Monday, February 12, 2018

Musings of a Memoir Writer: Memoir or Autofiction?

Is memoir truly a memoir if not everything in the story actually happened? Does the memoir writer have the leeway to use invention in storytelling? And, if we do, is autofiction, a genre term used to describe fictionalized autobiography, more accurate?

In this post, Diane Pomerantz, author of Lost in the Reflecting Pool, poses questions about accuracy, fact versus fiction and the use of literary techniques in memoir.

As a teacher, writer and editor of memoir, I know every writer of the genre has at one time or another asked the questions Diane discusses in this post. Please welcome Diane to the Women’s Writing Circle.

From the first draft of Lost in the Reflecting Pool I struggled with whether this story should be presented as a memoir or a work of fiction. Not only was I concerned with protecting the people I was writing about, particularly my children, but I also worried about legal liability issues and my privacy as a professional in the community.

I’m a storyteller and I love stories, listening to and telling them. Childhood memories of stories grounded me and made the earth solid beneath my feet.

I’m a psychologist and through my work I’ve learned that through personal stories we touch the emotional core of others.
In my professional life, I’ve seen precisely what I experienced as a child. I knew that if I wanted my story to be meaningful to others, no matter what I called it, fiction or memoir, it needed to read like a story.

I read countless memoirs, and as I put pen to paper, another belief I had became stronger. Once a writer puts her words out into the world it is never again just the writer’s story. The story is forever transformed by every reader. No matter what the writer has written, the words are always seen through the lens of the reader and thus it becomes a translated story.

The writer sets out a canvas upon which the reader can project whatever emotions or issues he or she needs to derive meaning. The work no longer belongs to the author; the author bequests it to the reader to do with it what he or she needs to do for personal meaning. The writing is for the author, the finished work is for the reader.

As I wrote I did decide I must take full ownership of my story and thus I made it a memoir.
I put aside notions of using a pseudonym and only changed details to protect privacy. My writing style though remained the same.

The question about my choice of genre came up again, several months after my book’s publication. I was in a Facebook memoir writing group when someone posed the question, “When writing a memoir, how far from actual events can you stray before it turns to a work of fiction?” I made several comments in the discussion. I commented on several of the changes I had made in order to be more “factual.” All was well until I then commented on an instance of my storytelling technique where I had introduced a kitten running in front of my car as a way to introduce a memory. The scene I described from my memoir was this:

I made my way down the winding road, passing a beagle farm and a small sign marking the entrance to a vineyard. A black kitten ran across the road, and I had to make a sudden stop. The kitten sparked a memory of one of the other things that Charles had shared as we’d spoken on the phone earlier in the week.

“I guess I was a mischievous little kid. When I was about three, I found a little black
kitten. I put him down the sewer because I wanted to see if he could get out.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

Didn’t he think to get some help? I asked myself, feeling a fleeting twisting in my gut.

I rounded another bend, passed a red barn, and saw the 1890s fieldstone house that
Charles had described. That unpleasant feeling in my gut gave way to excited anticipation and to readjusting my blinders as I saw Charles wave from the porch. 

Everything important here is factual, except that black kitten who ran in front of the car. I used that as a literary technique.

“If you made up the kitten it is not a memoir, it is fiction.” The response was intense, immediate and unanimous. I was astonished that no one was even willing to consider discussion. This was an irrelevant detail. The important event was the memory of the kitten being placed in the sewer. It was important because I start my memoir with another horrible incident committed against a cat. This response to an irrelevant detail made and continues to make no sense to me. In fact, for me it negates my understanding of what the genre of memoir is about. Memoir writing is more than presenting facts. That would be autobiography. Memoir writing encompasses self-reflection. It also provides a meaningful message for readers. Therefore, an irrelevant detail used to tie the real events together, continues to be an irrelevant detail.

Perhaps had I been aware of the genre called autofiction, a term coined by Sergio Doubrovsky in 1977 and associated with contemporary French writers, I might have considered that my writing fell more accurately into that category.

The French novelist and literature scholar, Catherine Cusset (2012) writes that autofiction differs from memoir. She states that, “A memoir tells the reader what happened. The writing is usually clear, simple, factual, and descriptive.” Autofiction, on the other hand, brings the reader inside what happened. It is the active way language is used that is different. Her words mirrored my intent when she wrote, “The author of autofiction actually doesn’t address the readers, but seduces them with language.” Having the kitten trigger the memory was a way I was attempting to lure the reader further into the story, I was seducing him.

It was this that I wanted to do …write the real events in an experiential way so that readers could derive their own meaning. With that in mind, perhaps the label or genre was really inconsequential.

What do you think? Is a memoir truly a memoir if not everything in the story actually happened? Does the writer of memoir have the leeway to use invention in storytelling?

Dr. Diane Pomerantz is a clinical psychologist who has been in practice working with children, adolescents and adults in the Baltimore, Maryland area for over 35 years. She has done extensive work in the area of trauma and child abuse and research in the area of personality development of abused children. She currently runs Healing Through Writing groups in her practice. Writing has always been part of her personal and professional life, but Lost in the Reflecting Pool: a memoir is her first non-professional published work. She is a breast cancer survivor and she has two wonderful grown children. She and her shaggy dog, Rug, live amidst tall trees on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reading In Front of an Audience: The Writer's 'Portfolio'

Susan and Flo Shore

There’s always a touch of nervousness before a writer gets up to read her work. There’s excitement, too. Audience reaction is immediate … laughter at a funny line; stillness when a moment in the story or poem captures special attention.

Yesterday I attended a reading by an author from our Women’s Writing Circle, Flo Shore. Flo has contributed to both our anthologies, Slants of Light and The Life Unexpected, with beautifully evocative memoir and insightful slice-of-life poetry. She read from both books, which I had the pleasure of contributing too, as well. In this blog post, I outline what goes into creating and collaborating on an anthology.

Writer and poet, Ruth Rouff, read with Flo. A freelance writer living in Collingswood, NJ, Ruth introduced her new book Pagan Heaven: Poems and Stories.

The readings were short, thirty minutes in total, enough to keep an audience engaged without losing them. Light refreshments of green tea, cheese and crackers and purple grapes added to the ambience of the event, held upstairs in a room with shelves brimming with books and a window view of treetops. It’s marvelous when authors decide to team up, approach a venue and offer a reading. In this case, it was the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. I’ve written a "memoir moment" about Mt. Airy and Germantown where my parents grew up in this blog post. 

Reading our work in front of an audience or attending readings is all part of the writer’s “portfolio”. She learns by watching and listening.

I took a class last summer through  IWWG, taught by Mel Ryane; it included some of these pointers on reading aloud in front of an audience.

Ruth Rouff
  • A certain element of acting goes into it 
  • Don’t worry if you’re nervous
  • Project your voice
  • Pause for effect
  • Get into the rhythm of the passage; in other words emphasize your "voice"
  • Wear something that doesn’t detract from the work (no t-shirt proclaiming GO EAGLES!)
  • Anchor yourself to the podium as your prop
  • Pace yourself
  • Scan the audience without concentrating or “eyeballing” one person 
  • Practice before you read. (I have to say, though, this doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes, I like gauging an audience and venue, since each one is different, and might decide to read something else than planned.)

    I hope my work is real; an audience knows a put-on when they hear it. Go for that aha! moment that the writer’s experience and the audience's are at one, or, at least, familiar. Select passages from your work that offer that connection to your listeners.


    As Flo writes: memoir not only preserves our individual stories for those who come after us, memoir serves as an adhesive that keeps pieces of social history intact. She believes that as memoirists we have the opportunity to expose varying perspectives and to drive attitude change.

    I believe that, too, which is the essence of why we write in all genres.

    Readings are a terrific way to get audiences interested in YOU. Offer an introduction before you read that gives your readers a bit about who you are and why you wrote the book. Sell books at a signing afterwards; pass out your business cards and invite bookstores to sell your work on consignment. It's all part of the writer's portfolio.

    How about you? Can you share your thoughts or an experience on reading your work?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Forgoing 'What Ifs' and Creating a Safe Writing Space

I try not to live the ‘what if’. What if people don’t like what I say or what I write?

Confidence isn’t always a breeze, even for the most experienced writers. For example, I spent a few weeks away from my church study group. When I returned yesterday, one person said, “We’ve missed your contributions … your input.” Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ I felt a disclaimer coming on. “You mean my outspoken input?”

I have to address this underlying issue―stop “chiding” my voice.

As I wrote last week, I love the silence of snow
, a frozen landscape outside my window. Winter saps my physical, but not my psychic energy. I was challenged to write a story with the theme “a fork in the road.” The challenge: keep it at 350 words or less. The exercise, I suppose, proved fruitful although, like flash fiction, I find it somewhat tedious. One word building on another with concise economy just like my days as a journalist. Cut the extraneous. It's about two women; there's a bite to the story. Nothing feel-good about the takeaway. I wrote it sitting in my favorite living room chair with Lily by my side. If it’s not published, there are other avenues: rework it, put it in a larger framework. 


In the Women’s Writing Circle, we create a safe writing space ... a communion of the written word … a leap of faith. We shut out the distractions of the outside world, the disturbances from those who might undervalue the creative process, or choose to ignore it. (You know who they are.) We light the candle and call in the writing muse.

We talked about:

5 a.m. stolen writing time at the kitchen table.

A five-minute free write to flex our writing muscles.

Think in scenes. Try not to map the whole thing out at once.

"My challenge," one woman said, "is quieting my mind." 

Stay focused … not easy with the rapid-fire (and often meaningless) words we spend time posting on Facebook, Twitter.

Keep the writing space simple … a clean desk and a small window in a private place. That was key for playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once confessed: “People bother me. I came here to hide from them.” 

A room with a view
of English countryside sparked Virginia Woolf's creative muse.

For J.K. Rowling, a coffee shop humming with voices and activity helped bring Harry Potter to life.

Sometimes, a 'nontraditional' creative writing space/time
serves a purpose. Take cooking, for example. Preparing and making dinner offers time to jot down thoughts, stir the pot, jot more thoughts.

When I cook, I keep the laptop on the kitchen table, a candle burning; after dinner, a notepad and pen on the coffee table near the television.

Check out this board on Pinterest for writing space and room ideas.
Twinkle lights in a writing space create ‘hygge’, the Scandinavian word for coziness and well-being. 
Convert an outdoor shed and create an artist’s studio/craft room. Isn't this one adorable? Haha! You'd better be handy.
Find a comfortable chair. Sit down. Take a deep breath. Forgo the 'what ifs' in your safe space.
How about you? Can you share your writing space?

Monday, January 8, 2018

'Bomb Cyclone' and Solitude: The Writing Life

I’m writing this as the sun sets, the sky cast in a wintry peach-red glow, like so many evenings before and in my childhood. It looks like a moonscape out there, delicate ridges of wind-whipped snow, the stillness, no birds, except a brief echoing call of Canada geese.

The May Sarton life ... my own slice of quietude, maybe not the wilds of New Hampshire or Maine, but it will do. I like solitude. I'm happiest when I can go home, shut the front door and think. A couple of years ago I probably would have been too embarrassed to admit this. 
This past week as temperatures dipped into the ridiculous and beyond frigid, I didn’t step outside the house for two days. I’d heard about the so-called “bomb cyclone” and stocked up on wild-caught salmon, rice, arugula. Put some vodka in the freezer. After writing and emailing information about the Women's Writing Circle all morning that first day, I took down the Christmas tree. It's surreal but I even washed the baseboards in the foyer. Then I watched the Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu on YouTube perform his perfect salchows and triple flips during his short program at the Sochi Winter Olympics. I watched it several times, astonished at the beauty of perfection in motion.

I kept writing and muted the cell phone. I wrote something about sex and a woman in her sixties. I like it. It's going in my new book.

On Day Three of the Deep Freeze, my sons stopped over. We got to talking about the weather. I mentioned that “inertia” won over buying a second home in Arizona, not in a way of regret, as a matter of life and circumstances. My younger son said, “I’m worried about you, Mom. Staying in the house alone like this. Not doing anything with your life.” They asked me to join them later for drinks and football, but the thought of braving the cold kept me indoors.

The 'not doing anything with your life' stung a bit. But unless you’re a writer, you don’t understand. We're working all the time. It's just that the results aren't always immediate. We need time alone; the story or stories we want to write always playing as background music in contemplation.

As women we realize how much we have lost by trying to meet the demands of others and not ourselves.

A dog is easy companionship. Your will and hers are one ... until soulful brown eyes beg a walk. Luckily, I have a fenced-in backyard. Lily runs in ridiculous circles in the snow, dragging small tree branches that have come down in the wind between her teeth. I don’t know how people with large dogs, or even small dogs, manage without a fenced-in backyard. I love watching her run with abandon.

There’s a sense of contentment that temperatures are moving up into the thirties and even into the fifties later this week. It means I won’t be too cold to get into the car and drive to my exercise classes and see people, some of whom are not just work-out participants, but friends. A mid-week conference on women's issues and the Women's Writing Circle read around this weekend are events I look forward to for stimulation and conversation.

Meanwhile, I’m happy here … Lily dozing at my feet. I'm writing and relishing solitude. I'll remember the 'bomb cyclone'. Goodbye to a 'perfect' winter scenario for the writer.

How about you? What do you enjoy about writing in winter?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crafting Our Story With Inspiration and Creative Vision

There’s a nifty little book by Abigail Thomas called Thinking About Memoir. Plenty of wisdom in a tiny tome. Think about story as “container,” she advises. The shape can be anything at all, a “soup pot,” a “trapeze” a “funnel” ….

“A shape will eventually suggest itself to you.” Free yourself! For example, don’t be tied down by chronology.

As we figure out how to craft our story, we wait, we write, we wait and stew a little.

Over the holidays I met a friend and fellow writer. As we sipped mocha lattes at Starbucks, I told her I was a bit unsure about the “structure” for my new book. The protagonist is trying to make sense of things, a broader understanding of her life and those she meets. First person as memoir? Third person as fiction?

I wrote about the widow's journey in Morning at Wellington Square, my memoir, which concluded thirteen years after the death of my husband and the creation of the Women’s Writing Circle. Much has happened since that story ended, including confronting aging, living alone, moving beyond grief and being widowed. I observe grown sons whose lives open a window into a new age and way of living.

The American author Charles Bukowski comes to mind when thinking about story structure. He didn’t care what people thought and found sport in writing his life story. After all, our job as writers is to entertain and instruct. Who cares what you think, what your trial by fire was, unless you make it interesting? Suffering is interesting as long as it is served with a dollop of compassion and empathy.

Henry Charles "Hank" Chinaski, is Bukowski’s literary alter ego. As Wikipedia notes, “Chinaski appears in five of Bukowski's novels, a number of his short stories and poems, and in the films Barfly and Factotum. Although much of Chinaski's biography is based on Bukowski's own life story, the Chinaski character is still a literary creation, albeit with a pulp fiction veneer.

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava Stuart is a woman with a veneer of cynicism but deeply romantic. You might say she is my alter ego. My friend liked the idea that I write “Ava’s” story … what happens to her, she asked?

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, I excerpted my late husband, John M. Cavalieri’s memoir as the foundation for a novel based on a true story. Ava helps "Jay" write his story. Some in the “memoir community” whose support I had hoped for remained silent about this book, as though I had broken a "golden rule" of memoir. One came right out and emailed me that she “had problems” with taking a memoir and crafting a novel out of it. She refused to endorse my book. Others told me the concept was “brilliant.”

“A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish,” Thomas says. Solitude, reflection, a walk in the woods, a heartfelt conversation about your work with a friend over a mocha latte …. Our submerged story finds daylight, inspiration and vision.

In the Women’s Writing Circle
we share the journey. Are you willing to take risks? Are you ready to turn off the monkey mind and trust your instincts to tell a story how you want to tell it?

Do you have an experience of taking a risk with your writing? Please share your thoughts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Holiday Traditions, Times, Millennials―A Memoir Moment

When I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait until Dad brought in the freshly-cut evergreen tree and set it up in the living room. After he had strung the lights, we opened the boxes filled with glass ornaments from Germany carefully wrapped in tissue paper that Mother had inherited from her parents … the chalet with red shutters, the delicate silver and white chapel.

Ah yes, that sweet memoir moment.

The family decorations, the traditions leading up to Christmas morning colored my childhood memories on this blog post when the anticipation of Christmas went fulfilled, most especially, with a new book. 

But the times are changing. As the mother of two millennials I am receiving a crash course. What is life? What is love? What is reality? What's happening to Christmas traditions?

Neither of my sons is married, nor are many of their friends, although several are in long-term committed relationships. None is decorating their respective single-family homes, apartments, condos or townhomes with Christmas trees or decorations, Good heavens! Heresy!

Some work at home so it would seem that even a small lit tree might add to the festivity and coziness of the house. The New York Times recently ran a story on creating coziness in the home. Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is the Danish concept of coziness. "If you’re not familiar, here’s a crash course, and if you want to dive in further (you will, and you should), here are some books to check out."

When I asked my sons and their friends this weekend why no "hygge", no tree, no lights, they simply shrugged and laughed. Not interested, not important, who cares. Sometimes, the girlfriend wants to bring over a small artificial tree. That's tolerated. 

Maybe because none has children? Or maybe the concept of family and family traditions is changing? About twenty years ago when a friend of mine predicted that some day marriage would become “obsolete,” I thought it a bit absurd (and shocking). Poor me. Now, her prediction seems prescient of the times.

Traditions that even I admit caused sweat to break out on Dad's brow as he labored to secure the tree with string and hooks and tighten the stand are going the way of a Sears catalogue.

I think back on my own life (and I’m not that ancient …yet). By the time I was thirty-three, I had been married five years and had a child, our son Alex. Several years in a row, John and I traipsed out into snow-covered fields and cut down our evergreen or spruce tree. John at the time was the age Alex, who owns his own home, is now.

Putting off marriage is another issue and women who pressure for "the ring" often confront a rude awakening. There seems no inclination to rush things, especially from the guy’s perspective. Millennials are working on their careers and paying attention to finances, saving to buy their own places, or already paying a mortgage. Having a baby is out of the question.

Dating apps lead to their pick of people, if inclined. One person doesn’t suit, it’s on to another because many have lived through the shock of divorce and the financial ruin or challenges that accompanied that split. Marriage is serious business and means closure on one chapter in life many are still exploring.

I find myself pondering these changing social dynamics and new story lines, away from the old tried-and-true boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married (or divorced), have 2.5 kids and get remarried and add more kids to an extended family. It’s beginning to sound as anachronistic as the dinosaur.

As for me, the (artificial) Christmas tree is up
, strung with multicolored lights and hung with ornaments, including that glass chalet with red shutters … hung high enough so that Lily can’t reach up and chew my ornaments, which she has done in the past. I enjoy my “hygge”, living alone as I do. And I like that when my sons come over, a family Christmas tree in the living room greets them, just as it did when my parents were alive. In fact, I enjoy looking at it now over a cup of coffee and writing this. But as they say, Vive la difference!

Who knows what the times will bring? I watch and listen, open to seeing and viewing a changing world. For, in the end, the writer must stay open to all that is happening, find in old stories a twist on the new and the surprising. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family. ~ Susan

Monday, December 11, 2017

Women's Writing Circle: Our Year In Review

Women's Writing Circle is a place to share our stories. I can't remember a year, a time, an era, where it was more important for women to find a safe and supportive place to write and share their stories.

Women are under attack in almost every arena ... from the workplace, to politics, to domestic life ... to the literary world where equal acceptance and recognition with men's writing remains an ongoing struggle.

It is exhausting, wearying. It is the journey of the feminine.

We share the experience, interpret an intricate world. How?
We find a place to share our stories ... our voices.

"Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works." ~ Virginia Woolf

In read around we heard the honest, the unconventional, the comic, the ironic, the creative spirit and mind at work.

Witness the women in these photos who made 2017 a special year, together in community. We spent two and a half hours a month to rejuvenate in read around and critique. We took part in a flash fiction workshop, a memoir workshop, a personal essay workshop .... (Here's more information on Women's Writing Circle workshops.) We read in public our work as published authors ... a collaborative anthology of fiction, memoir and poetry aptly titled The Life Unexpected.

Because in many ways, writing opens doors to the life unexpected. Writing fiction, creative nonfiction ... these are merely genre classifications. We write what we have lived, imagine what we might live.

I relish how it feels to wake up in the morning and write. I write about my mother, my husband, my father, the friends I have loved. I write about a woman named Ava, an alter ego, who edited Jay's memoir in A Portrait of Love and Honor and who appeared again as Lydia, a woman alone, in The Life Unexpected.

I look forward to reading my work in the Circle. We know writing can't be in isolation. We seek an audience. Feedback in a supportive writing group helps move us forward and affirms the strength it takes to write and devote ourselves to practicing our craft. Whether we stay or move on, our work together for that time is important.

Writing is therapeuticwe always wanted to write, knew at heart I am a writer. How lucky we are!

Special thanks also goes to the Hilton Garden Inn, Exton, West Chester, PA for its hospitality, its beautiful space for us to meet this year and next!

Brava and job well done!