Class Notes: Day 1

Introduction and defining our genres.

In this class we talked about two related genres: Memoir and Historical Fiction.

I am defining Memoir as a slice of your life, focusing on a single period of your life or a theme that threaded through your life over perhaps a longer time.

Let’s consider Mary Karr as an example of a memoirist. She wrote three memoirs: Cherry, The Liars’ Club and Lit: A Memoir, each one about a different period of her life, from her childhood to her life as a writer and college professor.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is an example of historical fiction, a book based on the true story of a teenager who joins the underground railroad in Italy helping Jews escape certain death.

I am writing historical fiction now based on my great-great-grandparents who fled their homeland during the Great Hunger of Ireland. My book is based on fact, but obviously it happened over 150 years ago, so I must fabricate dialogue. However, I am bound to do the research to make that dialogue as reasonably close to what probably took place as I can.

1.Now how do we go about it? You must narrow your focus. We are not writing autobiographies, the entire story of our lives. Rather we are examining a slice of that life focusing on a single moment or series of moments and how they impacted who we have become. So we have to do the hard work of looking at the whole and pruning away all that does not belong.

2. That said, we will also include more than just our story. We did not grow up in a vacuum. Other people played a part in our story as did history itself. I cannot tell the story of my youth without mentioning the impact of the Cold War, certain teachers, and of course, my family. A memoir speaks of the events we lived through, but as important is how they affected us…both the events and the people. So we will be telling parts of others’ stories as well.

3.When you write a memoir, and that is what we are chiefly talking about today, you must tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is ugly and involves and could hurt other people. We have to make some hard choices about identifying people by name when our story could destroy their lives. We will talk more about this later.

You cannot lie and fabricate events. You can probably remember a writer recently who did that and lost his reputation completely.

We will talk about other ways to deal with painful truths later in class.

4.Like good fiction writers, memoir writers must also pay attention to the showing of the story as opposed to just a listing of events that happened. You might look at the notes for the fiction class that met just before ours. Paint pictures of those key events in your life, so the reader will feel as though he or she is looking over your shoulder and seeing it with you.

5. Again, I refer you to the notes for the fiction class. When you are writing your memoir, you are telling the story about a character, even if you are that character. So paint that character accurately, so when the reader reads the story in your book, it is clear they understand who you are and why you are that way.

6.Finally a good story starts with setting the stage for the character, watches the character on the stage face one or more and increasingly challenging conflicts, then finally emerge changed. So a good memoir will do the same thing for the reader, allow them to watch your journey from one place in your experience, through a number of challenges and finally see you emerge a changed person.

As you remember, we had a full classroom, so we did not get to talk a lot about historical fiction. The one point you might remember was that you as a storyteller must stay as close as is possible to the facts of the times and the people.

I did a great deal of research about Ireland, the century before the book is set, about the culture, as a nation of people who had been subjugated by the English politically and in every other way, in an effort to make it very difficult to hold on to who they were as a people before being conquered by the English.

And I researched about my family, where and how they might have lived and what went into the terrifying journey ending in Standing Stone, Bradford County, little more than an hour from where we sit today. I must say an hour by car because it was much longer than an hour the way they traveled in 1848.

So, get writing. Bring a page or two of your story next week. You may well write or have written much more than that already, but to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to have his or her work read and critiqued, we will have to share the time equally.

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