Would You Let Someone Else Write About You?

“In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself.”

When I was writing my memoir, I approached almost every person who was a main character in the book to let them know what I was doing. I asked if there was anything that was off limits. After all, they didn’t ask to be in the book.

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Me  at age 19.

Without exception, each of them said, “Write whatever you want.” Even my ex-boyfriends were cool about it. (I didn’t contact all of them, of course. The guy who stalked me until I put him in jail probably wouldn’t have liked what I wrote about him.) I sent the former boyfriends copies of what I’d written and they were incredibly gracious. The only person who objected was one of the wives, who took it upon herself to read the manuscript and email me an unsolicited review: “I think the book is very bizarre!” There also was some stuff about her son being in a very exclusive private school and how she didn’t want my book ruining his precious little life. I wasn’t sure what to write back, or even if I should write back. I compromised by forwarding her email to all of my friends, with the subject line, “What a BITCH!!!”

Finally, I told my mother and father they were in the book. I warned them there were several chapters about the sickness and drinking. (My parents were long in recovery by then.) My mother said, “We were such bad parents, we probably deserve everything you wrote about us.” My father was thrilled about the book and ended up being my biggest fan.

I  was not necessarily unkind to to my parents in the memoir; rather, I was honest. It seemed wrong to sugar coat things. What happened happened and lying about it changed nothing. Still, I didn’t want the story to be one-sided.

In the end, I decided that I could only be as hard on other people as I was on myself. So I looked for opportunities to highlight my flaws. And the weird thing was, I loved doing that. Enough time had passed that I could look at my earlier life dispassionately and see how unbelievably fucked up I was. Given everything that had happened to me growing up, that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that considering how well they knew me, my friends and family still trusted me to tell their stories as I saw fit.

EXERCISE: How do you think your friends and family would react if you told them you were writing about them? Would they freak out or would they be flattered? Would they want to collaborate with you on some of the stories? Share your thoughts in the comments.

It’s All about Me

“Some of the things I wrote in my high school diary were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny.”

I loved writing my memoir. It gave me an excuse to haul out fourteen years of personal journals. I wrote faithfully every day — sometimes multiple times a day. I was a lonely and troubled soul and the journals were a great comfort to me. They always listened and they were always there for me to read when I needed company — even if the “company” was simply myself.

I was a natural for writing memoir because I was (and still am) my favorite topic. In graduate school, I struggled to discover my “voice” as a writer, when there it was all along in those journals. The young selves of many of my friends were captured in those pages as well.

I loved all of them so much. They were the center of my world and a significant part of my journaling was simply to preserve moments in time with them. Reading my journals from 1979 to 1992 was like having a reunion with those people. When I finished the journals, I sat on the steps and cried because the people on those pages were every bit as wonderful as I remembered them.

The other joy of writing the memoir was turning myself into a character. I loved poking fun at my naive, histrionic teenage self. What a pain in the ass I was! As I was writing the book, I asked my friends and former classmates if they could remember any annoying stuff I did back then. They all said they didn’t remember anything bad. I think they were just being tactful.

Some of the things I wrote were so ridiculous, I howled with laughter as I read them. Young idiot me was funny! The more I made fun of myself, the more enjoyable the writing became.

I’ll leave you with this gem. It’s based on a God-awful poem I wrote after breaking up with my first boyfriend.

Years from now, students will read this poem in their literature books, I tell myself. I imagine my bio in the margin, telling how modern literature’s most sensitive, insightful, heartbreaking poem was inspired by my high school boyfriend dumping me. The bio would give his full name, so readers would know who to blame (and possibly send hate mail to). Beneath the bio would be a picture of me, really old, like in my thirties, but I’d still be totally beautiful. In the end, I’d have realized that breaking up was the best thing that could have happened to me. How else could I have written a world-famous poem that made me the envy of writers everywhere?

I’m not a world-famous writer — yet. It could still happen. But I promise you, that poem will never see the light of day.

Who Am I?

“As a writer, sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are.”

When I was in graduate school, my program was creative non-fiction with a focus on memoir. I read lots of memoirs because I wanted to write my own. Of all the memoirs I read, my favorite was The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard. I loved how everything in her world was alive, from the gravel on the road to the house she grew up in. The descriptions were rich and layered and the tone ranged from wistful to irreverent. When I finished the memoir, I had found my role model. More than anything, I wanted to write like Joann Beard.

As a writer, I felt most comfortable with exposition, but like anyone who has taken creative writing courses, I knew that exposition was BAD. It was boring and lazy, a crutch for hacks and wannabes.  In Joann Beard’s memoir, everything was written as a scene with little to no exposition. The reader was placed immediately into the story, sensing and feeling everything along with the author.

I had already put together a list of stories to include in my memoir. With my Joann Beard-empowered voice, I set out to write the story of my first date. I’d written about the event in detail in my high school diary. I just had to convert my description to a scene.

I don’t remember how long it took me to write it — much longer than it should have. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I was finished, the piece was heavy on clever rhetoric, but in no way captured the magic of that day, nor did it represent the voice of a fifteen year old girl. I had face the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be Joann Beard.

It was disappointing but in the end, it was liberating. I went back to my high school diaries and studied them. I’d written the diaries the way I thought and spoke. The voice in the diaries was my voice as a writer. And even though there was a lot of exposition, it was thoughtful and funny and sarcastic.

It was a major turning point in my growth as a writer. I learned that sometimes you have to know who you are not before you can decide who you are. From that day forward I have have written with full commitment to my own process. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your style is as long as your reader is engaged.

EXERCISE: If you had to describe your authentic self, the one you keep tucked away for fear of judgment, who would you say that person it?  What are his or her secret thoughts? What drives those thoughts? Now write something as that person. Hold nothing back. When you read what you wrote, what have you learned about yourself? Share your revelations below, or share a bit of what you wrote.

When Not Writing is Writing

“No one can really teach you how to write a novel. You learn by doing it.”

Here’s my shameful secret: I’ve been working on JEZILLA for almost two years and I’m not even halfway done. I’ve had lots of stops and starts and re-writes and diversions into other projects along the way. At this rate, George R. R. Martin will be finished before I am. (BTW, Neil Gaiman thinks that’s okay.)

No one can really teach you how to write a novel. You learn by doing it. Two years after I had the idea for JEZILLA, I know a lot more about writing than when I started. From a technical standpoint, the novel has required a great deal of research on pacing and plot structure and worldbuilding. But I also have a clearer vision for my characters and a better understanding of my world. You can’t just pull that stuff out of thin air. Sometimes you have to let ideas gestate until they’re fully formed.

Whenever I hit a snag on the book, I get off the keyboard and just think about the characters. Who are they? What do they want? What’s some cool stuff I could make them do? As I’m falling asleep at night, I picture them going about their lives. What are they up to?

Sometimes the process yields more questions than answers, but questions are good too. If I’m asking them, it’s likely that my readers will be as well.

I had a major setback in September due to some health isues and I lost forward momentum on the book. But now that things are settling down, I’ve been re-thinking my writing strategy. Until now, I’ve done most of my writing on weekends or during breaks at work. It adds up to only a few hours a week. Maybe I can speed things up by talking instead of typing.

I purchased a USB headset microphone and configured Windows Speech Recognition for dictation. Maybe I can just talk about a scene, lay down the broad strokes, and then go back and fill in the gaps. I’ll let you know how that works.