Tag Archives: how to write a memoir

How to Defy Readers’ Expectations with Paragraph Structure

9 May

Samuel Peterson’s memoir, Trunky (Transgender Junky) tells the story of the author’s stay in an all-male drug and alcohol rehab facility in the South.

There are probably more personal essays published today than at any other point in history—in part because we’re hungry for authenticity, which we believe we find in “real” stories, as opposed to “reality” programming, but also because it’s easier than ever to publish them. Seneca and Montaigne, the great inventors of the personal essay, didn’t have the luxury of a thousand websites seeking essays or social media opportunities to simply publish whatever you want. It’s difficult to separate the modern personal essay from the medium where we most often find it: online. We read essays the way that we read anything online—with short attention spans and itchy mouse pointers poised over the back button. As always, writers are consciously or unconsciously shaping their essays for their readers, which means that successful essayists are building a kind of constant surprise into their form. Move in any one direction for too long, and readers are likely to get bored. This might seem frustrating (can’t people just pay attention longer?), but there is actually a way to seem to change subjects while also making a larger point.

Samuel Peterson does exactly that in his memoir Trunky (Transgender Junky).

How the Memoir Works

In a personal essay and memoir, there inevitably comes a moment when the writer is called to be smart—to say something wise, spot-on, and on point. You might think that readers would be hooked during these moments, that nothing could distract them. But I think we all understand that’s not true. (How many times have you been talking to someone you love and, while listening, felt your phone n and checked the text or email or notification? Distraction comes naturally to us, even when we ought to, or even want to, be paying attention.)

What’s needed is a way to avoid falling into any kind of rut—of moving in the same direction or making the same point—for too long, leaving readers susceptible to distraction. Of course, good narrative requires that we make larger points and tell longer stories. Something’s got to give, right?

In this passage from later in the book, Samuel Peterson manages to do both. (The book is about his time spent in an all-men’s wing of a drug and alcohol rehab facility. One of the workers is named Jordan.)

The institution was full of remarkable people; he couldn’t imagine himself in any one job maintaining any sort of cool. He had seen Jordan post-cry; if he worked here his eyes would be red all the time too from being a piñata for the men’s suffering, or he would be arrested for actually piñata-ing someone else. the men often were abusive, and it took a special personality (combined with rigorous training, he reflected) to be able to constantly deflect, and then use that moment to condition the men in socially appropriate response.

The masculine ego took poorly to discipline—which made him consider the number of institutions geared towards “breaking a man down to build him up.” He marveled at the way the world treated men, from his father, whose drunken flirtations and general boundary-pushing had been stonily sanctioned, and his brother, who had never been told his endless commentary was less than fascinating. He was both revolted and envious of the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.

He understood men would resist this diagnosis, and he appreciated the intense scrutiny masculinity was subjected to, but he knew firsthand that men could never understand what it was like to always be a paler version of yourself because of the assumption of your opinion’s lesser value.

The passage uses topic sentences: “The institution was full of remarkable people…” and “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” But only one of the paragraphs actually follows its topic sentence in a straightforward way. “The institution was full of remarkable people” is followed by an example of one of those people—Jordan—and a reflection on his actions. This straightforwardness is important. If writing never moves in a straight line, readers will have a difficult time following it.

The second paragraph breaks this rule. Its first sentence (“The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…the number of institutions geared toward ‘breaking a man down to build him up'”) sets up the expectation that what will follow is examples of one of these points: the ego not responding to discipline or breaking a man down. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the rest of the paragraph gives examples of men’s ego not being disciplined or broken down. It ends with an observation that is both brilliant and obvious (and brilliant because it’s so obvious): “the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.”

The paragraph is great because it’s smart but also because it doesn’t give us what we expect. It breaks the logical structure set up by the previous paragraph (point, illustration, explanation—the infamous PIE from college composition classes). As a result, readers are more apt to pay attention. We can’t fall into a lull as we read. We’re jolted into reading more carefully. Peterson’s observation about men’s confidence would is great no matter where it’s placed, but if we read over it without really seeing it, then we’ve missed his point.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s surprise a reader into paying attention, using Trunky (Transgender Junky) by Samuel Peterson as a model:

  1. Find a moment in your essay where you’re talking about something, not what happened. In other words, the narrative of the essay has paused momentarily for you to make a point. You often know this has happened when you start writing sentences that begin, “The thing is…” or “What’s really important…” or “What people don’t realize…”
  2. Give yourself a topic sentence. You might use any of these sentences that start with phrases like “The thing is…” Or you might start with a basic statement, as Peterson does: “The institution was full of remarkable people.” In short, write something that leads to examples.
  3. Give those examples—in a logical way. If you’ve ever written a five-paragraph essay, you know how to do this. If you write, “The food was terrible,” then you’re going to give examples of how terrible it was.
  4. Keep the flow going with another, related topic sentence. I use the word flow grudgingly here. When I taught college composition, my students used it all the time to describe their vague feeling that an essay had gotten off track. “You know,” they’d say, “it just doesn’t flow.” From a craft standpoint, this was not helpful to them. And yet we all know what flow means: a piece of writing continues moving in one direction. So, keep making the same point in the same way. Peterson does this with the sentence that begins “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” He just finished talking about people whose job it was to shape men’s responses, so this makes sense. He keeps the flow going.
  5. Break the structure. Instead of giving examples of men’s egos resisting discipline, he instead gives examples of the opposite—of egos unrestrained, subject to no discipline at all. A college comp instructor might advise changing the topic sentence. But that would be boring (and, thus, appropriate for a college comp essay; but this is a personal essay, meant to be interesting). Everything Peterson writes in this paragraph is smart and sharply observed; it just don’t quite flow in the way we expect. The paragraph isn’t completely scattered, though. The word discipline holds together. So, in your paragraph, pick one word from your topic sentence and riff on it in any way that comes to mind. Don’t worry about following logically—about flow. As long as you’re in the ballpark, readers will stay with you. But by moving away from the logical flow, you’ll hold their attention.

The goal is to create and break structure within paragraphs and passages in order to keep readers paying attention.

Good luck.

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How to Give Your Characters a Kick in the Pants

21 Feb
Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that it’s boring to read about characters thinking. If thinking and realizing are the primary actions in a story, that story probably isn’t going to work. Even the most brilliant ideas need to be attached to drama—action, intrigue, conflict. On a practical level, this means that it can be a great exercise to start chapters or stories by giving your character a kick in the pants and forcing him or her to act, not just think.

Paige Schilt proves that this strategy works for nonfiction as well. Again and again, she starts chapters of her memoir Queer Rock Love with action. You can see how she does it here.

How the Memoir Works

The book is a love story featuring Schilt and her wife, Katy, an Austin rocker/therapist (a very Austin combination). Unlike many love stories, it begins with marriage, which means that the drama is found not in falling in love but in dealing with the obstacles that threaten to overwhelm love once it’s established. That said, this chapter comes early in the book, when Schilt is finishing up graduate school in Pennsylvania and still figuring out what it means to be the relationship. One of Katy’s friends decides to buy a house in Austin, but since Austin prices are quickly rising, the only place he can afford is a duplex—if someone splits it with him and lives in the other unit. He decides that Katy will be that person:

“And, because Katy and I had decided that we were married, that meant that I was meant to buy a house with Jim too. That night on the phone, Katy told me that she and Jim were going to look at a house in South Austin. “He says it just has this remarkable energy.” I rolled my eyes in the privacy of my Pennsylvania apartment, and Katy continued unaware. “He thinks we ought to buy it together. It’s a duplex, so we could live in the top and he could live in the bottom.”

“Hmm…” I said. In my heart I had decided to move back to Austin, but I hadn’t given much thought to where we would live. I was filled with dread at the prospect of telling everyone—my department chair, my mentors, and especially my parents—that I was quitting my job. Through six grueling years of grad school, life had seemed linear. If all went well, I would land a tenure track position and move up the ladder at regularly scheduled intervals. Now I felt like I was sailing over the edge of the known universe in a barrel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would survive the journey. What did I care for the details of how we might live when (and if) I arrived?

A few nights later, Katy brought it up again. “You’re going to love it,” she said. “There’s something about it—it’s just got the greatest energy.” I tried to remain noncommittal, but suddenly Katy was talking mortgage lenders and down payments.

“But,” I objected, “I haven’t even met Jim! How can I buy a house with someone I’ve never met?”

My feeble sandbags were no match for the tidal wave of Katy’s enthusiasm. “You’re going to love him too,” she assured me. “He’s super smart, and he reads Lacan! I think you guys actually have a lot in common.”

Think about how this passage could have been written—and often is written in early drafts, especially in beginning writer workshops. The character/narrator would have agonized over what to do, perhaps while drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, or looking out the window—actions that would have been meaningless filler. Schilt avoids that problem by giving the scene real drama and action (people buying a house) and, therefore, a meaningful choice to make. The same pondering that would have filled the alternative draft are still there, but now they’re made concrete with the duplex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character or narrator’s thoughts concrete, using Queer Rock Love by Paige Schilt as a model:

  1. Identify your character’s or narrator’s existential dilemma. For Schilt, that dilemma was about what it meant to be in a marriage—and in this marriage in particular. It’s a lot for any person or character to think about, which is great for drama. It’s what we often mean when we use the term stakes. So, what does your character or narrator (real or invented) worry or think about late at night, while driving, or while he or she ought to be focused on something else?
  2. Introduce a decision made by someone else. In this passage, Schilt does not suddenly get it into her head to buy a duplex. The idea doesn’t even start with her wife, Katy. Instead, it’s a third person who talks Katy into it, and then Katy goes to work on Schilt. This is important for two reasons. First, it takes some of the pressure off of the main character to be the focus of all the drama. The drama should affect the character/narrator, but it doesn’t need to be started by the character/narrator. Second, it creates a larger world for the story. Suddenly a character we haven’t even met yet is playing a crucial role, which means our sense of the place around the main characters grows. So, look beyond your main characters. Who are their friends, coworkers, family members, and acquaintances? What decisions are those people making that might impact the main characters? How and why would these side or minor characters try to include the main characters in their plans?
  3. Force the issue. Katy doesn’t raise the possibility of buying the duplex and then let it drop. She brings it up over and over again, each time applying greater pressure, moving from “you’re going to love it” to practical issues like mortgage payments. The duplex is becoming a reality, whether Schilt wants to engage with it or not. As a result, she must figure out her feelings about the big, existential issue because this more practical matter is coming to a head. How can your characters apply pressure, forcing your main character or narrator to make a decision, not just about the practical issue (whether to buy a duplex) but also about the larger existential issue, whatever it is for your character?

The goal is to move the story along, from though to action and, therefore, drama by forcing the issue. Important practical matters often require us to sort out our feelings about existential dilemmas.

Good luck.

How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

29 Nov
Angela Palm's memoir Riverine "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine “is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

A great example of expansive prose can be found in Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Memoir Works

Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in an unincorporated group of homes along the Kankakee River. Her neighbor and friend was a boy named Corey, who she played with and fantasized about until the day he was arrested for the brutal murder of two of their neighbors. She continues thinking about him long afterward, and the memoir is an attempt, in part, to make sense of that murder in both their lives.

As a result, the book faces the need of telling what happened to Palm and Corey but also exploring the world around them. Palm does exactly that in a passage about a third of the way into the memoir:

Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly wanted your name in or out of, depending on your status. If you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and eagerest stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that you life would never be better than it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.

The passage starts with a definitive statement about town newspapers and the sort of people who wanted to be written about. It’s a statement that requires explanation and evidence, which Palm proceeds to provide with the examples of Bridget Trotsma and Corey. Buried within that explanation are more statements that beg for more information, like “But Corey wasn’t that smart.” It’s no accident, then, that the next paragraph begins “Or, he was smart once, but only had a makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.”

This meditation on types of people and how they become that way runs into an opposing view in the next paragraph:

I walked the aisles of the grocery store—a mistake, in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.” Firing squad, another said. In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed ought to be self-incorporated if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the northern farms and the river and be done with them.” Some folks are born evil, someone said. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” But that wasn’t true, was it?

The paragraph proceeds to offer examples that complicate a belief that in “born evil.”

The passage has now moved from the town newspaper to a metaphysical discussion of the nature of the soul, and so the next paragraph begins with “His case never went to trial” and ends with “But somehow I held out hope against hope in Corey’s civility, in his true self before he shattered, over time, into other broken versions of himself.”

We learn essential information about the narrative, the sort of details that are part of any crime story. But by making definitive claims about the world (from simple things like newspapers to complex abstractions like the nature of good and evil), the prose expand far beyond the basic execution of the crime and its punishment.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s expand a narrative beyond its immediate action, using Riverine by Angela Palm as a model:

  1. Start with a general statement about the people, places, or things in your narrative. Palm begins her passage with newspapers and how people feel about appearing in them. It’s a version of the old saw “There are two types of people: those who ____ and those who ____.” Of course, statements like these are simplistic (“There are two types of people: Those who believe in dualities, and those who don’t.”). The point is not to definitively describe something so much as launch a discussion of it. You’re giving yourself something to talk about. So, pick any aspect of your narrative world and describe it in terms of “There are two types of people…” Ideally, you’re picking something that is connected to the main thread (the action or plot) of your story, but don’t let that stop you in your tracks. If you’re stuck, pick anything and see where it takes you. Don’t plan yourself into a perpetually blank page.
  2. Provide evidence for your statement. Give examples, as Palm does with Bridget and Corey. Put faces on the examples. Avoid, if you can, the invention of straw men (faceless characters who act in ways that are convenient for the writer). Ground your statement in reality (even if that reality is intentionally curated).
  3. Make definitive statements about your examples. Palm writes, “You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart.” She starts with a generalization (“if you were smart”) and then makes it particular (“But Corey wasn’t”). Try using Palm’s basic structure “If you were ___, then ___.” Then, follow it up with “But/And ___ was/wasn’t ___.”
  4. Provide evidence for this new statement. Palm digs into the idea that Corey wasn’t smart and tries to explain how that could be true. In your own work, think about the how. This may feel like a natural progression: from what is to how/why it got that way.
  5. Introduce opposing views. If this sounds like instructions for a freshman comp essay, that’s okay. Good arguments are often narratives, and good narratives often make arguments about their worlds and characters. Palm introduces what some of the townspeople say about Corey, which differs from her own perception of him. She does this by putting herself in the place where the townspeople can be found: the grocery store. She doesn’t worry about identifying the people she encounters. Instead, she lists their statements one after another.
  6. Ask if these opposing views are true. Palm does this literally: “But that wasn’t true, was it?” Notice how she uses a question, not a statement (But that wasn’t true). A question demands an answer, which she then must provide. What you’ll probably find is that if you ask enough questions in your narrative (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you’ll find one that’s difficult to answer–and it’s that question that is likely at the reason you began writing the story in the first place.

The goal is expanding a piece of prose to reveal the world around a plot and possibly discover a story’s about-ness.

Good luck.

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

30 Sep
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table.

In theory, this advice should be easy to follow, but I can remember my days as a MFA student when I would spin my wheels for days puzzling out which setting would be best and worrying that I was choosing the wrong one. Like most writing “rules,” the theory is easier than the application. So, how can we create setting without driving ourselves crazy?

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, was published in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “a sure bet.” The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up in a family that followed a traveling tent revival led by the preacher David Terrell. The sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear. You can read them here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliche that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliche.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

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