Category Archives: On Writing a Memoir

Published Again!

Michigan Quarterly ReviewI’m excited to announce that my personal essay, “Silence,” has been published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. This essay is an excerpt from my full-length memoir, A Half-Painted House.

Many, many thanks to the editor, Johnathon Freedman, who said, “…normally I don’t take much creative non-fiction, but I really had to make an exception for ‘Silence,’ which is so vivid and so great I just had to take it.”


Writers trying to get published need a thick skin. There’s a lot of good competition out there, and different agents are looking for different things. You have to hope your query letter sparks interest and then put up with a lot of rejection. My opinion is that writers who seem gracious about rejections are just pretending. Deep down, it’s wounding. A book is a creation. It represents a lot of time, sweat and sacrifice.

So it’s so nice to get encouragement now and then.

While I’m busy sending out queries to agents, I decided to submit my first ten pages to one of Writer’s Digest‘s draft critique services. My reviewer/editor, Carolyn Walker, is a published journalist, columnist and author for more than twenty-five years and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She had only one suggestion for deleting a word. Other than that, she said, “You are a fine writer and this is an engaging, interesting story. I was lured right into it and you sustained my interest. In fact, I’d now like to read the rest of the book! You have particularly good descriptive abilities. You make great use of similes and action verbs – both forms of language that enliven the writing. I think you’re onto something very interesting and urge you to proceed.”

My cousin Stephanie Andersen, a published essayist and writing instructor at Reading Area Community College, volunteered to be a beta reader of my final draft. When I asked if she would write a short review, she had this to say: “This emotionally evocative memoir is one that will have you crying while you’re laughing over your own childhood, regretting your own mistakes, recognizing the strength in love, and nodding your head all the way through this young girl’s journey from a wrecked youth into a woman’s graceful forgiveness. Masterful weaving of the past into the present. Superbly crafted journey that brings us all back home. Bravo!”

Thank you, thank you to both Carolyn and Stephanie for your encouragement! It’s so good to balance out the rejections. I can take my latest draft out of the trash now and keep sending out queries!

Getting Past the Blank Page

One of the scariest things for most writers is that first blank page. I like to start with an actual sheet of paper because I can doodle. A blank screen is worse. The blinking cursor seems impatient, and the screensaver keeps reminding me I’ve been chewing my fingernail and typing nothing for ten minutes. The “delete” key is wimpy, anyway. There’s something satisfying about wadding up the first six or eight false starts and hitting the waste basket dead center.

Since I intended to write a memoir, I backed off from starting cold turkey on the writing and instead began listing strong memories from the past. I wrote them down as they came to me, not worrying about whether I would use them or where they should go in the story. My list was cryptic: “watching my mother put on makeup,” “picking up the goat in Mom’s hatchback,” and so forth. I listed emotional memories, tragic ones, funny ones. Each had the potential to become a scene in the manuscript.

I spent a few weeks on this list. I kept a notepad next to the bed, since ideas came to me late at night or when I first awoke. Once I had a few pages of memories, I started looking for themes and common topics. I grouped the memories by time periods and discovered a lot of them happened in clumps — when I was seven, fifteen, seventeen and my late thirties. The strongest topic was the relationship with my mother, which remained difficult until the end of her life. It also felt like unfinished business, which would make a suitable story backbone and a good reason to explore the past. I built a chronological “front story” consisting of the traumatic two weeks I spent in my mother’s small town after her cardiac arrest and leading up to her death and funeral. Two weeks is a perfect time period to cover in a full-length book. And this would give me a framework that would springboard the story into flashbacks, every other chapter. I still hadn’t fully explored story structure, but at least I started with a plan.

Memoirs aren’t diaries or journals, nor are they a series of short stories. They’re coherent life stories, told using all the tools available to fiction writers such as conflict, character development, dialog, transitions, metaphor, and climactic plot points. The story has to move forward. It must have scenes, action and self-examination. Memoir is a way of exploring your life in storytelling form and ultimately making sense of the past. So it had to hold together.

Although I had a bit of a plan, I don’t like outlines, as I’ve mentioned. I like things to happen while I’m writing. All the ideas aren’t there at the beginning; they form themselves in the process of putting words together. It’s like faith. You walk courageously forward in the dark, holding out your lamp, and new discoveries that weren’t on your original map come into focus in the pool of light. Writing illuminates the story like a swinging Coleman lantern.

Some items on the memory list wouldn’t take a whole chapter or even support a scene. I realized I had to be selective at some point. I couldn’t include everything. But I had to see it all first. So I began writing scenes based on my list of memories and I just let things happen. I let the writing and ideas audition for me. I would choose the best and cut out extraneous stuff later. I would add more where it was needed.

It took me a while to get some traction. The first draft of my manuscript took ten months and was scattered and out of order. I didn’t write a certain minimum number of words a day consistently, like some writers do. I lack that discipline. But when the muse began to move, I went along for the ride. Some months I wrote into the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t stop. Other months I wrote nothing. I tried not to beat myself up during the dry spells. As the writing unfolded, there were some bright moments and some disasters. For inspiration along the way I read some good published memoirs. I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and tried to relax since, as she says, first drafts are supposed to be “shitty.” Crafting and polishing would make all the difference.

Mostly I gave myself a lot of grace. There’s no such thing as getting it right the first time.

Writing a Full-Length Book: Story Structure

Other than an almost-but-not-quite-finished adventure I wrote when I was thirteen, I had never written a full-length book before this past year. That adolescent adventure story was about a young boy from Canada who owned sled dogs. I knew very little about Canada or sled dogs, and even less about boys. I wish I still had that manuscript. I’m curious to see if I had any sense of story structure back then.

In my next blog I’ll talk about how I got started with the writing itself, but here I wanted to address story structure. Story structure is basically the plot, but it’s a strategic approach to steering or mapping out the plot. A good novel or memoir has to have wonderful characters and terrific writing, but if the plot falls on its face, the reader will be disappointed.

I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories throughout college and my twenties, and two of the short stories were published. I also got a short, one-act play published. But plot is not as important in a shorter piece of writing. You’re dipping into a character’s life for a limited time, and in literary writing it’s more about what’s happening internally to characters. A full-length book was a different kind of project. It would take some planning. I’m not a natural planner. I hate outlines. For me the joy of writing is watching the story and characters unfold organically.

This project taught me that human beings have a built-in sense of story structure. We have it when we read a novel or watch a movie or when we share ghost stories around a campfire. We think of stories in three acts. There’s a beginning, with set-up of characters and conflict and a clarification of the stakes, a middle where conflict is fully engaged and the hero or heroine is stretched to the limit and has to make some decisions, and the ending, where the main character(s) has grown or changed and things are resolved one way or another. Preschoolers can set up a three-act story structure without even thinking about it. 1) There was a guy with a horse. 2) One day a bad guy tried to steal his horse. 3) The hero shot the bad guy and rode off into the sunset.

When I first began my book, I approached it like writing a short story. I knew all about conflict from high school English, and was aware of character development and good writing from my bachelor’s education and years of writing. Adverbs are bad, strong verbs are good, etc. But I wasn’t thinking about structure, I was thinking more about characters; after all, memoir is by nature character-driven. I began writing a bunch of memory vignettes and scenes and then later realized I wasn’t sure how to put them all together. This wasn’t a collection of short stories, it needed to be a cohesive, longer story. The main character needed a goal to pursue, heavy opposition to achieving that goal, and a way to meet the opposition and resolve things.

What I did find out was that unexpected themes can emerge as you write. This was the joyful part. I kept stumbling over one particular theme that finally became what my narrator was seeking in my book (and what I was seeking as a person). It helped define the stakes and made sense of the conflict. And, since it’s a memoir, these surprise themes helped make sense of my life story.

Naturally I read a lot of good memoirs over the past year (I’ll list some later), but I also began reading books on story structure. Structure is something that isn’t taught, at least in undergraduate writing programs. My cousin has an MFA in writing and tells me it isn’t covered there either. Larry Brooks wrote a book titled Story Engineering. In it he uses lots of technical terms like plot points and pivot points, and he is a staunch believer in outlining. He gives lots of good info. But I took one look at his multipage template outline and nearly passed out. It felt too much like a college theme paper project. Then I picked up another book, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. He devoted part of that book to NOPs (no-outline people) and explained that even those writers at some point have to exert structure on their stream-of-consciousness writing. But he took the sting out of writing to a detailed outline and addressed structure from a more strategic viewpoint, which was helpful for me.

So I kept writing and editing and rewriting. Eventually I split everything I’d written into scenes or chapters and wrote a quick blurb about each one on index cards. Then I laid them all out on the floor and moved stuff around and suddenly began to discern some natural structure. I saw where I needed stronger transitions. I also used this technique to balance the story and make sure all the climactic scenes didn’t happen at once. I was able to build tension at a reasonable pace, giving the reader some time to recover from the most intense scenes. I was able to take out scenes or paragraphs that weren’t necessary. It was a great exercise.

Bottom line: You can’t write a full-length book without at some point thinking about story structure.