Free Memoir and Family History Writing Talk

Interested in writing memoir, stories from your life, or family history?

I’ll be presenting a free (and lively) talk on Tuesday 7/12 at Robbins Library, in Arlington, Mass. at 1:00. I hope you’ll join us. This talk could help you get started or work your way to the finish line!

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How Do You Like Your Memoirs?

Are you having trouble figuring out how to approach writing your memoir, or if you’ve started it, are you baffled about how to make it “take off?”

One way to think about possible treatments for your memoir is to take another look at those you’ve enjoyed. (You have been reading memoirs, right? You wouldn’t attempt to write in a genre you weren’t familiar with, would you? Nah. I know you wouldn’t.)

You might have read a number of books and blogs that urge writers to construct their memoirs to read like novels. Some memoirs, like my own (My Mother’s Money), happen lend themselves to a novelistic structure.

But your story might not. It’s best to choose what will work for the life events you want to recount. So, think about what appeals to you in memoirs, regardless of their structure.

You might like:

Descriptions of how things were. The family, the neighborhood, the early joys or problems, the political climate, or financial issues the memoirist experienced.

Stunning surprises. In one of her memoirs, Diana Athill opened with a description of a novelist who came to a dinner party at her house. She took to him immediately, knowing he’d become a dear friend. That section, which is almost merry, ends, “Five years later this man killed himself in my flat.” How’s that for a baldly stated surprise?  In your case, it might be a relationship that unexpectedly collapses, an illness that overtakes someone, or even coming into more money than you know what to do with—anything that upsets the status quo.

A thinking narrator, who isn’t averse to wandering off on tangents to discover and comprehend connections, unravel a conundrum. (Above my desk is a quote, urging writers to “approach their subject for its mystery—as an investigator examining the unfathomable.”)

New knowledge about a lifestyle, religion, era, problem—a sort of “Oh, so that’s how landscapers (or morgue attendants, or hedge fund managers) work, live, and think.”

Admiration for the narrator’s courage and persistence, as she tackles a problem, even if others feel she should “leave well enough alone.”

Having your own ideas about how to write your memoir—what you want it to be—will make it authentic. And if a memoir is nothing else, it should be that.

What do you like in memoirs?

If you need assistance to make your memoir work, use the Contact tab above to see how I can help.

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Include Gestures to Enliven Your Writing

In life, when we talk to one another, we generally don’t declare our lines while standing at attention, our arms pinioned at our sides like exclamation points.

We move around and we position ourselves in various postures, such as slumping, hanging our heads, or if we’re angry, stomping around. When the occasion calls for it, our facial expressions morph into smiles, frowns, smirks, and pouts. Our hands come alive, waving or cutting through space to emphasize our every word—or to dismiss what the other person is saying.

But often in our writing, we entirely overlook these behaviors—gestures—that accompany, emphasize, and define our human interactions. Instead, we might write. “I listened while she told me a long, shocking story.”

What were you doing while she told you this long, shocking story? Did you squirm with discomfort? Raise your eyebrows in surprise? And was she doing anything with her body to underscore this “shocking” story?

Examples of the use of gestures:

  • “That happens all the time,” Samos pointed out, shrugging.
  • The doctor chuckled and ambled out of the examining room to get a fresh cup of coffee.
  • I ended the conversation in disgust, then poked my phone again to make another call.

As a New Yorker, I was surprised on my first visits to New England (where I now live) at what seemed to me the stillness of New Englanders. Where I was from, every conversation, every thought almost, was an occasion for jerking our heads, bellowing out something over our shoulders, or doing little dances when we heard good news. But not in New England. People here seemed well behaved to me. Too well behaved.

Which led me to think more deeply about these physical motions that go along with our speaking and that express our feelings—sometimes even when we’re alone.

I asked my adult memoir and life story writing students in a class I teach to use gestures in their next assignment. Some did; others missed the opportunities their topics offered them, though gestures add depth to all kinds of writing, whether novel, short story, memoir, and sometimes even poetry.

But one woman did not include gestures in her essay. Instead, she wrote about gestures themselves.

She was born and reared in a country, where, as she described it, physical gestures are large. Hugging is common. Emotions are freely expressed and underlined with gestures. A man from from a different country noted that in his culture, few gestures are used.

But even if the gestures are subtle, they still can be included. Someone might simply stammer, nod his head, lean forward, or stare at the floor when downcast. People probably stretch when they’re tired or when their limbs feel cramped. All these motions should be included in the writing so that characters appear alive, rather than robotic.

In your creative writing, do you remember to show your readers what people are doing?

If you want to know more about integrating gestures into your writing to enhance it, take a look at:

Master List of Gestures and Body Language 

Gesture, Revisited

And if you’d like assistance getting gestures into your writing or otherwise strengthening it, use the Contact tab above to get in touch with me. We’ll see how I can help you out.

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Is Your Writing Being Rejected?

Been enduring an unnerving spate of rejections to your writing submissions? You’re not alone. Slide over to the Brevity Magazine blog to read about my own recent experiences submitting my work.

The essay is called Sixth Sense Submissions, or Publishing Blind.

Leave a comment if you can relate. Oh, and I hope you’ll take a look at the enlightening comments left by others. Thank you.

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Memoir Narrator’s Transformation

I just had the pleasure of having my article, A Memoir Narrator Transformed posted on Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. I hope you’ll stop by and give it a read, especially if you write or enjoy reading memoir.

 

 

 

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When is Your Manuscript Finished?

If you’re not sure if you’ve finished your manuscript, slide on over to the Grub Daily blog and see my post It’s Done When It’s Done.

 

 

 

 

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Who Let the Joy Out? Humph, Humph.

You’ve heard that expression (which always sounded to me like nothing more than an utterly fatuous promise) that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear?

I’d returned from the Muse and the Marketplace writers conference held earlier this month, in Boston, feeling first overwhelmed by the conference itself, then downright paralyzed. For days afterwards, I felt in a daze—my creative faculties on hold. And I suffered a deep unease, as if some vital element of my person was being snuffed out.

I couldn’t blame the conference. I’d been exposed to a lot of valuable experiences and ideas about writing and the writing life. (More on those in a later post.) But it was learning all this stuff, some new, some not, that contributed to a growing discontent I’d been feeling for some time.

Then I came across an essay by Ethan Gilsdorf, whose formidable writing creds bowled me over. (I mention this because I felt anyone with so large a reputation was taking a risk by going public about his failure to work on the writing project that’s called to him for years. At the Muse conference, I’d taken his “Writing the Risky Personal Essay” class. Clearly the man practices what he preaches.)

I couldn’t imagine any blog post speaking to my situation more directly and profoundly. In “This Blog Post is a Pep Talk,” Gilsdorf wrote:

“As writers, we … need to take pleasure in our work…. We need a project … to fall in love with again. The kind of low-pressure, it’s-OK-if-you-fail, writing for the joy of writing project.”

I stared at my computer screen, frozen. That was the poke, the permission I needed. Even though I’m a writing instructor, I’d paid so much attention to other people’s writing rules that I’d discounted my own authentic voice, lost faith in the writing that had gotten me published and garnered kudos and the occasional award in the past, and worst of all, let it stymie my joy in the writing process.

In my early career, I avoided writing classes because I feared they would exert too great an influence over my own style. But as I progressed, I felt I needed more skills in order to advance my writing. But one has to cherry pick what advice to take and what to leave in the orchard, and at some point, what with my extensive business and professional writing and absorbing so much advice from different people and trying to adhere to the rules, peculiar preferences, (and word counts!) of literary magazines and other publications, I no longer felt connected to the writing I was doing, nor did I enjoy the process of producing it.

If I want to regain my joy in writing, I need to refuse to let my writing for money or attempts to win prizes dampen my desire to write from the heart. To recapture joy in writing, I need to carve out time and mental space for the thinking and writing that means most to me, even if it doesn’t get published or isn’t otherwise acknowledged.

Gilsdorf didn’t offer any writing advice. Instead, he did what essayists are supposed to do: explored a personal subject and engaged his audience (primarily) of writers with that exploration.

By the way, for me, the personal exposure in this blog post makes it feel uncomfortably like a risky personal essay.

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Author Carole Burns Discusses Her Mystery, Murder With Malice

Author of several books, Carole Burns has taken a number of writing classes with me. But I can’t take credit for helping her with all of them. I only got to know Carole when she was working on her novel, Murder With Malice. It’s a mystery in which the reader knows the murderer’s identity, and follows the detectives as they track down the criminal—and figure out why he killed two people.

Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Murder With Malice.
– Lynette

Click on the cover image to learn more about this book

While the Scarsdale Movie Theater on Garth Road was emptying out, William Grotty remained in the shadow of the nearby Laundromat. His car was parked on a nearby street where he’d hidden a gun in the glove compartment. Now it was in the pocket of his dark hiking jacket with his backpack strapped over his shoulders.

William checked his watch. It was exactly 11:00 p.m. The movie had just ended; the street was clear. His two friends were the only ones left, standing near the marquee, waiting for him.

He had told Sally Ross and Frances King that he wanted to treat them to a lovely new café that had recently opened. The only time they could all agree to meet was after the movie on Sunday night. William told them how proud he was of Sally’s new position and the continuing good results with the programming Fran and he were working on. They were surprised by his offer, but accepted graciously.

A soft, April evening’s warm breeze pervaded the street’s suburban aura. William knew the next commuter train from New York City wouldn’t be at the depot for another hour. Calculatedly, he came out from the shadow, the small gun nestled safely in his jacket’s pocket.

The two women turned to him as he called out, “Hi, you two.”

Facing him, they smiled and then were stunned. Eyes opened wide, mouths ajar, silent, as they watched him take the gun out of his pocket. He shot them each once in the chest. He knew they were dead.

I asked Carole to talk about her experience writing Murder With Malice.
– Lynette

Author Carole Burns

Author Carole Burns

The idea of book came from a mystery writing class I attended at Tufts University’s OSHER Institute for Retirees.

We were given a scenario, and asked to write what happens next. Surprisingly, each person in the class wrote something entirely different from what everyone else wrote.

Every week the instructor gave the class an assignment, which we would write during class time. The prompts were the following:

1. Write about the victim.
2. Write about the murderer.
3. Write about the setting.

We never referred to the plot again, but my story took off. It was a lot of fun.

In Murder With Malice, a murder is committed by a man whose childhood portrays an evil mind. When my book opens, he kills two seemingly innocent women friends of his. A college teacher, with her students and a local policeman, solve the crime.

The difficulties I faced when writing the mystery were in fleshing out the story, as I tend to write very concisely.

I learned I needed to develop my characters, scenes, and so forth. Help came from my original teacher, Roseanne Montillo, and from my present instructor, Lynette Benton——with wonderful input from the students in our workshops.

What I’d tell others who want to write a mystery:
– Like your characters. I enjoyed mine so much, I’ve decided to do a sequel.
– Do your research.
– Ask for advice from experts in field. My adult children were able to help me with financial aspects of the story.
– Be part of a writing group. You need input on your manuscript, and you’ll learn much from others who are writing their stories.
– Decide on the weapon for the crime, know about it to be sure it will work in the story.
– Explore the murderer’s motives, background, and character.
– Be familiar with the scene of the crime…places to hide, time of the day or night when it would be best to have a crime committed.

Besides Murder With Malice, I’ve written:
Oops, a collection of my silly poetry for family and friends
Sadye’s Sayings, expressions my mother used as a guide to bring me up.
A Rosh Chodesh Handbook Joining Lilith and Eve (with Ellen Cohn and Doris Wachsler) 2000
Sadye: A Memoir By Her Daughter 2001
No Such Thing As Ordinary 2006
Sidney, As We Remember Him 2012
The Freckle Thief (with Marilyn Wald) a children’s book 2013

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How to Pump Out 32,604 Words in a Month

Margy Rydzynski and I have been colleagues and friends for years. When I met her for coffee last June, she had an unexpected question for me. Would I be her NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) coach? The worldwide NaNoWriMo challenge is held every November, but Margy was going to do hers in July.

I knew Margy had been writing a novel. And I was aware that she had put it aside to take care of some other major demands in her life. So I was thrilled to know she was going to resume work on her manuscript, and happy to have a chance to help out.

After Margy completed the challenge, I asked her to tell my blog visitors about her experience. The first thing I wanted to know was why 20,000 – 30,000 words? Here are her answers to that and to my other questions.
– Lynette

Margy Rydzynski

Margy Rydzynski

Why that many words? I had already completed 50,000 words of my novel and didn’t think it would take another 50,000 to finish it. The 50,000 word count is provided by NaNoWriMo as part of their November writing challenge. I wasn’t sure how many more words my novel needed to be completed, so I just wrote until I was done! Lynette tells me I wrote well over an additional 32,000 words of the novel in July.

How did I prepare for an effort of this magnitude and what did I give up? I work as a freelance consultant and teacher. My working life is therefore unpredictable, but summer is generally a bit slower. Normally, I use the time to catch up on my own work and plan new projects. In order to produce the amount of writing on my novel as I did, I decided to put all but the most time-critical work on the back burner and treat the writing as my highest priority. I had to be available for current clients, but I didn’t take on anything new.

What was the most difficult part? Getting started! It took me a while to get back into the swing of things. I hadn’t worked on this novel in quite some time and had to read over a lot of my notes to pick up the thread. Fortunately, I’ve kept a blog with possible plot progressions, characters, etc. I spent a good deal of time thinking about the story and writing down ideas, many of which came to me while I was in the shower!

Did I achieve my goal? Yes, although the first draft is very rough. At least it’s done, though. Editing will be a lot easier (I hope)!

My advice to those considering doing NaNoWriMo: You need to jump into it completely, not just dip your toes in. Life can and will get in the way, so you have to look at the big picture and organize your time accordingly. You have to write when you don’t feel like writing and just go on with the story. Above all, DO NOT EDIT YOUR WORK as you’re writing. The goal is to produce a lot of words, and editing as you go will bog you down.

What support did I have to for my July NaNoWriMo challenge? I knew I’d need someone to keep my feet to the fire, since my life is so unpredictable. I immediately thought of my friend Lynette, who’s a writing instructor and coach. I hired her to be my official “nudge” and, I have to say, I got my money’s worth! She sent me daily quotes for inspiration, met me in person from time to time to see how I was doing—and more. I had to send her my word count and writing for each day. There was no way I could slack off with her as my task manager.
__________________

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo? Got any tips you care to share?

Want help making real progress on your writing? Use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch with me.

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More of Life’s Little “Infuriations”

SOW HEADSHOT

A while back I published a list of Life’s Little Infuriations, and followed that with a request that site visitors contribute their own nagging annoyances. (Check the comments on those posts to see what’s irritating others.)

Now, here are some of my latest infuriations. Enjoy the flowers, which have nothing to do with this post, except that they help to keep me more or less sane.

– Jackets without pockets. Where to put gloves? A tissue?

– Ice cold restaurant salads. Ice cold, brick hard restaurant butter.

– Food stores (supermarket, take out joints, etc.) charging the same or higher price for a smaller amount of food.

– Websites with useful or entertaining information, but no Share buttons.

– Websites that require your email address before they show you anything at all. My experience has been with mostly, but not only, home decorating sites. How on earth do you know if those sites will offer anything of interest to you?

ELM BANK ECHINACEA
– Road sings covered by foliage 3 seasons a year.

– Left turning motorists who don’t use their signals, so you’re stuck behind them when you could have gone about your business in the right lane.

– Tiny score boxes on televised baseball games; our screens get larger, their writing smaller.

– While I’m on the subject of sports: The constant chatter by broadcasters on topics unrelated to the game being aired. Also, the intense crushes they and the sports media get on some players. The hapless players seldom live up to all the hype. (Think recent Red Sox rookies, whose last names begin with “B.”)

– Top bed sheets marked “queen size” that are patently too small. They are the same size as those made for a double bed.

Elm Bank Formal Floral Row

Elm Bank Formal Floral Row

Leave a comment if you can relate to these. Or, share your own.

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