Tag Archives: anne lamott

Memoir Minutiae

While reading Eileen Garvin’s How to be a Sister over summer vacation, I found myself paying more attention to literary elements than the story itself. I’m far enough along in my memoir now to obsess on the minutiae. The details nourish my addiction of the last two years.

Her memoir, about her childhood spent as witness to the chaotic impoliteness of her sister’s autism, appropriately starts each chapter with a quote from Emily Posts’ etiquette books. I’ve thought about employing expert quotes or wise sayings at the start of each of my chapters, but haven’t yet discovered a device so “perfect” as Garvin’s.

As I read I also looked at verb tense. I’ve been writing my memoir in almost exclusively past tense, as Mishna Wolff did with her engaging memoir as a white girl growing up in an all African-American neighborhood in Seattle, I’m Down. But the memoir I recently read for book club, The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman was almost exclusively written in the present tense. I thought it helped bring the reader into the action, but it also took me until about the third chapter to accept that we were going to relive real events from the past as if it were happening now. Maybe I was just hung up on it because I’ve committed to past tense, but it felt like a warping of the fourth dimension.  

I couldn’t even figure out where to look in my style guides for advice here: when you write about a real person who is still with us, is it important that the reader know they still exhibit their personality traits, or just that they did at the time of the event? For example, the events are written in past tense, but then character traits that they still exhibit are in present tense. “Wendy borrowed my favorite blouse without asking; she struggles with personal boundaries.” Does the reader care or appreciate the difference if I use “struggled” instead of “struggles?” Will my editor?

I also distracted myself with the use of an extra return to separate scenes within a chapter, versus using ***. We never covered that in any of my English or writing classes, or if we did I didn’t retain it. This one seems to be up to the editor and many disagree on which is best. Which one do you use?

While reading Sister I also thought about story arc and ending. When writing memoir, the arc has already happened, its’ not something a memoirist creates (unless you want to get chewed out by Oprah). To me, arc is like Michelangelo carving a statue—the story is already there buried within the amorphous slab of stone. The writer’s job is to free it by painstakingly chipping away and discarding the irrelevant details, clinging to the inherent vision and creativity, leaving the masterpiece that was there all along.

Garvin’s arc revolves around her changing feelings and experience with her sister as she grows from young sister to responsible adult. In my memoir, my story arc is my transition from a 25-year old career-driven, neurotic, divorced scientist unsure of what she wants from life to the 40-year old slightly less neurotic married writer and mother of twins and Egg Mama to another set of twins.

Each arc has an endpoint. Even the best of books must end. Those written about discrete events in the past have an obvious natural end point.

The Possibility of Everything covers only the length of a week or two: a family vacation to Belize where two parents desperately attempt to exorcise their toddler’s disruptive imaginary friend. In this case, coming home from vacation is a natural endpoint, but the author could have easily chosen to end at a different point in time.

But many memoirs are not event-based. The surviving characters often move on to new adventures that just don’t appear in the story, like Garvin’s and mine, where everyone involved is still plugging along on their individual trajectories. I won’t give away Garvin’s ending (you’ll have to buy the book), but like mine, the reader understand that just because the book ends at a specific point in time, every character is still building the story in real time. Margaret still lives in a group home in Spokane and Garvin still struggles with her role and relationship in Margaret’s future. In my memoir, Ruby and Raven are tweens turning into women and I’m uncertain of my role and relationship in their future.

Fifteen years of pioneering discovery and change make up the chapters of my manuscript, but where it ends is, so far, still up to me. Something really dramatic and interesting could happen next week that would necessitate another chapter or two. I can see why I’ve been feeling like a manuscript is never really “done.” But I guess that’s why several authors, like Augusten Burroughs and Anne Lamott, have written more than one memoir.

Is that why we Americans are so in love (and hate) with memoir and reality TV—because we as voyeurs get to participate temporarily in other people’s lives as if we were really there, but without all the tangible family baggage, responsibility, and court dates?  

I wasn’t too distracted by writing mechanics to feel Garvin’s story. I think she does an impressive job of bravely and honestly portraying her feelings of shame, frustration, and bewilderment about her sister’s disorder and its impact on her life and the lives of her family. I sympathized with her loss of a carefree childhood and a closer relationship with her mother, growing up embarrassed and jaded by her sister’s unpredictable and exhausting behavior. I also admired that Garvin avoided a tone of self-pity or angst that a less mature writer might have fallen into.

I hope that by obsessing over the tiny details of each word and sentence, like Tom Robbins and Priscilla Long, I might bring quality and candor to my memoir, like those that have come before me.


“Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg (Part 1)

Whenever I talk to another writer about my current plans, they inevitably recommend that I read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. I’ve had the book on my shelf for months and finally was in the mood.

The great thing about this book is that each chapter has a self-contained message. So, I have scribbling down her underlying message and I’ll share them with you here.

Goldberg’s recommendations:

1. Set up your writing system, whether its the right pen and notebook, or coffee shop and laptop. The goal is choose the method that least slows you down so those words can flow.

2. Turn off your critic on your first draft. (This also happens to be advice given by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird–the shitty first draft). Her advice seems to say we should NaNoWriMo all year long.

3. Practice writing every day, be in the moment with your thoughts, don’t try to control them. If you let go of control, your voice will come all on it’s own.

4. Compost! Let your ideas and thoughts spin and churn. Eventually, you’ll get fertile soil.

5. Trust the writing process, stick with it, and you will improve.

6. Keep a running list of writing topics so that you’ll never feel blocked. You’ll always have a place to turn for a quick start.

7. Write. Don’t argue with yourself about when you’re going to do it, or why you’re not. Just do it. Use rewards, deadlines, a buddy, whatever it takes to just get writing.

8. Learn to hear and recognize your inner editor so you can more efficiently ignore it. (my inner editor just asked me whether I should change this to “recognize and hear” instead–I just told the bitch to shut up. :))

9. Write about what’s in front of you and expand thereafter.

10. Don’t read about writing as a way to learn to write. Just write (no, I didn’t stop reading the book right there, but I did put it down to re-work on a chapter).

Goldberg’s approach is simple and I like that. This is a fast, informative read. It’s interesting that she uses a lot of examples from her life to color these themes, including Buddhist teachings, quotes, and a variety of poetry.

I’m a third of the way through, so there will be a Part 2 (at least) in the next couple weeks.

I will be working it in around my plans to enter my first writing contest since 5th grade (which I won!). By Feb. 18 I will enter the first 27 pages of my memoir, along with an amazing synopsis, in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association Literary Contest.  I have  a couple friends who were finalists in the contest last year and they very much recommend the experience, which includes feedback from at least two people, one of which might be a literary agent.

This week I’ll be learning what qualities make a good synopsis. Will let you know what I find out.



I’ve had a less productive couple of weeks when it comes to writing. I don’t think it’s connected to my latest rejection, but I’m not ruling that out entirely.

I think its because I was trying to write about a subject that causes me some anxiety. I have been working on a parenting article about whether or not to allow toy guns in the house. Not exactly an earth shattering topic, but for some reason, the subject meant enough to slow me right down. I’ve been motivated to work on lots of other things, but not that. Facebook, exercise, improv, cleaning the bathroom, and writing this blog post all got done instead.

In avoiding my own writing, I was also able to critique other writer’s works, which I found profoundly satisfying. So its a misnomer to say that I wasn’t productive over the last couple weeks, but the writing hasn’t poured out of me as easily as it has in the past.

Productivity in general has never been an issue for me. I’ve always been a do-er. I always have a list I’m working on, usually three or four, and I feel guilty if I spend most of a day lounging and reading.

But recently I’ve noticed that I’m enjoying the time I do have to hang out and socialize in an entirely new way. Now I’m socializing as a writer. When I’m at a dinner party, in a bar, or at the theater, I’m not just there hanging out, I’m taking mental notes as well. I’m studying strangers as if they are characters in my book. I’m noticing what they’re wearing, how they wear their hair, the hint of an accent in their voice, and how they talk to their friends.

So maybe I’ve actually been more productive than I realize over the last two weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the connection (or the absence of one) between toy guns and handgun violence and about what it takes to “describe” a person fully.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about calling around. She says that writers spend a lot of time alone and it can make them crazy. She recommends taking little breaks to call around to learn specific things about the world so that it can be incorporated into your writing. She spent the better part of a day calling wineries to determine that the wire thingy that goes over the cork on a champagne bottle is a wire hood. Then the wire hood appears as the most memorable reference in one of her best selling books.

So maybe, productivity isn’t just about word count or the number of publications, but maybe it’s also about paying attention, even when you don’t know how a particular piece of information will be useful in the future.

I’ll be wrapping up and sending out my piece on toy guns tomorrow so that I can move forward. But I’m going to work hard not to judge the recent days with little writing.

I’m hoping tomorrow will be a fresh start to get me back on track toward actually getting some words on the page. I’m gearing up for NaNoWriMo which begins on November 1st. I’ll be attempting to get 50,000 words down in 30 days. Please let me know if you’d like to join me for any part of this big new adventure.

Lorraine Wilde