July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments
One of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.
That’s the end of the story.
The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.
Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.
Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?
If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.
Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
We get to choose that, too.
Looking for your ending?
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:
- Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
- Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
- Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.
Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.
- Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
- Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
- List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
- Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.
Yes, this is a lot like therapy.
But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?
You really do get to choose.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!
June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments
I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?
Sometimes I’m a last resort:
I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?
The answer is always another question:
What does your book do for the reader?
Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.
But there’s a shortcut.
Write a book that does something for the reader.
Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”
Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:
…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!
Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.
What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?
- Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.
The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!
- Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.
I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!
- Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.
I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!
- Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.
I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!
Take a look at your own manuscript:
- Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
- Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
- Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?
H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.
Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.
*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.
April 13, 2020 § 2 Comments
We’re furious. We’re also cooped up, quarantined, and a little freaked out. Believe it or not, we will survive. We will thrive. And yes, stories and essays and books will come from these times, just as they come from the big tragedies, the grand comedies, and the prosaic-until-you-dive-deep moments of our lives.
Editors Amy Roost and Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores have focused the natural drive to create from upheaval into a new collection of essays. Fury: Women’s Lived Experience During the Trump Era brings together a diverse community of women who reveal the impact Donald Trump’s behavior, words, and presidency have had on each of them, how each is confronting the problem, and how she is fighting back. Several Brevity bloggers have essays in the collection: Ann V. Klotz, Nina Gaby, Reema Zaman, Michele Sharpe, Melanie Brooks and Allison K Williams.
This week, some of the writers featured in the anthology will blog about how they came to write their essay and their writing process, including sidestepping professional detachment when writing about trauma, using structure to shape memories, how writing in different genres can build an essay, and what it’s like to completely re-work your essay to better fit the whole collection.
We hope you’ll enjoy this special week (and a couple of bonus posts in the next few weeks!), as well as the anthology. And we can’t wait to read the essays coming into the world this year from your own experiences—write them when you have time, when you’re ready, and know that Brevity is grateful to have you as a reader now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her “adventures in writing” monthly newsletter here.
March 31, 2020 § 42 Comments
We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.
Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?
We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.
We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.
Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?
My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.
We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.
When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.
The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
This is an update of a November 2016 post.