Writing Memoir: What Does THIS Have to do With THAT?

By | Memoir, Writing | 4 Comments

I was held up at gunpoint at the dry cleaners. Anybody would agree that this is a shock to one’s system. But here’s what’s odd: it didn’t really scare me. And afterwards, I was not haunted.

I felt sad.


I found myself telling the story of the holdup over and over. I wanted everyone to know. At a dinner party, I made my friends join me in a re-enactment. “Okay, John, you be the owner of the dry cleaner. And you, Bobbie, be the robber. Just jump out, Bobbie. Like this. And hold your gun lower. Point it at my stomach. Wait, both of you stand here. No, closer.” I pulled the two of them right up to me. “Yeah,” I say, “that’s it.” I made it funny so we could all laugh – my fellow actors and our audience.

And then I went home from the dinner and cried.

I found myself putting the holdup in a memoir I was working on. But did it belong? What did a holdup have to do with the subject of my memoir: when my husband, two years before, went in for an epidural to relieve back pain and the instant the needle pushed into his spine, he became paralyzed from the waist down?

It was only through asking myself the following questions that I began to understand the connection:

What did I think then? What else? What do I think now? What else?

What I came to:

Because someone threatened me with a gun, I could finally cry — really cry — over what had happened to my husband. It was as though I was confronting my husband’s “accident” for the first time. How everything can be fine one minute. And then, nothing is. That thin line. How a brushfire can erupt on a perfectly sunny, clear-skied day. How your life can be taken right out of your hands.

How, when you write memoir, you encounter new possibilities about understanding your life. How memoir is the narrative of revelation.



Keep Your Reader Twitchy

By | Writing | 8 Comments

You lived through it, that traumatic scene you’re writing about in your memoir. When it was going on, maybe you closed your eyes during most of it. Maybe you closed yourself off emotionally during all of it. But now, writing about it, you need to open your eyes — your mind and your heart — fully. Stare. Don’t flinch. Be a great noticer. Take in every detail. Write in detail. Linger in the scene. When you slow down time, tension rises.

A writer-friend recently critiqued an essay I’d been working on. In one scene, my brother is about to tell my husband and me some startling news: He fathered a child forty years before. The mother gave birth in a home for unwed mothers. The baby was put up for adoption. The baby is now a forty-year-old woman who has just found her birth father, my brother.

I zipped through all that in my essay like I had a train to catch. Covered the whole thing in a couple of paragraphs.

Back to work. Slow it down. Let the reader see each person in the room. Is my brother flicking his ear, a gesture I’ve never seen him do before? Am I sinking deeper into the sofa cushions, settling in for the evening? Or am I sitting up straighter? Leaning in to my brother as he speaks? Is my husband’s shoulder touching mine? What’s the temperature in the room? Am I suddenly wondering what the thermostat is set on? Does the air feel altered?

Stop the clock from ticking away, withhold information, release it slowly, force your readers to pause in their rush to find out what happens next — that’s how you create narrative tension, forward pull. Keep your readers a little twitchy.

Attention: Poor, Pathetic, Pitiful, Sensitive Writers

By | Publishing, Writing | 4 Comments


I set an all-time record not long ago. In a span of twenty minutes, I received three rejections. Two were no-thank-you’s in response to essays I’d submitted to literary journals. One was a letter explaining that the highly acclaimed judge of the competition I’d entered had decided not to award a prize this year because no submission deserved one.

Now, we writers are poor, pathetic, pitiful, sensitive creatures who feel things deeply, so I had to spend a good part of that day feeling sorry for myself.

But then. I sat down at my desk and started writing again. I wrote because — well, because, deep down, I know that nothing I write is ever as wonderful or as terrible as I think it is. The megalomania and the despair are both part of the writing process. These feelings — in their glorious grandiosity and utter abjection — are not only normal; they’re useful. They keep us striving. They lure us back to the desk again and again.

I can revise this dreadful thing and make it better.


That last chapter I wrote was so fabulous, I’ll just write another one.

Here’s what else I know for sure: In the end, the true prize is losing ourselves in the absolute pleasure of finding one good word.

Messy Writing

By | Writing | 6 Comments

messy writing

The concept of messy writing doesn’t make any sense at all for me, because I’m probably the world’s neatest person. My desk looks like I never go near it. My closet could be on display on a float in a parade. One of my favorite things to do is put like things with like things. I can spend hours sorting and organizing. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know about me?

And yet.

I like the idea of writing out of confusion. I even like the feeling, early in the process, that the whole book is close to collapse.

For example, I never start with an outline. And I never know how any book I begin is going to end. With my first novel, The Slow Way Back, all I had was the desire to write a novel. No plot. No idea what I would write about. Just motivation. With my novel, Early Leaving, I started with an obsession: How could the grandson of my mother’s best friend commit murder? My first memoir, Losing My Sister, grew out of the messiness of a relationship. My memoir-in-progress, What We Can Count On, is about marriage and identity, but the starting point is a medical error.

I rarely do research. I just make guesses — at least, in the beginning. Research, for me, would be a form of procrastination. I’m too busy getting started to try to locate all the pieces. I let the book meander toward meaning, keep myself open to various paths and possibilities. I trust that, as I proceed, the details will find a narrative.

I’m not saying you should do everything I do. I’m certainly not saying I know how to write wonderful books. Goodness, I have so far to go. I’m just suggesting that if you’re orderly and methodical like me, you might try being disorderly and unmethodical in your writing.

There should be something seriously wrong with a first draft of anything. It’s a sign that you’re pushing it. A sign you’re not afraid of the mess.

Allowing Rough To Remain Rough

By | Memoir, Writing | One Comment

Dr. Seuss - Go Dog Go

I know several writers who revise as they go. Their first draft is also their second and third. They don’t tackle Chapter Two until they have Chapter One just right.

Of course, this is a perfectly fine way to write. And you’re the only one who can decide how you want to approach the job. But let me build a case for another way:

I push to the end of my first draft, no matter how clumsy the draft seems. My goal is to go from the first page to the bottom of the last page as fast as I can, without stopping to revise, before I can intimidate myself by thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m writing a book.” Leaving all those awkward sentences, clunky paragraphs, aimless chapters feels as though I’ve had friends over for dinner six nights in a row and left dirty dishes and sticky pots piled in the sink. Allowing a rough draft to remain rough is the opposite of what my tidy and orderly self wants to do.

But the first draft is the dream part of writing. It’s unharnessed energy. It’s the story forming its central questions. You won’t know what your book is about until you’ve written the book. Really, you might not know until years into revision.

I wrote the first draft of my memoir, Losing My Sister, in six months. I then spent the next five and a half years revising. Ann Sexton said, “The poem knows more than the poet.” In my case, the memoirist knew nothing.

Three things happened to me within five days. My older sister was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. My daughter found out she was pregnant with identical twins. And my older brother told me he’d fathered a daughter forty years before, she’d been put up for adoption at birth, and she’d just found him. Immediately, a title, Arithmetic of Family, popped into my head. People entering the family, people leaving. Like a Dr. Seuss book. I could see Dalmatians wearing funny red and blue hats coming into a house, exiting. I worked on that book for years. But then what I had talked back to me. Two-thirds of the manuscript didn’t belong. The story I needed to write was the story of my sister and me.

What’s the story you need to write? Well, first, finish your rough draft. Then, like an adolescent, your book will begin to separate from you. You’ll take that dreamy first draft and look at it analytically and diagnostically. You’ll figure out what’s present, what’s missing, what’s unnecessary. You’ll grow aware of larger implications. Only then will you come to know the story you’re well into telling.

Then and Now

By | Memoir, Writing | 5 Comments


Maybe the hardest — certainly the most important — thing to learn about writing memoir:

The then and now of it.

When you’re going through an experience, you’re pretty innocent. You might get slivered glimpses of insight, but mostly you’re just trying to manage day-to-day.

Then, years pass, and you decide to write a memoir. You’re more experienced, maybe even more mature. At the very least, you have the advantage of time. You lean back, stroke your chin, understand the significance — even start to be hardened to the emotional impact – of what you’ve lived to tell about. Because you want to move gracefully from the actual memory, to insights you had then, to honest questioning, to insights you have now. You’re seeking a balance between the then and the now, through a braiding of the two, a jumping back and forth, or a steady progression. Regardless of the form you use, your mission is to show growth and change.

My older sister and I fought when we were in our thirties and both our parents were dying. At the time I thought Brenda was being bossy, wrongheaded. I saw myself as wimpy, not strong enough to stand up to her (even when I was standing up to her). Years later, I began writing a memoir about our close but complicated relationship. As I dug into the two years we were barely speaking, I came to realize we were both devastated over losing our parents and just wanted the other to take away the pain. Make me feel better, Brenda. Make me feel better, Judy. When neither of us could, we turned on each other.

The naiveté of then. The perspective of now. Important in memoir. Heck, important in life.

How to Get an Agent

By | Publishing, Writing | 27 Comments

My best advice for getting an agent doesn’t have anything to do with agents. It’s this: If you’re still writing your book, forget about agents. Forget about publishing. Don’t be attached to results at all. Just write. Write because you love exploring the mystery and infinite possibility that is life. Write because you can’t not write. You certainly shouldn’t be writing because you want to be rich and famous!

My second best agent advice: Finish your book. Most agents won’t read a partially-completed debut novel or memoir.

Third piece of advice: Make sure you’re ready. The good news is, there are hundreds of agents. And not just in New York. They’re in San Francisco, Denver, DC, Boston. All around us. The not-so-good news: You only get one shot at each agent. So make sure you’re sending your best effort. Find an outside reader, someone you trust. And please, make sure that trusty someone checks your grammar and punctuation. You don’t want to write it’s when you mean its.

Now. You’ve polished your manuscript to a shine and you’re ready to begin the search.

Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace. It costs $20 a month and you can unsubscribe at any time. If you’ve written a memoir, you’ll find the names of agents who’ve sold memoirs. If you’ve written a novel, you can narrow your search to agents who sell the type of novel you’ve written — thriller, romance, etc. You can even see the titles an agent has sold during the past six months, the past twelve months. You can also pull up a list of top agents, the ones who’ve sealed the most deals.

And, speaking of deals, there’s plenty to be said for querying busy, successful agents. They’ll have access to the top editors. On the other hand, a busy, successful agent might be too busy and successful to pay you much attention. Newer agents might work harder for you because they’re hungry. On the other hand, a new agent might not have access to the editors you’re dreaming of. Regardless of whether your agent is a top dealmaker or on the way up, your goal is to land someone who believes in your work. You want someone who wants you.

Another way to find agent names is to go to a bookstore or library and read the Acknowledgements Page of books similar to the one you’ve written. Authors frequently will thank their agents.

You can also try the Association of Authors’ Representatives. You know that these agents are ethical. Of course, there are many ethical agents who choose not to be AAR members. But this is another route to finding agent names.

Try Agent Query for all sorts of info: agent lists, advice on query letters, etc.

You can also find info on agents in Literary Marketplace, a book found in most libraries and bookstores.

Regardless of how you acquire your list of agents, visit their websites and follow their specific guidelines for submission. If an agent requests the first five pages with your query letter, send the first five pages. Don’t slip in an extra three. (But don’t stop in the middle of a sentence! Stop before that, at a logical place.) This is an opportunity to show how cooperative you can be. Single-space your query letter. Double-space your manuscript in 12 pt. type (I use Times New Roman font). Number the pages of your manuscript and include a cover page giving the title, your name and address, email address, and phone number.

Remember, your query letter is super-important. Work hard and long on it.

Of course, you’ll give the title of your book in the first or second paragraph, but also mention you’ve recently finished it, as in:

Pasted below are the opening pages of my newly completed novel, The Birds and the Bees. Would you consider reading the full manuscript?

If you have publishing credits, list those. If you have an MFA or other advanced degree, mention that. No bragging though. Do not say that your friends think your memoir is great. Do not say you know the world will love your novel. Include a brief synopsis — several sentences, maybe a paragraph. I believe that if you tell too much, you run the risk of giving the agent a reason to pass. You can offer several ideas for how a publisher might promote your particular book. But keep your query letter brief (one page maximum) and businesslike. Don’t crack jokes. They probably won’t work. You might want to compare your book to a similar one that’s been published. You might want to tell why your book stands out from others in its category. If you query a particular agent because he/she represents an author you admire, mention that.

Most agents prefer email submissions. And most ask you to embed your writing sample in the body of the email. If they like what they’ve read, they’ll request your full manuscript sent as an attachment.

And remember, no reputable agent charges a fee to read your manuscript. Agents make their money by selling your book. They earn 15% of your advance (half given to you on signing with a publishing house and half on completion of what the publisher deems a publishable manuscript). They also earn a percentage of your sales. An agent does not make a dime until your book is sold.

Keep track of the agents you’ve queried and their response. Give an agent 4-6 weeks to respond. If you don’t hear back, you can email to inquire about the status, although many agents specify on their websites that if you don’t hear back within a certain time, it means they’ve passed. You may query more than one agent at a time. In fact, I recommend querying five to ten agents. That way, if you receive feedback on your book as part of a rejection, you’ll have a chance to revise your book before trying the next batch.

If an agent offers representation, express your excitement and appreciation. It is cause for celebration! If other agents are reading your full manuscript at the time, you can ask the agent who has offered representation how long before you need to make a decision. Then email the agents who have your full manuscript and let them know you’ve received an offer. They might rush to read your manuscript and make offers, too. Then you’ll have a choice!

Feel free to ask an agent who has offered you representation questions. For example: What do you like about my book? Does it need a lot of revision? Will you let me know ahead of time the editors you’re pitching? How often can I expect to hear from you once you begin submitting my book? How soon do you give up?

Most agents, after you sign, will offer editorial advice on your book. That’s a good thing! Listen up!

Mainly, I want to wish you good luck. I also want to encourage you to keep trying. It’s all about perseverance.

As Fred Leebron, an excellent writer, once said to me, It’s a war of attrition. Don’t attrish.

And then there’s the quote taped to my computer: Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. We’re trying, Winston Churchill!

Try This Exercise

By | Writing Prompts | 24 Comments

We didn’t kiss relatives on the mouth. However, one summer when I was maybe six or seven, my family hosted a large family gathering in our back yard in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The day was sweet and lazy, aunts and uncles chatting and smoking on chaise lounges, some snoozing in hammocks, cousins playing store or school or movie stars in my sister’s and my playhouse, which was tucked behind the wisteria. Lunch was fried chicken, potato salad, candied yams, biscuits, and iced tea on picnic tables. Late afternoon, when the sun was growing pale and everyone was leaving, Uncle Jack kissed me good-bye on the lips. That wouldn’t have been so remarkable, except that earlier in the day I’d overheard Aunt Gertrude whisper to Mother that Uncle Jack had been diagnosed with cancer. I just knew he’d now given it to me. I didn’t say a word to my parents because I didn’t want to worry them, but that night, as I lay crying in my bed, picturing my early death, Mother heard my sobs and came to my side.

“What’s wrong, Judy?” she asked, rubbing my back through my shortie pajamas.

“I’ve got bad news. I have cancer,” I said.

What did you believe when you were a child that you know, now that you’re an adult, is not true?

What’s the Use?

By | Writing | 17 Comments

My husband twisted up to turn out the light.  He pulled the covers around his shoulders, folded the hem of the sheet over the comforter, let his entire body sink back into the too-soft mattress.  I thought I heard a sigh.  From his lips?  From the mattress?

“What’s the use?” I said.

“Hm?” he murmured, flipping his pillow to the cool underside, inching away from me in the direction of his night table.

“There are so many great poets in North Carolina,” I said.  This was in the early ’80s.  “Why would I even think I could write well enough to get my poems published?”

He kicked one foot out from under the covers, circled it a little.  “You’re learning,” he said.  “You’ll get there.”

“Yeah, but really, what’s the use?”

I started naming all the North Carolina poets I could think of.  All the ones I could never be.  “There’s Dannye Romine Powell.  And Julie Suk.  Susan Ludvigson.  Harriet Doar.  Fred Chappell.  Reynolds Price.  Kathryne Stripling Byer.  There’s Georgann Eubanks.  Ruth Moose.  Mary Kratt.  Chuck Sullivan.  Who’m I kidding?”

I heard a faint snore, then a soft whistle.

“Michael McFee,” I went on.  “Barbara Lovell.  Alan Shapiro…”

He was sound asleep.


Now, years later, after publishing two books of poetry and two novels, after completing a memoir, I want to begin writing a new book.  But I’m stuck again in the what’s-the-use? syndrome.  Lord knows, it’s hard to get anything published these days.  The industry is totally kerflooey, turned upside down and inside out by the recession and the huge popularity of eBooks.  Nobody — editors, agents, authors — knows the way forward.  Why should I embark on a project that will take three to five years, possibly longer, when I know good and well my manuscript could end up in my drawer, unpublished?  A friend of mine says the word, “frigging,” every other word.  I think of her now.  What’s the frigging use?

Besides, there are no new stories.  Every book I might think to write will be similar to countless others.

And, like that long list of North Carolina poets, there are countless accomplished authors, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the world, most of whom I could never hope to match.

How can I put into words the precise meaning of what I want to say?  My sentences and paragraphs will probably be unclear, maybe incoherent.  All those false starts and dead ends.

Why bother?

It’s so much trouble to write.


Answer to unanswerable question:

It really doesn’t matter whether the world applauds our efforts.  It doesn’t matter if our work is ever accepted.  If our closest kin starts our book but never actually finishes it, if we don’t secure representation by an agent, if a publisher doesn’t buy it, if we’re not reviewed, if we are reviewed but the reviewer hates our book, if we give a reading in a bookstore and a woman in the front row falls asleep.

We’re writers.  We’re curious.  We must probe that curiosity all the way to the bottom of page one.  To the bottom of chapter one.  To the last word of the last chapter.  Revise three, twenty, forty times.  Stay mentally engaged.  Strive, not for perfection, but for specificity, definition, purity.  We need to convince — maybe not readers — ourselves.

We have enough material to keep on forever.  We must tell our stories.  Even if hardly anyone’s listening.

Your Notebook: The Key to Beginning Your Novel or Memoir

By | Journal, Writing | 11 Comments


Do you want to write a novel or memoir, but don’t have any earthly idea how to begin?  Don’t know what the plot of your novel might be or which part of your life you should pick as the focus of your memoir?

Start your notebook.

Record every memory that floats up:  The spring you and your sister poured Mercurochrome onto the roots of the dogwood, hoping to turn its blooms pink.  The summer the two of you peroxided your bangs and lay on chaises in the back yard, waiting to turn blonde and glamorous.  The last Thanksgiving your family was together in your parents’ house.

Write down your dreams, ideas for scenes, gestures you observe in the people around you – the way your mother pushes back her cuticles, the guy who repairs your car (how he keeps scratching the back of his knee).  Clip newspaper articles that capture your imagination.

A great benefit of keeping a notebook is that it’ll help you become a better noticer. Which is crucial.  Curiosity is part of the job description for a writer.  You’ll need a lot of details to fill the pages of a book, and the particulars you’ve written down can be used to make your characters in your novel more alive or you can draw upon those memories for scenes in your memoir.

What else do you record?  Awarenesses about your life, which you can then use in your memoir for reflection or analysis — or give to a character in your novel.

Years ago, a friend admired a vase or some other pretty thing in my house and I said, “If you look closer, you’ll see that it’s been broken many times and glued back together.  In fact, everything in my house has been broken and glued back together.”  Then I thought, “That’s an interesting sentence.  Everything in my house has been broken and glued back together. What if I invented a family for whom that sentence would be true?”  I recorded that sentence in my notebook, and it became the opening of my second novel, Early Leaving.  Later I moved the sentence to the middle of the book.  Then it got bumped to the end.  Finally, I cut the sentence altogether.  But it served a purpose – it gained me entrance into the story.

What else do you store away in your notebook?  Conversations you overhear in the garden area of Lowe’s, next to the mulch.  Conversations you overhear in a restaurant:

One morning my husband, my son-in-law, and I were having breakfast at Honey’s in Durham.  At the table next to us was a family – a man, his wife, and their son, about five years old.  The little boy was talking when we sat down and kept on talking throughout the meal.  All of a sudden, the father reared up, glared at him, and said, “You know what your problem is?  You’re hardheaded and you talk too much!”  Now I didn’t like what the father said to his son, but I did appreciate the rhythm of his sentence.  I whipped out my notebook and wrote down his exact words.  If you look on page eleven of Early Leaving, you’ll find an entire chapter wrapped around those thirteen words I overheard while eating bacon and eggs at Honey’s.

Now here’s what’s interesting about keeping a notebook:  You’ll find that you’ll become a magnet for details that pertain to the project you’re about to begin.  Ideas will coalesce and you can actually see your story forming, because your sub-conscious is doing the work for you.

When you feel that you’re ready to begin, scan your notebook.  Which lines have the magic?  You might take an actual sentence from your notebook to use as your first line, to get your pen moving across the page or your fingers tapping on the keyboard.

What’s floating up through the layers of your mind right now?  The girl who won the Good Posture Prize in the fifth grade?  The time your sister asked if she could have the Majolica vase your mother gave you right before she went into the nursing home, how your father – overhearing your sister’s request – told you and your sister that she has the right to ask but you have the right to say no?  The knock-knock jokes your two-year-old grandson tells?  Grab your notebook.  You’re already on page one of your book.