Monday, June 17, 2019

Revision With An Eye Toward Connecting With Readers

At our June Women’s Writing Circle read around, I read a piece about walking the same path that Virginia Woolf did before she committed suicide. The path in Sussex, England, leads down to the River Ouse where in 1941, Woolf drowned herself. I had blogged about this “Virginia Woolf’s Room of Her Own—a Writer’s Journey” after I returned from England in 2015. Now, I decided to use the piece in my new book about how writing and sharing stories lead to a freedom of being and meaning. So, I was seeking a little input from our writers...what resonates, what needs clarification, what needs revision?

Part of the piece read like this:
I walked the long and winding path from her quiet literary retreat down toward the river.
The wind blew through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...toward the River Ouse where she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in 1941. It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I thought. How unhappy she must have been! But as the sun shone on the fields that day, I soaked up the source of inspiration that all writers feel when in the ghostly presence of a literary icon

After I finished reading, one woman said, “You’re holding back. I want to know more about that walk...what were you feeling?”

She was right. I had left myself out—call it the journalist in me, always the observer. Or maybe until I got feedback, I wasn't considering that my readers would want the “symbol” of that walk—one that they could apply to their own lives. If I dig deep, I'm not just writing about that path leading to the river, but the path of life

In literature, symbolism can take many forms, including: A figure of speech where an object, person, or situation has another meaning other than its literal meaning. The actions of a character, word, action, or event that have a deeper meaning in the context of the whole story.

I went home after read around and here's the revision.

I walk the long and winding path from her quiet literary studio toward the river. The wind blows through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...down toward the River Ouse where in 1941 she filled her pockets with stones and yielded herself to the river’s icy depths.

It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I think. An eternity, even if she planned it. While I have experienced depression and regret, it is never truly lasting. As I walk toward the river, I realize I’m a coward. I don’t want to die. I have, however naively, always hewed to the notion that each day offers a moment of the extraordinary―and so it’s worth it to keep going. The brush of Lily’s soft muzzle against my hand, moonlight on the ocean....

In Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life,
Natalie Goldberg writes this about revision.
“There is a quiet place in us below our hip personality that is connected to our breath, our words, and our death. Miriam’s second piece connected to that place, because she slowed down. In her first piece, she was scared, so the piece was glib. We are often funny to cover up fear, but this quiet place exists as we exist, here on the earth. It just is. This is where the best writing comes from and what we must connect with in order to write well.

This quiet place opens writing to heart and soul—to connecting with readers and a basic emotion—wanting to live—not cowardice or fear of dying, as yet another writer pointed out to me at read around.

This is why I am a great fan of reading my work to others, or offering it to them to read. Readers sense something is missing. They want your heart, your soul, the bones of your writing. Symbols which spark their own imagination is one tool to achieve this. Anything less is pabulum. That's what makes revision so exciting. 

What about you? Does input from others and revision help you improve your work?

Monday, June 3, 2019

Writers React to Whether Memoirists Should Tell People They're In the Story

Last week I wrote a blog post whether memoir writers should inform others that we are writing about them. This touched off a debate. It’s not an easy decision whether to be “considerate” and let another know and it often comes down to your own personal ethics. You can read my thoughts on this blog post, as well as the comments here on the Women's Writing Circle.

I also posted the article on the National Association of Memoir Writer’s Facebook page and asked the writers commenting if I could share their thoughts. Here’s a summary, which I think offers an interesting roadmap to answering the question: Should I tell people they're in my memoir and let them read it before it's published?  Thanks to all who took the time to offer their experience and insight and allowing me to publish their comments here.

"I think it’s a question of personal ethics and assessing the potential outcome of informing vs. not—and it connects to our history with that person and each person’s perspective. There are potentials for healing and also misunderstanding and no one rule can apply."

"I’m not. I’m using a pen name and changing everyone’s name."

"I think a lot depends on what the relationships look like in real life. And what the topic is. If neutral or positive and we still have any kind of relationship with the person then I think being considerate is the kind thing to do. If negative, and it’s for depth of the story then changing details is a better option and no need to inform as no one will know it’s them. If it’s the core of the story, eg: abuse, etc, especially if unresolved and no relationship exists anymore, then I think letting them know would do more harm than good for both parties."

"Not necessary. Tell if you like...don't tell otherwise. "

"My story is mine. Behave better and I'll write better about you."

"I received a cease and desist letter from one of the people in my memoir when it was published. I HAD told him ahead of publication he was in it, and that I'd given him a nickname. He's still not speaking to me, but honestly, I wrote nicer things about him than I should have. I have more of an issue with family members who tell me I can't write about deceased relatives, but I just ignore them. I've also had friends tell me I need to get permission before writing about living family members (my own family says just don't use their last name, which is different than mine). I'm careful to make sure I'm writing my own story; it's not that. The thing is, we can write whatever we want and there is something liberating about allowing yourself to write what you want. It can always be revised. It's whether or not we choose to get it published that makes a difference."

"People in your life know that you're a storyteller. My disclaimer says: This is a work of nonfiction. The events, conversations, and experiences detailed herein have been faithfully rendered as the author has remembered them to the best of her ability. Names, identities and some circumstances have been changed or compressed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved."

"If we follow the main rule of memoir—write about our memories—then that comes first. If we are writing about others as our main focus, then it's not really about our memories, and we might want to rethink that. I didn't let people know, exactly, but it's implied, isn't it, that we will be writing about significant others...but since that should always be from our own POV then it will always be different from anyone else's POV or recollection."

"Personally, I would not let them know, but I would be thoughtful, considerate and err on the side of minimalism and caution. And what I genuinely thought to be true at the time."

"I heard from a fiction writer who adapted true events that were positive and life affirming into her novel--that one of the characters felt enormously exposed and vulnerable. As a result she stopped publication of her book in German--as the book would have then been accessible to him and others who know him. She felt she had ticked off all the things we are "supposed" to check and he had even given her permission to write the story, but when he read it, he had other feelings. It's not about how we portray people but the fact that we have drawn upon their lives for our work and our art. It gets very sticky. Someone I know "forgot" to mention her new memoir to her sister and it was at the press already--oops--her sister was not happy with not being informed, though what is said about her is positive. I think figuring out what is the best way to handle these things is hugely stressful and we still might make a decision that later we have to deal with. Thanks for opening up the topic."

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Should a Memoir Writer Let Someone Know She is Writing About Them?

There was an interesting story in the news this week about the singer Moby regretting that he did not inform the actress Natalie Portman that he would be writing about her in his memoir. Apparently, his recollection of events was different than hers and after she challenged that recollection, he apologized...not so much for their differing recollections, as he apologized to her and others in his memoir Then It Fell Apart that he had been “inconsiderate" in not telling them in advance he would be writing about them. You can read the story here.

While most of us who pen memoirs are hardly as famous as Moby and Natalie Portman, this is our nightmare scenario...and begs the questions: Should I tell someone I am writing about them in my memoir? Should I let them read what I have written before the book is published?

Questions to ask:
  • Why am I writing about this person in the first place? 
  • Is it from a place of angst? 
  • From love? 
  • From realization that they made a difference in my journey? 
  • What is my motivation and how honestly am I portraying them and our relationship? 
  • Will having them read the memoir result in questioning myself and tampering with the truth of my story?

For me, it became a matter of changing the names of minor characters in my memoir―but not the names of my family. The disclaimer that prefaced my memoir also addressed this. I suppose I would advise: it is up to each writer whether to inform the person she is writing about...up to her to let them read the book prior to publication. Fortunately, or unfortunately, no two people remember the same story in the same way. The variations in memory are usually pretty striking. As an old writing instructor of mine often would say, “Any story told twice is fiction.” 

Without going into all the ins and outs of disclosure and defamation, it is a good rule of thumb to remember that if what you write is neutral, or even favorable, no worries. If it is embarrassing to the person, or could hurt them professionally or otherwise, then it is another matter. Of course, if you change the distinguishing characteristics, let’s say, and no one would recognize them anyway, you have the load lessened in presenting them honestly and authentically, all warts and flaws. For example, this works with friends, ex-lovers, etc. Not so much with ex-husbands, parents or children since memoir writers are bound by the very nature of the genre as nonfiction storytellers.

The decision whether or not to be “considerate” and let another know you plan to write about them may be one of the hardest a memoir writer has to make. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Time Is Wasting...It's Now or Never to Write Our Story

Why write our stories? Why not write them? That’s something each of us decides in her own way. In a writing circle this weekend, we shared what it means to write. It is threatening, one woman said, looking at our small gathering after an invitation to twenty or so women had been sent. It is too much exposure. Once it’s out there, it’s out there! And now it’s out there—a finished product—even though you’re still evolving.

But here's the thing: In a world spinning ever faster, we see the end of an era almost every day, splashed across the front pages of the newspaper and on the internet. We see our own lives passing in the rearview mirror of time with alarming speed. It's now or never to write our story before the wrecking ball demolishes it. Time is wasting. 

Writing, or any creative passion or pursuit, means sacrificing something else to make time for this. Finding connection with like-minded human beings is a spiritual and creative pursuit, but no one can make you do it unless you feel called. You can shrug and say why bother, say it is no one’s business but my own, I made my peace with it...whatever it is. If that works, then so be it. I see that a lot.

I would start my own writing group as a way to connect and make this business of writing a little less isolating. In a world that has become increasingly dehumanizing, isolation has intensified. We are prisoners of technology, prisoners of our own lack of focus, lack of commitment to something meaningful...lack of community. We can stand back and watch or we can take an active role in making this world a little better.

In our writing circle we talked about morning pages, journaling, even if five or ten minutes a day and after a week realizing there is something there...something to work with. One woman suggested that maybe if we start slow...think small rather than trying to grapple with the entirety of a story and all the emotions it evokes all at once, we have a path forward. 
  • Give yourself positive messages. 
  • Keep a list of what you want to write. 
  • Express yourself with an uncensored pen for your eyes only.
  • Relish in the joy of exploration.
  • Take a walk and think about writing.
I’ve been doing that with my new memoir: topics range from travel to religion, to sexual assault and aging, to being alone and reinvention. 

Think about the details, the specificity when writing. Narrow it down. Maybe it’s that childhood home—4 Evergreen Ave.—the jelly jars, the rhubarb stew boiling on the stovetop. A mother’s fuzzy slippers with rose applique....

I believe that for women there has been no more defining moment than now to remind ourselves of the power of story.

In the Circle, we rediscover conversation and community. Our stories are varied and rich. We support and encourage each other. We hear a human voice responding to the expression of being human. There have been many circles, many workshops that have melded into one and this truism remains—we long to tell stories before they are lost forever. Together we make a difference.

"Writing isn't about destination—writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else." — Sue Grafton

Monday, April 29, 2019

Crafting Memorable Scenes and Writing With Intent

Writing is no easy task, although sometimes it can flow, especially when a woman’s voice and her life experience are encouraged in a supportive group of writers. As one woman said after our workshop, Writing Compelling Scenes in Memoir or Fiction: “The inspiration and support of writing in the company of women encourages me to probe more deeply and express the unvarnished truth of our lives.”

As another of our writers said: “What a rewarding experience to attend a Women’s Writing Circle Workshop! It is an opportunity to learn how to expand our writing skills, surrounded by caring individuals who really want to listen to each of our efforts, and offer kind insights and encouragement."

The theme is apparent: Writing flows when we are offered the opportunity to express ourselves without reservation in the belief and the confidence that our voices and our stories matter.


Writing compelling scenes requires the author focus in on the same question she asks of the entire story. What is this scene about? Why this scene and not another? What is my story about? Engage the reader with a strong voice, either the narrator, if it is memoir, or the protagonist, if fiction.

Scenes emanate from one of several components: action, narrative or landscape.
Action gets right into the meat of the scene; narrative offers some backstory and inner monologue from a main character or narrator’s point of view, while landscape evokes how important the place is to the main character. Here the writer often portrays in a place its beauty or desolation or ruin, for example, Tara in Gone with the Wind, represents Scarlett’s longing for the land and a place called home.

Like beads on a necklace, one scene links to another, each with its own beginning middle and end. Scenes are strung together in a way that make the story and its message clear. In my memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, scenes between myself and John were based on conversations, which I remembered in vivid detail and tried to unsparingly infuse with the honesty and authenticity of that moment. 

By writing dialogue that is real, not contrived, we offer our characters’ lives, their motivations and personalities, and, hopefully, the conflict inherent in either the inner or outer life through what is said.

Action is obvious in the famous scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett throws the vase up against the mirror after Ashley rebukes her overtures of love. Margaret Mitchell lets the reader see this woman’s temper, her frustration at not getting her way, her stubborn personality.

Engage the reader with sensory details. There is a mood to evoke with sight, sounds, smells. For example, this from May Sarton: "The first day of spring and we are in the midst of a wild snowstorm! When it began yesterday swarms of birds came to the feeders—first a flock of goldfinches: then I glimpsed the bright pink head of a purple finch." ~ Journal of a Solitude 

In this workshop, we built on our February workshop which is how to write compelling characters. We learned that characters must have a driving need or desire, a secret, grief or longing. For me, the narrator of Again in a Heartbeat, that need or desire was to desperately hold on to the man she loved, her naive dreams of a happily-ever-after, which slowly and irrevocably were being shattered by cancer, which John refers to as “the enemy.”

When we write scenes, they lead to accentuating a change in the character, from young headstrong girl, let’s say, who desperately sought her happiness in a man and marriage, to a woman who finds strength within herself.

When crafted with precision and intent, writing offers a window into life. I learn so much myself from teaching our writing workshops. It is often said that the teacher derives the greatest benefits from teaching her material and in this, I agree. I am blessed to have the opportunity to teach our women writers who bring with them the creativity and courage that inspire and instruct me along the writer’s way.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Critique and Going Further With Your Writing

The value of critique, as one of our writers noted on Saturday, is that it offers differing perspectives. While many offer up the same intelligent criticisms of a piece—this needs clarifying, this requires more detail or better writing—some see no need to change this or that. Others in the critique group do.

I suppose this is why creativity is an individual expression. The ultimate decision rests with the writer.

Critique leaves the writer with much to chew on and digest when it comes to revising the piece. It is up to her to pick and choose which comments best serve her purpose.

But, perhaps, the biggest challenge and benefit that comes out of a critique is when writers encourage another writer to dig deep; what Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, calls “going further.”

“Even if you have pushed yourself and feel you’ve broken through, push yourself further…ride that wave as long as you can. Don’t stop in the middle,” Goldberg writes.

So many writers—myself included—can stop short. As Goldberg jokes, we all know the writer who proclaims,” And then I woke up!” as a way to end the story.

Whether you’re writing fiction or memoir, taking it further is both risk and reward.

How do we do go to the next level?

One way is to believe in your voice. Another is to have a strong understanding of what your story is about. Even silly entertaining novels like the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy had a strong theme and the author knew her intention and her audience. It is surprising, especially in memoir, that writers learn along the way that what they are writing is a fiasco. The original idea or intent bears no resemblance to what they learn later along the journey that the real pull of a story, the real reason they are writing, is to bear witness to something. This always comes as a surprise. I was not who I thought I was…It brings them plummeting down to earth. It required breaking out of habitual thinking and tackling a subject or a life event, or a person who deeply affected them, in a new light  and with new eyes.

We live in a weary world, too much is happening. It's easier not to threaten our "status quo" thinking. That's where curiosity kicks in and the writer begins experimenting with expression, voice, a unique way of telling her story and shedding the old preconceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad. 

If that quest, that curiosity, that willingness to break old patterns of thinking doesn't happen, the story meanders, peters out. Going further just became a threatening task, upending the "safety" of the person's habitual thinking.

Seeking out the deeper meaning that goes beyond ourselves and into the universal human journey is the creative writer's ultimate quest.

How else do we tap into our story and go further?

Relax and find a place to write that is perfect for you. Believe in yourself and your willingness to make a difference in the world with your writing. That takes courage, a leap of faith, right there.
As I sit here at the kitchen table, a gray and azure April morning sky frames the yellow and lime green forsythia and lawn. A shaft of brilliant sunshine breaks through the clouds. I feel on the brink of something new… a new story, a reflection, the next chapter in my life. And here I sit, writing away.

Of course, a writing group offers invaluable feedback on your work, as long as the feedback is honest. There is an accountability and intention to meeting with a group, setting a date to discuss your work. This is the work of our Women's Writing Circle.

How about you? How do you go about the task of "taking it one step further'?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Spring: Writing Through Life’s Transitions

As many times as I have led a group of women sharing their stories, I am always touched when the writing leads to uncovering the emotions that lie deep within the transitions of a life.

Whether it is the death of a parent, the loss of career, the marriage of a son or daughter, or becoming an “empty nester,” the writing taps into that experience and in doing so, the writer understands where she came from and, hopefully,—eventually—where she is going. The writing offers keys to the “portal”...unlocking the door to the “next chapter” with awareness and confidence.

This, of course, was the theme of my memoir Morning at Wellington Square…a woman searching for passion and renewal after the death of her husband and end of career. It is a memoir about transitions—moving out West, working in the nonprofit sector, finding new friends, until she comes to the conclusion that, ultimately, writing her memoirs and becoming a published author was the "next chapter."

Now, once again, writing leads me through another transition. This time—the woman alone. I write:

I thought of you today when I looked at my hands. The skin wrinkles like wax paper, a reminder since last I saw you of the passing of many years.

I thought of you today when I met Alex for lunch. He is your son in all ways from his gentle and kind disposition, to a man who understands the meaning of honor. If not for you, this wonderful person would not be with me; and in him, you are with me.
I thought of you today when Daniel stood tall in our kitchen. Your son's unsparing eye for what is fair and unfair in life and love brought you home to me.

I thought of you today when the afternoon passed in a haze of sunshine. The forsythia, just last week weighed down with its burden of white, waits patiently. Now, its brown branches are tinged with the first hint of gold.

I thought of you today when spring embraces hope that someday I might see you again. I dreamed of you last night. We were young and made love. I woke up and I thought of you and where the journey ends—with you by my side.

Sometimes when we write, we choke up. Overcome with emotion, we seek, if you’re like me, that quiet space to reflect. We owe it to ourselves to shut out the distractions of the outside world. Let the pen flow, do not censor yourself, don't edit. Save the editing for later.

Sometimes, these moments of awareness that we are on the cusp of transition are read aloud in a writing group. The group’s safety and support promises this: the writer can trust in others. Why? Our journeys are often so similar. We can laugh together, reminisce and remember. Spring, after all, is a time of renewal and rebirth; the perfect season to write through life's transitions.

How about you? Can you share a transition you have written about and how you felt when you wrote it?