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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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

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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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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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Rewriting: When it’s Time to Start Over

I’ve heard Mary Wasmuth’s diary entries and essays in the journaling class I lead at the Weston (Massacusetts) Public Library. They’ve moved me, and made me laugh. And I’m pretty sure they’ve made me smarter.

I’m thrilled that after several years of inviting Mary to contribute to this blog, she has agreed.

Enjoy her guest post! May you be wiser after reading it.
– Lynette

Mary Wasmuth

Mary Wasmuth

I need to start this novel over. Again. No, I mean I want to start over—really. I have a framework now that retains the plot and characters; pulls the story together; and, in a death-defying feat of writerly liposuction, surgically removes great droopy hunks of midsection.

Then why am I spending my time writing this post? Shouldn’t I be starting a new folder, opening a new document, giving it my new title? Why do I sit in front of Call the Midwife—unlikely, I thought, to inspire binge watching—instead of my computer? I’ve seen eight episodes in five days. And why did I choose this moment to reorganize my writing files? Toss out my reams of painful early drafts?

It’s because I’ve started over so many times, so blithely. And, though I really believe (as I keep telling myself), I’ve found an approach that works, my memories of all the other hopeful starts paralyze me. I shouldn’t have gone through those files.

You see, I taught myself to write—with a great deal of expert help and guidance, though perhaps a little late in the game—by writing this novel. I learned and revised, learned and reshaped, learned and rethought and reshaped again. I eliminated narrators (whittling ten down to four) and killed off characters, including my carefully crafted, and re-crafted, second protagonist. I believed I was nearly done.

Thinking to polish things up a little, perhaps add a few final touches, I took the “Setting, Subtext, and Suspense” class in Michelle Hoover’s terrific novel series at Boston’s Grub Street. I rewrote three scenes in the one-day class, and I caught a glimpse of how much richer they could be, how much richer the novel could be. Which gave me the courage to cast a coldly objective eye over my first chapter. I deemed it . . . not good enough. I started to rethink. Again.

Of course, this is how you do it if you want to do it right. I know that. In Do Not Hurry—a blog post I reread whenever I start over, Michelle Hoover makes it clear that writing a novel simply “takes as long as it takes.” No way around it.

This time, at least, I know what to do, and I know why. Rather than the story of a mouthy, defiant girl who starts a punk rock band (called Fatgirlz), the novel will be a fictional history of Fatgirlz, a fictional punk band started by a mouthy, defiant girl. Suddenly, the four narrators make sense. Bands are unstable amalgams of individual musicians; a band story would have to incorporate several personal stories. Why, I could bring back some of my lost narrators!

I pause briefly to squelch this idea.

The new structure will be cleaner. More coherent. Maybe even funnier—because I am going to sneak in one more voice, a music critic. Band histories require critic-penned introductions. The more obscure the group, the more florid and pretentious the preface—and Fatgirlz is very, very obscure.

This could be fun. I really should just make that new folder. Open that new document. Call it Meet the Fatgirlz instead of Tastee Girl. And start over. One last time.

Have you ever decided to rewrite (and rewrite) a piece you’d considered finished? What was your approach? Did you take a break first? Tackle the thing head-on? Or, decide to catch up on all five seasons of Breaking Bad? Perfect your jump shot? Spring clean your apartment? Write a post for Tools and Tactics for Writers?

I hope that's not her novel in that bag.

I hope that’s not Mary’s novel in that bag.


________________
When she’s not avoiding rewriting her novel, Mary Wasmuth works as a librarian and job-search coach. She’s president of the advisory board for Framingham Adult ESL Plus and recording secretary for the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Mary has studied at Grub Street, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in Lynette Benton’s journaling class.

Follow Mary on Twitter.

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5 Ways Libraries Can Support Local Writers

Adams Free Library

Adams Free Library

Last month I had the honor of participating on a panel at the New England Library Association conference in Portland, Maine. In response to the numerous requests libraries receive from boomers and seniors for memoir writing classes, I’d been invited to talk about my experiences teaching memoir to those populations in libraries and elsewhere.

For that I was happily prepared. But a question posed by the coordinator of my session (Self-Publishing) surprised and stimulated me. She asked:

What can libraries do for writers?

We typically think of libraries as institutions that feed our passions for reading, researching, and learning. The flip side of reading, researching, and learning, however, is writing. Someone writes the books we love. Someone writes the research findings and textbooks we need.

When it comes to creating memoirs and family histories, most individuals have to figure out—without professional guidance—how to tell their stories in writing. Their solitary struggles can delay completion of their work for years; all too often the effort is abandoned altogether.

Some libraries offer free literacy classes. Several in my area, offer journaling, memoir writing, and even writing classes for youngsters.

But could more local libraries become the places where those in our communities go for free writing instruction? In addition to teaching memoir and family history writing classes at the occasional library, I teach talented writers through community education programs, senior centers, and in retirement communities. But I know equally talented writers who cannot afford even the modest cost of those classes.

What Libraries Can Do for Writers
1) Perhaps libraries could avail themselves of grants earmarked for memoir writing classes. It would make sense for libraries, those repositories and consumers of writers’ work, to underwrite writing instruction a couple of times a year.

2) Many libraries host public readings of local writers’ published work. They could also sponsor writing contests and readings of excerpts from works in progress.

3) Libraries could stock the best-written and historically significant memoirs written by residents of the area. My students have written about life in a small Italian village in World War II officially hearing that the war was over when it wasn’t; a dramatic liberation from a German POW camp; life in a 20th century New England orphanage; even a mystery novel loosely based on the author’s experiences.

4) Hosting a series of seminars on self-publishing would be helpful to librarians and writers alike. Some libraries are partnering with Smashwords as a publishing platform. Other companies, such as FastPencil, evidently are getting into the act, as well.

5) Writers who want to self-publish their memoirs and family histories often need computer classes that cover effectively using Google for research; scanning and inserting photos into documents; downloading and saving documents; and formatting their manuscripts for publication.

Writers: Does your library offer memoir or other creative writing classes? Would you take advantage such free classes if your library made them available?

Librarians: I’d be happy to talk with you about short courses for your writer patrons. Please use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch. Thank you.

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Who Cares If You Write?

August Perennials at Elm Bank

August Perennials at Elm Bank

I’ve got a quotation over my desk by the novelist Louis Auchincloss. In large font, it reminds me daily, hourly that,

“A man can spend his whole existence never learning the simple lesson that he has only one life and that if he fails to do what he wants with it, nobody else really cares.”

I’ve been lucky. I have a husband, his family, and a few close friends who relentlessly, yet lovingly, cheer me on in my writing. Still, I’ve been swayed by well-meant, but often intrusive, invitations.

Who Cares?
Those folks who invite you to spend an afternoon at the 4th wedding shower you’ve attended that year when you could be home writing? I doubt if, at the end, even one of them will say, “We should have left him [fill in your name here] alone to get his writing done.” They won’t care that you never finished that essay or novel or children’s story, or the small book of poetry that would have felt so right in your hand.

It doesn’t even need to be anything grand. You might just need to write yourself through a bad experience or record some lessons recently learned. A personal diary or journal will do for that.

In our busy-making, byzantine world, where a good deal of energy is spent in occupations unrelated to our deepest desires, a quotation like the one by Auchincloss can help you buckle down and get your writing done.

Pinning it over my desk works for me. Despite distractions and demands, I get my writing done. My articles and essays have been published in reputable outlets because I remind myself that if I give in to the external pressures instead of doing what I feel I was meant to do, nobody will give a hoot.

Auburn Lakes

Auburn Lakes


Use These Inspirational Quotes
Here are some quotations to encourage you to value your writing, make time for it, feed it what it needs.

“If you wish to be a writer; write!” – Epictetus

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” – Mark Twain

“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.” – Don Delillo

“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” – Anne Rice

“I have lived on the razor’s edge. So what if you fall off? I’d rather be doing something I really wanted to do.” – Georgia O’Keefe

If you’ve got any quotations or any mantras you made up that propel you to your desk and keep you there, please share them.

And, post your favorites over your desk. They’ll help you out in times of doubt.

Additional Resources
Finding Time to Write
What are you Willing to Sacrifice to Write?
Quit Complaining and Write

If you really need a push to get it in gear, to realize we shouldn’t put off our writing because we don’t live forever, try this one. Writing & Illness: More Than Metaphor.

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Allyson Latta: The Best Memoirs Don’t Preach

I regularly check Allyson Latta’s web site for meaningful ideas for memoir writers. In her guest post that follows, Allyson explains how preachiness mars a memoir and she offers practical strategies for avoiding it in your manuscript.
– Lynette

Allyson Latta - photo by Keane Shore

Allyson Latta – photo by Keane Shore


We were sitting cross-legged on the floor in my apartment, three young women in our early twenties, debating as usual.

It was what we did in the evenings, a form of entertainment when, as university students, we couldn’t afford much else. The more controversial the topic, the better. On that occasion, it was abortion.

My two classmates were vehemently against abortion, under any circumstances. I argued that there were situations where it might be the only viable option. They were passionate and unyielding; I was outnumbered. As the discussion progressed I began to feel preached at, and a little resentful.

A year or so after that discussion, I was taken aback to discover that each of these women, as a teenager, had undergone an abortion.

While I empathize with their not wishing to disclose everything to me during that earlier debate, if they had trusted me with the truth of their experiences – and the fact that they had come to regret their actions – I would better have understood their vociferousness. What they had gone through couldn’t help but colour their views. Their personal stories would have given context to the discussion.

The past we see as meaningful shapes our thinking and who we become. As memoirists, we strive to structure and render vividly such life-shaping incidents. We endeavor to say something revealing and true – emotionally true – about ourselves, and in the process, humanity. But a potential pitfall is preachiness.

Just as holding back relevant backstory can render someone’s argument moralistic-sounding, so too can a writer’s heavy-handed delivery of a “message.” Preachiness, says Denis Ledoux, director of The Memoir Network, is the “negative underside” of theme. Every effective story, beyond its ability to entertain, has an underlying theme or themes, but in the desire to drive home our points, we can easily sound didactic.

Which presents the memoirist with a dilemma. Don’t we write our stories because we believe we have something important to say? Don’t we ache to impart some essential wisdom gained through our personal challenges? How, then, to do this without sounding self-righteous?

As teenagers we didn’t take kindly to being lectured to, and as adults we don’t much like it either. We have Aesop’s Fables if we want unwavering moral lessons. But in reading memoirs we’ll skim over boring, moralizing passages, or perhaps even toss the book aside. We crave something deeper: a story that connects us with the world of the writer and encourages us to reflect on aspects of ourselves in a new way.

Like most readers of memoir, I look for a believable narrator, one I care about, and a plot that sweeps me along. I want to be taken somewhere I haven’t been before, scene by scene. And those scenes need to bring to life the writer’s challenges and struggles, the consequences of those actions, and finally, a satisfying (if not always tidy) resolution. I want to see, and more importantly feel, the narrator undergo some sort of transformation.

Underlying themes – and this goes for fiction as well as memoir – resonate only when the characters and story are compelling. It never works the other way around.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee manages to condemn racial discrimination through a fictional story that’s as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago. In the acclaimed memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed explores truths about forgiveness and the healing power of solitude and physical challenge without clobbering us with preachy passages.

Each author, first and essentially, tells a good story well.

The path we travel as writers of memoir can be one of gratifying, if sometimes gut-wrenching, self-discovery. Yet we will almost certainly be humbled at what we find difficult to express, or can never know. “The first product of self-knowledge,” said Flannery O’Conner, “is humility.” Those words might be worth tacking above our writing desks.

The best memoirs don’t preach. They don’t purport to have all the answers. They’re honest, vulnerable, and searching, and even as they attempt to illuminate, they allow space for reader to breathe and interpret.
***

Ways to avoid preachiness:
1. Write to entertain. Don’t sacrifice story for theme.
2. Eliminate words like moral, message, lesson, and teach from your vocabulary.
3. Encourage the reader’s empathy for your characters’ struggles.
4. Focus on breathing life into your experiences on the page, not on exhorting readers.
5. Be honest; be brave. Don’t be afraid to expose your weaknesses. Readers will relate to your vulnerability. They will be more influenced by what you say if they believe you’re being emotionally truthful.
6. Use scenes, action and dialogue to make your points.
7. Write with compassion. Give voice to various sides of any issue, through your actions and those of other characters.
8. Portray yourself and other characters as multi-dimensional: not all good or all bad. Acknowledge and explore the complexity of their issues and attitudes. Oversimplification can come across as preachy.
9. Ask questions. Dani Shapiro, author of the memoir Devotion, said, “I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could.”
10. Avoid lecturing and putting speeches in your characters’ mouths (unless a particular character is prone to pontificating). Maintain your story’s pace; don’t get bogged down in persuading readers to your point of view.
11. Use humour, where appropriate. Some of our greatest lessons are learned through laughter.
12. Read your work out loud. You’ll home in on preachy passages.
13. Avoid tied-in-a-bow or over-explained closings. Your story will have a stronger and more lasting impact if you allow readers to glean its significance.
***

Allyson Latta is an independent editor of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches memoir writing online for the University of Toronto (formerly also for the New York Times Knowledge Network) and is available through UofT as an online mentor. Her love of travel has led her to teach English in Japan and creative writing in Arizona, Chile, Costa Rica, and Grenada. Books she’s edited have won national and international awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Allyson holds a degree in Journalism, and worked as a reporter and magazine editor/writer before turning to book editing. Her website, www.allysonlatta.com, was recommended in The Writer magazine and features essays, interviews, and resources for memoir writers.

She hopes this guest post doesn’t sound preachy.
***

Lynette here, again. Have you found yourself moralizing in your memoir writing? Did you purge it from your subsequent drafts? Please share your own tactics—-or anything else–about avoiding preachiness in your memoir writing.

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In Need of a Neat Conclusion?

PINK SWEATER
An editor remarked that after sticking with a memoir for 300 pages, he felt he was owed a tidy resolution at the end. I understand his feelings. I even sympathize with them.

But I don’t agree.

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

Regarding novels, British author Lee Rourke quotes Viktor Shklovsky, who said [a novel] has no ending . . . “because finishing a novel would mean knowing the future.”

I’m not doctrinaire about endings. I’ve always reserved the right to attach my own preferred ending to narrative works of art. (In my mind, Bambi’s mother is alive and thriving. So is the extraordinary Sean Connery’s flamboyant character in The Untouchables. Oh, he gets all shot up while an operatic aria soars through his apartment; but he’s patched up sufficiently to happily join in the slick scene on the train station steps. He might even kick the guy in the white suit over the parapet, after Ness shoots that villain at the very end.)

Now, that’s a resolution.

But wait . . .
Memoir’s different. Neither the reader nor the writer is allowed to make up the ending. Memoir’s current conventions demand that there must be issues/questions/conundrums and they must, absolutely must, be resolved. The unknown must become known, the unfathomable miraculously fathomed. That probably explains why, on concluding of a couple of memoirs, I’ve felt the ending was forced, and even false.

Dulcinea Norton Smith holds that readers want memoir threads “finished off neatly.” Well, I want the events in my life to finish off neatly. But that’s not how it goes, and memoirists can’t just slap a satisfying ending on their manuscript, all tied up like a sizzling roast just out of Martha Stewart’s oven.

Is that even desirable?

Sometimes the protagonist’s goal hasn’t been fully achieved. The fights with the mother, say, are temporarily stilled, but no one believes for a moment that they are over for good.

Jerry Waxler suggests the author ask what conclusions can be drawn from the experiences in her less-than-perfectly-resolved story. Maybe what the writer has learned along the way will be something readers can use in their own lives.

Yet, I don’t consider it the memoirist’s job to educate readers, nor overtly teach them how to live. I feel our job is to allow readers to share our journeys as we muddle—with some success and many failures—through our lives, as they do through theirs.

When I was a technical documentation writer, my coworker and friend, Bob used to kid that we should tell our customers: “Figure it out for yourselves; we did.”

Why shouldn’t readers wrestle with ambiguities and endure dead ends as the author does? Maybe what we memoirists teach readers, if anything, is that much of the struggle in life winds up inconclusively.

Probably this is just rationalizing. If I can’t offer readers anything short of a pat ending, I’ll have to shelve the memoir I’ve spent a tough four years writing, until a certain thread is tidily knotted. But the end might never knit itself into a nice, symmetrical garment. So, I guess my question is: if the narrator is trying to gain something in a memoir, is it unfair to readers to publish the book before all is achieved? Isn’t the journey worth something?

When I put that question to friends, one said, “Life doesn’t offer tidy endings; it’s immature to expect that.” Another said she actually enjoys open-ended endings. “I like it when months later, while standing at the sink or getting into my car, I find myself pondering possible outcomes of the story.”

Was I ever glad to hear that, because just last week it seemed certain that the end of my story, and therefore my memoir, had arrived, the treasure achieved. But then I learned that no, it hadn’t quite yet.

Again, speaking about fiction, Lee Rourke wrote that he is uncomfortable with the desire for narratives to reach closure. He distrusts books that force “chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally.” I feel that applies to memoir as well.

Mine was a search for more than just a material object. It was a quest to come to grips with my family’s destructive dynamics, which cascaded from generation to generation. So, I want to say to readers: “Maybe some of the tangible item is still missing, but Baby, this is still a damn good story.”

What do you think? Should I wait until all has been gained before publishing my memoir?

Further Reading
How to End a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Endless Fascination: In Praise of Novels Without Neat Conclusions

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Are Literary Agents Outmoded? Should They Be? Part 1

Disclaimer: My one contact with a literary agent about my own work was pleasant and professional. My opinions below are based on agent blogs I read online.

The ferociously fast rise of self-publishing has significantly reduced writers’ dependence on agents—the first line of publishing gatekeepers. A good thing, too.

Self-Pubbing’s Not All That’s Undermining Agent Influence
Perhaps acknowledging the extreme difficulty of writers securing agents to represent their manuscripts, several well-known publishing brands have instituted unagented submission periods: Harper Voyage, a division of HarperCollins, offered writers two agent-free weeks in October 2012. Avalon; Avon Impulse; and ChocLit accept submissions directly from authors. Most of these houses publish romance; some indicate an interest in mainstream and mystery manuscripts, as well.

And those writers who keep a sharp eye on Twitter are rewarded with tweets notifying them of other publishers who accept unagented work.

Yet, agents seem cling to the belief that they remain critical to the realization of writers’ publishing dreams. Though their careers are dangling by a thread, many continue to act as if they are central to the publishing process and that writers should be happy to kiss their rings for the privilege of their attention.

I’m ready to select Agent and hit Delete.

Agents Are So-o-o Busy

Writers aren’t?

At least agents get salaries and benefits to be busy. Most writers don’t. We find the time, outside of our jobs, our writing, and the regular responsibilities of life, to submit our work. But many agents apparently are too busy to even generate click-of-a-button auto-responses to our queries. So even when we follow their onerous submission rules, it’s unlikely we’ll get a response for our trouble.

Given the complaints of many agents about their workloads, they might be happy to see authors publishing their work without them. After all, if the tweets and blog posts of some agents with large online audiences are to be believed, these literary professionals are responsible for so many tasks that securing new writers is at the bottom of their list of workaday priorities. So, they’re forced do most, if not all, of their manuscript reading and evaluations at night and on weekends. How sharp is their judgment after a long week of work?

As author Lynda M. Martin blogged to agents, “[As] the self-appointed guardians of the castle . . . you complain you can’t handle the traffic.”

Is this a workable business model?

“[T]hey simply don’t have time to read all the books they’d like to read, even the ones from writers who sound like they might be talented,” writes, Michael Bourne, in his balanced article, “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents. “So, agents work with people they know, and friends of people they know.

“If that sounds like I’m saying, ‘It’s all about who you know,’ that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying.’ ”

The trash-talking agents whose blogs and tweets I’m referring to are quick to tell writers in snarky, schoolmarmy tones, that they don’t have time for queries or mss that don’t conform exactly to their agency’s strict standards (which, by the way, vary from agency to agency). Small author oversights are punished with manuscript exile.

Martin notes in her well thought out post, Are You Looking For A Literary Agent? Want To Vent a Little? that writers have to go a-begging to agents, following each one’s particular submission whims. She calls querying, “most humbling,” and quotes one agent: “[P]art of our process is to see how well you take instruction.” Talk about school-marmy!

Who would tolerate their busy doctor or mechanic or insurance underwriter dissing them like they were pond scum? After all, writers are agents’ clients; it’s our 15% they live on.

I spent decades as a manager and director in for- and nonprofit organizations. Know what? In each, I encountered customers who misunderstood or deliberately flouted rules and guidelines. Was I allowed to be snippy towards them? Hell, no.

I hope you’ll continue with Part 2 of this post.

Resource: Ask the Agent: Rejections and Rude Agents . . . What to Do?

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