Tag Archives | memoir

Five on Friday: Can You Believe it is January 22nd Already?

LatteMacchiatoWhere has this month gone?  I keep telling my husband we’ll blink and be sitting outside on the deck for Happy Hour. It is almost warm enough today to do that, and I’m so sorry for those of you buried–or about to be–under snow.  Actually, I’m kinda jealous.  At any rate, here are my Friday offerings.

What I’m Telling Myself:  You don’t have to know the answers. That’s why you’re writing.  I’m working on a rewrite of my macaron bakery novel (for an editor who is very interested–yay) and I’ve convinced myself I have no idea what I’m doing.  Then I remember, oh that’s right. I never do.  That’s why I write–to figure stuff out.

What I’m Reading: I’m excited because I just got the ARC of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story, a memoir by Pamela Jane.  She is the best friend of my business partner, Debbie and I’ve heard about the writing of this book for a while now.  Stay tuned, because I’ll have either an interview or guest post with her soon!

I have a stack of at least 10 other books waiting to be read as well, and it is all the fault of our library.  We have one of the busiest library systems in the country, and the branch I frequent is one of the busiest in the city.  (Yesterday when I was there, I overhead a librarian telling a patron where she could find a quiet spot to study–at the coffee shop next door.)  I have a bad habit of putting a ton of books on hold.  As soon as I hear of a book I want to read, I go to the website and put a hold on it.   Then its like Christmas when the book comes in.  The only problem I haven’t yet figured out how to solve is the flow.  I either have no library books or they all come in at once.  And then of course, i go to pick them up and choose more.  Ah, me.  Such first world problems to have.

What I’m Studying: I’m a student nerd.  Or maybe that would be nerd student? Anyway, if it were up to me, I’d be in school forever. But, since I can’t do that, I sometimes devise courses of study for myself.  My current one is writing the mystery, and I’m starting with a study of the books and life of Agatha Christie.  I have a stack of books from, you guessed it, the library.  Of course, since I’m rewriting my novel and continuing with my client work, this little project may suffer from a lack of attention.  But the desire is certainly there.

What I’m Working On: Healing my body.  The latest in my continuing adventures with energy and body work is getting ashiatsu massage.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, as I was until I saw a Groupon, this is a technique where the massage therapist uses her feet.  It’s also called Oriental Bar Therapy because there are two parallel bars on the ceiling above the massage table that she holds onto while she tromps on you massages you.  In some places it hurts like the devil is poking your muscles, but it is also the most effective massage I’ve ever gotten.  Awesome.

What I’m Drinking: My new favorite drink is the Starbucks Latte Macchiato.  I’m sort of a fiend for their holiday drinks and when they are gone, I miss them.  So it is delightful to have a new favorite.  My daughter and I throw her boys in the car and go to the drive-through for them.  We get a dose of caffeine and the boys fall asleep.  A win-win.

And that’s what I’ve got today.  How about you? What’s up with you?

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Committed Giveaway, Review and Interview: A Wonderful Memoir on Creativity

Winner Announced! Using this random name picker, I fed in all the names, pressed go and waited for the winner's name to come up.  Ready?  Drum roll! The winner is J.D. Frost!  J.D., I'm emailing your email to Patrick so the two of you can coordinate.  Thanks to all who entered!

Contest Extended! I want everyone to have a chance to enter, so I'm continuing the contest until Monday, Nov 24!

Committed         CommittedCover2

by Patrick Ross

(Before we go any further, be sure to read all the way to the end, because, pa dum, we have us a giveway, yes we do!)

Several years ago now, I ran across Patrick Ross's blog, The Artist's Road.  Patrick had just returned from a cross-country trip wherein he had interviewed all manner of creatives and was posting videos and commentaries about each artist.  Well, this was right up my alley, and I started commenting with enthusiasm.  One thing led to another and Patrick and I became fast internet friends.

I've watched him as he totally and completely committed to an art-centered life, earned his MFA, and perhaps most exciting of all, published his memoir about the trip.  And so I am thrilled to introduce that memoir, Committed!

The book details his trip across country in quite a bit more detail than his blog posts did, with candid stories about his own search for a creative lifestyle interspersed as Patrick drives between interviews.   I found the interviews with creatives–ranging from writers to artists to musicians–fascinating and inspiring, but what I really loved was reading about Patrick's interior journey.

It's a compelling story.  The book begins with a scene you won't forget, detailing a family blow-up that ends with Patrick taking his two children, in their pajamas, away from his parents' house to a hotel. Throughout the remainder of the book, we learn of his troubled relationship with some of his family, and how that has impacted his own creativity in a negative way.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the segment as Patrick's daughter Marisa came along with him on the interviews as they also journey to SCAD (the highly regarded Savannah College of Art and Design).  Marisa, a devoted and talented artist, checks out SCAD as a potential college for herself–and learns a bit about her own creative journey in the process.

Because of my own interests, I've focused on the creative side in this review and interview, but Patrick also copes with–and is open and honest about–his bi-polar diagnosis.  This condition has a bearing on his creativity, as he struggles to create an art-committed life that also allows him balance.

The book is just wonderful.  It is a brave piece of writing and also a fascinating, meaningful one.  So go read it.  But first, have a look at the interview with Patrick below.

-How did you get the idea for this trip?  In the book you explain that you had funders concerned with copyright law, but I'm wondering if your creative self, as opposed to your lobbyist self, had something to do with the initial concept? I talk inCommitted about my love of driving, and how when I was about twenty-one years old I drove from L.A. to Washington, D.C., to begin my new life. I had always wanted to try the trip in reverse, but through states I hadn't driven before. When I realized the road trip would get me out of town during the build-up to the legislation, it seemed a perfect plan!

–I recall from reading your blog regularly that after you returned home from your trip you did quit your job and return to free-lancing.  Did that satisfy your creative desires? Largely, yes. I had to leave that job because they never would have tolerated me spending time writing for myself rather than the organization, nor taking the time to get an MFA. I gave notice to my board the moment the trip was over, but stayed on board about four months while they recruited a successor. In the spring of 2011 I was able to take classes at The Writer's Center and apply for MFA programs, and I started one that summer. By 2012 I was ready to return to full-time work (income needs) but I had developed enough of a writing discipline to continue to write while doing a day job. 

 

Patrick Ross–The trip was several years ago.  How have you changed since then?  Has your vision of an art-centered life changed? I've learned you can embrace your creativity without it automatically meaning that you're embracing mental instability. Seems an obvious conclusion, but it wasn't to me before the trip.

 –What impact did earning your MFA have on you and your creative life? Committed wouldn't exist without the MFA; it's as simple as that. Every chapter has the fingerprints of one of my instructors on it. That said, my book profiles some artists with rich educational backgrounds in the arts and others with no formal training; they're all producing art and living art-committed lives. I think the MFA came at the right time for me; leaving that job gave me an opportunity to indulge my muse a bit, and I know the lessons I learned in the program will carry forward into future books.

 –I found your personal story the most compelling part of the memoir.  Was it difficult to share it? Difficult would be an understatement. The original scenes I wrote were very journalistic; the narrator was not really a part of the story. When I first wrote about being bipolar I was already a year into my MFA, and while I shared it in a workshop I told myself at the time that it wouldn't actually be in the book. That's how I was able to first write about my family as well, by telling myself I was doing it solely to better learn how to tell the story but that it wouldn't be included.

 –Some of the personal parts you share were very brave–how did you family react to the book? My wife and children have been very supportive throughout the rocess. They were always invited to read any draft they wanted of any part of the book. I don't know how I'd feel about someone writing about me, but they have been great.

 –I am so curious to know what happened with your family.  Did Marisa get into SCAD?  She did! She's now a sophomore there, studying photography, and she now has a very nice camera. She took the author photo of me that's on the back of the book, and she has a photo credit on the copyright page. SCAD ain't cheap, however; it was her impending tuition bills that prompted me to return to a full-time day job.

 –And finally, in the book you describe a "failed" novel you wrote.  It sounded fascinating to me.  Any plans to return to it or fiction writing? Philadelphia novelist Michael Swanwick tells me in Committed that he wrote out his garbage before writing work that was publishable. When I returned from the road trip I dusted off that manuscript and read through it. I was surprised at how much I liked it. But the last four years I've focused on growing as a writer, so I don't think I'd want that manuscript published even if a publisher wished, because I'm not the same writer. I do plan to return to fiction someday, but there is so much for me to explore in the creative nonfiction space right now. My focus at this point is on historical biography writing, including an essay that will appear in The Montreal Review in January about a father-son cartography duo who created an amazingly artistic atlas, the Atlas Maior or Great Atlas, the most expensive book of the 17th Century.

Giveaway

Thanks, Patrick!  And now, here we go.  All you have to do to win a copy of Patrick's book is leave a comment, telling me which you read the most of–novels or memoirs?  I'll give you until the end of the week and then gather up names and use my handy-dandy random name generator to choose a winner. 

  

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9 Ways to Create Characters Readers Will Identify With

I have a bad habit of creating characters that are, um, unlikeable.  Or, in the parlance of the publishing industry–unrelatable.

(As a brief aside, I do worry about what this says about me.  People seem to like me when they meet me in person, and I do try hard to be nice and positive.  But you never know.  I could be horrible and people just aren't telling me.)

This happened with Emma Jean, as I have written about a lot here.  People start out wanting to shake some sense into her (as a fellow blogger said) and end up loving her.   And it happened recently again–I was toiling away on another novel and when I took it into my writing group, everyone told me how much they didn't like the main character.  Which was actually a huge relief, because I didn't like her either.  She really had no redeeming features.  (At least Emma Jean was funny.)

So I set that novel aside, and now I'm working on another one.  The heroine of this novel is a character who has been with me a long time.  I wrote a mystery novel with her as the protagonist years ago (I recently found this novel and its actually not half bad, I just didn't have the fortitude to market it back then), and I've written short stories about her as well.

I think she's likeable.   And relatable.  But I want to make sure.  And somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind, I remembered reading a screenwriting book that had a section on making characters likeable.  So I went to my bookshelf and found Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge, which sure enough, has a whole wonderful section on creating characters, one part of it called Establishing Character Identification.   I found his tips very helpful, and I paraphrase them here:

1.  Create sympathy for the character.  "This is by far the most effective and widely used method of creating reader identification with the hero," Hauge says.  One way to do this is to make your protaganist the victim of some undeserved misfortune.  For instance, in the novel I'm writing, my heroine gets laid off.  It could be a family member's death, a child being bullied, racism or sexism–you get the idea.

2.  Put the character in jeopardy. Thrillers and adventure tales do this well.  I see it used a lot in women's fiction when say, the protagonist's husband runs off with all the money, or she faces some other "soft" threat (as opposed to a situation in which she faces bodily harm or death).

3.  Make the character likeable.  Would that this were easy!  Hauge says that the more we like the character, the more we will identify with her and root for her throughout the story, and he names three ways to make it happen:

–Make the character a good or nice person

–Make the character funny  (too bad this didn't work better for Emma Jean–though it was her saving grace)

–Make the character good at what he or she does.

Hauge emphasizes that writers must use one of these methods to be sure you establish character identification.  And, he says, you have to do this right away!  No meandering warm-ups–let us know who your character is and why we should care about him immediately.  Here are the rest of his ways to establish identification:

4.  Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible.  Sometimes I read manuscripts that confuse me because I can't tell who I'm supposed to be rooting for.  Often writers put auxiliary characters in first.  Uh-uh.  Get your hero onstage first.

5.  Show the character in touch with his own power.  Love this one.   It can be power over other people, power to do what needs to be done, or power to express one's feelings despite what others think.  We are fascinated with power–because so many of us don't have it.

6.  Put the character in a familiar setting.  Time, place, home, and family all create a sense of familiarity.  Maybe you've never lived in or visited New York City, for instance, but you have a basic familiarity with it because you've seen it on TV and movies a gazillion times.

7. Give the character familiar flaws.  Addiction is a perennial favorite because we all know someone who has struggled with it–or perhaps you yourself have (it is a writer thing, after all).  Or, Hauge says it can be less serious, like social awkwardness or clumsiness (correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that a trait of Bella in the Twilight series?). 

8.  Make your character a superhero.  But only if you're writing fantasy or adventure.  There's something primal about these larger-than-life figures that resonate with readers.

9.  The eyes of the reader.  Hauge says that reader identification is strengthened when we find out information at the same time as the hero.  This works great in mysteries, for example.  (And does it drive you as crazy as it drives me when we see the detective figuring out the key to the whole crime but aren't privy to it?)

That's it–the nine ways to create character identification.

News flash: a 20th anniversary edition of the afore mentioned book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, was recently published.  Hit Michael's website for more info. (I have the old version, so don't yell at me if the new one you buy isn't exactly the same.)

Also: yes I know that most of you who read this blog don't write screenplays.  But for my money, the screenplay guys (and gals) are the absolute best when it comes to structure and story.  So read them and apply it to novel or memoir writing.

Have you used any of these methods to create character identification?  What are your favorite ways to make your character relatable?

4

Standing in Judgment

One of my new year's resolutions was to be less judgmental.Gavel_judge_justice_266806_l

Every single member of my family laughed hysterically when they heard this idea.  I was deeply offended by their presumption that I could never be less judgmental, even though my sister and I have raised judging others to an art form.

So I've been seriously thinking about being judgmental.  Yesterday I wrote a post about finding and sharing faults about yourself in order to be a more sympathetic narrator.  The first fault I listed was being way too judgmental.

And yet, my family is right–I see being judgmental as an innate part of who I am, and rebel against any efforts to change that, new year's resolutions to the contrary.  Because being judgmental seems like part and parcel of being a writer.  I mean, c'mon, if I make my living being judgmental how can I cure myself of it?

Are Writers Judgmental?

So, help me out here.  Do you think writers are judgmental?  Isn't it part of what we do every time we put words on paper?  Think about it.  We choose one word over another, judging that it will suit the piece better.  We create a character, and decide which details will bring her to life.  We judge that one line of dialogue will be better than another, that this description works well and the other doesn't….writing is one long string of judgments. 

In order to back this considered behavioral justification opinion up, I consulted the dictionary. Here's the MacBookPro dictionary definition of judgment:

  • the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions
  •  an opinion or conclusion

I rest my case! I am all about "considered decisions," and "sensible conclusions!"  Yes, that is me, the considered, sane, and judgmental writer.

So why does being judgmental make me feel bad?

The Writer Confesses

Being judgmental makes me feel bad because judging someone else separates me from them.  Because there's an automatic ego thing going on–in my judgment I'm either thinking that I am better than them or they are better than me.  And in that judgment there's a removal from the present moment.  I'm trying my best to learn that all we really have is the present moment, and in this learning I see how many things take us away from it.  Because judgment is really just another form of fear, and damn it, I don't want to live a life ruled by fear.  Do you?

I happen to have a friend who I deem as being incredibly non-judgmental (you know who you are, Sue).  And she's a damn good writer, too.  So how does she transcend being judgmental and still manage to be a good writer?  I think it is because she replaces judgment with curiosity.   While I might hear of someone starting a new endeavor and think dark, jealous thoughts about how I should have had that idea and furthermore if I had had that idea I'd make a million from it, not the one paltry penny that they will make.  But Sue would hear about the new endeavor and just ask a million questions because she was just curious and interested.

Even writing about the difference in approaches I can feel the different energy they evoke.  Sigh.  So I guess this means I'm going to have to stick with my resolution to be less judgmental and just buck up and realize that it in no way means I am going to be less of a writer.  Because I will replace judgment with curiosity.  I will be sane, considered, and curious.

But I reserve the right to hold onto the other faults on my list.  Rebelling against authority now being number one.  Anybody for a writer's riot?

7

Finding Faults

I'm perfect.Sharon's Flowers

I am.  I am poised, intelligent, attractive, talented, funny, loyal, passionate.  Like I said, perfect. 

And, already you are bored with me and ready to go elsewhere to read because who can relate to perfect?  Already you are thinking, well, if she's perfect than I have nothing in common with her at all and what exactly do all those general terms mean anyway?

So try this instead:

I'm not perfect.  I'm way too judgmental, not good with details, have a terrible habit of rebelling against authority just because it is authority, I veer from crazy deep emotion to extreme containment of it, sometimes I lack focus, I eat too fast, I am currently not exercising enough, I get so excited when I'm talking to friends I interrupt…

Now don't you like me a lot better?  And aren't you way more interested in me as a person?  And, not that you are not perfect, but can't you relate to my faults a bit better than my perfection?

In a post I wrote last week, I discussed the Top Takeaways from the Writer's Loft, specifically, the workshop that Richard Goodman hosted.   One exercise focused on making yourself likable as a narrator by sharing a fault.  This, Goodman said, "provides the reader some freedom."  It allows the reader to feel that the writer is like him, and creates an emotional bond.

And, it is a lot more interesting.  Conflict and imperfection is far more compelling than calm and perfection.

Alas, this is why we have wars.

But I'm a writer, not a warrior, so back to our topic.  Goodman talked specifically about finding fault in terms of narrating memoir, but it also applies to fiction.  Think Holden Caulfield or Jean Rhys (his examples).  And think, too, of the memoirs you've read in which you fell in love with the narrator.  Chances are, they had a fault or two. 

During the Writer's Loft workshop, the readings that came out of this exercise were some of the most entertaining all day.  One participant wrote of his fear at facing a roomful of college students he had come to teach, another wrote a humorous paragraph about always getting lost.  We laughed at these pieces, but we also felt a kinship with their authors.  Who hasn't obsessed over having to speak to a group of people, or gotten themselves good and lost?

In my own novel, the narrator Emma Jean is loudly judgmental, thinks very highly of herself, and gets herself into trouble by flinging herself headlong into new things.  People like her because of her faults.  (And, um, she's not based on me at all.)

So if you are writing memoir, share a fault or two with us.  We'll like you lots better.  And if you are writing fiction, give your characters some faults so that we know they are just like us.

Anybody have any suggestions of famous flawed narrators?  Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.

***Thanks to Jessica, who left the comment asking for more information on this topic, and thus inspired this post.

And, by the way, the photo of flowers is supposed to epitomize perfection.  Not sure if you would get that or not, so I felt compelled to explain it, which means it is probably not working as an illustration.

9

Review: The Future That Brought Her Here

The Future That Brought Her HereBook_cover

by Deborah Denicola

Before we get started, I want to make one thing perfectly clear, just in case the FTC happens to be reading my blog (stranger things have happened, but not many).  I have an ulterior motive in writing this review: I got a free book to do so.  Gasp!  I know, I know, shocking but true, review copies of books are given out so that writers can read them.

Okay, that taken care of, let's get started.  This memoir by Deborah DeNicola is about a spiritual quest.  The author found herself plagued by strange visions (a room she was in completely changed itself to a previous incarnation) and intense spirits, for lack of a better word, who made her life somewhat of a living hell with their antics.  But, ultimately, this turned out to be a good thing, as it set in motion a journey through many mystic and mystery traditions, including goddess worshiping and the gnostic gospels, and consultations with psychics and channelers.  Denicola, a poet, also set off on journeys to sacred sites in Israel and Europe.

DeNicola's background in poetry clearly shines through in her lyrical descriptions and beautiful flights of fancy.  Her accounting of her quest for spiritual answers in incredible in its detail.  Since I can't generally remember what I ate for lunch the day before, I'm amazed at the recall DeNicola has about things that happened years ago.  I don't mean this as a criticism–rather; I'm envious.  I presume she kept a meticulous diary.  And even with that, the level of detail is impressive.  I keep what I consider a somewhat obsessive diary and I still wouldn't be able to recount my every thought from years ago.

Impressive as the detail is, I also consider it the main drawback of the book.  At times I longed for a glance at the bigger picture because being inside DeNicola's head for the constant play by play of her quest was sometimes exhausting.  Upon occasion, I longed for a step back to ponder what all of this might mean. 

That being said, the book is well worth reading, particularly for those with an interest in New Age and spiritual topics.  There's a lot of interesting history and information here, on a wide variety of topics, sometimes all on one page!  Deborah DeNicola has written quite a fascinating memoir.  Here's a bit more information on her, in a blurb provided by her publisher:

Deborah DeNicola is the author of five poetry collections and she edited the anthology Orpheus & Company; Contemporary Poems on Greek Mythology. Among other awards she won a Poetry Fellowship in 1997 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Deborah has been a recipient of many writing colony residencies. She also teaches dream image work and mentors writers online at her web site www.intuitivegateways.com. To purchase a copy of The Future That Brought Her Here and receive up to 20 bonus gifts, please visit: http://www.thefuturethatbroughtherhere.com/bonusoffers/

2

Why Writing is like Drawing

I'm working on becoming a better observer.

Generally, I go about my business, I travel, I write in my journal about my experiences, and those jottings are too often self-absorbed treatises on what I'm feeling.  I like this, I don't like that, I feel so fabulous this morning or life sucks, blah, blah, blah, endless variations on an emotional theme.

But lately I've been writing a bit differently in my journal.  Instead of the endless scribblings that are all about me, I'm into an objective reporting vein–attempting to capture the essence of what its like to hang out in the Pasadena neighborhood where my friend lives, or documenting the unique aura of Ventura Boulevard, where I have appointments.

Its not that I haven't done this in the past, because I have.  But what has happened before is that all of my experiences have gone directly into the alchemical pot of fiction, to come out the other side the same base thing yet somehow different.   My new practice feels much more like a non-fiction, documentary approach.

And it requires careful observation, noting specific details.  It reminds me of my brief career in drawing.  Everyone in my family–all three of my older sisters got the art gene.  (And the thin gene.  Is this fair?  I ask you, where's the fairness here?) One of my sisters even makes her living at it. 

Okay, okay, so I got the writing gene–I'm not complaining.  But I did once go off on a wild hair and decide I would start drawing.  There's something so appealing about taking your journal with you everywhere you go and recording everything you see.   And what I learned from drawing is that you truly, truly learn to look at the world and see it when you are drawing it.

And of course, that is what we do with words, whether they are arranged into fiction or non-fiction.  I'm a wordsmith, not a visual artist, that's all there is to it.  What I'm learning from my new documentary approach is how insight grows out of careful observation and objective reporting.  By observing and seeing you really begin to get the gist of the situation.

The good news is that this kind of documentary writing can then be alchemized into whatever form you like–fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry.  So I'm finding its an excellent writing practice.  And may I just point out that this is why writing never gets boring?  There's always something new to discover.

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