KNOW WHAT YOUR MEMOIR IS ABOUT
Like I wrote about in the previous blog post, How To Ruin Your Memoir in 10 Easy Steps, you’re writing a memoir, not an autobiography, which means that there are details and events and seasons of your life that don’t belong in your memoir — no matter how interesting they might be. So anything that doesn’t support the big story has to go.
MAKE A STORY MAP
Some people use outlines; I use a story map that has each of the big scenes in my story. And then I write from one event to the next. I think of the big events as train depots and the words in between as the tracks. It’s helpful for me to plan out the route before I start writing so I go in a consistent direction and don’t get too far off track.
USE LITERARY NONFICTION TECHNIQUES
One of the best writing trends that occurred in the last century was the idea of literary non-fiction, which borrows fiction techniques to tell non-fiction stories. Joan Didion and the writers of her generation were the inventors and masters of it. When you’re telling your story, think of how the events fit into fiction’s “introduction –> complications –> crisis –> climax –> resolution” arc. Think of how to develop your character, how to use description and plot-pacing, etc. It’ll make your memoir feel more like a story instead of a news article.
I’ve had the chance to teach some writing workshops lately, which has forced me to think about my writing process, to remember writing advice I’ve been given, and to remember all the things I tried that haven’t worked.
So I decided to do some blog posts about it. (I’m talking about memoir writing because that’s my forte, but most of these apply to any kind of writing.)
Today we’ll talk about how to ruin your memoir. Then in the next blog post, we’ll talk about how to improve your memoir. If you have a question, or if there’s something I didn’t address that you want to hear about, leave it in the comments section.
Ok. Here we go!
10 WAYS TO RUIN YOUR MEMOIR by Sarah Thebarge
WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR
This means, of course, that you’ll have to know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography is a chronological account of someone’s life, where no single event is given any more importance than another. The only people who should write an autobiography are famous people, because everybody wants to know the details of their lives. If you’re not famous, you should not write an autobiography. Instead, you should write a memoir — which is a book focused on a particular experience or facet of your life.
Today’s the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, when people around the world will remember with sad hearts the unexpected violence that occurred that day.
We’ll also remember the violence that continues around the world today. Sex trafficking, beheadings, child labor, homicide, domestic violence…the list is depressingly long.
Over the past few months, as the hellish summer unfolded, I’d listen to news reports on the radio and find myself asking two questions:
“Jesus, how can this be?”
And, “Jesus, what am I supposed to do — especially when none of this is my fault?”
As I look at the world, I feel completely helpless, as I suspect most of us do. No one I know is in a position to negotiate truces between warring countries, or reason with terrorists, or rescue victims who are abused and killed by their captors.
The easiest position I’ve found is to stand enlightened on a hill overlooking the rest of the world, shaking my head and thanking God that I’m not capable of, and not culpable for, the evil that I see.
But today as I woke up and meditated and prayed for the world, the words of Jesus came to mind. In Matthew 5, he makes a series of statements, “You have heard it said…but I say…” And in these few verses, he ups the ante. He doesn’t let those of us who have never murdered or committed adultery or other “serious” sins to go free.
Instead, he transcends the (relatively low) standards that most of us have been holding ourselves to.
This week I’ve been closely following the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager, was shot to death by a police officer on Saturday. Several witnesses say that the police officer started the altercation and that Brown was backing (or, some say, running) away when the police officer shot him multiple times. (The incident is still under investigation.)
The fallout since has been as dramatic as anything I’ve seen unfold in our country in a very long time. Citizens held protests nightly and then, on Wednesday night, tensions mounted as police took to the streets with riot gear, rubber bullets and tear gas. The police yelled for journalists to turn their cameras off, and even arrested two reporters.
For a few hours that night, there was no live news coverage of the event because all the reporters had been chased away from the scene. But on the social media sites Twitter and Vine, it was a different story. People who were at the protest captured pictures and video clips and shared them with everyone who was following the hashtag #Ferguson.
I was glued to my Twitter feed. I watched the images of the protest in disbelief of the anger, the fear, the grief, the violence, and the denial of First Amendment Rights (namely, the right for peaceful assembly and the right to free speech.)
I stayed up way too late, and woke up tired yesterday morning. But I had to work a 12-hour shift in the urgent care where I’m on staff as a physician assistant. I arrived at the clinic, put on a large pot of coffee, and donned my white coat. A few hours into the morning, I was taking a sip of coffee from my mug when I accidentally spilled it and it splashed onto the lapel of my white coat.
There’s a drought in California right now. The drought’s been going on for a while now. It’s the worst one California’s had in decades. In January, the governor declared a drought emergency and asked residents to reduce their water consumption by 20% (which, for the average household, is about 72 gallons a day.)
I moved here in March and now, five months later, the water levels in the reservoirs are still dropping and it has rained maybe nine drops of rain since I arrived.
There are radio ads and public service announcements suggesting how to decrease your personal water consumption. The top tips are…
Let your lawn “go brown” instead of watering it, or switch your landscape to drought-resistant plants that thrive on lots of sun and little water.
Don’t wash your vehicles with your hose.
If you boil pasta or vegetables, don’t pour the water down the drain; use it to water your plants.
Take 5 minute showers and, some even suggest, shower together as a family.
And, the ever-famous, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow…” because the average toilet uses 3.6 gallons of water per flush.
A few weeks ago on a warm July night, I sat with a friend on the balcony of my little studio apartment in Santa Barbara. It was nearly midnight and, while we watched stars winking at us from the deep indigo sky, I wondered aloud about why some well-known people have reputations for being casual and kind and, well, “normal,” for lack of a better word. And why others go off the rails, becoming neurotic, cocky, rude and sometimes suicidal.
I wanted to know if it’s inevitable that well-known people all crack under the weight of public attention. If all creatives are destined for rehab. If all celebrities become insufferable, with contract riders that include stipulations like “no one can make eye contact with me” and “whenever I walk into a room, all staff must turn and face the wall” and “I only want green M&M’s in the hotel candy dish” and “in my dressing room there must be three white lilies that are each 18” high in a 12” tall vase that Swarovski designed in 1982.” (Ok, that last one I made up, but the others really happened.)
I wanted to know not only if that kind of behavior is inevitable or not, but how and why it happens. Why do some celebrities take their kids to school and slip anonymously into diners for a stack of pancakes and quietly share their money with single moms and cancer patients and disaster victims?
And why do others punch paparazzi in the face and say cruel things on Twitter and file for bankruptcy because they spent all their money on Malibu mansions and Lamborghinis?
My very first date was on the 4th of July, when I was 20 years old. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, and I was home with my family in northeast Pennsylvania.
My older brother Lenny was a server at Applebee’s. He came home one night and said, “Sarah, I have a great guy for you. He was at Applebee’s having lunch with his pastor, he drives a red sports car and he plays golf.”
Apparently those three things — lunching with a pastor, red car, golf clubs — meant this guy was perfect for me. My brother gave him my number, and the guy called the following day. We made plans to go to the fair on the 4th of July to watch fireworks. He picked me up around 9 p.m. and we drove to the fair grounds. While we watched the fireworks raining from the sky, he stood behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist — presumably so he could “rescue” me if sparks flew in my direction.
I moved to Santa Barbara four months ago. I’d been living in Portland, Oregon, for the past 6 years, and though I love the city and the people there, the dreary drizzle got to me after a while. So in March, I moved here to work two days a week as a physician assistant at an urgent care clinic, which gives me 5 days a week to write, travel and speak.
On March 7th I spoke at a writers’ conference in Portland. I gave my talk, then literally walked off the stage, got into my car, and started driving down to California with my friend Stephanie. We drove through the night and ended up arriving around 3 p.m. The following morning we went to Pete’s Coffee in downtown SB. Behind Pete’s there’s a courtyard with a fountain and tables. On the other side of the courtyard there’s a yoga studio and a few other shops.
As we sat there drinking coffee in the early morning sunshine, we talked about who the
Invisible People of SB might be.
This week a reporter for the Santa Barbara News Press newspaper asked if he could interview me for a feature story, and I said yes.
I met him at a coffee shop on Friday afternoon. He put his digital tape recorder on the table in front of us, and then he started asking questions.
A few minutes into the interview he asked how my faith impacts my world view, and I told him that I believe that God loves the world — and that people who love God are called to love the world as well. Not to judge or hate or belittle, but love.
“How did you come to believe in a God like that?” he asked.
Without hesitation I said, “Because that’s the God my parents told me about. And as far back as I can remember, that’s how my parents loved the world.”
I woke up this morning thinking about Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day. My parents have been married for decades, so I tend to think of both holidays as Parents’ Day.) Anyway. This morning, I thought back to the interview I had last week, and I thought even further back to the memories I have of my parents.
1) “My right to bear arms is in the Constitution.”
It’s time for us to acknowledge that the Constitution is not infallible. If it were infallible, it wouldn’t have had to be amended so many times. It was written by men, not saints. Though we call them the Founding Fathers and “Christians” (because as deists they acknowledged the existence of a divine being), in fact they committed adultery, fathered children out of wedlock and kept slaves. If you think the Constitution is inspired, you’d have to say the same thing about a document written by Bill Clinton, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and John Edwards.
I’m not advocating for anarchy. Of course changes to the Constitution take careful deliberation and thoughtful discussion — but there is a precedent for amending parts of the document. And maybe we need to start talking about amending the gun part.