I hope you have a wonderful and creative year! I’m looking forward to teaching three sets of memoir workshops this winter quarter, and I’m excited about meeting new students and learning about their work and their lives—there’s nothing like a memoir to get to know someone deeply.
As I read the stories in the memoir workshops to give helpful feedback, I look for what drives the “engine” of the story—and the writer. What motivates the writer, and what are the compelling themes that weave through the story?
- Why are you writing this story? What motivates you, what is the fire in your belly that drives you to get it written?
- Where do you get stuck? Where do you stop writing and start worrying about whether it’s a good enough story, if anyone will care.
- What do you need to keep writing? What will help you to keep that fire alive and work until you have the last page of your memoir done?
Writing from Love
Most people are writing from love—exploring treasured memories, sharing with readers those people who’ve made a difference in their lives. Love may mean a feeling of gratitude, blessings, or appreciation; it might mean some kind of transformation, from holding grudges to finding forgiveness. You might be writing about how find compassion for someone who once was misunderstood or who misunderstood you. A huge part of the satisfaction of writing a memoir can be that it’s a path to finding compassion and forgiveness for ourselves too. This “love” –a healthy kind of love and self-esteem—helps us to develop our strengths, helping us to rise above the moment-by-moment struggles of life to having a bigger overview. Through writing, we discover new perspectives about our lives, our relationships, and our future. In the fifteen years I’ve been teaching memoir writing, I’ve seen transformations again and again, and I love celebrating the power of writing to help create a new view of life, and to heal the past.
Layers of Truth
Writing a memoir means that we need to find a way to present our truths in story form, and this leads us to wrestle with what “truth” means. In “real life,” of course, things—situations, people, events, and memories—aren’t always clear, they’re not etched in black and white. The fact that life holds many shades of grey, and our ambivalent feelings force us to struggle with how to present our story. It’s obvious that people see things differently—in a family and in society. We gaze upon the same scene through different eyes. We need to allow ourselves to have our truth.
Many memoirists struggle to give themselves permission to have their own truths, to hold them not matter what others say. At the same time, it can be helpful to be open to learning new ways of hearing and understanding the family stories. Doing research and interviewing others offer different angles that can enhance our memoir. At the National Association of Memoir writers Teleseummit a couple of years ago, we presented a day-long teleconference about writing the truth, and how to decided whether to write these truths in fiction or in memoir. Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction. This conference is available for purchase at the NAMW store.
The Care and Feeding of You, the Artist
As you begin the new year writing your memoir—adding new chapters, starting a new book, or re-writing chapters you want to revise, keep in mind some suggestions.
- Ask yourself if you are pulling the threads of your themes through all the chapters. If your book is about cooking, you will be telling some stories that aren’t about cooking, but food and cooking should be a theme that enters into, even if briefly, each chapter. That way the reader feels the power of your focus as you establish a foundation for your book.
- Do you feed the writer within enough? Julia Cameron talks about the Artist’s Date in her book The Artist’s Way. She says to take yourself out for a special day just to feed yourself creatively. Writers may refuel by going to a museum to take in the paintings, walks along the seashore, or by watching a favorite movie. When we unplug from an intense focus and open out to other creative paths, we make room for new ideas and energy to come to us.
- Hang out with other writers. Now with the Internet, it’s easy to find other people who have the same questions and struggles as we do—with a click.
- Here are a few locations on Facebook and some websites that offer writers great information and even lively interaction.
www.blockbusterplots.com – Block Buster Plots, an award winning website by Martha Alderson. Read her great posts about learning plot.
www.ninaamir.com — Nina Amir is the author of several books, and specializes in nonfiction writing. She offers many kinds of helpful programs and courses.
www.writeyourmemoirinsixmonths.com — Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner teach a course in memoir writing with the goal to get a first draft completed in six months.
http://www.krpooler.com — Kathy Pooler’s inspiring blog Memoir Writers Journey.
http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog — Memory Writers Network blog by Jerry Waxler—reviews many memoirs on his blog.
http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com — Heart and Craft of Lifewriting is Sharon Lippincott’s blog with many tips for writing, editing, and publishing.
www.namw.org — National Association of Memoir Writers website with resources, programs, newsletters, blog, and audios
https://memoriesandmemoirs.com Linda Joy Myers blog with tips, articles, resources and coaching information.
Facebook pages: Please “like” these pages. It helps the traffic for writers and authors if you “like” them.
https://www.facebook.com/nationalassociationofmemoirwriters — Facebook page for NAMW
https://www.facebook.com/groups/11446501213 — National Association of Memoir Writers non-member FB page
https://www.facebook.com/LindaJoyMyersAuthor — Linda Joy Myers Author Page—please “like!”
https://www.facebook.com/groups/GutsyIndiePublishers — group host Sonia Marsh
Read books about writing, read great memoirs and juicy fiction.
Read best sellers to see why they are best sellers.
Here are 12 books on memoir writing and skills to inspire you and help you to develop your skills. You can find other lists at writers’ websites and in Oprah’s newsletter.
The Liar’s Club—Mary Karr
Angela’s Ashes—Frank McCourt
This Boy’s Life—Tobias Wolff
The Truth Book—Joy Castro
Writing the Truth—Judith Barrington
Make a Scene—Jordan Rosenfeld
If You Want to Write—Brenda Ueland
Scene and Structure—Jack Bickham
The Power of Memoir—Linda Joy Myers
Wired for Story—Lisa Crohn
Martha, it’s so fabulous that you can join us today. We have talked in the past about the way memoir writers grow a little pale when thinking about plot. They feel constrained about the idea of thinking about plot, they don’t quite understand what it is and why it’s important.
- So my first question is to have you define plot, and tell us why a memoir writer needs to understand why they need to grasp the concepts and skills of plot for their memoir.
Let me begin by saying that plot and structure are not constraining. Plot and structure actually give a memoirist the form and function for her memoir and then leave everything else up to her.
In my new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, I cover in great detail the benefits of identifying your weaknesses and strengths as a writer and how to determine if you have more of a preference for right brain functions versus left brain dominance or are more balanced between the two.
Don’t get me wrong; the book is not a guide to the brain. It is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual or an emotional guide to writing. Writing is emotional. You face obstacles that unleash angst, which leads to procrastination.
My intention in shining a light on how the two hemispheres of the brain affect your writing is to allow you to acknowledge and face the difficulties you encounter, difficulties that are reflections of your strengths and weaknesses. In self-knowledge comes the courage to compensate for your weaknesses and the ability to rely on your strengths.
In every memoir something happens (dramatic action plot) to change or transform the memoirist (character emotional plot) overtime and in a meaningful way (thematic significance plot). Whether you understand that as a big picture concept or as a linear, scene-by-scene idea depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
(NOTE: In the remainder of my answers, I refer to the memoirist as the protagonist of the story because doing so gives more distance and supports you in considering the story from the reader’s point of view as well as from your own)
- Memoir writers think they know the plot because they already know “what happened.” Can you talk about this issue a bit—is that way of thinking useful or should they revise their attitude toward plot.
Plot embodies quite a bit more than more than just what happens in the memoir or a sum of the events. Plot is how the events in the story of your life directly impact the main character or the protagonist, in other words, you.
Always, in the best-written memoirs, the protagonist is emotionally affected by the events of the story. In great memoirs, the dramatic action transforms the protagonist. This transformation makes a story meaningful.
Keep in mind that, yes, you lived the story and the story comes through you. However, when you decide to write that story down, you turn from the one who experienced the events to that of a writer. Your job, then, is to present what you have lived in a pleasing and meaningful form to the reader. This takes setting yourself aside and means opening your mind to receive the greatest good of the story.
- Please talk about the emotional, healing, transformation aspects of what you call “universal story.”
The Universal Story delights me. Just as I teach writers to push aside all the words they have written to see the bigger picture of the entire memoir, I also teach writers and anyone else who is interested how to stand back from the drama in their lives to see what is really at play in their own individual lives.
The Universal Story is about evolution, and change is never easy. However, anytime someone grows and changes overtime on a deep and meaningful level from the challenges they confront and then shares that experience others, the memoirist empowers others to believe that such a transformation is available to them, as well.
- Explain to us how memoir writers should think of plotting their story—should they write it first then think about plot, or plan it out from the beginning? (Some will say that planning will get in the way of creativity.)
The most important part is to write the first draft all the way through to the end by any means available to you. An understanding of whether you prefer pre-plotting or you find that plotting as you go works best for you or you find yourself writing the entire first draft by the seat of your pants teaches you more about your preferences and strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Once you have written an entire draft you are better able to stand back from the story to see what you are truly attempting to say. At that point the real craft of writing a memoir kicks in and a firm understanding of plot and Universal Story serves you well.
- What are some steps a memoir writer can take to create a good scene.
Again, as I stressed in my answer to question #4, the first draft is about getting the story down on paper. As you write this first draft, you may find yourself more comfortable “telling” the story in narrative or internal monologue. Even so, every chance you can, attempt to write moment-by-moment scenes using movement and action to convey or “show” the story rather than simply “tell” the story.
The more you practice writing in scene, the easier and more automatic the task becomes to you. Read great memoirs and compare how much of the story is shown in scene versus told in narrative. Compare a chapter you have written to a chapter in your favorite memoir. What is the same? What is different?
When you have practiced writing scenes and want to evaluate them, track each scene or, at least, track the energetic markers and any other major turning points in your memoir. This shows you which plot elements are missing and which are in the scene in its current condition.
Seven Plotting Questions
For each scene, ask yourself the seven essential questions of plot:
1. Does the scene establish the date and setting?
2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
4. What dramatic action is shown?
5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?
Evaluate the scene tracker for your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you find your scene tracker has lots of dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, but little character emotional development, plan in your rewrite to concentrate on developing your weakness.
Thank you, Linda Joy for the chance to write about plot and the Universal Story and share my passion with other writers. I look forward to visiting your blog today and interacting with your followers.
I know that all the memoirists who have worked with you have learned so much from your wisdom about plot. Of course there are always questions.
So I invite visitors to come to ask questions of Martha here on the site. And let’s all stay tuned for what she has to say. You might think of more topics.
Here is what people are saying about Martha’s book:
“The Plot Whisperer is Martha Alderson is Obi-Wan Kenobi of Story-Plotlines. Whether you’re writing your first book or your tenth, you deserve tools to make your story engaging, from first page to last. Also you deserve to gain such tools from a seasoned teacher who genuinely cares about helping authors. This empowering book helps you acquire secrets of story-structure and gain personal energy in order to survive and thrive the writing journey.
Teresa LeYung Ryan, http://lovemadeofheart.com
The Plot Whisperer is especially helpful with regard to plotting; not just the storyline but how it impacts the main character. Over time, you come to understand how each scene delivers more tension and conflict, building on the story’s depth, and leading you to an exceptional story. Wise writers will take Alderson’s heartfelt advice and turn it into an action plan.” Helen Gallagher, http://releaseyourwriting.blogspot.com
Martha has been doing one-on-one writer’s consultations for years and this is what reading The Plot Whisperer feels like—it’s like sitting with her and being coached, psychoanalyzed, pushed, encouraged, and, via all of that, INSPIRED to get down and write. I highly recommend both of Martha’s books, Blockbuster Plots and The Plot Whisperer, to anyone who is actively engaged in writing, or who wants to be.” Shreve Stockton, HoneyRockDawn.com
I have known Martha and her work for years, and have brought many of my memoir students directly to her studio to spend the day learning about plot. Be sure to ask your own questions here on her tour! We are lucky to have her here with us!!
In October through The National Association of Memoir Writers, we enjoyed having Martha present her techniques at one of our Member Teleseminars. You will get the audio to that program if you join NAMW. To learn more about the benefits of membership, click this link. Linda Joy Myers