Tag Archives: memoir

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.

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The Fabulous Susie Bright

Last week at Village Books I had the pleasure of meeting the notorious Susie Bright, famous for her sex-positive parenting, activism in the feminist movement, and long-time editor of Best American Erotica series from 1993-2008.

Susie was in town reading from her new memoir, Big Sex Little Death, from Seal Press and she did not disappoint. She read two hilarious passages about her early days writing for a radical high school newspaper and later for the first lesbian erotica magazine called On Our Backs. Listening to her reading made me want to go through my entire book and incorporate more humor because Susie’s unique voice made each vignette irresistible.

I must admit that when I attended, I was just going to listen to and meet another memoirist, but I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I was in the presence of a celebrity who paved the way for lesbian activism and who, in our lifetime, has drastically changed the way people think about sexuality and intimacy.

Susie mentioned that she had children, so I asked her if she ever felt judged by fellow parents because she writes so candidly about her sexuality. She admitted that there had been a few parents of her children’s friends who would not speak with her or allow their children to visit her home, but for the most part, she raised her children in progressive west coast communities. Then she recommended I read one of her previous books, Mommy’s Little Girl: Susie Bright on Sex, Motherhood, Pornography, and Cherry Pie. I can’t wait to get to hear her take on how your sex life influences your children’s future sex life.

While there I purchased two copies of Susie’s Love and Lust: A Sex Journal for my 20-ish nieces. The journal is prompted but also allows for free writing with writing prompts like “Write three sexual confessions about yourself. Make two of them true and one of them a lie.” When I stayed after to ask Susie to sign them, she said that she also had a blog for the journal where you can anonymously post your personal entry. I haven’t figured that out yet, but if anyone knows, please post it here in the comments section.

I was also pleased to discover that Susie has an offering for writers as well: How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica. I’ve not yet tried this type of writing, but you never know!

If you get the chance to meet, see, or read the fabulous Susie Bright, jump. It promises to be a wild ride.

Fertility Issues from a Man’s Perspective

Had to share the success of a fellow memoir author, Michael Barr, whose book, Swimming in Circles, comes out this week on Kindle and next week in print. I can’t wait to read it myself. I’ve been following Michael’s blog for several months and his sense of humor is priceless.

Here is the Amazon review to see if its right for you:

“How far would you go to get what you wanted?

Follow the tumultuous and unpredictable path Michael and Kiersten navigate as they painstakingly pursue their options to bring a child into their life, including bewildering science, DNA muddling, and the bureaucratic complexities of international adoption.

Swimming in Circles provides an all-access pass into the private life of a couple faced with situations ranging from the embarrassing to the absurd, and decisions that are impossible one moment and incomprehensible the next. This truly unique memoir is told from the usually neglected male perspective and is filled with gallows humor peppered in between the depths of disappointment and the peaks of possibility.

Author Michael Barr presents every uncomfortable and emotional detail with stark honesty, chronicling his run-ins with an overenthusiastic mother-in-law, a clinically depressed couch, his own personal demons, and even Martha Stewart. His sharp, candid perspective creates a tale that readers are sure to find both hysterical and heartrending.”

Way to go Michael!

Contests & Synopses

Yeah! I successfully entered my first literary contest, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. I say successfully because I know a lot of people want to and never actually do it. But I couldn’t have done it without the help of my critique group members Emily and Jessica. Together we worked for over six weeks polishing our entries together and I definitely know that my entry is much better because of their insight and thoughtful comments.

The finalists in each category (genre) will be announced some time in June and each entrant will receive feedback from at least two judges, one of which will include a literary agent or editor. It will be hard not to count the days until June. Finalists in each category receive several honors including a special colored ribbon on your name badge at the summer conference (like the scarlet letter but with an upside), as well as recognition at a dinner at the conference. In addition, the contest entry of finalists (which included a synopsis and my first two chapters of my memoir) is available to all agents and editors that attend the conference in a special quiet room for their review. I’ve never heard anyone say they found an agent or editor this way, but I’m not ruling it out (provided I am fortunate enough to be named a finalist)!

First and second place in each category also receive $500 and $200, respectively, as well. I’m certainly looking forward to the feedback.

I encourage every writer to enter a contest. Don’t wait until you’re completely ready. Instead, identify the contest well in advance and then plan for it. I think having the deadline out there helps push you along. I certainly worked harder on my first two chapters than I would have without it. Plus, those two chapters, now more polished, will improve the quality of my book proposal that I’ll be sending out to another round of agents in a month or two.

As I’ve blogged about recently here, I wrote a synopsis that I love for the contest and I’m sharing it with you now below. Please be aware that this synopsis may or may not be considered “a quality synopsis”, it’s just what I wrote for my contest entry. Thanks for reading.

EGG MAMA: AN EGG DONOR AND HER EXTRAORDINARY FAMILY, a memoir

Synopsis

The desire to be a mother washes over Nina like a slowly rising tide. A neurotic, single twenty-something fresh out of college, she wanders, exploring the sandy beach of life, the sea nowhere in sight. A shiny treasure catches her eye—an adventurous older man. Twinkling like a precious stone, he feeds her aching need for love, for life.

Water rises quickly, almost undetected, as Nina clambers over the now rocky shallows. He already has a child and doesn’t want any more. The waves turn cold against her legs. Should she climb out, into the sun’s indulgence? Or turn away in search of deeper water?

To calm her fear and indecision, Nina donates some of her eggs anonymously, giving another woman the chance to swim. When Nina learns of the fraternal twin girls born from her eggs, a surge rises to her chest. She meets Ruby and Raven at two-years-old, and is no longer afraid. She floats on her back, alive; and now she wants her own baby more than air.

But her man, who wades into the shallows slowly, cannot give her the baby he is now ready to share. They despair. Buoyed by a fertility doctor, they are rescued by a faceless stranger, the Frenchman, who bestows his seed.

Nina tests many different strokes against and with the current: aunt, stepmom, and Egg Mama, all training for the race that is parenthood, as her own twins grow inside her.

Storms blow in: Ruby and Raven’s parents divorce and Nina’s own twin boys arrive too soon. She can barely stay afloat and they all struggle to stay together. But as the storms subside, Nina rolls in the waves of motherhood, riding the natural rhythms. Water becomes her air and soon she cannot live without it. The flood tide crests and Nina no longer cares about the shore.

“The House of Hope and Fear” by Audrey Young, M.D.

I just finished reading another memoir, The House of Hope and Fear: Life in a Big City Hospital, by Audrey Young, M.D.  My book club is reading it for January. It was a quick read because once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. The book follows the good doctor through her job as an attending physician at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA. She describes the medical cases that walk through the door on a daily basis, none of which are sensational like on a television show. They’re simply real people arriving with standard issue diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure. What makes this book very different than a TV show is that it covers with greater detail the fact that our health care system is profoundly flawed.

Harborview is a public hospital, meaning it is one of the few that takes people that certainly can’t pay, while the other seven hospitals within a 5 mile radius accept only a small proportion of those with no insurance. If you’re homeless, poor, or otherwise downtrodden, Harborview is your only shot at health care.

Before reading this book, I had no idea how ambulance services decided to which hospital one should be transported. This book explains that both where you go and the level of care you receive are very dependent on your health insurance. For example, even at Harborview, but also more so at the other hospitals, the emergency room doors can be closed due to overcrowding, with people turned away or transported to a different hospital further from their homes, all while people sit in large private rooms on the upper floors because they have great insurance that pays for expensive surgical procedures. There are big rooms with space for beds, the hospital is just not putting beds or people in them.

According to Young, health care in the U.S. is still about making money, even at Harborview. Departments that make the most money, like surgery, have the most beds, the most space, and well laid plans for expansion and remodelling, while departments that cater to the homeless, even when they are at capacity on a daily basis, like detox and dialysis, have no plans for improvement.

Due to cutbacks at my husband’s work during the latest recession, I have had only catastrophic insurance for over a year. The idea that I could show up at a hospital and receive lower quality, or less heroic health care compared to someone else seems criminal.

I’ve been a socialist at heart for some time (since birth?), but this book reinforced my feeling that health care should not be allowed as a capitalist venture.

I definitely enjoyed this book, despite my frustrations with the reality of the subject. It often made me feel one of two emotions. I either felt like a) our health care system is screwed up and I am not doing enough about it or b) that it was too overwhelming for me to fix so I was tempted to put my head in the sand. I’m sure Young was hoping for the former.

Since reading this book I’m definitely planning to spend more time looking into single payer health care, which means that there is basically one insurance company that everyone pays into and fees come out of. If used properly, it would eliminate the idea that the quality of care is dependent on your insurance or socioeconomic status.

I also learned from this book as a writer. Young included technical descriptions of medical conditions and their diagnosis and treatment. In my memoir, I have included technical medical descriptions of procedures related to assisted reproduction including egg donation, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization. I noticed that my descriptions of medical procedures tend to include more detail or elaboration, but in a way that helps the lay person compare it to every day things, whereas Young simply states that she ordered a CT scan and blood cultures and hopes (or assumes) that the reader understands why or how those will help in her diagnosis and treatment. I am very comfortable with medical terminology and don’t need much explanation, but I’m curious to hear how the non-technical members of my book club feel about the technical medical aspects. Maybe TV shows like E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, and House have made it easier for the everywoman to understand this stuff?

This is Young’s second book on the subject, her first covering the life of a medical student. I’m very tempted to read her first as well. This book did a couple of things I aspire to: it kept me interested despite it’s technical nature and my desire to avoid reading about the travesty that is the U.S. health care insurance system, and it was written with a voice that would never be called literary. Sometimes I worry that my voice is not flowery enough because my background is in science instead of literature, but this book proved to me that not every successful book has to sound like it was written by an English poet.

There was one aspect of the book that I noticed so I’ll be careful in revising my own. Young uses (fake) patient names throughout the book and occasionally, because there were so many, I would forget who she was talking about. I’ve read and heard from other writers that characters should only be named if they are significant enough, if they are worth remembering. But now I’m wondering if those names need to be reinforced when they recur. Young occasionally would write something like, “Jason Smith, the patient with the blood clot in his leg,…” to jog the memory, but at other times she would leave off the condition, and for those I’d have a hard time figuring out the context for that person.

Reading this book made me want to investigate and possibly send my manuscript to her agent, Max Gartenberg. His web site says he only takes query letters, so I need to work on my query. Check!

Check out this book and let me know what YOU think.

Lorraine Wilde

Year End Inventory

One of my writing mentors, Christina Katz suggests cataloging your accomplishments before setting goals for the new year. Give this a try before setting your New Year’s Resolutions.

Here are my writing-related accomplishments during 2010:

  • I published 10 articles in local and regional publications
  • I have 12 articles already written that can be circulated as reprints and published elsewhere
  • I took two classes: Writing & Publihing the Short Stuff and the Dream Team
  • I completed edits for a personal essay, Finding My Way, that will be published in the anthology, Bless Your Heart, due out in Fall 2011
  • I wrote ~70,000 words of my memoir, and polished about 10,000 more
  • I blogged at least 3 times a month right here on my own blog all year long and converted my old blog to WordPress (highly recommend it)
  • I joined my county writers and publishers group, Whatcom Writers and Publishers, and attended two meetings
  • I joined a critique group and connected with at least 4 other writers in my town. Some of them are in my blog roll to the right.
  • I opened a separate bank account to hold earnings from writing
  • I started telling people that I’m a writer when they ask what I do
  • I narrowed down the kind of writing I’d like to do in the future to two niches: assisted reproduction and environmental conservation & toxicology

I’m sure there are a couple that I missed but that feels like a lot of success for one year.

Looking ahead, I came up with these goals for 2011. Please let me know if you would like to help me acheive any of these aspirations.

  • Publish more than ten articles this year, hopefully at least one will be in a national publication
  • Finish the draft of my memoir and revise it until I am satisfied, and then submit my proposal to at least 10 more agents
  • Earn some money writing this year
  • Increase my blog readership, and explore blogging strategies, such as guest blogging
  • Consider taking a personal essay class and/or a class on platform development
  • Start publishing small stuff in my newer niche: environmental conservation & toxicology
  • Attend two conferences this year, Pacific Northwest Writers Association meeting and Chuckanut Writer’s Conference
  • Meet and get to know the owners of my local book store, Chuck and Dee Robinson at Village Books
  • Publish a personal essay or short story in an anthology—I’ll check out Chicken Soup for the Soul, Cup of Comfort through Adams Media, and Seal Press

I hope that your year has been as productive and rewarding as mine and that you will achieve any goal you attack in 2011.

Happy Holidays!

Lorraine Wilde

Ready, Set, NaNoWriMo

Tomorrow is November 1 which means National Novel Writer’s Month actually begins.

I’ll be attempting–no I WILL write–2000 words a day of my memoir and/or articles related to it. Of course, on some days I’ll definitely write more. If you do the math, that overshoots my goal of 50,000 words, good or bad, by midnight on November 30. But I’m told this is wise in case there are a few days thoughout the month where 2000 is just not possible.

I’m noticing a pattern. Not only am I doing my own rogue version of NaNoWriMo, I’m also taking an unconventional approach to acheiving the writing goal. I purposely signed up for an all day “Craft Affair” which is one of those 12-hour shut-ins that obsessed scrapbookers do to get caught up. Its perfect for this. It’s on Saturday, November 6th. That day I will write at least 5000 words, and print some family photos for the grandparents if there is any time left over. Three meals, snacks, and beverages are provided, plus there are raffles for great prizes like spa days and gift baskets. The best part is that several of my girlfriends will be there when I need to gab. If you want to join me at this retreat, there is still time to register and it’s only $45. Let me know and I’ll help you get signed up. All proceeds benefit my friend Joann’s kid’s preschool.

Aside from helping me finish the first draft of my entire memoir, I’m also hoping that this will help me implement a more consistent habit of daily writing (perhaps with a lower word count) that I’ll be able to maintain after it’s over.

I like the idea of this challenge because it gives me a pass for an entire month to say no to almost everything else. Again, thanks to Cheryl Richardson, I keep repeating my new mantra, “If it’s not an absolute yes, then it’s a no.”

Of course there are many things I can not get out of. I’ll still have my all important mommy job, I’ll be teaching a 2-hour ecology class once per week, and I’ll continue to take my bootcamp exercise class. But otherwise, everything else will have to wait until December. I hope my friends don’t take it personally that I’m choosing writing over them for one month. We’ll just have to wait and see!

I’ll be posting my total word count here. It’s not to late to join me.

Wishing you all a Happy Halloween and a very Happy NaNoWriMo.

Lorraine Wilde