Students in our writing classes often ask whether they should plan their memoir before writing or just let the words tumble out as memories arise.
We tend to say: Use both approaches!
We don't think that planning and a more intuitive approach are mutually exclusive. Here’s what we suggest for memoirists:
Decide whether a question would help focus your writing. Make a list of turning points in your story: those big moments in your life (or the period you are writing about) when everything changed. Perhaps you gained a new understanding or life went in a new and unexpected direction. Meeting key people. Death. Birth. Loss. Moments of revelation. Write scenes of those turning points. Make sure you use the intutive, freewriting approach and let the words tumble out as you write your scene. It’s freewriting that lets the unexpected emerge, even when you already know the story! Write some reflection about the big moments. This means your t..read more.
BY SARAH ARMSTRONG
I’ve had a couple of moments of revelation since I dedicated myself to writing about fifteen years ago. The first was when I discovered freewriting. I was astounded to see how it freed up my first drafts.
The other revelation was when I read a description of how to write a scene. Amazingly, I hadn't considered that there were different components to writing. Wasn’t it all just writing?
Our students seem to find it helpful to think about three key compenents in a story: scene (or action), summary and reflection. (Of course there are many more components but I tend to think of these as the building blocks)
Scene (or action) is story told in real time. It is showing, not telling.
Summary is real time condensed. Telling.
Reflection is the author or character thinking about events and the consequences of events.
Not all stories contain all three ingredients, but most do, to different degrees. While refl..read more.
BY SARAH ARMSTRONG
I’m in the house sketching out my idea for the next novel while Al is in the backyard studio, writing into the blue. And he’s struggling. He says that for the first time in his writing life he is all at sea as he tries to figure out what to write next. Click here to read more on what he’s up to.
I love this stage of writing when I have a few hundred words on the page and a head full of ideas. Anything is possible and I haven’t had to solve structural problems or questions of plausibility or find the narrative voice. It’s just a nebulous, utterly wonderful idea in my head. Bliss!
Doubt and the writer
I recently chaired a conversation with four novelists at the lovely new Byron Bay library. All the writers - Jesse Blackadder, Jessie Cole, Lisa Walker andSusanna Freymark - spoke of the doubt that arises while writing. (Although ‘arises’ may be too gentle a verb!) Jesse just keeps writing despite what the inner c..read more.
BY ALAN CLOSE
Raymond Chandler, in a tart moment, quipped to his publisher that Ernest Hemingway, ‘never really wrote but one story. All the rest is the same thing dressed up in different pants – or without different pants’.
I think Chandler is right that almost all writers who are really true to themselves have only one story, which they clothe in different plots, characters and even genres. It’s one of the consequences of attempting to write with as much honesty as you can. Only certain things matter to you enough to put all that energy into writing about them.
It’s something that’s pressing on me lately. Now that Sarah’s novel is off being looked at by a publisher and Amelia has started one day a week at family day care, I’ve got the opportunity, after years away, to sit again at my desk and think about what I want to write. They say that the world is easier seen through one window. By that measure, I often feel I’m looking through a kale..read more.
BY SARAH ARMSTRONG
Freewriting our way into an idea
Ah, what bliss it is not having a current writing project! Sarah writes: I've finished work on my novel for the moment (the manuscript is with my agent) which means I can relax and freewrite and puddle around with the various ideas that have been sitting at the back of my mind. There’s such freedom and joy in writing without expectation and without the technical considerations that come with rewriting.
Most of my current ideas have come from news stories (some of them years old) and I've found (unsurprisingly) that they tend to touch on similar themes. The same ideas and themes seem to present themselves again and again in my writing. Clearly, there's something there I am trying to figure out!
I always use freewriting to explore an idea and it helps me discover directions and possibilities I would never have imagined. I've revisited the work of writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg (in particular he..read more.
BY SARAH ARMSTRONG & ALAN CLOSE
Memoir: where are you? We’ve been enjoying reading essays lately, and Sarah has been thinking about her next project (now that her novel is almost finished) and she’s excited by the idea of exploring the essay form for a while before diving back into another novel. If essays interest you, here’s a link to Robert Atwan’s pick of the top ten American essays.
In an article in the Publisher’s Weekly Atwan wrote: To my mind the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
Which brings us to memoir and this month’s article on our website: How to write memoir: the black hole of you. When you write memoir, one of the challenges you’re likely to face is presenting yourself as a character. We’ve a..read more.
When you write memoir, one of the challenges you’re likely to face is presenting yourself as a character.
We’ve assessed lots of memoir manuscripts over the years and often find that the writer barely depicts him or herself. It’s as if he or she is a pair of disembodied eyes observing things.
Fairly obviously, it’s important that the reader gets a strong sense of the writer/protagonist. A sense of intimacy with the writer as the story unfolds is one of the great delights of reading memoir.
So if the first draft of your memoir has this problem, (and if it does, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone) one of your jobs in rewriting will be to construct yourself as a character. Work on conveying your physicality (how you looked, how you moved through the world, your voice, your mannerisms and your awareness of the same) as well as your thoughts about the events.
We sometimes ask memoirists where in time they are narrating the story ..read more.
Writing can be hard work.
For some people the hard work is trying to find something to write. Others stall when they come to rewrite and others struggle to find (or make) the time to write at all. How do you write when it’s hard going? When you’d prefer to go for a walk or hang out the washing or, best of all, read a book that someone else has actually finished?
The answer is: write. Seems obvious, but the only way through a hard patch of writing is to keep writing. If you are truly stalled, just write anything. If I feel like walking away from the desk and can’t bring myself to work on the project at hand, I might write a letter to Amelia, my two-year old. Or I write an account of one of my childhood birthday parties. Or I describe the sounds and smells and sights around me, in intricate detail.
There’s something about the act of writing - of turning ideas and images into words (for someone else to turn back into ideas and images) - that nourishes an..read more.
The last couple of months Sarah has been working hard on the last draft of her novel (working title His Other House). Actually it won't be the last draft but that’s what she’s been telling herself as she crammed writing into every available moment. Her manuscript is now being read by her writing group and Alan and a few select readers and she is forcing herself not to think about it for a couple of weeks. (It's tricky when Alan comes out of his room saying, ‘Wow! I didn’t expect Quinn to tell her like that!’).
One of the things she had to work on was what her main character wanted. If you've ever been to a class or course of ours, you might be surprised to hear this as you’d think Sarah would sort this out early, given how much she bangs on about it in her teaching.
Because the protagonist's desire drives plot.
Somehow she didn't sort it out. Somehow she ended up with a passive protagonist. All of which required some serious thinking and some s..read more.
By SARAH ARMSTRONG
The last few weeks I have been in the thick of rewriting. At the very best stage of the rewriting process: the end.
I find the early stages of rewriting taxing. It’s where I am supposed to figure out what the characters want and how they change. I have to solve the big (inevitably) structural problems that arise. Not to mention voice and point of view and setting and themes. This is the point at which I sometimes wonder why I embarked on this surely ill-fated project and I consider dumping it before wasting any more time. I have learnt to keep plodding on through this often dispiriting phase.
Then, at some point, months or years later, the fun part starts. I puddle around adding layers of meaning and memory and setting. I play with the pacing. I interview people (in this case, doctors) for research and fact checking. I play with sentences and words and I start to see the story becoming something I would want to read myself.
Fun ..read more.
We don’t know a writer who doesn’t grapple with doubt. It presents in many forms and we can all take comfort in the fact that every writer worth reading also struggles with doubt at some point.
Doubt often takes the form of a critic sniping while you write. Sarah’s critic says things like: That’s a cliché. You think people will be interested in that?! Alan’s says: There’s a better way to write this. Isn’t there something else you should be writing?
And sometimes doubt manifests as a general procrastination and resistance to writing.
We don’t suggest trying to knock off your critic, and we’re not sure that you could even if you wanted to. The best bet, we’ve found, is to find ways to distance the critic. The Australian writer Kate Grenville has said she tells her critic, ‘I’ll fix it up later.’ Which is what Sarah also says to hers and which is just a way of reminding the critic (who tends to forget) of the difference between a first..read more.
By SARAH ARMSTRONG
Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it. Michael Crichton
Let’s say – for the purposes of this article – that you have a first draft in hand. An unwieldy, imperfect first draft. Bravo for finishing a first draft. It’s no small achievement. (And if you want to know more about why I love my first drafts to be messy and chaotic, read this).
An effective rewrite of this first draft will require the courage to make wholesale changes.
I’m talking Seriously Big changes. You may need to kill off or bring to life a character or two. You may ditch great reams of writing. (And I mean tens of thousands of words.) You may even find you need to dump the passages of writing you love the most. (Get prepared for this. You will find all too often the most ‘beautiful’ writing is superfluous.) You may start an..read more.
By SARAH ARMSTRONG AND ALAN CLOSE
If we had to pick the two most important pieces of advice we give students who ask us how to write a book, it would be these: Try not to do any rewriting until you’ve finished the first draft and spend lots of time finding out who your characters really are and what they want.
The first draft is where the story reveals itself to you. We encourage you to let it be chaotic, messy, ungrammatical. Allow it to be a process of discovery. Rush headlong into it.
We suggest you freewrite your first draft using these basic rules: Don't stop writing. Keep the pen (or fingers on keyboard) moving. Go with the first thought that comes to mind. (Just follow it and see where it takes you, no matter how unpromising it may at first appear.) Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Give yourself permission to write badly.
This part of the process is almost a writing meditation. You’ll be amazed where your pen leads you. For us ..read more.
By ALAN CLOSE
At first glance, writing memoir might appear to be easier than writing fiction. After all, it’s your life and you know the story, yes? It’s not as if you have to make anything up. Not like fiction writers who have to think the whole lot up: plot, characters, everything.
But writing about your own life is rarely simple and never easy. Some writers (Sarah being one of them) suggest that memoir is harder to do well than fiction.
Before we go on, it’s probably useful to define what a memoir is and isn’t. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography is the story of a life, usually written by someone famous or worthy at an advanced age, when they have the time or motivation to look back and reflect on their achievements. Its structure is built around the stages of a life – youth, adulthood, middle age, old age. It usually starts at birth (with some reflection on family background) and proceeds chronologically unt..read more.
By SARAH ARMSTRONG
Inspiration is such a lovely notion. I used to imagine writers wandering through their day – watering the lettuces, washing the breakfast dishes - until an marvellous idea burst upon them with a flash of light and clash of cymbals. The writer would then hurry to their desk to spend hours recording the stream of words.
I knew this was a faintly ridiculous way to imagine the writing process. But I confess that when I decided to write a novel, I was hoping that all I had to do was settle at my desk in the hills behind Mullumbimby (in northern New South Wales) and wait for the muse to descend.
Unfortunately nothing happened. Inspiration did not strike. Instead I wrote and re-wrote (and re-wrote) the opening few paragraphs of a story, trying to keep the phrase ‘writers block’ out of my mind.
Then I was introduced to freewriting – which now forms the foundation of everything I write (including this article). Freewriting is..read more.
By ALAN CLOSE
None of us, we’re pretty sure, would want to write if we didn’t love reading. We want to write because we love words and sentences and the alchemy they can create. But reading is not only information and entertainment.
The best way to learn how to write is to read. Read everything. Even the books you don’t like. Read them with an eye to what doesn’t work for you and why.
Raymond Chandler used to say that it is often easier to learn from the second-raters than the top-shelf writers. We might read the very best writers to be transported and inspired, but often these writers are so good, their voice so singular, that they appear seamless. It is as if their writing has fallen from heaven, not (as is undoubtedly the case) been hard-won through long hours at the desk. (‘Easy reading is damn hard writing,’ said Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
Reading a book that doesn’t really work for you gives you the chance to pick it apart and figure ..read more.