Writing the memoir

Did you know that there is a difference between writing “memoirs’ and writing “a memoir?” Well, I didn’t. This week I have been reading Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington (1997). Her book is unexpectedly delightful and inspiring.

Memoirs are in the same category as autobiographies–a basic written account of facts–whereas, in the memoir, the writer reflects on the meaning of what happened, adding personal interpretation and judgment. According to Barrington, in a “contemporary literary memoir….the memorist tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge” (p. 20).

What I found particularly interesting is that Barrington encourages memorists to look for themes in their lives. Writing is then collected around these themes.

A memoir has to be very selective in what it includes, or Barringtong warns, you will end up with a huge, sprawling autobiography. The memories of our lives are all connected but in the memoir it is vital to leave things out (p. 56).

At the end of each chapter the book offers helpful assignments to get you started on writing. One assignment asks the reader to list ways to focus a memoir. The memoir may be focused around a defined period of time, for instance, “The year I….” It can also be focused around the writer’s relationship to something–a pet, a place you have lived, a favorite activity, or an event.

A memoir can be short or long. Short memoirs might be collected as chapters of a book. The important thing is to remain focused. And, as a last thought,

Most people only ever write one autobiography, but you may write many memoirs over time (p. 24).

“From the moment you start putting words on the page…”

I’m still on the subject of marketing yourself. Noelle Sterne shares some insights in her blog, Seven Lessons Reluctantly Learned from Publishing My First Book « FundsforWriters.

The article comes after her success, but I think the first three points are important to consider even before you publish. Like the saying about hindsight being perfect, we can learn from the insights of those who have been there. I have summarized the points here for you.

1. Be prepared to tell everyone about your book. Have your one minute elevator pitch ready.

2. Accept compliments graciously, don’t self-consciously deflect them. You are a writer, after all.

3. Concentrate on your platform. Do everything you can to promote your book before and after publication.

Sterne refers to an article by Christina Katz in Writers Digest entitled 50 Simple Ways to Build Your Platform in 5 Minutes a Day  http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/50-simple-ways-to-build-your-platform-in-5-minutes-a-day. Here is an excerpt which confirms what I have already been thinking:

Writing rules. Self-promotion drools. Isn’t this how most writers think?

But as long as you view your writing as art and your self-promotion efforts as the furthest thing from art, your chances of ramping up a successful 21st-century writing career are going to remain slim to none.
These days, there’s an art to writing and an art to self-promotion. From the moment you start putting words to the page, it’s never too early to start thinking about how you’re going to share them. And once you begin to see your writing and promotional efforts as equally artful, something wonderful starts to happen: You find readers. (underlines are mine)

Finding and connecting with readers is where it’s at. There is no way around it.

To unravel or not to unravel

My mother, who suffered a stroke a year ago, has recently taught herself to knit. I keep in touch with her by phone because we live a thousand miles apart.

I admire her spirit. She is determined not to let her physical limitations get her down. I have learned so much from my mother. One thing she has taught me is that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

The last time I spoke with her she told me that she had unravelled the scarf she was knitting because it was uneven, as you would expect from a beginner. Now she intends to do a job she will be proud of.

Some of the things I have been taught by my mother I have had to unravel and re-do for myself because they were not quite right. The old adage about doing a job well, to me started to sound like, “do it over until it is perfect,” or, “if you can’t do it well, then it’s not worth doing at all.” No this is not the same thing, but I think you can see how the progression can happen.

There are times when refusing the urge to perfect something can be a good thing. I have listened to writers who were so concerned about getting it right, that I seriously wondered if they would ever finish anything.

In a writing workshop I spent hours creating what I thought was an outstanding short script. My instructor’s comment to me was, “Is that the way you talk? You are trying too hard.” He did not want me to work so hard at achieving perfection that I did not even sound like myself.

Unravelling our writing can take a lot of time that might be better spent on a new project. I attended a watercolor class where the guest artist told us that he forces himself to throw away half of the paintings he produces. In my writing I also need to be willing to discard pieces.

On the other hand, denying myself the urge to perfect my writing, and still sharing it, can teach me to live with my imperfection.

My mother is now proudly wearing her knitted scarf. The call is yours–to unravel, or not to unravel. 

Marketing myself

The thought of marketing myself, or my product sends me into a state of sheer anxiety. Look, I’ll just put my writing out there and if nobody buys it, fine. Just, please, don’t even hint at the fact that I need to promote myself.

I think this fear dates back to my teenage attempts at sales. Back then I had a ‘can do’ attitude. Hey, I once even loaded the back of a pick-up truck with plastic bags of peat moss and went door to door trying to sell them. My brother and I had filled them ourselves. I thought my dad’s land had exceptional peat moss, but it didn’t seem anyone was in need of any lawn or garden enhancer that day.

I used to get easily motivated by motivational talks and fell prey to marketing schemes. Gradually I was cured of this ailment. For years there was a bone-coloured, leather-look carrying case filled with cosmetics and promotional material, sitting in my closet, reminding me of the wide gap between my dreams and reality.

I can see now that my sales pitch tended to sound more like an apology, “This is a wonderful product, but if you’re like me you probably can’t afford it. I don’t want to pressure you. Please. don’t think I’m trying to sell you anything.” And if someone bought something my eyes almost popped out of my head in surprise. Really, seriously?

Then there were the parties, you know, the ones where you invite all your friends and relatives and they are supposed to buy tupperware, or candles or something else they really don’t need for their house. After a few of these I started to respond with a tentative, no, to hosting anymore parties. I think it was because I was realizing pretty quickly how few true friends I had, or how fast I was losing them.

So, the upside was that I learned to assert myself. I didn’t have to buy anymore kits, or host parties, or attend any more pep talks. I began to see the success stories were about other people, not me. No, I wasn’t going to get those cheques they bragged about for selling vitamins, household cleaners, make-up, or whatever, no matter how good it sounded.

But now the old anxiety is returning. If I produce something, I will have to market it, some way or another. And I so hate promoting myself. Even writing an About page almost paralyzes me.

There is, however, one thing I know how to do. If someone has a need I can meet, I’m there. So if I research what people need, what they are looking for, I can respond to that. Maybe I can even present my product in such a way as to help them to see how it is precisely what they are looking for, or what their market needs.

For example, this morning I went to Markets « FundsforWriters. There I found what publishers are looking for. It’s all there, what they need. Now all I have to do is determine what it is in my experiences, knowledge, or research that is suitable. I think I can do this. But like I said, if they don’t buy it, fine. I’m out of there and on to the next one.

On time management and self-discipline

Has it come to this? Why of course! And we always knew it would, one day.

Joking aside, I was reading Sally Stuart’s Guide to Publishing a few days ago and became motivated to make some changes. It happened because I recognized who I am as a writer and what I want to accomplish. In her book she outlines types of writers as those who:

  • are totally committed to writing and would have to write no matter what (even if never published)
  • work at a full-time job while writing (always their first love) is on the side
  • write because they believe it will provide wealth or fame
  • write a lot and get excited about several projects at once, but seldom finish anything
  • spend their life (or at least their writing life) writing one story or experience
  • are obsessed with a single idea that is written and rewritten
  • write, submit, and sell, year in and year out (p. 130)

I know writers in most of these categories. I asked myself which one best described me and realized in that moment what I wanted. The category you or I find ourselves in does not have to be our destiny.

So, I am making some decisions. As she suggests, I am making time to write. I am informing friends and family of when I will and will not be available. I am setting goals, breaking them down into manageable pieces and making use of my calendar and to-do list. I am identifying time wasters and setting boundaries around my quality working time.

Knowing who you are and exactly what it is you want can be extremely motivating. In the next few weeks this blog will reflect some of the changes I will be making. Happy writing!