Creative Writing and Memoir Classes March 24, 2021
This first part of our class notes today is to all of you!
You are writers. Do you behave that way?
Do you plan your day for writing?
I am suggesting that you set an appointment with yourself and your writing space three to five days a week, if you can imagine it, for 20 minutes.
That’s all 20 minutes. So, get out your daytimer, in whatever form it takes, and write APPOINTMENT over those 20 minute time slots. I am a morning person, so my appointments are usually around 9am. But you should make your appointment when it works best for you and your family.
By the way, enlist their help. Tell them what you want to do and that you would appreciate their help.
Find a quiet place where you can write, where all of your writing tools wait, where the lighting is right, and where you will be undisturbed for that 20 minutes.
Then spend a few minutes separating yourself from all of your distractions. Meditate if that works. I focus on being thankful for everything God brings to my mind. After a few minutes of that, I am ready to focus on my writing.
Give it a try WRITERS. Twenty minutes, and if you wish to write longer, feel free to keep writing. Just don’t feel obligated to write longer.
Emotion vs. Feeling: How to Evoke More From Readers
Recognizing the subtle differences in writing emotion and writing feeling can help render both more powerfully on the page. Author David Corbett wrote ( https://www.writersdigest.com/there-are-no-rules/emotion-vs-feeling-evoke-readers ) about how to evoke a reader’s emotion.
The difference between writing emotion and writing feeling is more one of degree than kind.
Feeling is emotion that has been habituated and refined; it is understood and can be used deliberately. I know how I feel about this person and treat her accordingly.
Emotion is more raw, unconsidered. It comes to us unbidden, regardless of how familiar it might be. Rage is an emotion. Contempt is a feeling.
Notice that we make choices in our search to have a particular feeling. Consider how we work hard to feel accomplishment or accomplished. Think about how we walk or exercise to feel healthy. Perhaps we might serve others to feel appreciated.
Both emotion and feeling are essential not only in fiction but in nonfiction. However, given their unique qualities, rendering them on the page requires different techniques.
Both rely upon understanding what readers want. People don’t turn to stories to experience what you, the writer, have experienced—or even what your characters have. They read to have their own experience. Our job is to create a series of effects to facilitate and enhance that experience.
Emotion on the page is created through action and relies on surprise for its effect. That surprise is ultimately generated by having the character express or exhibit an emotion not immediately apparent in the scene.
We all experience multiple emotions in any given situation. So, too, should our characters.
To create genuine emotion when crafting a scene, identify the most likely or obvious response your character might have, then ask:
- What other emotion might she be experiencing?
- Then ask it again—reach a “third-level emotion.”
Have the character express or exhibit that. Through this use of the unexpected, the reader will experience a greater range of emotion, making the scene more vivid.
Surprise can also be generated through unforeseen reveals and/or reversals. This technique requires misdirection: creating a credible expectation that something other than what occurs will happen instead.
Types of misdirection include:
- Misdirection through ambiguity: Any of several results might occur.
- Misdirection through fallacy: Something creates a mistaken belief regarding what is happening or what it means.
- Misdirection through sympathy: Intense focus on one character lures the reader into overlooking what another might do.
To ground a surprise in emotion you must develop a belief that some other emotional outcome—ideally, the opposite of the one you hope to evoke—is not only possible but likely.
For example, to push the readers toward dread, panic, or terror, you need to create the impression that these emotions are in no way inevitable. The readers are trying to avoid the negative feeling. It’s hope that “the terrible thing” can be circumvented that makes them feel the dread, panic, or terror once it’s presented, and actually intensifies it.
Write a scene showing emotion, perhaps with these words.
The woman could not stop crying…OR he kept throwing things, for example.
Notes from an article by Joe Bunting November 11, 2019
When we write a memoir, we are writing a story, only this one really happened. It is up to us to tell our story with all the tools that the fiction writer has at hand to make our story as inviting as well-written fiction. Joe Bunting says it well in the post I used as the backbone of my teaching in our class this week. Bunting says there are five literary techniques used in novel writing used also in memoir writing, and here they are.
1. Limited Scope
When most people approach writing a memoir, they just start writing. They start with the day they were born, and they march on to the present. But let’s be honest, for most of us, that would consume far too many pages for our readers, however dedicated, to wade through.
Now think of your favorite novels. There are certainly stories that span a character’s entire life, but what is much more common is the stories that have a limited scope, encompassing a specific situation. For example:
- A quest
- An adventure
- A crime that must be solved
- A new romantic relationship (or the unraveling of one)
- Betrayal and revenge
- A coming-of-age experience
These make for great stories and are rarely about an entire life. Instead, they’re usually about one intense period in a character’s life.
The same is true for your memoir. Instead of trying to write a historical autobiography, which is not the purpose of memoir, choose one very intense period of your life and write about that.
The most useful tool in writing a memoir people can’t put down is to write a premise or a single-sentence summary of your story.
For memoir writers, your premise should contain three things:
- A character (i.e. you)
- A situation (the intense life event you experienced)
- A lesson
And you should combine those things into just one sentence, for example.
Carol King made a decision to go to from small town, America to Chad, Africa, a country where civil war was the norm and learned what she really could live without.
Why one sentence? Because you can’t summarize your entire life in one sentence, but you can write about one specific situation.
Then, anything that doesn’t fit into your premise should be cut and put into another book.
Don’t try to write an autobiography. Instead, choose a limited scope for your memoir and write the best story you can.
2. Story Structure
Novelists think a lot about plot and structure, using jargon like: three acts, turning points, climaxes, inciting incidents, falling action, and resolutions.
They are occupied with outlining, mapping their story, and even creating spreadsheets to track the rise and fall between each scene.
Memoir writers, though? They don’t think much about plot and structure. And it’s a shame, because this is the best fiction technique you can apply to your memoir.
Here are a few resources you can use to learn more about this for your memoir.
First is K.M. Weiland’s own series on the Secrets of Story Structure, which is thorough and so helpful.
For a quick guide, Matt Heron has a great Writer’s Cheat Sheet to Plot and Structure here.
I also love Story Grid’s approach. You can find an article on how to use Story Grid for your memoir here.
3. Show Decisions
You all have heard me say many times, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The idea is that you should always show the important moments in a story, writing a full scene with description, dialogue, action, and narrative, not just tell the reader about it in summary.
But the question is what do you show? What’s the most important thing to show?
When trying to “show,” most memoir writers write about the bad things that happened to them, and that’s smart because you can’t show change and character arc without diving into the hard parts of your story.
But often, memoir writers leave out the most important part of those experiences: the decision. Good stories are about characters who make decisions. That’s why every scene in your memoir should be centered on a decision, a choice that you made, usually between two bad things or two good things.
This is hard. When you’re writing a story about your own life, it can be hard to find the decisions you made in a situation. After all, much of the time, the events in our lives are outside of our control, especially the negative experiences.
But these decisions are actually what drive all the action in your story, and if you are the main character in your memoir, you have to be the one driving the action, you have to be the protagonist, and you have to show your decisions.
This was one of the hardest parts of writing my memoir. But showing my decisions, more than any other technique I learned from fiction writers, was the thing that most impacted my memoir.
4. Kill Your Darlings
“Kill your darlings,” said Stephen King. “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Bunting wrote over 100,000 words in his memoir. However, by the time the book was finally published it was only
52,000 words long.
That means he had to cut almost 50 percent of the book. Some of those scenes and paragraphs and sentences were amazing. He had labored over many of them for hours, even days.
And yet, they didn’t fit the story he was trying to tell. You have to kill your darlings. You have to cut the sections of your book that don’t fit.
Doesn’t fit the premise? Cut the scene.
Outside of the limited scope of the story? Cut the scene.
No decision? Cut the scene.
Doesn’t fit the story structure? Cut the scene or rewrite it until it does.
Bunting says, “This is one of the hardest parts of writing a memoir, but it can also be some of the most fun. I had several experiences where I cut a chapter and all of a sudden the flow of the story was so much better.”
When you cut things, always put them into a folder of saved sections. Someday, you may be able to incorporate those sections into another book. Some, you may even put back into the story after realizing the book really did need that section.
The point is you have to be willing to be ruthless. If you don’t, your story can easily get bogged down by the weight of a lot of good sections that don’t serve the purpose of your book as a whole.
In class, we started a list of 100 moments from our life, stream-of-conscious style.
For this next week, choose one of those things on that list and write a scene that tells a part of that story.