Writing Memoir

Wait! Before you click off ’cause maybe you aren’t interested in this topic, read this:

If you are NOT a subscriber yet over at FrostProof808.com and if you ARE a writer, you want to do yourself a favor and stop over there to read yesterday’s post. I think you’ll enjoy it. (grin)

Okay, now go ahead and read about Writing Memoir, below.

Hi Folks,

I’m pretty sure a lot of folks who read my blog are interested in writing memoir. This is not a how-to. This is a Go Ahead If You Want To post. Here, I’ll explain some things I think you might find helpful.

I often hear from folks who are considering writing a memoir, but wonder whether anyone other than their family will want to read it. They say things like, “My life just isn’t all that interesting, y’know?”

I always respond the same way. Your life is unique. You are a character on the world stage, and almost everyone is interested. Ever notice how much more interesting a famous sports figure or celebrity or Joe Schmuckatelly down the street becomes when you find out something unique about him? So if you’re considering writing a memoir, stop considering and start writing.

Consider this: Say a person lived his entire life in one room of a basement. He never went out, never saw anything but the basement walls. Aside from the sheer horror of that thought, this person might be said to have lived the most boring life ever. Now, given that, if that same person managed to write a memoir of his life in that basement, would you pay to read it? I would.

A few years ago a correspondent asked whether I’d written a  post about writing memoir. Specifically, she wanted to know whether it was all right to use the techniques of fiction while writing her own memoir.

Here’s my response:

Most of my blog posts pertain to writing in general, and therefore pertain as well to writing memoir. For example, the use of various types of punctuation, quotation marks, paragraphing, using strong action verbs rather than state-of-being verbs when possible, the difference between active and passive voice (don’t let the narrator use the “sense” verbs), etc.

But to answer your question specifically, memoir is MUCH more similar to fiction than dissimilar. Consider…

  • Fiction is how the writer remembers something that hasn’t happened yet. Memoir is how the writer remembers something that did happen. If different people write a memoir about the same event, each telling will be different.
  • Fiction is told from a particular point of view (usually the narrator), and memoir is told from a particular point of view, again, usually the narrator.

But what about using dialogue in memoir?

The writer was concerned that she couldn’t accurately quote dialogue unless perhaps she had recorded the dialogue of the day in her journals, or unless she could remember specifically what was said.

Another memoirist for whom I was editing awhile back had told me I absolutely was not allowed to “adjust” any of the dialogue she wrote down because “it’s written exactly as it was said.” I told her and the current correspondent the same thing:

Actually, you wrote the dialogue exactly as you remembered it was said, and we often hear things differently than they’re actually said. In other words, it’s simply dialogue. And as dialogue it serves more than one purpose.

Although certainly it’s meant to convey an accurate record of what was said, dialogue between characters (yes, even in memoir) immediately makes the reader lean in to the story, as if he’s eavesdropping. It forces the reader to be immediately engaged in the story, invested in it. And again, the dialogue doesn’t have to be exactly what was said word for word. After all, you aren’t transcribing for a court of law. (Yeah, as if THAT isn’t fiction.)

So how does a memoirist handle dialogue? Of course, you don’t want to tell outright lies in your memoir, but many memoirists take certain literary liberties when they encounter “missing” gaps even when they’re writing based on someone’s diary.

When you’re writing based only on your journals or your memory, shouldn’t you also feel free to fill in the gaps with literary license? And if that holds true for narrative, it holds true for dialogue as well.

In memoir, as in fiction, dialogue must be smoothed out so it both engages the reader and helps the reader through the story. What dialogue does have to be is interesting, and that isn’t hard to do. For the reader, it’s immediately interesting simply because it’s dialogue, a direct communication from the character to the “eavesdropping” reader.

As you write dialogue in your memoir, look at yourself as a translator. You’re translating the Spirit of the conversation, the essence, not the exact words. You’re getting your story out there, and that’s what matters.

And it really does matter. As a dear friend, Marilyn Pate, wrote about memoir, “Your story is unique. It is the treasure you take with you when you pass away unless it is written or recorded.”

Don’t take your stories with you. Write it down, at least for your children and grandchildren.

If you’re an aspiring memoirist, I have the same top two bits of advice for you that I have for all writers:

  1. Start writing.
  2. Don’t stop.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

A New Series of Posts

Hi Folks,

This is to introduce a new series of posts.

Two of my recent posts have been about learning, but many others (especially those on FrostProof808) have been about writing into the dark, a function of the subconscious mind.

The thing is, you LEARN with the conscious (critical) mind. You WRITE with your subconscious, creative mind.

So this series will be nuts and bolts stuff to feed your conscious mind. What is important will sift into your subconscious and flow out through your fingers as you type.

I know some of you believe that is nonsense. Some of you believe you have to think your way through writing a book.

But consider, do you have to stop and consciously think about where each letter goes in a word as you write it? Of course not. Do you have to stop and consciously think about whether to use a period or a question mark after a particular group of words? No.

Note: If you just thought Well, every now and then I have to stop and think of how to spell a word, that’s your conscious mind trying to “protect” you from trusting your subconscious. It’s trying to protect you from writing, finishing what you write, and submitting it for publication or publishing it. If you don’t do any one of those, then you can’t suffer rejection.

Why? Because you LEARNED those things years ago. You absorbed them. They sifted into your subconscious and now they simply flow out as necessary.

So this series will be some more stuff, no doubt a refresher, that you may consider, comment on, ask questions about. Or just take it to the bank and let it seep into your subconscious.

If you have not heard ME talk about some of the upcoming topics, just trust me, you want this series. If you HAVE heard me talk about it or you have my books, this will still be a good refresher and provide you with a place (the comments section) where you can ask questions.

ALSO, all of these topics will be updated with new information I’ve picked up since I’ve been writing full time (since October 19, 2014). Like all other writers, I continue to learn.

In addition to writing about overall topics like Memoir, Priorities, Creating Flow, Writing Great Beginnings, “Show Don’t Tell” and others, I’ll also hit some of the nuts and bolts stuff. And if you haven’t heard MY take on this stuff, seriously, you want to hang around:

Punctuation for Writers — this isn’t the same old stuff you heard repeatedly in school. Come to think of it, if what they told us was so good, why did they have to tell us year after year after year and yet we still don’t quite get it? Hang around here. You will get it.

Hyphens, the Em Dash, Ellipses, Oh My! — A special, more in-depth look at these and more “spelling punctuation”… as well as why I call some of these spelling punctuation and what makes all of these different from regular punctuation.

Writing Dialogue — again, stuff you’ve never heard before or have never heard like this.

Capitalization — when to capitalize, what to capitalize, what NOT to capitalize

Writing Dialect, The Dialogue-Narrative Percentage, The Use of Tag Lines, Writing Characters — all of these and more are coming in this nuts and bolts series.

There will also be posts on newer things I’ve learned, things I’ve not blogged about before, like Pacing, Writing Setting, Writing Scene and more.

This is not the art, the wine. This is the whiskey, the hard stuff, the mechanical stuff, the gears and cogs and little whirring sounds that bring your story to life for the reader. Many of you have heard of deus ex machina, the god from the machine. This stuff is the machinery inside the god.

Stay tuned, and get your friends to drop by. I think you’re gonna like it.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

Learn, But Be Careful Out There

Hi Folks,

Note: I’m not sure why this post missed going out on June 1, but I’m looking into it. In any case, here it is a day late. Harvey

This is an important blog post. I first posted it over on The Journal in slightly different form. I encourage you to sign up for that blog. It is the more important of the two, and if this one goes away, that one will continue.

As you know, I advocate that writers never stop learning. The best way to learn (once you have a good working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, etc.) is to read for pleasure. Then, when you read a passage or a story or a scene that absolutely floors you, GO BACK after you’ve finished reading for pleasure and read it again, this time with an eye to HOW the writer did what he or she did to knock your socks off. Study. You’ll get it.

When you enjoy a particular writer’s style—the way the story flows or the rhythms or the unique word choice, for example—I even advocate writing the passage or scene or story again yourself, word for word, NOT to publish, but just to experience that flow or those rhythms.

I’ve gone so far as to write an alternate ending for a novel of one very famous writer to see how closely I could keep to her style. Others to whom I showed the work couldn’t tell a difference. Writing parodies or take-offs is another excellent way to study.

Now, will such exercises supplant your own personal style? Absolutely not. But they will inform it. They will help you grow as a writer, help your writing improve.

And best of all, you won’t have to THINK about it consciously. What you need will have seeped into your subconscious as you did the exercises, and it will flow out of your fingers into the keyboard as you write.

One of my personal favorite writers is James Lee Burke. The first book I read of his (a few months ago) was In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. I intend to read everything he’s written before it’s all over.

Another of my favorites is whoever wrote the screenplay(s) for The Godfather series. Another is whoever wrote the screenplay(s) for the Lonesome Dove series. And for the film Tombstone (with Val Kilmer). And pretty much every episode of NYPD Blue.

Okay, so learning is good. We probably agree on that. And improving is even better. So what’s the beef? What’s that “But Be Careful Out There” part all about?

I know dozens, maybe hundreds, of writers and would-be writers who listen to and absorb at face value pretty much anything anyone says or writes about the craft of writing. That goes double if they’re listening to or reading something from a successful writer.


Now it would take a whole other blog post to talk about false instructors, people who apparently get some perverse pleasure from teaching something they know absolutely nothing about. On that particular subtopic, I’ll just say this: If they say something that sounds ridiculous (like “get rid of all instances of ‘had’ from your work” or “I can’t explain xxxxxxxxx but I know it when I see it”), stop listening immediately. Seriously. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and I’d be more than happy to debate it with them. I DESPISE false instructors for all the harm they do.

But in this post, I want to talk about writers who are successful under pretty much any definition of success: they’ve hit bestseller lists, they’ve made a ton of money, they’ve achieved prestigious award nominations, they’ve sold tons of copies, etc. Any or all of the above.

Doesn’t that mean everything they say is gold?

No. Absolutely not. They are human.

Humans have quirks and prejudices, and no human being knows everything about any topic.

Also, no human being knows the intentions of other human beings. Period.

Please, be skeptical. If you’ve attended my own writing conferences over the years, you’ve heard me say you should Question Everything, even from me. Questioning costs you nothing and it helps you learn. And if the instructor (famous writer, etc.) becomes defensive or angry when you question what he says, listen to his future musings with an even larger grain of salt.

Let me give you an example of a usually great source of information who sometimes completely blows it. This guy has touched all the success markers I listed above. He’s written bestsellers. He’s sold millions of copies of his books worldwide and made good money (I assume) doing it. He’s also been in the business as a writer for over 30 years. Good credentials, yes? But he’s also human, with all that entails.

Dean Wesley Smith is my own unintentional mentor. He and I are about the same age, and we’ve both lived very active, physical lives albeit in different ways. We’ve both endured severe physical trauma (though again of different types) and come out the other side. And we speak at least the same family of languages, those that arose during the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.

I have learned a great deal listening to Dean and reading what he’s written. I’ve learned more about writing in the past year, mostly from Dean, than I learned over the previous 60+ years combined, and I will be forever grateful to him for that, above and beyond all the money I’ve paid for his online workshops and video lectures.

But again, he’s human.

The fact is, sometimes Dean throws a broad blanket of degradation over anything he doesn’t understand or doesn’t like. He tends to generalize, and for me it’s a red flag. Generalizations indicate ignorance. Not stupidity, but a lack of knowledge or a lack of desire to gain knowledge. Just for a few examples, in the past, he’s written that

  • Nobody who edits can possibly be a good writer. (There is no possible way he can know that.)
  • All book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists. (Some of them are, but certainly not all. I suspect he had a bad experience with a bad freelance editor in the past.)
  • The only legitimate editors work for New York publishing houses. (Doesn’t WMG publishing, Dean’s own house, have an editor?)
  • Never have your work edited by anyone who hasn’t written at least [select any number over 50] novels (Huh? I thought editors can’t be writers.)
  • Nobody who started writing in this century can possibly be a polished (“Stage Four”) writer. (I started writing way back in the previous century but I don’t buy this for a second.)

And the list goes on.

These generalizations—like ALL generalizations—are myths, and they’re absolutely as bad as the generalization that “If he writes fast, he can’t possibly write well.”

For one thing, claiming to know someone else’s intent (all book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists) is a massive dose of bovine excrement. That’s no less silly than claiming to know how well someone writes when you haven’t read so much as a paragraph of that writer’s work.

And really? The twenty-something straight out of college who is working for a New York house is a “legitimate” editor whereas people who have a gift for the language and a thorough knowledge of all the rules of grammar and punctuation are not?

Now, had Dean written that

  • SOME people who are great editors couldn’t write fiction well, or
  • SOME book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists, or
  • SOME book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists,

I would agree.

You get the point.

But what bothers me most about this is that, judging from the comments on his posts, a LOT of young writers (in experience, not necessarily age) are ingesting whole everything he says.

So I’m just sayin’, don’t be one of those. Develop a healthy level of skepticism.

Certainly you should continue to learn from those with experience, especially those whose work you admire. When you hear or read something that makes sense to you, use it.

But when it doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification. And if when you ask, the source becomes defensive, then I recommend 1) disbelieving what he said and 2) listening to anything in the future from that source with even more skepticism.

And the same thing goes for generalizations.

‘Til next time, be careful out there, and happy writing!


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.