Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.
Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.
This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.
Victoria Zackheim teaches memoir and personal essay at UCLA, in the Writer’s Extension program. She has developed a straightforward approach to start writing a memoir.
(1) The first step is to outline a chronology of your life, year by year. This will get you into the memory of things.
(2) Once this is done, research any significant year. What else was happening in 1973 when your father died? Include anything that explains your state of mind or actions at the time, but no extraneous information.
(3) Next is the fun part. Refer to your outline to create a series of vignettes, short stories, poems, and personal essays. Keep going until you have a body of work— say 20-50 pieces.
(4) Sift through them. What is the theme? What have you learned? What is the message that you want to share?
Once you know where the memoir is going you can start to string the stories together.
Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014 promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.
Victoria Zackheim, an editor herself, said that hiring a professional editor makes your writing a better piece because editors look for flow, cadence and repetitions and learning from them will make you a better writer. She’s an editor, but she hires an editor for her works. Find reviewers who will really read! Two or three dependable, honest people will do. Perry was even more adamant. “Don’t delude yourself that your final draft is ready. An editor will tell you if your skirt is caught in your knickers.” Perry has written over 70 best selling novels and she receives an editor’s red mark on every page of her final versions. “Ask for the right to review edits before publishing and check for the correct intention of feeling to ensure their edits match your voice.” If people reviewing your work are confused delete or clarify until your point is apparent to all who read it. If you can remove a scene, or a character, and the plot still makes sense—remove it permanently, even if you love it. You can re-purpose it in a different work. If you really balk, ask the editors why they want the change, chances are they are right, and you’ll find a fix.
The re-writing phase feels unending. After every submission for review, Perry receives notes like “It’s nearly there!” “One more!” “It’s coming!”
But that is the hard work; your words must say exactly what you mean. “Writing is not a hasty lunch, “ Perry advised, sounding like a British schoolteacher. “It should be a feast for the gods!”
Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014, promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
What a great line.
Mr. McCabe sees the world as a physicist would, using disparate stories to formulate a base element—his personal narrative. As a teacher, McCabe worked with an unusual group of kids, the “dreamers.” Dreamers are high achievers, would-be college students who learn about their illegal resident status in one of two ways; often it is a family secret and everyone is raised in fear of deportation, or the kids discover they’re undocumented, illegal aliens when they are sixteen, preparing for a drivers license or employment, and in need of a birth certificate. Either way, the kids pay the price for their parent’s decisions.
When Mr. McCabe was promoted into college administration he researched the latest trends in education. One paper from San Diego State University stated that student narcissism is at an all time high. He was trying to raise awareness about educational opportunities for undocumented students. In fact, he’d like them all to become activists but in the face of student apathy how could he reach them?
It is not just students that are intractable. People have three reactions to difficult social topics. If it is too uncomfortable, or seemingly unimportant, the topic is avoided. Alternatively, there’s a mindset that some problems are so endemic they need better law enforcement and there is nothing to be done except to let lawbreakers get what they deserve. Finally, if a story is compelling, or an individual face is identified in connection to a social problem, it encourages discussion and proposals to change parameters.
For example, think about amnesty for illegal immigrants. It is a polarizing topic. McCabe’s own mother was not in favor of offering children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. She changed her mind when she befriended a vivacious, American sounding student who did odd jobs and volunteer work but who could not legally work or go to college because she was a “dreamer.”
If amnesty, a widely debated topic, is so hard to broach, how could McCabe inform society, especially the younger generation, about the dangers of exploitation, sometimes as serious as entrapment that leads to human trafficking?
Mr. McCabe created a personal narrative out of these seemingly random stories. His sensitivity towards migrants and students, his discovery of an article about human trafficking, professional research and his curiosity, coalesced into a trajectory that powers his actions. He wrote “Without Sin” hoping to elicit common interest.
That, dear writer, is how the universe expands, by launching a story informed by a personal narrative. David McCabe used artistic license to move people into a new conversation. After McCabe’s lecture, I sought other opinions and shared the story on my blog. My small contribution to a community narrative. But who knows? McCabe argues that if a story changes the universe then it’s possible to change our academics, our legal institutions and the attitude of whole nations.
Friday’s writing prompt is a single word, “spring.” What does the word mean to you? No-one in our group was much enthused about writing for ten minutes about a mundane word like “spring” but we did, and we each attached a different meaning to the word.
One storyteller wrote about spring cleaning and how she brainstorms creative projects while she pushes a vacuum around the house. Another writer became a tour guide in the barren desert landscape of Ethiopia, where a water hole really is a living metaphor for the resilience of Earth and its people. Another time-writing traveler whisked us to Old Town America, when mothers made spring dresses for their daughters and prepared trays of home baked breakfast goodies for community gatherings. Maybe Spring is a season, a time to wear less clothing, a time for the birds and bees. Or not. Maybe spring is a coil of metal, or a sound—a voice that groans every time it is stretched awake to welcome you home.
Spring. For me it’s a time of mystical, hidden themes like a table set for Persian New Year, full of ancient symbols. Spring is a relentless medicine, a prescription of healthy day-capsules filled with more sunshine than darkness. It is an assortment of stories with secret messages, and a series of mysterious beginnings that eclipse every ending. Once it was a nerve-racking Easter holiday when I was introduced to my husband’s family, another time it was an Easter Sunday of bewilderment when I had a miscarriage. Spring furls open with a new message every year. This year’s secret motif, and my Lenten contemplation, is to gather stories of compassion, sometimes a heavy topic, sometimes inspirational.
Spring is mutable. As I type on an overcast day, I feel like planning for the summer and planting dreams as hopefully as a farmer ploughs his crops into the earth, wishing for abundance and a better future for all.
Our writing prompt today was “missing plane” as in Malaysian Airlines, Flight MH 370. Every Friday morning, I meet with a small group of talented writers. We agree on a topic, write for ten minutes and share our works.
A writer can create worlds and happy endings. My plane crashes in a rugged landscape. There are fistfights among the passengers as they follow a stream to an oasis. World politics escalate and military threats abound, until a heroic, if unlikely, rescue team is formed when a Zoroastrian, a mullah and a US Ranger walk into a kabob house, somewhere in that lost region of Eastern Iran.
In our writing session today I learned that we all feel incomplete until the fate of the plane is explained. After a week, theories about elves and movable Bermuda triangles seem as logical as the press reports of wreckage in the ocean, an inexplicable diversion, and a five-hour flight to nowhere.
We’re connected to this story by the universality of experience. We’ve all checked the phone for calls from travelers who should already be safe at home, waited for no-shows, or felt anxiety about a situation that is out of our control. We wait for a hopeful resolution with the families of these passengers. We are unsettled. We want the situation fixed, like when an correction in a sentence is needed, because the last words are