Writing Memoir: Using Dream Images

“A silhouette of a man holding a smoke bomb on a deserted beach, with a pink sunset sky in the background” by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
Do dreams have a place in nonfiction?

Since childhood, I’ve had occasional vivid dreams — the kind that are so weird, or colorful, or fantastic that they woke me up. When I started writing poetry (also as a kid), I thought those dreams and their images belonged in poems.

The dreams seemed so meaningful to me. So I wrote.

Later, more than one poetry teacher told me to ditch the dream poems — they didn’t mean anything to anyone but me. The teachers were right: without a context, dream images don’t translate very well for an audience. Of course, if you’re writing only for yourself, that’s different.

But dreams can work well for an audience in fiction and in creative nonfiction writing. They work as long as we make clear that they are, in fact dreams, and connect them to our stories and the people in our stories. I’m not a dream-interpreter, but when people reveal their dreams to me in real life, I feel as if I’ve gotten inside their heads a little. I feel I know them better.

Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to know the people — or characters — in the stories they read. Reading a good book, we actually crave that knowledge, especially knowledge of a character’s motivations and how those motivations interact with plot. It’s why we stay up past our bedtimes and keep reading. We’re trying to figure out what will happen next.

Some literary theorists believe we read fiction to exercise the part of our brains that guesses at motivations, and that our brains have been programmed by evolution to want to guess at motivations.

Lisa Zunshine, in her book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, applies this idea specifically to novels, although I believe it can apply to any kind of writing that includes characters. She argues that understanding motivations, and then predicting behavior was an adaptive strategy for early humans seeking to survive and reproduce.

Zunshine’s theory is similar to Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo’s theory of dreams. Revonsuo believed that dreams were resulted from the brain practicing for flight-or-flight situations. In other words, our dreams are simulations of stressful situations we might face in real life.

Human beings have long believed dreams are powerful, either as predictors of the future, as revelations of past mysteries, as expressions of repressed wishes. They seem to come with a built-in significance.

For a writer of memoir or nonfiction, relating a dream can help to communicate something about motivation, or obsession, or desire. Instead of telling the reader “I felt trapped in my lifestyle,” I can show the reader how it felt by describing a dream related to that trapped feeling. Here’s an excerpt from one of my essays that attempts to do this:

Night after night, I dreamed of walking under streetlights in Boston, after the bars have closed, when the streets are deserted. I have trouble walking, but not the kind of trouble I had in the dreams of my twenties. In those dreams, my feet were as rigid and heavy as flatirons, and I couldn’t lift them to run away. In these new dreams, I’m drunk and wobbling. The busses have stopped running, and I stumble and curse, desperate to find a way out of Boston that will take me to the North Shore. I have to pee badly. I’m under the Southeast Expressway, surrounded by concrete Jersey barriers and I-beam steel, and there is no one to ask for directions, no taxis, no traffic. The city is silent. Should I walk up onto the expressway if I can find a ramp? Can I walk over the Mystic River Bridge because there are no cars? In the dream, I’m angry that the city is so hard to leave, and I never find the bridge.

In the context of the essay, this dream excerpt demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than reality could, how trapped I felt, and how frustrated. The dream itself may sound familiar to you — dreams about being lost and trying to find a way out of somewhere are common, as are dreams of trying to run with heavy feet. Perhaps they signal some common fear we share as human beings of being stuck in place.

What are some of your favorite examples of dreams in fiction or nonfiction? And what do you think about using dreams in your writing?

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

“A large heap of broken antique watches and clocks” by Heather Zabriskieon Unsplash
How do creative people find the time to write? Or do they “make” the time?

Years ago, someone asked me how I managed to do so much. “It’s easy,” I said. “I don’t have kids!” The people who amazed me with their productivity — and who still amaze me — were the ones who parented young children.

Writing a memoir, or even a stand-alone personal essay, requires a huge investment of time, especially for slow writers like me. If it took me less than 40 hours to write a ten page story, I’d be very surprised. This month, I’ve committed to finishing a coherent draft of my 80,000-word, rough memoir draft. How will I manage my time to insure I meet that goal?

Strategy 1: Getting on a Schedule

This was effective for me when I worked a full-time, 8:30 am to 4:00 pm job. I was already on a schedule, so creating another one for writing made sense. Off and on, for months at a time, I got up at 5:30 am and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Scheduled writing has been famously successful for authors like J.K. Rowling, who also had a day job when she began the Harry Potter series. If you are subject to an external schedule, whether it’s related to school or work or family responsibilities, a writing schedule may do the trick for you.

But once I resigned from the day job to work for myself, the external schedule that kept me on track disappeared and I found myself floundering.

Strategy 2: Figuring Out When You Write Best and Write Most

Although I’m not trying to lose weight because that ship has sailed, I know that food journals are an effective way for people to track calories. So I decided to keep a time tracker to see where I was spending my time.

Like many people, I squander time on social media, mindless eating, and passive entertainment. When I’ve squandered enough, I get resentful when those I love interrupt my thoughts about writing or the writing itself. As if those people (and dogs) are the cause of my fribbling.

Decades of working day jobs created a habit of writing at odd hours: early mornings, nights, and weekends. Breaking from that pattern has not been easy, even though I expected to have nights and weekends free once I was “just” writing. But I’ve been writing at odd hours still, and not making enough headway on the memoir to satisfy myself.

Data is powerful. The time tracker showed me I was working on my memoir early in the morning and late at night, for about 90 minutes at a time. Ugh. Old habits are hard to break. It also showed me that I was working on paying writing projects during the day, like that was a day job. Ugh, again.

3. State Your Writing Goals Publicly

This month, I’m writing about writing memoir every day. And I put it on my Medium profile.

Two popular month-long writing marathons, NANOWRIMO and NAPOWRIMO inspire many people to successfully find or make time to write novels and poetry, respectively. I participated in NAPOWRIMO this year in April. Thirty poems later, I think 4 or 5 of them are actually worthwhile.

But, I’m convinced that 30 days in a row of writing a poem, or at least a wannabe poem, was helpful exercise for the poetry part of my brain. I even continued the process through the first week of May. Now, I’m slacking off again.

I heard that you’re more likely to meet your goals if you announce them publicly. Oh wait, I also heard that announcing your goals publicly makes itless likely that you’ll meet those goals.

4. Going on a Writing Retreat

A retreat doesn’t have to be anywhere but your own home; it’s a big chunk of time (a day or more, preferably) devoted to writing. I’ve done stay-home retreats, and cheap motel retreats. Some writers go on organized writing retreats.

For me, these chunks of dedicated time seem to work best when I have a specific goal to meet. That’s especially true if I go somewhere besides my home, where I may be tempted to check out a new ice cream parlor. For this reason, I advise going on a retreat in a place that’s not very appealing to your interests.

But even on a stay-home retreat, I can be distracted by chores that suddenly must be done. I’m not talking about walking the dogs or watering the plants, which really must be done to keep everyone alive. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself scrubbing a toilet instead of writing.

 


The best piece of advice about finding or making time to write is to experiment to find out what works best for you. We’re all different, thankfully.

And if you’re wondering about the right time to begin a memoir, that’s something I’ve thought about this week because two former students got in touch to say they are thinking of writing memoir. They were both curious about “the right time” to start.

My response was “Now is the time.” When an idea about doing something creative pops up, that’s a hint from the part of yourself that’s smarter than the rest of you. Go with it.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Photographs and Images

The boundaries between genres are blurring.

Fence. Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash

Why shouldn’t we include photographs in memoirs? The only reason I can think of is that some (maybe many) publishers don’t want the hassle. Publishing images is more complex, more expensive than publishing text only. Unless, of course, you’re publishing on the internet.

That damn internet. It’s changing everything.

Some publishers are welcoming work that combines text and image. Some of them are here on Medium. Many others can be found in this list of cross-genre publishers curated by New Pages.

Here’s my attempt at a cross-genre piece combining photographs of trees with text about family trees.


Twisted branches. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
Maybe it was me who doctored this photograph, trying to give it an heirloom appearance.

I see a “B” in this tree. Or maybe a “D,” or a sideways “A.”

Or a man, hanging face down with his arms extended, reaching for something on the ground.

Or a lizard with its tail curled up behind it. Or the predictable snake.

Or a tree, twisted by snow and ice, and the deaths of other trees, and by forces I cannot imagine, putting forth the predictable new growth in spring.

Unknown Dead Tree, North Central Florida

I leaned against trees, wrapped my arms around trees, swung from trees and hid in trees, and walked on limbs as if they were tightropes. I prayed to trees, I raged at trees. Far away, the half-brothers I now know cut trees down for very little pay.

In my private forest, which isn’t mine, but belongs to the town, I watch this tree, and the spiral of fungi around its trunk that curves around in question marks and other symbols. It might be my family tree: no hierarchy, no single ancestor, and certainly no single pattern.

Living Turkey Oak, fallen, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree took the earth with it when it tipped over in a windthrow. It is the only tree in this quadrant that fell. Maybe another trauma, like heart rot fungus, affected its anchorage and prepared it to let go.The letting go starts a new creation story: a hole opens in the canopy, and sunlight pours down on the forest floor. Saplings stuck in the pole stage may wake up and start to grow gain.

New stories mean new names. The earth ripped up with the tree is now called a tip-up mound.

Dead Cypress, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree has been dead for so long, you can see right through it in spots. How did that happen? I imagine the branches fell first, then the crown, and then the bark sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and then the core collapsed on itself. What’s left is a suggestion of the strong column it once was, a gesture toward how the column once spun upward in helix fashion.

What’s left of the tree has the pocked and scored look of the karst limestone under the ground around these parts. Maybe the tree has taken on some characteristics of the stone.

Even long dead, and even taking on other characteristics, the tree is still a tree.

 

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit  http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

I must miss teaching . . .

In the works – a series of articles with practical, concrete tips on getting your work published in literary journals and magazines. I’ll share them here and on Medium  I’m excited about this project, and just realized why – I must miss teaching!

Teaching has a been a part of my life since 1990 when I taught my first college composition class for Salem State College (now University). Then in 1995, I gave up my law practice and started teaching full-time. Up until January, I was engaged in teaching in one form or another so that’s more than 20 years of my life. No wonder I miss it!

Teaching is a very happy job because you get to be around people who are reaching for knowledge and striving to improve themselves. Although I took a leap in January to devote myself full-time to writing, I think it’s okay for me for me to indulge my love for teaching as long as I do it in writing. So here’s my first stab at that. Click on the image to read the full article.

A Sample Cover Letter to Help Get You Published

The cover letter strategies here have worked for me with literary journals including North American Review and Catapult, and with more general interest publications including O, the Oprah Magazine, and Guernica. Feel free to adapt the sample for your purposes, or use the outline method explained below.

While it’s important to observe publishing etiquette, you don’t want anxiety over submitting your work to get in the way of why you write in the first place — to express your creativity. I’ve found it best to automate the submission process as much as possible so I can spend more time on creative writing than on administrative writing. Once you have a solid cover letter drafted, you can recycle or adapt it again and again.

Editors are busy folks, too, and in the world of literary journals, many work as volunteers. They will appreciate you making their lives easier with a concise cover letter, and it doesn’t hurt to have an editor read your work while you’ve put them in a good mood. Some things most editors want to know:

Where you heard about their publication

A little about you

Where you’ve been published before

IMHO, one sentence for each of these does the trick. There are exceptions, of course. A few publications don’t want a cover letter at all, and a few want specific information about you. For example, some publications ask about your demographics to help them keep track of how well they are doing with their outreach to writers who aren’t young, hetereosexual cis white men with MFA degrees. My demographic statement is “I’m an old, 97% white lady.” Always read submission guidelines carefully to make sure you are giving the editors what they have asked for.

So, how do you write that “a little about you”?

Click here for the full article. And happy writing!