Archive for the 'Creative Nonfiction' Category

Writing about Family

As it turns out, May 16th is National Biographer’s Day and May 18th is National Relatives Day. I thought combining these two holidays would make a good subject for today’s blog.Ironically, tomorrow I will be visiting my family in New York to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday – so I’m doing exactly what Wikipedia says I should do—visiting relatives!

As a memoirist, the challenges of writing about family are constantly present. Many of my students who write memoir often express their fear of being sued. According to Judith Barrington in her book, Writing the Memoir, the chances of being sued are extremely low. For the most part, suing someone is extremely expensive.  Plus most people w considering the process might not want to bring any further attention to a potentially-embarrassing situation.

The dilemma for the writer is having the desire to do justice to their families, but also wanting to write a compelling story. The fact is, drama sells. A humor columnist friend of mine who frequently writes anecdotes about his wife or married life, clears his short pieces with her first. He is both wise and sensible to do this. It’s good to allow family members to review your writing prior to publication. Not only does it allow you to face your family with peace of mind, but it can also solicit an additional perspective which might also even strengthen your story.

No doubt, the most interesting characters are those who are spirited and who are willing and able to create conflict, the essential element that keeps a story compelling.  There are three types of conflict—conflict within the individual, conflict between individuals and conflict between an individual and society. The odds are that if your story doesn’t contain some type of conflict, either you don’t yet have a story or it will be a boring one.

If you are driven to write about family and fiction is not an option for you, then you must know your limits and boundaries within the world of nonfiction. There are three important things to remember: be as honest as you can, fact check, and preserve other people’s privacy. In any event, here are some terms you should be familiar with:

Defamation: This is damage to someone’s reputation, which includes damaging statements that are either slander (spoken) or libel (written).

Libel: This is being accused that a published statement is untrue. This can only be done by a living person. One way to avoid this charge is to alter character name, especially if you are saying something which can embarrass or invade a person’s sense of privacy.

Invasion of privacy: This is writing something about someone which they don’t want published and then sharing it publicly. This can include embarrassing, personal or misleading facts about a person which you might be obtained from a third party.

Copyright: Most writers are familiar with this infringement, but one thing I recently learned was that letters are copyrighted the second they are written, and that you cannot publish a letter without their permission.

Indeed, there are rewards when writing about family. You might have access to fascinating stories and details which could really sell and might not otherwise make their way out into the world. But, it’s important to be cautious and keep the following in mind:

Set boundaries for yourself; allow anyone mentioned in your writing to review the material and honor the fact that people are entitled to their privacy.

Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)

In my local bookstore I just picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls latest book, Half Broke Horses: A true life novel and as an instructor of memoir, I wonder about this new genre. Walls last book, a memoir, The Glass Castle (2006), was on the New York Times Bestseller list for quite a while. I read it and loved it. I find her writing quite compelling and she openly called that book a memoir, but I must say I am curious why she decided to call this new book a ‘true life novel.’

I do know that many prose writers who want to tell the story of their lives are frequently in a quandary as to whether they should tell their story as fiction or nonfiction. Typically, I tell my students that there is no correct answer. It’s whatever feels right or organic to your story. Some writers might find themselves experimenting by writing the story in both genres to see which one flows better.

No doubt, whatever genre the author chooses, he or she will encounter reviewer flak, once the book is published. A recent article in The Daily Beast (January 19, 2010), claimed that memoirs raise a perennial problem—sometimes fiction is more powerful than memoir and the main reason is that often memoirists are not as adept at using fiction technique as novelists. More specifically, in this particular article, writer Taylor Antrim proclaims that he views memoir writing as “cheating.”  The article mentions that he felt this even before the James Frey circus of events. He further explains that what he means by “cheating” is not necessarily an exaggeration of the truth, but that the stories sometimes contain blatant lies. He goes on to say that it’s not easy telling a good story without fibbing a bit, and it might be the author’s fabrications that bring a dramatic effect to an otherwise boring life.

As a memoirist first, and a fiction writer second, it is my natural instinct to defend my genre. Memoir is what it is and frankly I’m tired of people comparing it to fiction. It is a completely different genre with its own voice and rhythm. Did you ever hear of people comparing poetry to fiction?

The seasoned memoirist typically incorporates fiction techniques and if in fact, this makes the story appear fragmentary, then so be it. It seems that the writer is ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ If they use too much fiction technique and bend the truth, like Frey, they are considered ‘liars,’ if they leave out parts of the story because they don’t remember them, they are called ‘fragmentary writers.’

 So let’s just accept memoir for what it is and respect the writer who chooses memoir over fiction as someone who has courage and guts to write a memoir without hiding behind the veil of fiction. If you don’t like reading the form, then don’t read it and stop complaining. Of course, there’s good writing and poor writing; there are good memoirs and bad memoirs; there are good novel and bad novels. I believe that if someone is a good writer, it doesn’t matter what genre he or she writes in.

In comparing the genres, Antrim shares examples of autobiographic fiction, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Maple Stories by John Updike and The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Then there’s another genre which has been frequently used, called, the autobiographical novel, examples of which include, On the Road by John Kerouac, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Weisel, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Childhood by Leo Tolstoy. I see two primary reasons for writing an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir —if you’ve forgotten certain events and/or if you want to protect the privacy of loved ones (or enemies).

Another part of me asks “Who cares what the genre is and why are people so intent on labeling?” Perhaps the most important reason for genre-labeling is that bookstore sellers will know where to shelve the book in their stores. In fact, the first question an agent or publisher will ask the writer is, “Where do you see this book in the book store?” Glancing ahead into the future and the inevitable demise of bookstores, I wonder if the genre line will become even more blurred. In many ways, I think it will  be a good thing if it does.

Note to fiction writers: You should know that most of  my writing colleagues are fiction writers and you should not take this blog wrong– it’s just how I feel today, but you know that I love you all and still want to hear what you have to say about this very controversial subject.

What Moves You?

This was a question frequently posed by my mentor, Anaïs Nin, and today I pose the question to you, my readers. During the past few weeks I have been in the midst of what could aptly be called a literary slump. Thankfully, my recent sojourn to Paris healed me. Many writers, both living and dead, have professed that you should write what you know—but I will take this thought one step further and suggest that you write what you are passionate about or what moves you. The energy of your passion will be enough to carry your creative energy across the page.

Beyond writing about what interests you, the question is: what do writers do when they simply cannot be ‘moved?’What do they do when their pen stalls on the page and words do not churn out as quickly as they would like?

The Poets & Writers website has a section called, “Writers Recommend,” which is a collection of interviews with writers whose work has previously appeared on their pages. In this section, writers discuss what inspires them and what they might do to stimulate their creative juices. I believe many of these suggestions apply to all creative persons. Many of the writers’ responses may seem obvious to my readers, but it is amusing, nevertheless, to see these ideas all lumped together. Below is a summary of the most interesting and helpful tips offered by these writers, some which have been used for centuries by artists and writers alike. My recent trip to Paris was a testament to their efficacy because I have returned to the U.S. with a heightened literary charge. In fact, during my week in Paris, I managed to fill up an entire leather journal, accompanied by jottings on my laptop of future article ideas.

Here’s a summary:

1)    Go to places that inspire you—whether it is a bookshop, local park or café

2)    Read the works of your favorite writers to stimulate or alter your own world

3)    Sit somewhere outside of your typical writing area

4)    Do something different to recharge your battery, like learning a new hobby or sport

5)    Drink coffee, sip alcohol or use other mood-altering vices… in moderation, of course

6)    Listen to music

In addition to this list, there are other things I personally do to stimulate my own creativity or to give me a literary boost. For example, I might visit my local bookstore or library, walk around and pick up a  book which interests me and skim through its pages. I might carefully study the Edward Hopper print on my writing studio wall, which depicts a woman reading her book in a moving train. Something about her demeanor and sense of calm stimulates my creativity. For some poetic inspiration, I might focus on one image or emotion for an extended period of time and this might percolate into a poem. Sometimes while traveling, (which I frequently do because all three of my children live on the east coast), I might write a poem on a hotel pad, in the same way that William Carlos Williams used to draft poetry on prescription pads between patients. Speaking of Williams, while in Paris, I visited one of the three or four English bookstores, The Red Wheelbarrow.

The Red Wheel Barrow

So much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chicken.

Et voila! Here’s to inspiration. Let me hear from you as to what you might do to get your own creative juices churning and if you found any of my tips useful.

Memoir and Truth

Last weekend  I taught a memoir workshop at the West Hollywood Book Festival. It’s my second year doing so and it’s one of my favorite gigs. The class overflows with enthusiastic attendees who are smart and ask great questions. One recurring question in most of my workshops is, “Are you liable if you write a memoir about a mean family member or unfortunate childhood situation?” In light of all the attention given to the exaggerations and falsehoods in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, many people have begun to suspect memoir writers as a group, but I would like to set things straight.

The truth is when you write memoir, you are writing your truth as you remember it. It is no one else’s truth. It’s your own. You can be sued by a family member, but they might not be able to win the suit. They need to  prove that what you wrote is a lie and often this is very difficult to do. When writing memoir, in either the short or long form, the best advice is to be as honest as possible. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, our memories are not reliable and they tend to play tricks on us.

If Frey would have just written a caveat in the beginning of his book attesting to this, chances are he would have not received all the negative PR that he did. Most memoir instructors, myself included, will tell you that often times, the act of writing will help you remember and that’s why I am such an advocate of keeping a journal. It is a place to practice your writing. In her book, Fearless Confessions, my colleague, Sue William Silverman coined a term, ‘memory truth,’ where she identifies memories as completely subjective. She says, “While it’s not acceptable to make up facts willy-nilly when writing about your life, it is acceptable to convey your individual version of events—your memory-truth.” I cannot agree more with this sentiment. This is great advice,  particularly if you have already decided to head down the road to writing your memoir.

Striding For Inspiration

I recently read Joan Anderson’s biography, A Walk on the Beach, a gem of a book and also a wonderful gift item for that middle-aged woman who has everything, but seeks deeper meaning in her life through growth and exploration. The book’s sentiments are akin to those offered by Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie.

Anderson decides to spend a year alone in Cape Cod where she befriends Joan Erikson, the late widow of the psychologist, Erik Erikson. Joan Erikson bestows her years of wisdom on Anderson and the book unravels alongside their extraordinary developing friendship. Anderson quickly learns the power in having a mentor. After living all those years with her therapist husband, it would seem logical that she’d have a good grip on how to cope with life’s ups and downs. While reading this book, I made sure my notebook was alongside. Each page had potent insights to spark my own thoughts and serve as kernels for future essays and stories. The last section of the book compiled these nuggets of inspiration into a reusable list.

I love reading books which offer insights to inspire my own writing. I also enjoy books which open my eyes to new activities, such as walking which cleans the cobwebs out of my mind and also unlocks writer’s block. By the time I reached the end of the book, I decided to make walking a part of my daily routine. Since moving to Santa Barbara nearly four years ago, I’ve noticed that many people favor walking as a hobby. For me, it’s a time to meet new people, but it’s also a time to nurture reflection and creativity. Santa Barbara offers a unique blend of calm and an unexplainable creative force. I often wondered if this is a result of its unique location, where the ocean meets the mountains.

Patricia Fry wrote an article called “Meditation Walking for Writers,” which I read with great interest. She suggested a walking meditation technique to help if you’re stuck in your writing. She says that there is no altered state of consciousness needed to embark on this type of meditation, and that it’s just a matter of quieting your mind and finding the stillness from within. She does admit that you have to want to do it and then you will see results.

The technique is simple. The first step is to establish a schedule, anywhere between forty-five and sixty minutes each day. Dressing comfortably and finding a quiet place to walk, is critical. Santa Barbara, thankfully, has a glutton of perfect walking locations. Fry suggests that while walking you focus solely only your senses—hear the sound of your shoes hitting the pavement, a sprinkler turning on, or the birds chirping. Then she suggests feeling the air against your skin and how the muscles in your legs tighten with each step. Pay attention to the aromas, whether it’s the blooming flowers, budding trees or grass being cut. In other words, put yourself in the moment.

Beth Baruch Joselow in her book, “Writing Without the Muse,” also suggests in her chapter “Go Outside,” to explore the outdoors and discover something unfamiliar—something growing in your garden, something living under a rock, something discarded in the alley. She suggests bringing that something back to your desk to examine all its facets. She recommends writing a description of it using all your senses. She takes the exercise one step further and suggests describing the item using someone else’s voice, someone you know.

Once you try these mind-clearing techniques, you can start allowing creative ideas to filter in. Fry claims that meditation walks provide an ideal arena for problem-solving. When she feels overwhelmed, she walks change her approach to life, whether it results in slowing down or figuring out what to do next. She suggests replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. If you think positively, then chances are it will soon become a reality. Meditation walking is a way to relax and increase your awareness while getting some of that fresh air and exercise we all need and who knows, the side effect might be a fabulous poem or story!


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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