March 10, 2022 § 14 Comments
By Lisa Cooper Ellison
Back in the grunge era, I learned the Show Don’t Tell edict of storytelling. My tweed-sport-coat wearing professor dedicated an entire semester to sensory details, dialogue, and precise actions. Every workshop ended with the same question. How can you make this come so alive I feel like I’m there?
As someone who woke from dreams with complete, albeit bizarre, narrative arcs, and recalled memories like movies, my flannel-loving heart was hooked. I vowed to become a show-don’t-tell master and spent the late nineties and early aughts following advice from authors like Chuck Palahniuk who once announced on Myspace (remember Myspace?) a six-month ban on the words think and feel.
By the time I transitioned to creative nonfiction, scene writing came easy. In fact, I showed so much of my pain it sometimes felt like I’d traveled back to the bizarre, zany, sometimes funny, and often scary times I’d once lived through. Workshop instructors lauded my showing, and while they sometimes asked for different, they never asked for more. Instead, they posed questions like what does this mean and why is this important?
Thinking I hadn’t shown well enough, I polished my dialogue and laser-focused my details. I believed clear sentences would coax meaning from the page, even if I couldn’t articulate it beyond look at what happened or look what they did.
As a writing coach, I’ve watched other writers fall into the same trap—not just with painful material, but with scenes I might label as check out this cool/weird/strange/thing that happened.
So much fantastically written check it out and this happened to me languishes in slush piles, or receives kind, yet unhelpful notes from editors like “strong voice, vividly written, but it’s just not right for us.”
Writing well is hard, no matter the genre. But memoir’s burden is heavier. The writing process is like describing your face without looking in the mirror. You can do it, but it’s probably going to take a while before we know it’s you. Yet working and reworking painful material to no avail is exhausting. And even when you’re not dipping into tough stuff, ambiguous rejections and queries to nowhere zap a writer’s power—an experience I know too well. I can’t count the times I’ve felt so powerless over my writing, I’ve begun phone calls with, “Tell me why I shouldn’t rip this up.”
While those phone calls saved many projects, studying the scene helped me regain my power.
Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This believes the subtitle of most memoirs is this is how I coped. The scene is the building block where coping is revealed. It has an elegant architecture where each part serves a specific role.
The setup establishes the situation. A catalyst launches us into the scene’s conflict, which deepens as the moment unfolds. Many writers intuitively nail these sections. But the bridge between this happened and this is what it means takes place during a key part called the emotional beat. In the beat, your narrator decides something, and in doing so, we see them cope.
String together a bunch of meaningful scenes and you’ll uncover a theme. Do this from beginning to end, and you’ll have a character arc. Whittle that arc to its central focus and you’ll find your universal. Polish that baby, and you’ll have a compelling memoir.
In 2015, I read Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, which he says is the responsibility of every creative nonfiction writer. Sue William Silverman beautifully reveals which voices do the telling and showing in her Brevity essay on innocence and experience.
Here’s what I’ve learned. In scene writing, you need to show, and occasionally tell, but unless you’ve decided something, you’ve just got a well written situation, and that’s not good enough.
Understanding scene architecture and the emotional beat saved me from the show-don’t-tell trap that had me endlessly wallowing in past pains or getting lost in reveries about good times. It empowered me to make choices and decide what work each scene needed to do, which determined how I framed my material and where I placed my focus.
This gave me the dexterity to recognize all the potential stories hidden in every single experience. Storytelling is about truth from a certain angle. Understand that angle and you can take any defining experience and turn it into a scene-driven blogpost, essay, memoir, or feature film that’s both meaningful and so alive we’ll always feel like we’re there.
Want to learn how to nail your scenes? Lisa is teaching Heartbeats: Using a scene’s emotional rhythm to build momentum and captivate readers and agents through Creative Nonfiction on Wednesday March 16.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, speaker, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. Her essays and short stories have appeared in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, the New Guard Review and Kenyon Review Online. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia soon after her brother’s suicide led to a promise that ultimately saved her.
December 7, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Lisa Cooper Ellison
I haven’t worked on my memoir in two months. A small part of me believes this isn’t supposed to happen. As a writer and coach, my creative tool belt is packed with strategies. But when the world is big and I feel small, those strategies can’t prevent my stories from crawling right back into my belly button.
When that happens, I turn to my writing community for inspiration.
I know how precious this community is. I drafted my first stories in the early 1990s. Back then, the only two writer hangouts I knew of were coffee shops and college classes. At the time, I was a college dropout, which only left one option. Sometimes I’d stand in the back of local coffeehouses on open mic night, praying for the courage to share my work. Occasionally I’d read, but I never felt cool enough to ask the “real” writers if I could join them. Instead, I wrote alone. If my stories hadn’t been so persistent, I might’ve given up.
Thankfully, my writing community is now only a click away. It’s given me so much over the years. I turn to Brevity for Allison K William’s posts on building your author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, setbacks, and tenacious belief in their stories no matter how long and daunting the way ahead seems.
The writing organizations we depend on have spent the past eighteen months playing a whack-a-mole-style game of pivot. Some reinvented programs or invested in equipment so they could transition classes and conferences online. Others offered generous refund policies to help writers feel safe registering for in-person events at a time when uncertainty was the norm. Pre-pandemic, most ran on volunteer sweat and budgets that barely covered expenses. Now, they must account for the additional costs required to sustain themselves during COVID and the learning curves demanded by new systems.
Last year, I created a #Giveaway4Good campaign to support writers and communities as we weathered the relentless COVID doldrums. Each week I designed challenges that asked you to support charities, writing organizations, independent bookstores, and other writers in exchange for prizes. Together, we raised over $24,000—a response that fueled my courage and creativity during the first half of the year.
This fall, I’m in a creative trough caused by overwork, recent losses, and a broken middle finger. In the face of these setbacks, the world seems big, and I feel small. So once again, I’m leaning on our beloved community, but this time I’m also giving back by running a second #Giveaway4Good campaign.
Last week, writers earned tickets by donating to charities. This week, donate $10 or more to your favorite literary organization will receive one ticket toward my drawing for a $30 gift card to New Dominion Bookshop, PLUS one copy of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, The War of Art, Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction, Doodling for Writers, The Best of Brevity, The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.
You’ll also be entered into my grand prize drawing for a one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K Williams.
Generous donors of $100 or more will get access to a mindful writing class scheduled for early 2022 and a chance to win a storytelling coaching session with Amy Eaton.
Low on funds?
Support these organizations online by subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and sharing two social media posts about a current offering or why you love them so much. Send me email proof, and you’ll earn one ticket into this week’s drawing.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this post given how challenging the past two months have been. But then I read a few Brevity blogs and thought of the good we’ll do. Your words and this community make me feel brave, big, and connected, and as a result, my creativity is flowing again.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others.
December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments
During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.
One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.
But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.
After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”
A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.
Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
At ten, I absorbed her lesson.
It took several decades to unlearn it.
Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.
A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
More COVID cases.
And yet, even now, I have desires.
I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.
I want to send it to agents.
I want to believe this story will help someone.
When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.
While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.
Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.
In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.
During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.
It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.
As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.
I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.
My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.
Here are the details for this week’s challenge:
- Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
- Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
- Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.
The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn.
This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class.
You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.
To participate in this challenge, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.
If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison.
June 5, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Lisa Ellison
I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.
Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.
Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.
Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.
Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”
Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.
Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”
Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
March 21, 2019 § 14 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.