Memoir, Life Story Writing, Family History Survey Results

Willows at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

I hope you all received your free Tip Sheet—the gift for filling out my survey of those who write memoir, stories from their lives, or family history. And I hope you found the advice contained in the tips useful enough to put into practice.

Here’s Who Took The Survey

The overwhelming number of respondents were women. The age of ninety-five percent of all those who responded was 50 or over.

 

Most are currently writing:

  • Short sketches: 70%
  • Book-length memoir: 30%
  • Family history: only 10%

Key Survey Results

Here, without further ado, are the results of the survey—and my interpretation of those results.

Resources

More than 60% of you look to online and paper resources to aid your writing. Most of you use as writing resources this site (Tools and Tactics for Writers—thank you!); books and journals; explanations (when available) from publishers on why a particular work was published or won a contest.

The Biggest Writing Problems

  • Making writing a priority (and finding time to write).
  • Making the writing artistic, rather than just factual and straightforward (like a report).
  • Suppressing the inner critical voice.

Other problems cited were trouble developing writing snippets into publishable work. Getting started on a project, outlining, and choosing an appropriate structure if you are writing a book.

Sources of Feedback on Your Writing

You get feedback from instructors and classmates in your courses; from friends, relatives, writing group members, and experts at conferences.

 One Finding Stood Out

Probably the most important (and among the most surprising) finding: The majority of respondents prefer to get writing guidance through classes (nearly 75%), individual coaching (48%), and paid professionals (probably editors). In other words, not through online info contained in a blog, but through interactions with a person, whether classmates, instructors, or those who coach and edit writers’ work one-on-one. (That’s what I do. Some of you have already worked individually with me. The rest of you should try it!) Don’t be alarmed: Yes, I know who took the survey, but I don’t know what your individual answers were.

Conclusion

I’ll need to digest these findings to determine what they mean for this website as well as for the services I offer. I’ll keep you posted.

And thanks again for participating in the survey!

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The Survey’s Over

Clear Winter Afternoon

Thanks to all of you who participated in the quiz about your writing! Your answers will help make this site more responsive to you and writers like you.

The results will be posted here soon. And I’ll keep you updated on the changes I’ll be making to the site.

In the meantime, take yourself on a little tour of the site as it is now. I’m sure you’ll find writing tips you can use.

Again, thank you!

-Lynette

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A Memoir is More Than Just Facts

A version of this essay originally appeared as my guest post on DeliberateInk, the blog of writer Shikarah Dawud.

Orchid in Winter

Remembering the past so that we can record it might not be the greatest challenge we memoirists face.

In a memoir, precision isn’t everything.

If we’re unsure of a date, we can dip into our diaries or refer to old letters and recent emails. But in a memoir, precision isn’t everything. In most instances, an exact date—November 19, for example—isn’t necessary. Usually, “late November,” or even “late that year,” is good enough.

We can contact a cousin if we’ve forgotten the name of Aunt Gertrude’s first husband. We can check military records to be sure Dad really was honorably discharged after “that incident” relatives still whisper about twenty years after the event. To establish who was who among their ancestors, where they hailed from, and what they did, genealogists can introduce themselves to living relatives, previously unknown to them, interview old family friends, and visit town halls and libraries to look up long dead family members. They can examine gravestones and cemetery records. (And in nosing around, they often uncover startling family secrets and scandals).

Mere facts don’t make a memoir.

The point of memoir is to evoke and share experience. In memoirs, we are concerned not just with what happened, but with how what happened felt. Memoirs are fueled by emotion and sensory detail, at least as much as by memory. It’s the emotions and physical sensations surrounding events that linger in our minds and our lives.

My eighty-eight year old student remembered the World War II Allied Forces tossing candy bars to the starving prisoners after smashing their tanks through the gates of the POW camp where he was incarcerated. Another elderly student recollected staring, frozen when he was 19 years old, as his Greek girlfriend’s parents shouted that they didn’t want their daughter to mix with him because he was Irish.

These stories engage readers (even if those readers are “just” family members), because they are powered by the emotions and physical sensations that accompanied them.

Add fuel to your memoir
Tell your readers how you felt. What joy, hope, sadness, or shock surrounded your personal victories or seeming defeats?
Appeal to readers’ senses. Could you feel the hook and ladder’s shuddering vibrations the night fire trucks arrived to douse a neighbor’s burning house? What were the distinctive odors escaping from the school cafeteria just before you got suspended?
Be specific. Telling readers that you climbed a hill and looked over the fields doesn’t give them a true sense of place or your frame of mind. Were you swatting at mosquitoes as you strode to the top of the hill? Did your fear of what you might find render you nearly as breathless as the climb itself?
Share the “flavor” of the times you’re writing about. Did your family always sit down to pot roast and potatoes at Sunday dinner? Do you remember the smell of Vicks VapoRub your grandmother applied to your chest when you had a cold?

Capture the feeling of your experiences

Capturing the feeling of experiences is as important as the experiences themselves. Plumb the emotional and sensual details of your past when you write. Those, rather than a list of facts, are the kinds of memories readers will relate to.

These are the techniques and guidelines I used in my memoir, My Mother’s Money, that made an excerpt from it a finalist in the memoir writing contest sponsored by She Writes Press and Serendipity Literary Agency. My essay describing my experiences writing that memoir won first place in the Magic of Memoir Essay Contest and is included in the anthology, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey.

Resources
Memoir Writing: One Important Element
Evoke Emotions in Your Readers
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington, Chapter 7: Using Your Senses

Need help adding interest and intensity to your life story or family history writing? Check out my Testimonials, and use the Contact tab to get in touch. We’ll see how I can help you.

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How to Write What Matters

Add Intensity to Your Life Writing

I urge my creative writing students not to bother putting on paper all the joys and none of the pain of their lives. That approach is boring, un-instructive, and anyway, I won’t believe it. Nobody’s existence is unblemished.

I’m not suggesting you write bitter, carping litanies of accusations and complaints (though penning these can be terrific stress relievers if you write them for your eyes only). But why not probe your life and experiences, those incidents or even moments, that had enough of an impact to make you what and who you are? Or those moments when you surprised yourself?

Get Inspiration for Your Memoir, Family History or Personal Essay Writing

I like Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir, and the book is perfect for personal essays, as well.

In this book, Thomas offers prompts that encourage you look over your past, and even your present.

For example, I’d been agonizing over some jewelry I wanted, fetchingly displayed on glass shelves in a boutique. As a result of Thomas’s prompt: “Write two pages about what you had to have,” I wrote a nifty little essay called “Retail Anxiety.” (That reminds me, I need to submit it for publication somewhere. Here’s a link to a list of lots of outlets that publish personal essays. 19 Websites and Magazines That Want to Publish Your Personal Essays. View the Comments to see even more outlets supplied by visitors to the post.

Need More Ideas?

A quick sampling of other prompts you’ll find in Thinking About Memoir:

– Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.
– Write two pages of what you wish you could still do.
– Write two pages of when you failed to rise to the occasion.

If you want more ideas for putting depth into your life writing of any length, visit: Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

And for assistance writing your essays, memoir, or family history, just click on the Contact tab to see how I can help. While you’re at it, check out my Testimonials, too.

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Another Must-Have Memoir Writing Resource

It’s true that my own essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” appears in the recently released The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey anthology, and that this essay won first prize in the Magic of Memoir contest. But if you write memoir or family history, I’d be urging you to get this book even if that weren’t so.

Why do I think you need this volume? Because it contains essays that shine a light on the processes, angsts, supports, and resources—both human and literary—that other memoirists and family history writers use.

Have you been shying away from writing your memoir?

Unable to do more than just write about the “nice little things” in your life as if your whole life consisted of just those “nice little things?” To write the truth, you’ve got to assemble your strongest inner resources. In her essay, Jill Kandel asserts, “Writing is not for the faint of heart.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.

This is a book for serious writers, who are ready to tackle memoirs or family histories they’ve been putting off or downright avoiding for years. This book will help you get serious if you aren’t already. Kelly Kittel quotes a refrigerator magnet in her essay in The Magic of Memoir. That magnet urges, “be brave and do hard things.”

You won’t find distracting, time-wasting tips in this book.

Or even useful lists of how-to’s. The memoirists whose essays appear in The Magic of Memoir describe how they managed to write about the tragedies in their lives, their relationships with their families (so much of memoir addresses family relationships), their efforts to create meaning out of the tumult of daily existence, and the success of their work, despite their many doubts. Reading about how others coaxed forth their memoirs can have an inspirational effect.

The writers look at whether or not creating memoir heals the memoirist. (In her essay in this volume, Jill Smolowe writes, “I do not find the writing of a memoir cathartic.” What’s your opinion?) And they describe the need to shout demons down in order to tell the truth. In short, they let us see how to kick butt to get our memories of ourselves and/or our families down on paper.

Interviews with Famous Contemporary Memoirists

In addition to the essays, The Magic of Memoir includes interviews with some of the most renowned memoirists of our time, including:

– Cheryl Strayed
– Mary Karr
– Elizabeth Gilbert, and
– Dani Shapiro, to name a few.

This book is so good that even the Introduction, written by the anthology’s editors, Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner, is eye opening and instructive.

Let this book be your companion on your memoir-writing journey. It will make a great holiday gift for a memoirist you know—even if that memoirist is yourself.

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Talking Memoir with Writing Instructor, Coach, and Publisher Brooke Warner, Part 1

As a memoir writer, as well as a memoir coach myself, I’ve followed Brooke Warner’s work on behalf of memoir and memoir writers for years. It’s a pleasure to welcome her here so you can learn more about her varied work, including publishing.
– Lynette

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

You’re a writing instructor, coach, and publisher. Can you distinguish among those roles?
BW: I teach memoir classes mostly, and sometimes classes on publishing, either online or in-person. As a coach I work with authors one-on-one, both on their writing and the emotional challenges that go along with writing. I’m a teacher, editor, champion, and midwife.

As publisher of She Writes Press, I’m more of a book shepherd than a coach. I still champion our authors, but my role is more directive, because I’m helping them with their books’ covers and positioning. I sometimes feel like more of a bossy older sister than a mother hen in this role.

You have experience in traditional publishing; you’ve been a speaker at writing and publishing conferences, and have expertise particularly in memoir, but also in other genres. What do you tell audiences about publishing?

I tell them that it’s really hard to get a traditional publishing deal these days. I hope I paint a mostly optimistic picture, however, because opportunities abound in the current publishing climate. But the book publishing world looks a lot different than it did even 15 years ago.

I educate aspiring authors about their options and what the different publishing paths might look like. I try to give them a dose of reality without squashing their dreams, because I’m strongly invested in the dream of authorship. I just believe that some authors need to reframe how that’s going to happen.

Please tell us about SheWrites.com and She Writes Press. What is the connection between them?

SheWrites.com is an online community for women writers worldwide. On the site, writers can connect with one another, post articles, and join groups. SheWrites.com was around for a few years before I contacted the cofounder, Kamy Wicoff, about starting She Writes Press. We built the press to complement the online platform. Authors don’t need to be a member of SheWrites.com to publish with us, but the two companies are inextricably linked in terms of their brand and their messaging—which is that they both exist as platforms for women’s voices.

This year’s theme for your collaboration with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, seems to be the Magic of Memoir. You’ve sponsored an essay contest, there’s the conference of the same name this month (October, 2016); and you’ve got the Magic of Memoir Anthology coming out in November. How do they fit together?

The contest was for The Magic of Memoir anthology, so those are one and the same. We did an open call for submissions for the anthology, for which you took home first place, Lynette. Congratulations!

Our second annual Magic of Memoir Conference, which took place October 15 – 16, in Oakland, California, makes Magic of Memoir more than a theme for this year. We’re making Magic of Memoir part of our brand.

We have a class called Write Your Memoir in Six Months, but we want to do a lot more around memoir than just our six-month course. The Magic of Memoir conference and website and book are allowing us to move into some more exciting content and ideas beyond our six-month course.

Please describe the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course.

This is our six-month online memoir intensive, which we run twice a year, with one class starting in January and one in June. (The next one begins in January 2017.) It’s blossomed into a lot more than just our six-month course.

Notably we also teach a Best-selling Memoir course each spring and summer. We’ve taught Wild, by Cheryl Strayed; Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt; The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr; and others. These short courses give writers an opportunity to learn what makes these memoirs work. They’re really fun.

Finally, we’ve been teaching a Mastering Memoir course once a year, which is a ten-week online course that’s faster-paced than Write Your Memoir in Six Months and exclusively focused on craft. The next one is starting in February 2017. So we feel that Write Your Memoir Six Months is the foundation for lots of other work we’re doing in memoir.

Note from Lynette:
Be sure you don’t miss Part 2 of this informative interview for all writers interested in starting, improving, or publishing their manuscripts.

See the list of authors who will be included in the Magic of Memoir anthology, which is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. The anthology will also feature interviews with best selling memoirists. Find out who they are here.
__________________

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book, What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, co-author of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, and co-editor of The Magic of Memoir Anthology. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing. She is the former Executive Editor of Seal Press and currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She blogs actively on Huffington Post Books and SheWrites.com. Brooke lives and works in Berkeley, California.

Visit Brooke at www.brookewarner.com

Connect with Brooke on Social Media:
http://twitter.com/brooke_warner
http://facebook.com/warnercoaching
https://www.linkedin.com/in/warnercoaching
https://www.pinterest.com/warnercoaching
https://www.youtube.com/warnercoaching

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Talking Memoir with Writing Instructor, Coach, and Publisher Brooke Warner, Part 2

In Part 2 of her interview (below), Brooke Warner discusses She Writes Press’s approach to publishing and offers advice to those starting or continuing work on their manuscripts.
– Lynette

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Why do you think She Writes Press is thriving? Does it publish a variety of genres? How does it differ from traditional publishing on the one hand and self-publishing on the other? Do you feel it empowers authors?

She Writes Press is thriving because we are filling a need. Right now barriers to traditional publishing are so high, and authors who might have gotten a book deal ten years ago have no hope of getting one today. This is because the focus in book publishing has moved from content to author platform, so you basically need to have a large established fanbase in order to get a traditional book deal.

She Writes Press is functioning in many ways like a traditional press. We vet projects and have a high editorial standard, and we have traditional distribution, which means that we have a sales force selling our list. But we are not basing our acquisitions on author brand or platform. Instead it’s solely about the books and the writing itself. Authors are so relieved to have this kind of option, where they have support without having to self-publish. Plus, our books are beautifully designed and we’re getting great accolades, both for the aesthetics of our books and for their content, which speaks to the kind of authors we’re attracting.

We’re also different from traditional publishing in that the authors invest in themselves. We offer a package that covers everything from cover and interior design, proofreading, project management, and everything it takes to get a manuscript prepared and through publication. For that, the authors retain 60% of net proceeds on paperback (as opposed to 15% in traditional publishing) and 80% on e-books (as opposed to 25% in traditional publishing). The cost of our package does not include individual title publicity support, but we absolutely market our titles, and the press collectively, which does give the authors and their books exposure.

Our press empowers authors by giving them an option to play in the big leagues, and our goal is always to rival our traditional counterparts. We are also collaborative, and authors retain more creative control with us than they would with a traditional publisher. They also retain their copyright, which is a big deal. The world of publishing is far from perfect, but we’re giving authors a legitimate shot at getting the kind of recognition that largely eludes self-published authors.

And yes, we publish multiple genres—fiction, memoir, self-help, and everything in between. We’ve done parenting books, cookbooks, leadership books, spiritual books, and even poetry.

Do you have any advice for those writing their first book? Or for those who feel their manuscripts are ready to publish?

First: Hang in there. It might be a long process, and that’s okay. There’s so much hype right now about writing your book in a few weeks, never mind six months (which is what our class was built upon), and what we’ve found with our own class is that we end up giving authors a strong foundation to continue. Certain books are emotionally taxing to write, and there’s a lot to learn.

Study your craft. Read other authors in your genre—please. Connect with other authors. Join writers’ forums and attend events. The road to becoming an author starts with understanding who’s come before you, and with social media you can actually connect with these people. Your journey will be that much more inspiring and less lonely as a result. And when you’re ready, seek out experts to read, edit, and help you figure out which publishing path is right for you. None of this should be done alone; it’s much more joyful with company.

________________
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book, What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, and the co-author of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing. She is the former Executive Editor of Seal Press and currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She blogs actively on Huffington Post Books and SheWrites.com. Brooke lives and works in Berkeley, California.

Visit Brooke at www.brookewarner.com

Connect with Brooke on Social Media:
http://twitter.com/brooke_warner
http://facebook.com/warnercoaching
https://www.linkedin.com/in/warnercoaching
https://www.pinterest.com/warnercoaching
https://www.youtube.com/warnercoaching

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Examples of Boomers and Seniors Writing About Their Lives

As I’ve written in other posts here, I teach boomers and seniors (and others) to write stories from their lives. Our classes are moving, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and a whole lot of fun—and that describes the stories the students write.

When people tell me they have a pressing urge to write about their lives, but don’t know what to write about, I suggest they take a look at My Legacy is Simply This, a book of short essays by seniors living in various neighborhoods in Boston. The short essays were made possible by Grub Street, a prominent Boston writing institution, and the City of Boston. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy, and what’s more, they can serve as examples for your own writing.

Among my favorites is the story of his dangerous career, recounted by William Boyle, a former fire fighter. As a young man, he helped quench the big Hotel Vendome fire, which killed nine Boston fire fighters, in 1972. Even after pulling dead coworkers out from the rubble, he still loved his work, especially because that day, he found his boyhood friend, alive in the debris.

Dorothy Parks is a woman who lives each day as if it were her last, as a result of the perils she faced in her travels, whether by train, ship, or air. Her essay is the funniest in the collection, as she recounts an absurd brush with death on an airplane with a wing on fire.

But most of those whose essays appear in the book write about ordinary aspects of their lives: their homes and hometowns, their children, their families, their careers.

If you’re looking for an engaging model for your own writing, consider reading this book. By the way, it’s one of five volumes sponsored by Grub Street and the City of Boston.

If you want to get the stories from your own life down on paper, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

Writing Stories from Your Life
Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas
Teaching Creative Writing to Boomers and Seniors, Part 2

You don’t have to be a boomer or senior to join my Memoir Writing or my Writing Stories from Your Life classes. Just keep your eye on the Upcoming Teaching Events tab at the top of this page to see where and when I’ll be holding classes next.

Or, you can work with me privately, as many others have and do. Your choice. Just use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch.

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Writers: BUY . . . THIS . . . BOOK

writers_and_their_notebooks

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

[Note: I know Diana Raab only through our online connection, and have no relationship with the book’s publisher.]

Even though my creative writing and journaling students hint that I browbeat them, I’ve never told them to buy a book. As a rabid supporter of libraries, I typically urge people to borrow books before buying them. But I want you to trust me on this one. Writers and Their Notebooks, an anthology edited by Diana Raab, is a book you’ll want all to yourself. So, I urge you to just go ahead and buy it.

You’re going to want to read and reread it; write in it; draw stars beside passages; and exclamation marks next to those that are so apt they could have emanated form your own pen, your own heart.

The collection will introduce you to writers you didn’t know before; and you’ll want to read their published work and compare those to what they say about the relationship of their notebooks to the final products. For example, writer James Brown states in his contribution, “For me the journal is. . . a stepping stone to a larger, more refined work… [W]hat you originally thought you wanted to say and what you actually end up writing aren’t always the same thing.”

The Basics
It’s taken me a long time to write this review; the collection is so rich, so perfect I had trouble figuring out who and what to highlight. So, here are the basics.

Writers and Their Notebooks consists of entries by twenty-four highly accomplished contemporary writers of long and short works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. The book is divided into five sections: The Journal as Tool; The Journal for Survival; The Journal for Travel; The Journal as Muse; The Journal for Life.

I’m pleased that Raab didn’t confine this book to just journals, which like diaries suggest daily entries, while “notebooks” covers a broader field. In this collection, we see little of the actual journals or notes. Instead we salivate over glimpses of the secret lives and work they chronicle.

The Many Names of Notebooks
Some of the writers call their notebooks wailing walls. Others, junk drawers. Still others, mirrors. They write in fancy blank books, or in those childhood “copybooks” with the green or black covers, and a big, empty white rectangle for the owner’s name surrounded by squiggles like paint peeling off a wall. Some of the contributors write in tiny old spiral notebooks small enough to stick in a back pocket, and even on tired scraps of paper, as when mental institution personnel forbade a writer to use real books to record her self-healing sentences.

Besides my journals, I’ve got notes on my iPhone, kitchen counters, and the passenger seat of my car. Writers and Their Notebooks gave my habit, my compulsion, legitimacy; allowed me to feel I’d located my tribe, my club—writers who not only turn a literary microscope on others, but also ruthlessly forage around in their own lives and minds.

How and What They Write
I can’t imagine how Raab found these perfect contributors, willing to let us snoop on their private writing habits. There’s Sue Grafton, the über successful mystery writer, who shares her time-consuming system for writing every single one of her twenty-some books. Ilan Stavans’ notebook struck me as a joyous melee: “An idea shows up and becomes a line. I then cross it out and put another one on top, add several below or on the side. I let myself enjoy non sequiturs.” Bonnie Morris’s essay, “Writing in Public Places,” notes “a willingness to create in chaos.” But keeping a journal publicly held its perils. At fourteen, “as a middle-class white girl, living in an affluent country,” she writes, “I listened numbly as a circle of other white girls told me I had a choice—give up my journal…or have neither friends nor protection in our hostile junior high school.”

Not surprisingly, truth and authenticity, either one of which represents the writer’s Holy Grail, make frequent appearances in Writers and Their Notebooks. It’s one of the reasons writers keep journals; it’s a place to tell the brash, unflattering truth, be our real selves, rather than the one we show to the world that we are in, but often, not of.

At the end of the book are appendices, containing ideas for keeping a journal and imaginative ideas about what to write in it; suggested further reading; and bios of the contributors to the volume.

Books about writers’ journals and notebooks can be surprisingly hard to find. But, from now on, I need look no farther than Writers and Their Notebooks. This book’s got it all.

A Single Complaint
The book is profoundly enlightening, entertaining, and downright satisfying; I wish it were double its size.

Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Weigh in about your practices.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Get a Handle on Yourself and Your Characters

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Why would my writing blog review a book about psychology—apart from the fact that I’m on a tear about narcissists, which is how I learned about Dr. Joseph Burgo’s new book, Why Do I Do That?, in the first place? (He’s got a wonderful website, called, After Psychotherapy. Never been in therapy? All the more reason to avail yourself of the wisdom on his site.)

I’m reviewing the book because it can help us writers disclose the depth and pump up the power behind our characters’ actions and knee-jerk reactions, and understand the internal frailties our characters’ and our own defense mechanisms are trying so desperately to protect.

Dr. Burgo says he can understand how Why Do I Do That? “might be a useful tool for writers. In developing fully three-dimensional characters, a writer of fiction has to consider what motivates or drives those characters, and my book’s focus on our ‘primary psychological concerns’ would help” the process of developing those characters.

For those of us who write essays, journals, and memoir—personal, nonfiction reflective writing—it’s critical to have a grasp on why we feel the ways we do, have found ourselves in the fixes we have, and made the adjustments we’ve made to tolerate or extricate ourselves from the various quagmires we’ve landed in. After all, the point of our writing is to understand what we’re trying to banish or preserve, and when we do it well, we connect with our readers and ourselves, though I can tell you, it’s almost never pretty. But, as Michelle Seaton writes in her post about Why Do I Do That?:

“[T]he unpleasant feelings we deny in life we deny doubly on the page.”

One of the most unnerving aspects of Dr. Burgo’s book is that in it I saw every single person I know, every person I’ve ever known, including myself. But, instead of making me smugly label everyone with my new-found knowledge, it helped me see what we’re trying to do to maintain our fragile equilibrium. The book already has affected they way I present myself and others in my writing.

Now, that’s not to say I’m cutting everyone, even myself, a ton of slack. I still want everyone to get over their bad behavior—or keep it away from me (and small children). But it does mean that I now know what’s going on—the why behind the behavior.

Why Do I Do That? is divided into three sections: “Understanding Our Psychological Defense Mechanisms;” “Identifying Your Psychological Defenses” (be prepared to blush, bigtime, over this section); and “Disarming Your Defenses.”

Though in places there’s a good deal of theory, overall Dr. Burgo’s tone is conversational, leaning towards gentle compassion. His use of the word “bear,” as in bear all the burdens and consequences stemming from lackluster or even dangerous early parenting, almost brought me to tears while I sat reading the book at my hair salon. He translates our use of terms like “defense,” which in their original German, conveyed meanings closer to “warding off” or “fending off”—both much more sympathetic phrases than “defenses.”

Also, the book is occasionally peppered with Dr. Burgo’s struggles to subdue his own psychological defenses, which made me grateful for his sympathy; he avoids sounding like an oracle or disapproving parent.

My one complaint is that Why Do I Do That? contains no index (they seem to be becoming largely outmoded), so on those days when someone else’s defenses are driving spears in your sides or your own behavior seems painfully at odds with your goals and well-being, you can’t do an easy, if frantic, search for just the topic that can rescue you. I suggest you mark up your copy of the book liberally so you can find the lifelines in it that you need.

You can follow Dr. Burgo on Twitter.

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