seem to solve the simplest of problems.
v Appearance is disheveled, perhaps has poor hygiene, hair unkempt. A person who is normally a neat dresser appears in wrinkled, rumpled, or sloppy clothes.
v Some have thoughts of just wanting to die and think nothing, not be bothered with everything around them. Solitude or death seems preferable to interacting or doing anything.
Tension can be built by showing the gestures people use as they get more and more excited. What happens physiologically when you get excited? You might need to ask someone else what you do when you get excited because you cannot recall accurately and it's not appropriate to just make it up (e.g. fiction). Here are some of the things people do:
v Rapid blinking, skin flushes red, tics or twitching appear.
v Hand movements become rapid
v Person's entire body appears tensed to act, leans forward when sitting, standing or walking, neck and shoulders are tense and feel hard
v Eyes become wide, person stares or, because an unknown or perceived threat is felt, person begins to rabbit-eye, e.g., eyes flicking left and right constantly, hyper-alertness
v If the excited state lasts days, person doesn't sleep normally or believes rest has come with minimal sleep
v Talkative or pressured speech, e.g., can't seem to stop talking (of course, some people are like this normally)
v Ideas and thoughts are fast, flighty (incomplete processing, jumping from one thing to another). Monologue written this way is great for showing tension.
v Person is distracted easily, especially with unimportant or irrelevant things
v Despite all the above, the person may show goal-directed activity, e.g., whether work, marital, relationships, education, sexual expression or needs. Shows a driving need to accomplish the related tasks
v May show excessive interest and involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences, e.g., shopping sprees, promiscuous sexuality, gambling
There is a lot that can be written when a person shows excessive excitement about something that is happening to them, around them, or something they want to do. It shows internally and externally, affecting others and affecting the life of the person and everyone around them. A relative or co-worker may say, "He's driving me crazy!"
Personalities and Showing Them.
You don't need to undergo psychotherapy or study psychology to write about personalities. The reference to an "A-Type" personality is not a modern expression and belongs to the era of the '60s and '70s. If the words are time appropriate, e.g., the scene is taking place or is a flashback to an earlier era, then of course use them. Use words that will work for your story. If you're going to seek publication, you'll have to work out problems with your agent and/or editor.
Personalities have been the subject of many, many books. My last check showed more than 500 books published in which the primary topic was personalities. Books are okay for research. I think the better research is done with people you know, meet, and observe. This is memoir, not fiction, so the depiction of personality should be as close as possible to the actual person as possible. Writers who research and write family histories and related memoirs, must spend ample amounts of time interviewing the person, if they're still around, and relatives and friends to enable them to fairly show a person's character. You're not what you did or do, though that is part of you, it's the inner you that a writer must reveal to write effectively. Categorizing people into types helps only to the extent they or people that know them agree with the label and its meaning.
For people in your story that have mental illnesses, especially clinically diagnosed personality disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, paranoid, antisocial), the DSM-IV-TR can be helpful. Don't read the books about creating characters in fiction to help prepare to write a memoir. Your story must be firmly grounded in reality or you're going to be in trouble with readers who are depicted or who know the people. We'll discuss the legal side of memoir writing later. I'm not talking about disagreements with perspective or experiences with people. I'm cautioning you against fiction writing. It's easy to get caught up in creative moments
How do you show personality? Smile and wave at everyone! No, seriously, you need to depict people fairly and accurately. As you think about how you will depict someone, how they see themselves is often different than how others see them. We all have varying degrees of insight. To be fair to the person about whom you write, think carefully about them in broad and specific ways and make notes. Then talk to the person and others and make notes. Compare the notes and decide what you think is fair and the most accurate. If you take these steps, you'll probably be okay.
When you have studied persons to fully understand their individuality, you will find it is much easier to get inside their heads to create and write their character and his or her dialogue or monologue. It will be far more accurate and will show readers that you strived for accuracy.
To effectively, with true creative writing craft, build tension in a story as a writer, you want the reader to feel what's happening and to sympathize and understand a character's motivations and reasons for acting or speaking. When you know about what your scene is going to be, you can build it up, step-by-step, to render a dramatic an realistic mood and atmosphere, by:
v Plan it carefully – create an outline so that each step logically leads to the next
v Keep the steps small so that a reader doesn't get lost between steps or between characters
v Be certain of the mood or atmosphere you want to show, e.g., dread, fear, elation, confusion, excitement
v Plan how each character involved will contribute his or her known role in the atmosphere and tension building
v Think about what specific ways each character will present their role in the scene, e.g., description, dialogue, action
Tension builds when someone is on a course in life that brings them to an inevitable choice. We have all made choices in our lives that had to be made if we were going to move forward. Along with millions of others in 1966, I was facing the mandatory draft. Being drafted meant the U.S. Army or U.S. Marines and, almost inevitably, Vietnam, as an infantryman. A noble way to serve my country but, in 1967-1969, most of the 554,000+ men whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall were killed. Many were Army infantrymen and Marines. Less than half were draftees. With college no longer a deferment, I joined the U.S. Air Force instead. I ended up in Vietnam in 1969 and 1971-1972 anyway. However, it was by choice. I served the way I wanted to serve, an inevitable choice for me. I did not want someone else compelling me to serve in the military in a job I didn't want. I worked with many Army and Marine infantrymen in Vietnam and respected them and the terrible task all of us had, albeit in different ways.
Circumstances play a large part in inevitable choices. Circumstances are a source of building tension for memoir writing. What circumstance have you faced in the past which you could not evade? Has there been a time when money was scarce? I worked with a legal secretary for a while who worked for 17 years ay a full time and a part time job to pay off the medical bills accrued when her 26 year old son suffered a brain injury for which there was no medical or health insurance. She took care of her boy the rest of his life. Have you or someone you know felt it absolutely necessary to revenge a wrong by committing a crime you would never have considered but for the circumstances that brought you to that choice? I represented a 17 year old woman who, when 8 months pregnant, stabbed to death her 36 year old drunken husband one night when he was beating her, as he had many times before. This time, however, he threatened to kill her baby (his son). We won an acquittal at trial. She had her baby and returned to the Native American reservation where she still lives today. Saving her unborn baby's life was an inevitable choice.
If you think about the tough choices people have made, perhaps you, too, you may see that the choice made was consistent with the character of the person forced to make the choice. I arrested people who have claimed as their only defense they had no choice but to commit a crime because of their circumstances. The frivolous excuse was they needed money – to buy food for children, to buy Christmas presents for children, to buy medicine for a sick parent or child, to buy a bus ticket to get home, and others less inspired. I heard a few times the excuse that they or someone they knew was threatened and, if they didn't commit the crime, they or another would be harmed. When the truth was revealed, the true reasons for the crime were inevitably to by illegal drugs for themselves, buy alcohol for their alcoholic cravings, or simply because they thought they could get away with it. Sometimes the excuse was that society owed them, the victim had insurance or more money anyway, or society made them do it.
I have a friend, an attorney, who has a half-brother who is serving a life sentence for murder. My friend is a retired officer from the U.S. military and is one of the most honorable men I've ever known. Our choice of relatives is inevitable (e.g., we have no choice). The things our relatives do impact our lives and we sometimes must make an inevitable choice regarding those errant relatives. Is this a source for a memoir? What I have shown you so-far have been external conflicts.
Tension and conflict can come from internal decisions. The more difficult the circumstances of your inner conflict, the greater tension and suspense you have to write. A horribly difficult decision is one we must make when a loved one is comatose or in horrific pain and faces inevitable death. Euthanasia is a source of amazing stories. While writing for a writing class at CSUSM, I wrote a personal essay.
My wonderful 63 year old mother suffered a ruptured aneurysm. Surgery was not a choice and the bleeding could not be stopped. She slipped into a coma within hours of onset and, by the time I got to the hospital, she was in a deep coma. We gathered the family – my maternal grandmother, age 92 years, flew out from Iowa with my uncle, an older brother flew out from Alabama, a sister came from Salt Lake City. Coincidentally, the neurosurgeon who operated on her and the assisting surgeon who were her treating physicians were professionals I knew well from my practice handling brain injury cases. The assisting surgeon was my primary care doctor. Mom's condition worsened as the few days passed. The physicians showed me MRI scans depicting massive bleeding around the lower brain and the cerebellum, meaning that soon she would begin to have trouble breathing then her heart would stop. Her breathing soon stopped and she was placed on a respirator. They suggested that the awful waiting for her inevitable death, within 12 hours to a day or so, could stop if they turned off the equipment
I spoke with my two older brothers about shutting off the machines and they both could not deal with the question. I made a mistake by not talking to my younger siblings, all of whom were adults in their late 20s and older. None of them had experience dealing with death and I never considered sharing the decision with them. I had made life and death decisions numerous times and I knew what needed to be done. I spoke with my uncle and grandmother. Grandma understood that mom was gone. The damage was massive. Her cerebellum was keeping her heart beating but she was no longer breathing on her own. Grandma agreed it was best to end it. I asked everyone if they needed to go in and see her or speak to her again before it was over. They understood the inevitability of her death. All had spent time by her bedside, grieving, holding her hand, and talking to her. They declined. I went in and told the physicians to shut it off. My personal physician gave me a hug. Five minutes later, I walked into the hallway and told them it was over. To this day, I have not yet grieved my mother's passing. I cannot seem to come to grips with telling the doctors to stop the machine that would keep her heart beating; that heart filled with the love of children only a mother can have and show; that love which continues to beat with every heartbeat I have and which remind me of the choices I made that day.
A month later, my sister handed me a few boxes of things she thought mom would have wanted me to keep. A bundle of envelopes were tied with a ribbon; every letter I wrote mom during my time in Vietnam twenty-five years ago. My letters, as I read them, were full of lies about how safe it was on the base, where I said I stayed, and how beautiful and peaceful was the surrounding country. I titled the personal essay, I Killed My Mother and My Sister Handed Me a Box Full of Lies.
The internal conflicts imposed by these circumstances were not unusual - I am sure others have felt similar emotions and undedrgone a similar event. One question I confronted was whether or not it would be easier on everyone to await her inevitable cardiac arrest and death, the ICU waiting room filled with five brothers, two sisters, my uncle, my grandmother, and four spouses, and children. Another was my desire not to have to be burdened with the decision. My grandmother was a religious person; how would she and my uncle react to my question? Would my siblings later resent the decision? Internal turmoil can provide great tension if the reader becomes emotionally involved, asking these difficult questions of themselves. Could they do it? Could they make the choice? Was it the right choice? Of that, I am sure the answer is yes; for the bleeding was massive and continuing and could not be stopped. Death was inevitable.
The stronger the internal reaction, the more intense the external events, the more graphic and emotional can the conflicts be portrayed. If written as a memoir, the conflicts, internal and external, would be drawn out with description, summary, dialogue and monologue. Presented together, in just three summary paragraphs, little of the incredible tension felt at the time is shown. When writing a memoir, use the devices to draw out the story, build tension through internal monologue and external dialogue. Consider writing with another person's point of view to show the stark and conflicting differences in how people perceive the same event (Mary & John - pages 6-7). Limit dialogue to what increases tension and story pace, controlling the ebb and flow to keep a reader involved.
When the circumstances of the story facts allow it, use misdirection and subtlety to keep readers guessing. These devices offer interesting diversions for readers by:
ü Offering a different thread of information
ü Forcing the reader to deduce the relevance
ü Creating uncertainty about events or internal conflict
Writers can rely upon the axioms of human nature. A kind person will be liked. A cruel person will be feared. A mean person will be disliked. Writers should never tell the reader to feel these emotions. Respect the readers and know that they will figure out what you want them to know. When a reader expects a character to be a certain way and suddenly discovers the character is different, surprise can be created. Misdirection lies in showing the character to be one kind of person and the subtlety is in the surprise when the reader finds out a dark secret or a lie. These devices are common in fiction and fun to use in nonfiction because they can be used truthfully. Real people are like this.
The common thread in my three paragraphs of personal essay is crisis. All of us were faced with an event for which you never plan, decisions you never want to make, and circumstances that cause great emotional upset. Apparently making the decision to turn off the equipment was a crisis my brothers could not face. Whether or not to confront them and force them to share the burden was a crisis for me. Not sharing the burden with my younger siblings may have been a crisis for them – or relief that the decision did not have to be made by them. The manner in which each of us dealt with these crisis, the ways in which I could show them as a writer, would effectively demonstrate my writing abilities.
Mood – Character and scene.
Mood - some authors refer to mood as descriptive narrative: the author creates a mood or general sense of feeling about a scene or character. I agree with those that believe that thinking mood instead of description is better because mood is character driven. How does your character see and feel about a scene? In other words, what the character thinks, feels, and sees is more important than what you as the writer want to describe (unless it's you who is the subject of the mood). This can involve a lot of introspection and reflection.
Remember that I mentioned that the precise use of language is important. Otherwise, readers understand your written expressions to mean something other than you intended. If that happens, confusion is created and you lose the reader. So when we talk about mood, what does it mean in our modern American English? Usage of words may be different than the definitions provided by dictionaries. Generally, our dictionaries define mood as (1) a conscious state of mind or predominant emotion, (2) the expression of mood in art or literature, or (3) a prevailing attitude. For psychology, mood refers to a pervasive or sustained (e.g., long term – weeks, months or years) emotion that colors the person's long term perception of the world. Common examples include depression, elation, anger, and anxiety. Psychologists use the word affect to describe the moment by moment emotional expressions we show and that are observed by others. An analogy that works for me is that mood refers to the regional climate of the character's world. Of course, characters are moody, e.g., have fluctuating emotions. And a character's mood (setting aside psychology's word, affect) at the moment can be anger, happiness, et cetera. The Oxford Dictionary provides one of several definitions: the mood among a group of people, e.g., "the mood of the meeting was distinctly pessimistic" or "the movie captures the mood of the interwar years perfectly." There is no writer's dictionary that is commonly accepted and published for the writing profession. So why are we spending time trying to define mood, you ask?
How can we use it precisely if we don't have a commonly agreed upon definition for it in the sense or manner in which we wish to use it? In the world of Literature (note the capital "L"), many conflicting essays have been written about the meaning of the word post-colonial or postcolonial. Some essayists insist the word is nonsense and should not exist. It is the purview of literary and literature scholars to debate the meanings and usage of words. Based upon these debates, the scholars that gather annually to consider words to be added or definitions of words to be modified in our American English dictionaries make decisions and create dictionary entries or modifications. This is important for creative nonfiction writers because we are held to a standard of truthfulness.
Some professionals of the written word maintain that "creative nonfiction" is a nonsequitur (Latin: "does not follow," e.g., is not logical). These essayists maintain that the truth is unalterable and it is an absurdity to think that using fiction techniques is appropriate. For these people, if a fact is not corroborated, it cannot be written as true. Truth cannot be creative. This is but one view and fortunately it is one not held by publishers of the modern memoir and other nonfiction. We previously discussed the subjectivity of truth, due entirely to human nature and the flawed way in which we perceive the world in which we live.
There are so many ways in which mood is used and set in writing, with characters, with places, groups of people, with animals, and many others. Roget's Thesaurus helps understand the many moods of mood, as a state of mind:
affection, air, atmosphere, attitude, aura, blues, caprice, character, color, condition, cue, depression, desire, disposition, doldrums, dumps, emotion, fancy, feel, feeling, frame of mind, high spirits, humor, inclination, individually, low spirits, melancholy, mind, personality, propensity, response, scene, semblance, soul, spirit, strain, temper, temperament, tendency, tenor, timbre, vagary, vein, whim, or wish.
Like law, supra, good writing is the precise use of the language. In some regions and consistent with slang, some words and phrases are misused. Readers will most likely not know the particular odd way in which a word is used so, it may be prudent to (a) use it but provide an explanation of its use in context and its intended meaning, e.g., perhaps in a footnote, or (b) not use the misused term and substitute for it a more common term known to most readers. Reader confusion can cause a reader to decide that the writer writes poorly. The reader closes the book and doesn't read it any further or returns it. I say, to heck with those who restrict language in its usage, let's use it however we wish. It is, after all, our language. How can we create new words if we don't make them up?
So let's venture into the sublime world of ambiance and mood and explores ways this very broadly defined word is used by writers. If I was to use a scene from my police procedural and legal thriller, At Every Peril, to demonstrate how a writer writes mood into a scene, I might select this one:
At 8:00 a.m., the courtroom rests unmolested. In the early summer months of southern Arizona, the massive air conditioner rumbles on, beginning its daily battle against the external neat and humidity that blankets the city, canyons, and arroyos outside. Early dawn breaks and an orange hue sprays across the courtroom windows, a quiet and beautiful harbinger. The a/c fans kick on and fine speckles of lint and dust waft through the air, whirling, tumbling, and spreading onto the high black judges chair set upon its high bench in the front of the courtroom, onto the walnut bench itself, with its brightly colored state seal emblazoning the front, warning those that come before it that the state's authority rests here. The dust and lint float about, settling on the jury box with twelve juror and two alternate chairs, upon which lay one spiral notebook and one or two No. 2 pencils, waiting for people to interrupt the courtroom's serenity and solitude. Now the yellow blazing sun peaks over the Patagonia Mountains, sending warm rays of sunlight through the formerly sleeping windows.
Time to rise. People will be here soon. Evil people, good people, uncertain people, people focused on convicting, people focused on defending, and its master, black-robed, the judge will, promptly at 9 a.m., upon the announcement of the Deputy Sheriff and Bailiff, that all persons must rise, "All rise! Oyez, oyez, oyez, the Superior Court of the State of Arizona is in session, the Honorable William J. Padlock, presiding. All be seated." The room temperature is set at a warm 78° and the sunlight streaming in the window begins the battle between heat and the cool air generated by the a/c, neither knowing who will win today. The courtroom musters its strength for the long day ahead to the rattle and rustling of at least twenty-one people who will warm and stir the sir with somber facts, sometimes loud words, many firm looks and some accidental humor, all in a prevailing scene of fear in the defendant, anxiety in the prosecutor, and drowsiness in the jurors and his highness, the sleepy judge.
This paragraph shows the many uses of mood in many ways. The courtroom, which sees and hears much and learns many secrets, is a character and is imbued with a personality of sorts. Its ambience is imposed upon by the humans that encroach daily. Standing in the courtroom, I wondered what it could tell me. How was I doing? Did the jury like me? Did the jury believe my client or my witnesses? Mood is used in several ways in the scene and setting.
The courtroom shows it readiness and its reluctance to have its solitude disturbed. Who will win today? The external intruding heat or the a/c generated cool air set for the lowest temperature of 78°? The prosecutor or the defendant? Will the judge sleep through witness testimony? It happens. Will jurors snooze from time to time, noticed or unnoticed by the litigants? Sometimes a book falls off a counsel's table, sharply awakening jurors and, too often, the judge. Judge, can we have a ruling on the objection you didn't hear because you were sleeping? Of course, we don't ask that question. Might it be better to let them sleep?
In Proof Positive, by Phillip Margolin, sets the mood for a scene:
FELIX DORADO WAS FINISHING HIS BREAKFAST IN LITTLE HAVANA, a Cuban restaurant in southeast Portland, when Pablo Herrera, his lieutenant, walked in, followed by Reuben Corrales, a huge frightened man with massive arms, tree-trunk legs, and a bloated face. Felix ate breakfast at Little Havana almost every day, because he loved the ham croquetas, smoky creamed ham shaped in finger rolls, which were lightly breaded then fried. They weren't as delicious as his mother's, but they were good enough to make him nostalgic about his childhood in Cuba and the thick-waisted, heavy breasted woman who had filled his early years with love and heavenly cooking before Castro's thugs had murdered her and his father.
Margolin, an author of eleven best selling police procedural novels, is a master of characterization, plot and pacing. The paragraph you read immediately precedes dialogue in which Dorado quietly continues to eat his large breakfast while confronting this huge man, who answers all questions put to him. Margolin's subtle introduction to a man of ultimate violence, is done with finesse. The mood of the setting and description of Dorado creates a sense of nonchalant or psychopathic and dire threat. Even this "huge … man" is frightened just being in the presence of Dorado. The mood in the diner is questionable depending upon which character we look at. In the scene, the diner seems without character except that someone there cooks the food Dorado likes in a way fairly close to his mother's cooking. It's a good diner for the gangster. It's a bad diner for the huge man.
Nora Roberts, who also wrote under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, is one of a prolific and successful author of sixty-four (64) romance novels. Under Robb, she wrote a set in which the titled ended with " … in Death." Most of her novels as Roberts have historical themes. Though a novelist, her writing demonstrates an extraordinary imagination for themes. Many fiction themes (to me, these are analogous to creative writing nonfiction themes) establish stories built upon characters who learn and grow as they live the story. Memoir is very much like this because you lived through the topic (event or time) of your story and you grew, changed, and suffered reversals. Your memoir characters, including yourself, together with the settings you depict, will furnish you with the mood for each scene and for the mood of the characters. In her latest novel, Angels Fall, she begins a scene with:
IF REECE CONSIDERED Angel's Fist a rough and interesting little diamond, Jackson was big and polished and faceted with its fashionable western flair and colorful neon. Shops and restaurants and galleries spread with wooden boardwalks and busy streets. And people were busy on them, heading somewhere, Reece supposed. Maybe a stop in town before visiting one of the great parks now that summer was nearly here. Some of the people would be in town for supplies, a lunch date, a business meeting.
The mood created for the town of Jackson is one of a bustling western town, larger than the small village called Angel's Fist; a way stop for tourists going to nearby national parks. For those of you that have lived in San Diego for awhile, it might be like comparing Julian to Ramona or Idyllwild to Big Bear. Reece doesn't seem to have a significant emotional reaction to Jackson so the town is likely a less important place in the story than Angel's Fist. If in Jackson was someone she is going to meet, then it may have been described with emotional words reflecting her concern, fear, eagerness, or trepidation (or some other emotion) about that person, e.g., "Jackson was a bustling western town, larger than Angel's Fist, but holding heartbreak and an uncertain future."
What of Reece's mood? It is her perception describing Jackson and comparing it with Angel's Fist. It is Reece who gives it a mood of bustling western tourism - an average town; nothing exciting happening here. Why? Why does Roberts write Reece's perception this way? What does it say about the mood Reece is in? Without more, we don't know any more than the fact that Reece sees nothing extraordinary or threatening. This is pacing. The story has been slowed by the writer. Reece is merely contemplating the town without concern for anyone in it. Perhaps that is why we readers are being lulled. Perhaps Reece will go into Jackson, buy her supplies, and have lunch. At lunch she may run into her first lover. Or her first ex-husband. Or be mugged and shot at by a boy who turns out to be her ex-husband's son by his second marriage. We don't know but, we're being lulled for a reason because Nora Roberts is a fine writer.
This is the way writers set mood, pacing, and control tension. There is nothing about the description of the town of Jackson to get anyone excited. This creates uncertainty. Jackson is a quiet bustling western tourist town with no threats to Reece. I'll leave it to you to buy the book to find out what happened next. Reece's mood seems to be one of ambivalence; no threat or anxiety is expressed.
With Dorado, the gangster eating breakfast, we have an inkling of what is coming. What is Dorado's mood? Calm consideration of finishing his breakfast while a man is brought before him for some criminal purpose. He's not excited. His lieutenant isn't excited. However, the huge man is frightened. So what will be the reader's emotional reaction? Heightened tension. Does the "huge … man" get taken away and killed? Does Dorado order him breakfast? What happens next? Margolin increased the tension by using description that showed emotions of tension. The huge man (normally someone expected to be unafraid) is terrified of this man calmly eating breakfast. Is Dorado so psychopathic that he can order a man killed while eating breakfast? We expect something to happen to the huge man – something bad. I'll leave it to you to buy the book to find out what happened next.
Fathers, Sons, and Brothers – the men in my family. Bret Lott. Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997.
Inventing the Truth – The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed., William Zinsser. First Mariners Books, 1998.
over my head – A Doctor's Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out. Claudia L. Osborn. Andrew McMeel Publishing, 1998.
Pathfinder – First In, Last Out. Richard R. Burns. Ballantine Books, 2002.
Writing the Memoir – A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories. Judith Barrington. Eighth Mountain Press, 2002.
To the White Sea. James Dickey. Dell Publishing, 1993. [fictional memoir]
Writing Creative Nonfiction – Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction. Theodore A. Rees Cheney. Ten Speed Press, 2001.
Writing My Life – The Step-by-Step Autobiography. Alison Bing. Barnes & Noble, 2002.
Writing True-Life Stories. Susan C. Feldhake. Paragon House, 1993.
You can Write a Memoir. Susan Carol Hauser. Writer's Digest Books, 2001.
 Memoir is a part of life. Autobiography writing is about one's entire life, and may often include ancestors and descendants.
 Perhaps you will write the memoir with no intent to market it. Perhaps, after you've written it for yourself, you will become more excited than when you began and decide to market it. Don't worry about selling it to a publisher when you're beginning. Leave that for later. If the work needs to be revised somewhat for a specific magazine or publisher, that can be done after the first draft.
 Entertaining does not refer to only amusing stories. A disaster documentary showing horrible events, such as the 9/11 attacks, is nonetheless entertaining.
 For purposes of creative writing, you need to have a specific understanding of the word character. A protagonist is a character in a story. Characters have character and characteristics. Different meanings. A character in a story, fiction or nonfiction, is a person in the story. When we speak of the person's character, we are speaking of his or her personality, characteristics and traits, and idiosyncrasies that make that person (character) who he or she is in the story. Characteristics are such things as height, weight, hair color, speech traits, intelligence, education, work history, and so forth. Finally, a character can be a character, i.e., a character (person) can be ironic, funny, a cut-up.
 Webster's 9th Collegiate Dictionary defines scene as: 1. subdivision of a play, 2. a unit of dialogue, 3. an episode or sequence, 4. stage setting, 5. real or imagined prospect suggesting a setting, 6. place of action or event, 7. exhibition of anger, 8. sphere of activity, 9. situation (e.g., it was a bad …). As you can see, no one usage is useful to you.
 So far I have given you two ways in which a scene should NOT be viewed by the creative nonfiction writer: the common definition and the scene descriptions in a screenplay.
 Taken generally from "Just the Facts," by Sandra Scofield, The Writer, March, 2006 Issue: 22-23.
 Most of us think of conflict as some sort of confrontation, e.g., a fight, argument, or in the extreme, war. In writing creatively, conflict can mean any disunity (e.g., one person snaps at another – the other says nothing and walks away), divided loyalties (a friend says something that makes the other realize the person is not someone with whom he or she wishes to associate), or, of course, an actual physical struggle. It can also comprise a mere verbal exchange, even a romantic one.
 “Historical” need not refer to hundreds of years ago. A year, ten years, or twenty-five years (or more) constitutes history. Things were different then. Do research to get it right.
 A story line is defined as the plot of a written dramatic work. A sub-plot is a plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work; sometimes called a counterplot, or under-plot. Consider: a story has its major theme plot. Each character has its, his, or her story-line or sub-plot. These plots interweave and conflict as the story progresses. The points where they meet are where we have the potential for building tension and conflict. A course I teach on-line is based on analyzing dramatic works. We extract from the work all biographical data about each character. For each character now known to us, we outline a chronologically based (premised upon the story sequence) story line. These are written side-by-side so that we can highlight those points where characters converge and diverge, allowing us to discuss how and with what devices the writer created tension for each point of convergence or divergence. See the section on tension, infra.
 This is the best I could find and it was on-line at the Wikipedia Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show%2C_Don%27t_Tell. This encyclopedia is still building its data base but is generally one I do not use or recommend using. While there are persons who monitor it, anyone can write a section for it.
 This requires interpretation, which naturally differs from one person to another. Consider possible interpretations and misinterpretations. If you want the reader to understand the issue a certain way, it might be better to show.
 Person begins a sentence, stops, begins another, stops, then another, and so on until finally a sentence is spoken – shows thought disturbance or inadequate thought before speaking.
 "Medevac is an abbreviation of Medical Evacuation. "Dusty" is an abbreviation of dust-off, military jargon for medical evacuation (original idiom, pick up and dust off) and a term which became a common call sign for medical evacuation helicopter sorties, e.g., Dusty One-four.
 Military acronyms abound. DZ is drop zone (parachute drops). LZ is landing zone (helicopter landings). PZ is pickup zone (helicopters landing to pick up combatants).
 Deception does not mean only dishonesty, e.g., "deception may or may not imply blameworthiness, since it may suggest … tactical resource (Webster's 9th New Collegiate Dictionary: 329) and can mean an artifice, bluff, gimmick, stratagem, or whitewash (Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus: 187). This is what fiction and creative nonfiction writers do. Some call it stretching the truth or white lies for the sake of coherency.
 I've done many things in my 57 years of youth. It's not egoism when you list what you've done and you might be surprised. Here are mine: personnel technician, air traffic controller, expert marksman, parachutist, general aviation pilot, executive coordinator for a congressman, police officer, lawyer, writer, teacher, speaker, husband (took 3 tries to get that one right), amateur astronomer, amateur artist, amateur taxidermist. I'm big on being an amateur! I enjoy them all and they give me a lot of experience for writing.
 A Practical Guide for Journalists, Shirley Biagi, is an example of one you probably don't want.
 By everyday I refer to events common to many, though unique to some. Watching the Rose Bowl parade on television would be an everyday event and watching it from a chair at the curbside is also everyday, but more rarely experienced. Graduating from a university is everyday, though unique to the graduate, and graduating from one of the few military universities (e.g., Air Force Academy, Annapolis) is everyday but, unique to the newly commissioned second lieutenant or ensign.
 This does not apply to asking about facts, dialogue, their memory of an event as they experienced it. These are fact collection methods and should not involve whether or not you write. Family and friend can crush self-expression faster than anyone I know.
 Keep It Simple Stupid.
 Others will read your true story. Some may know you or one or more persons depicted. Some may know the facts about an event better than you or your source. Using fiction techniques is good – writing fiction and calling it memoir is deception.
 Slander (a tort or civil wrong) occurs when one publicly says (or to at least one other person) that another specific (or inferred) person is a cheat, liar, or criminal, has a STD. The words must be untruthful for slander. The person(s) who hear the words must understand them to be slanderous. Libel is the printed version of slander. By print, I mean the printed page, audiotape, videotape, photographs or other graphical depictions. Though retractable, retraction is not an absolute defense. Truth is an absolute defense but, one may still have to spend significant monies to prove the truth of the matter to succeed in the defense. Publicly disclosing a private or remote fact is also a tort - the disclosure must cause nominal embarrassment or shame.
 Not excessive, disproportionate, extreme, or entirely imaginary.
 These are paraphrased from "Put description to work," by Peter Selgin, in The Writer, May, 2006: 26-30.
 "Show," as used here, refers to the admonition to show, not tell. Telling a reader facts or what emotions a character felt is far less likely to evoke reader emotions, memories (i.e., those the reader feels are related to what is shown), and senses. Show, not tell, is a writing craft difficult to learn for some but, which can be taught and learned, if a student writer wants to learn the craft of creative writing.
 Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary: 697.
 Free association is a psychoanalytic technique begun by Freud in 1891-1898. The idea is straight forward. The person relaxes in a position that encourages a relaxed state. Without forcing an idea or thought, the person just says whatever first comes to the surface, without searching for anything specific. This lets us stop intellectually censoring our thoughts and allows us to speak freely. The value in psychoanalysis is that the method shows the therapist any repetitive thoughts, which are unconsciously rising to the forefront of the conscious mind, revealing emotional topics that can then be discussed and integrated into the person's conscious mind; the person is aware of the tendency to focus on memories or problems related to the topic represented by the repetitive thoughts, easing the person's anxiety.
 Framing refers to the image, sounds, feelings formed by the memory with each access. You can't get all the memory in one access, so you'll need to revisit it in depth, depending upon its importance to your memoir. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a scientific technique used to reframe memories. Therapists have you access the troubled memory and intentionally try to modify the troubled parts of it each time it is accessed. The theory is that with each reframing, pain, anxiety, or troubled emotions are somewhat relived, making the memory of the troubled event less of a subconscious problem producer.
 Any religion will do. I'm not picking on Catholics. Let's make this one a member of a church that is a member of the independent National Catholic Church of America – not Vatican related.
 Or any other city anywhere.
 The young man has black hair, a moderately dark complexion, is handsome, and John leaps to an unjustified and irrational conclusion. The man could be Catholic, Jewish, Texan, or from Florida. He might be a wealthy or poor Hispanic or the wealthy or poor adopted son of the female Priest of an Episcopalian church. The reader doesn't know yet.
 Blunted affect refers to a person showing emotions that are featureless, flat, without any clear expression of humor, sadness, meanness, or any other easily detectable mood. People with blunted emotions are often mistaken for being depressed or sad. There are many reasons for blunted affect, which can be interesting in and of themselves for memoir writing.
 Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary: 770.