In the nineteenth century, serial publication was common. Authors and magazines released long stories bit by bit, enticing readers to stay tuned. Often, each piece of the story ended on a cliffhanger, which left readers and listeners eager for the next installment. Perhaps the most famous serial author is Charles Dickens, who somehow kept up with a grueling production schedule to produce classic novels like The Tale of Two Cities — and without the convenience of digital tools.
Are today’s readers too accustomed to immediate reading gratification to be interested in works in a serial format? Or are our attention spans and free time limited in a way that makes the serial format convenient and manageable for us?
This month, I’m experimenting with the serial format by publishing one chapter per week of Walk Away, my 2016 Kindle Singles memoir of my experience with teenage intimate partner violence.
Here’s a “friend link” to the first installment that will open Medium’s paywall for you. Meanwhile, best wishes from my teenage self — who survived with the help of her friends.
Timeis the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.
Summaries compress timeto deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.
Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.
For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.
Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.
Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.
I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.
I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.
When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.
She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.
Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.
Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.
Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.
Sloths get a bad name. They move slowly, it’s true, but they’re animals, for goodness sake. They don’t have deadlines or to-do lists.
I’m big on deadlines and lists when it comes to my writing. Although I don’t always live up to the goals I set down, my production would no doubt be lower without them.
Because writers love to write, just plunking down in front of the notebook or computer and getting a few words written is often enough to set the process in motion. The writer’s brain wants to write, like the runner’s body wants to run.
Setting precise goals has helped me overcome procrastination because they jump-start me. Most people who write do so because they love to write. It’s head-games like insecurity, fear of facing some truth, and impostor syndrome that make us procrastinate when we’re otherwise healthy and able to write.
Setting goals that are in tune with the current stage of writing is key. Stages of writing a memoir can include:
seeking feedback, and
submitting for publication.
The ambitious goal of “I’m going to write a memoir” can be overwhelming. It’s far more manageable when broken down into goals for the first stage: generating. Some general goals for that stage might be:
Setting aside time and space to write
Collecting materials like journals, diaries, letters
Enlisting the support of loved ones
Resolving to write for a short time each day.
Some writing coaches believe that writing at the same time every day can condition your brain and spirit to be ready at that time. And if procrastination is a habit, it stands to reason that a new habit can replace it.
Breaking my goals up into smaller goals — what some people call “chunking” has been helpful. For example, instead of swearing to “finish my memoir by X date” (although I do that, too), I’ve set goals about how many words to write in a day.
The words-a-day goal is great when generating new material. But since revision can and often should include cutting material, words-a-day doesn’t work well for the revision stage.
In the revision stage, I’ve turned to a minutes-a-day goal, and for me, that’s been 90 minutes, which is not terribly ambitious. On a few days, I’ve spent less time, but on many days, I’ve spent more than 90 minutes.
[Note: I quit my day a year ago and don’t have childcare or elder care responsibilities.]
I’ve written elsewhere about using a time tracker for accountability and for figuring out when I write best. When procrastination threatens me, though, I’m ready to chase it off with my goals.
Just 500 words now, I tell myself, or Just 30 minutes now. Usually, I end up becoming absorbed and plod past my goal — because I really do love writing.
Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.
Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.
My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.
Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.
A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.
If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?
I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.
Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.
If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.
I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.
Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.
This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.
If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.
If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.
November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.
Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.
In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.
I like this image because the canoes in the water point toward a center, and the smaller group of canoes up on the dock also point toward a center. Then there are the rocky peaks in the background, all pointing up.
So, three groups of things that point in the some direction. Two are alike, one is different. I am such a sucker for order relieved by a variation that’s . . . orderly.
Most books have a structure providing order for the action. We often call these plots and subplots. Because I’m as powerless against metaphor as I am against order, in this photo, I see the canoes in the water as elements of the main plot. The canoes on the dock are elements of a related subplot. But those rocky peaks — they are the overarching “big idea” plot.
While I believe that memoirs have their own type of plots, they aren’t as explicit as the plots in fiction and films. Some writers will tell you plot isn’t such a big deal. In his book Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig demotes the importance of plot and promotes character arcs and character agency as the drivers of a story. But he does share tips about arranging the action of a story:
The arrangement matters. It matters that I know the ending but tell the story as if I don’t. It’s vital that I play the magic trick as if I don’t know where the rabbit is coming from — storytellers are, after all, practiced liars, and my job is to guide you through the journey, not fast-forward to the end. Part of the journey is about me asking questions and then withholding the answers for as long as you can stand it.
In my current memoir project, the main plot is about finding my identity as an adopted person, and the subplots of “who’s your daddy?” and “can you stick with your family?” Those are also (yes, Mr. Wendig), maybe more importantly, character arcs.
I know how the story ends, once I decide where it ends. But I have to keep that to myself if I want to keep a reader engaged. As Wendig points out, some stories begin with the ending, and the plot is about why — why did things end up that way? But I don’t think that works for my story.
So, if my story’s arrangement is “me asking questions and then withholding the answers,” what questions am I asking? And if that’s the kind of arrangement you are planning for your story, what questions are you asking?
This seems like a good exercise. The questions can be general or very specific.
General questions: Is a person’s core self formed by nature or nurture? Or both? If both, which parts come from nature and which from nurture? Why do families keep secrets? What is forgiveness?
More specific questions: Can a woman raised in the upper middle class find happiness in a family from the working class? Can a woman who rejected the responsibilities of motherhood be a good substitute parent? Can a woman who thinks she’s always right get along with people who make the same mistakes over and over again? Can these people tolerate her smarminess?
Really specific questions: How can my laugh be the same as the laugh of a woman I never met once I was out of the womb? How can one neglected child split her loyalty between two flawed mothers?
As usual, it’s the more specific questions that strike at the heart. And those more specific anythings — questions, scenes, arguments — -are always harder to write about than the general ones.
Ugh. Writing is such hard work.
I think the canoes are scenes that build the plot/subplot/character arc. They are pointing toward the themes. Those rocky peaks — I haven’t figured that out yet.
In writing memoir, one of the critical challenges is deciding what to leave out. I’ll use my current memoir project as an example. It’s about reuniting with my birth family, and how building relationships with them, especially my nieces, changed my identity.
A subplot of the identity theme is the question of who my father is. In trying to find that out, my half-sister, my aunt and I all spat in our own little tubes for a DNA test. A surprise result of that test was that my sister and I both had some African-American heritage.
If I stray from the paternity issue and include that information about race in the memoir, that opens up a whole new set of issues. My mother’s dark skin, her racism, her husband’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the true identity of her father, my siblings’ participation in forced integration in the South in the 1970’s, the diverse attitudes about race among my siblings, and on and on and on.
Oy. Every time I’m sure it’s best to leave the race issue out, I think of a reason why I should include it. If I don’t disclose it, I’m suppressing the truth that many American white people have African ancestors. If I don’t disclose it, I’m white-washing myself, “passing” as white as one or more of my ancestors must have done. If I don’t disclose it, I’m cheating the reader of another dimension of the story.
Opening a box often means opening another box.
Oy, oy, oy. I turned to Auntie Google for advice on what to leave in and what to leave out. Most of what I found was some variation on “leave out anything that doesn’t further your theme.”
Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy. Now I have to figure out what my memoir’s theme is.
Many memoirs have more than one theme, but if so, they are usually connected in some way. The main theme of my project is “Blood will out”: meeting my family in my thirties opened up greater understanding of my own identity. It also taught me a lot about family identity and family connections.
[Side note: themes are often clichés. That’s not a bad thing. A cliché gets to be cliché by being repeated — because it has some universal truth to it.]
If the memoir’s theme is about identity, then it seems I should cover all aspects of the DNA test, maybe even the Facebook chat I had today with one of my nieces about how her parents disapprove of her Honduran boyfriend, or her just-barely-teenage son’s African-American girlfriend.
And that’s another problem — figuring out where to end. Because we’re a colorful bunch, my identity and my family’s identity keeps changing. But that seems like a topic for another blog post. Heaven help me.
Don’t you love it when you can’t stop reading because you must find out what happens?
Mysteries are propelled by this sort of suspense, of course, and in a great mystery (I recommend Tana French!), the suspense is expressed in more than just plot. It’s also expressed in character arcs.
A sense of mystery and suspense can also propel a memoir. In memoirs about surviving an illness, for example, the mystery to be solved can be the cause of the illness, or the efficacy of a cure. Often, the memoir’s central character also unravels an emotional or spiritual mystery.
I’m very invested in making my current memoir project readable, so I’m trying to be conscious of how I handle mystery and suspense. Although I’m sticking to the facts, of course, it’s up to me how I arrange those facts, and if and when I reveal the solution to the mysteries. But writing toward suspense has been challenging for me, partly because I’m inclined to put all my cards on the table at once. But to create suspense, we have to dole out information piece by piece.
Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.
Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.
Making readers worry about characters? This might be another reason why it’s been so difficult for me to exploit the suspense related to me-as-character in my own story: I don’t like people to worry about me, maybe because it feels intrusive, or maybe (more likely) because it calls my competence and strength into question.
My memoir is about reuniting with my birth family, and one mystery is my father’s identity. My mother passed away before I could meet her, and she’d kept my existence to herself for the most part.
But clues popped up here and there as I got to know my family. The first story I heard was from an aunt who liked . . . to tell stories. She made up a very happy relationship for my teenage mother with a man she modeled after one of her favorite television actors.
But of course, I don’t tell the story that way — I let my aunt speak in dialogue, I let other family members have their say, I question the story, and ultimately I do my own research using the name my aunt gave me. All of this information is paced out over a number of chapters. Pacing is the key to giving readers the pleasure of discovery.
Later in the memoir, I come back to the daddy’s identity mystery when relating my experience with DNA testing. Again, the information is spaced out in order to make the mystery and the discovery more interesting for the reader.
In real life — and memoir is about real life — not all mysteries are solved, and those that are solved often turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now that I think of it, though, that’s often the case for mysteries in fiction. Maybe the line between real life and stories is even thinner than I thought.