You Wrote WHAT About Me?

By | Memoir, Novel, Writing | 12 Comments

You wrote WHAT about me???
Back when Barnes & Noble sponsored a Discover Great New Writers program and displayed the books earning the prestigious designation on a table at the front door, my writer friend, whose novel was a Discover Great New Writers pick, said to me, “Do you think my mother will find out about my novel? A character in my book is based strongly on her, and I don’t want her to know.”

“Of course your mother is going to find out about your novel!” I said. “It’ll be displayed in every Barnes & Noble in the country, in the most prominent spot in the store!”

“You think?” she asked, wonder in her voice.

I’m not telling this story to show how delusional writers are. I’m showing how scary it is to use details – and people – from your life in your work. What will my __________________ say? (Fill in the blank: mother, stepmother, father, stepfather, sister, brother, aunt, cousin, husband.)

Here, then, is the most important advice I can give on that subject: Write as though everyone is dead. Don’t censor anything between the idea popping into your head and the words landing, in heavy black, on the page. Write honestly and boldly. Later you can decide who your audience will be – the wide world, only your husband, your desk drawer. Later you can decide what to delete and what to leave in. Later you can seek legal advice from an attorney who specializes in publication law.

But, usually, we’re not worried about legal ramifications. We’re worried about emotional ramifications. What will your mother think about that angry conversation she had with you, the one that’s now appearing word for word in your memoir? What about the uncle your dad always took care of financially because their mother (your grandmother) on her deathbed asked him to — and there it is, spelled out, in your poem? What can you do to protect their privacy? To protect your place at the table?

You can include an author’s note in your book stating you are relying on memory, that your memory might differ from others’, that you’ve included conversations and, though they might not be verbatim, they contain the essence of what was said — things like that.

You can change the name. You can revise or disguise some of the details that would identify the person. Your short, bald first husband can grow five inches and a full head of thick black hair. You can even change the gender. The doctor who operated on the wrong ankle could be a young woman instead of a middle-aged man. You can merge several people from your life into one character.

You can give a copy of your manuscript to the person you’ve written about to see if he or she is OK with it. But if you do, you have to be willing to change or cut if the person objects. Make sure you’ve thought this through before handing over pages.

But first, a few things you need to know: The person you wrote about, whom you’re so afraid of offending, might end up liking what you’ve written. My first novel was a thinly veiled story about my sister and me. All while I was writing it, I was petrified what she would think. Surprise!  She loved it! The character named Mickey, based on her, was strong and independent. At my book signing, my sister actually inscribed a friend’s book, love, Mickey.

Often, the person in your book you weren’t worried about ends up hating it. And sometimes a person who’s not anywhere in your book will hate a character he’s convinced is him.

What’s a writer to do?

Just write the novel, memoir, essay, poem. And bake some brownies for your _______________.

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.


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 Much Do You Need to Know Before You Begin?

By | Memoir, Novel, Writing | One Comment

You’d be appalled at how little I knew each time I started a book.

After my second collection of poetry was published, I began to feel I’d written all the poems I had to write.  I knew I was writing the same poem over and over; I also knew I needed a new challenge.  I believe it’s important for all of us, as we get older, to continue taking on new challenges — we have to decide what we want to do next and try.  It’s the trying that counts.  I decided what I needed to do next was write a novel.  But I had no idea what that novel might be about.

I started by jotting down notes in a notebook.  Now I’m not talking about recording my daily doings or deepest dreams.  I’m talking about a notebook in which I wrote down, verbatim, conversations I’d overheard in the hardware store, titles that popped into my head, words whose texture I liked (nandina was one), memories that floated up, personal insights about my own behavior and those close to me.

About this time, my aunt called to say that a distant relative had sent her eight letters written by my grandmother to my grandmother’s sister in the late 1920s, early 1930s.  My grandmother lived in Denmark (South Carolina), her sister in Lebanon (Pennsylvania).  My aunt chose me to receive the letters because I was the relative most interested in family history.  I was thrilled — for three reasons:  (1) I’d never met my grandmother.  She died at fifty-six, before I was born.  All I’d ever heard about her was that she “was a saint.”  I was finally going to meet her, through these letters; (2) The letters were written just before and after my parents’ wedding, so I’d be reading about that event from my mother’s mother’s perspective; (3) I knew — I knew in my heart — my grandmother was going to give me my novel.

The letters arrived; I tore open the packet; my aunt had neglected to tell me the letters were all written in Yiddish!  I held those tissue-thin pages up to the light and struggled to decipher the squiggly little curves and angles.  “Try, Judy,” I told myself.  “If you concentrate, you can read it.”  But, of course, I couldn’t.  I finally found a woman who would translate my letters, and she sent the translations to me, one at a time, over the course of that summer.

By August, I had all eight letters translated.  And here’s the sad part:  The letters were charming, my grandmother was adorable, but there was absolutely no plot in those letters.  I was looking for dirt, and my grandmother was telling her sister how to make banana cake with cherries.

One day I mentioned the letters and my disappointment to my daughter, who said this very wise thing:  ‘Mom, why don’t you write the story you wish was in the letters?”  So that’s what I did.  I used the letters for the spine of the book and invented a story to wrap around them.


Years later, when I started writing a memoir, how much did I know?

Within five days, three things happened that turned my life upside down.  My sister was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, my daughter found out she was pregnant with identical twins, and my brother revealed to me that a daughter whom he’d fathered forty years before had just contacted him (she’d been put up for adoption at birth).  Immediately, the title, The Arithmetic of Family, popped into my head.  The additions and subtractions within a family.  Like a Dr. Seuss book — people coming in, people going out.  I could see funny little Dalmatians wearing red and blue hats, walking on their hind legs, entering a house, leaving a house.

I started my memoir in July 2005, finished it in January 2006, the day of my sister’s’ funeral.

I then spent the next two and a half years revising.

But when I’d finished, I realized I had not written the memoir my lifelong preoccupation had led me to write.  I tell writing students to write about what keeps them up at night.  I had not followed my own advice.  At that point, there were three sections in my book.  I cut two sections — which left me with a haiku!  No, not really.  I was left with a memoir about my older sister and me — the book I’d always wanted to write but didn’t feel I had the right to write.

I’d explored the subject of sisters in my first novel, The Slow Way Back, using the letters between my grandmother and her sister, my memories of Mother and her sisters, details from my life and my sister’s life to invent a work of fiction.  The novel enabled me to work through this very personal material at a distance.

What would happen if I got close, made myself susceptible to change and loss, re-inhabited those memories?

I went back to work on my memoir — for a total of nearly five years.


Do you see how little you have to know when you embark on writing a book?  Do you see that you will not begin to understand what your story is about until after you’ve actually written it?

When You Write Personal Essays or Memoir, Go Deeper. And Then Go Deeper.

By | Memoir, Writing | 8 Comments


We all know people who are really good conversationalists.  They not only ask you about yourself; they ask follow-up questions.  They’re never just being polite; they’re truly interested.

Part of writing memoir (or personal essays) is using reflection, or analysis.  You re-examine an experience you didn’t fully understand when it happened.  You write about telling your nursery school teacher you wanted to sing a song for the class, how you walked to the front of the room and sang the entire song without making a sound, just moving your lips.  In your memoir, you explore what it felt like to be you at that time.  More important, you explore what you see now that you didn’t see then.

One way to find your way into these large observations is to pretend you’re telling your story to a great conversationalist.  Allow that imaginary person – your ideal reader — to ask questions:

But what else did you feel?

Is there another way to look at what you just said?

By questioning, by going deeper, you’ll discover the unknown.  You’ll embrace the complexity of wanting to know and getting to know all the contradictions that reside within a life.

Your reader wants to witness your struggle toward discovery.  By observing you reaching conclusions, the reader will reach conclusions about her own life.


Memoirist Helen Epstein says, “Most good memoirs are like picaresque novels of the soul, journeys of intellectual quest where the author’s gradual understanding of the meaning of experience is as interesting as the experience itself.”

So, there’s your reader, sitting across from you, leaning forward, her thumb under her chin, forefinger pressing softly into her cheek, staring at you with that intense gaze, asking you yet another question.