We are all going to have time eddying around us in these coming weeks, as life shifts into a new and unfamiliar rhythm, but once we strike that rhythm—whatever it is for each individual household—once we get past the panic and stock piling of supplies, […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
People talk. And in your memoir, even if you are the kind of writer who leans more toward the meditative/reflective style of memoir writing—at some point, your characters will open their mouths and speak. So, the question becomes: Are you allowed to invent? Obviously, you […]
It was 1973 when Gene and I settled into a pattern of living together in my Canoga Park, California apartment where I’d lived when I was married and where my toddler son, Jim, and I continued to live after my divorce. Gene was the only black person in the complex. We socialized with our neighbors and lived happily in our little neck of the woods until there was a turnover in the managers.
I was sitting poolside, watching Jim play in the wading pool, when two police officers entered the front gate and walked towards the main building. Gene said he was shooting pool when the policemen approached him and said, “Put your pool stick down,” as they fingered their billy clubs. He looked for a place to hang up his stick and again heard, “Put the pool stick down!” Confused, he laid the cue on the table. The officers handcuffed him stating, “You’re under arrest.” They didn’t tell him why. This was his first arrest in 32 years and that included twenty years growing up in Alabama, the epitome of the Jim Crow South, where young black men were frequently arrested for nothing. He’d never expected treatment like this in California.
Soon, the officers I’d seen earlier, marched Gene, handcuffed and bewildered, out the door and down the stairs. They paraded him past the pool area. Jim started to cry. Confused and shaken, I grabbed Jim’s hand and ran back to our apartment.
I paced back and forth holding my son and patting his back to calm him. All the while I wondered what was happening, what I should do, and unable to do anything but wait.
Later Gene told me that the police drove ten miles to the Van Nuys jail and placed him in a cold room alone with a table and two chairs—just like on Law and Order. A detective entered. “Do you know why you’re here?” he asked.
“I haven’t a clue,” Gene answered.
“Do you know a Vivian Kowalski?”
She was the new manager, and Gene told them he knew her. The agent explained that she had accused him of putting a screwdriver to her side and demanding that she have sex with him or he would harm her two children. He was horrified and told the cops that was a lie. In fact, the police had merely asked her how things were going. Apparently, she’d taken that opportunity to invent a story, a racial hoax, an act of fabricating a crime and blaming it on a person of another race.
Gene had been marched away at one o’clock. I received his one promised phone call two hours later. “Annie, I’m at the Van Nuys jail,” he said. “I need you to bail me out.”
“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” I answered.
Once out on bail, Gene phoned the apartments’ parent company, Larwin, and explained what had happened. He told them, “This is a case of racial housing discrimination. Your managers didn’t like a black man living with a white woman, so they accused me of a felony as a ruse to get me out of the complex—even if that meant going to jail!” Larwin tested Gene’s theory and fired the managers.
On the day of Gene’s arraignment, we sat on a wooden bench in the cavernous marble hallway of the criminal justice building where we met Larry Trygstad, the attorney I had hired. We held hands. After an hour, Larry left and returned with the news that Vivian hadn’t shown up. The charges were dropped. The nightmare was over. We felt vindicated to learn that Vivian and her husband had fled to Canada, from whence they had come, to escape prosecution for violating the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Gene and I rethought a sacred principle of the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Now we knew that an accusation was all it took for a person to get arrested—especially for a black man.
Forty-six years later Robert Mitchell, a black California man, sued the city of Bakersfield claiming he was wrongfully arrested after refusing to give officers his name during a traffic stop. He asserted his rights because “I’ve had past incidents where I’ve been arrested and it was unlawful and I didn’t know my rights.” The city agreed to a $60,000 settlement in 2019, and unfair treatment of black men continues.
This post was submitted by Los Angeles writer Ann Carnes, at work on her memoir: Miss Ann and Her Man.
I love men, prefer their company, and sympathize with them, maybe because I had two brothers. Men don’t have it easy—for millennia, they’ve been suffering oceans of anxiety because they had to support their families and fight our wars, but I’m a woman, and I […]
Stephanie Davis-Namm, Richard White, Park Plazas & Santa Fe—Why We Write Memoir: A Manifesto for 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly
I often get queries about how to write a short memoir and make it worth reading. I have decided to share a gnarly situation from my own life to show you how to take the content of your day-to-day and turn it into a short […]
If you’re writing a memoir this year, you will—at some point—confront the question of whether your story should read like a novel. The answer to that question is as individual as your writing style and the story you have to tell.
Maybe you naturally share stories of your life as if they were great tales unspooling, one action leading to another, characters as vivid as peacocks, and minimal ruminating about the meaning of it all. The novel approach is a great shape for you then.
But what if you are a writer who approaches personal experience differently—in a more meditative mode, like a journal writer reflecting on events, weighing the context, considering the effects other choices might have made, sifting through the complexities of fate and opportunity? The novel form may not be the right approach for you.
Yet, either way is okay. Both creative drives can yield a wonderful story. It’s your voice at play here, your life. You get to make your memoir be whatever you need it to be.
As for the marketplace and what might get picked up by an agent and actually make it into print, some in writing circles will counsel you to pursue only the breakneck excitement of a contemporary adventure novel—but can you write like that? Do you want to? Does that story telling form fit the kind of story you have to tell?
Selling a memoir and writing a memoir are two different things, and while agents who might take on memoir projects, might think the market best accepts the novelesque approach in memoir, the next big bestseller could run one-hundred and eighty degrees counter to that assumption. You can’t second guess what will sell, or what the buying public will fall in love with.
And because of that, it’s just best to tell the story you need to tell, the one in your heart, the way it comes out of you and onto the page. Then get some feedback from a professional editor, or from astute reading friends, to determine how you might improve your manuscript.
How ever you do it, it is true, a memoir does have to have a shape. It has to be contained in some kind of form, but the story telling approach of the contemporary American novel is only one kind of form, or shape. Maybe your memoir is best told as podcasts—as a spoken story—with no end yet in sight. Maybe you need to make a couple of YouTube videos that capture best the story you are remembering. Maybe it is a book but it’s a combination of journal entries and running commentary, or a collection of free-standing chapters each one about a single family member and how he or she shaped your journey. Or maybe it consists entirely of letters, emails, and texts written between you and a loved one that capture the essence of love and trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I don’t know, and neither does that person out there whispering in your ear that your memoir needs to have the shape of a novel.
Writing a memoir is deeply personal, and you have to follow your writing strengths and the cues the story gives you.
It is essential, though, that you also educate yourself about the difference between writing a memoir, and selling a memoir. So, in this new year, commit to writing that memoir you’ve been thinking about for so long, but also commit to learning about the industry of publishing. That way your story will have a better chance of finding the path it deserves.
Happy New Year of writing.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I happened upon a short blurb about a book in the Quality Paperback Book Club newsletter. That’s going to be a hit! I thought, so I ordered a copy, read it, and watched the world of story roll over in front […]
Many of you have begun your memoir. Many of you are almost done with your memoir. And some of you are still thinking about it and writing it in your head. Here are three strategies for the Return to School spirit you feel in September […]
We live in a time of intense political debate. Siloed in our separate value and belief systems we find it hard to talk with strangers because we do not know what they believe, so we side-step controversy and avoid topics that might upset them.
But should it be that way in a memoir? Should we skirt the issues of the day, or dive right in?
This itself may be a topic that sets readers’ teeth gnashing.
However, I wade right in.
I believe that memoir is one of the last bastions of artistic endeavor where you have the opportunity to speak truth—about your life, feelings, ideas, opinions, and wishes for the world—via personal experience. The art of memoir is learning to do that with grace. And yes, I know that even with grace you can (inadvertently) stomp on toes. You simply can’t please everyone, nor should you try.
Again, memoir is a place to find your truth and to trumpet it with as much honesty, balance, and compassion as you can muster.
So, my take on this thorny issue is: Speak up. Explain yourself. Own your heart and beliefs, but be able and willing to explore the complexity of the issues you include in your story. That means doing deep thinking and research. Arm yourself with facts to accompany your story of personal experience.
Perhaps you are writing about income inequality based on a series of jobs you have held that barely allow you to make ends meet; don’t just rail against those you believe are guilty of making your life the way it is, but back your experience with information about how economic conditions get to be the way they are. (For an example, see the now classic Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.)
Or, if your experience is one of the immigrant, and you are feeling frightened in these current times, and you want to detail your journey, then do that. And spend time looking into the complicated processes that lead countries and cultures to become the way they are—the country you have left and the country that is your new home. Paint your experiences, but educate people, too.
A memoir that pivots on a topic and weaves personal experience with facts is stronger than one that does not, and frankly, bridges into a cousin form of writing that can command more attention in the marketplace than memoir can, which is narrative nonfiction, a form in which you use personal experience to build the arc of your story, but you use research to compose a deeper tale that illuminates the facts of the issue at the heart of your story.
And, contrary to a lot of press these days, there are actually verifiable facts. Learning how to find them and use them adds weight to your story of personal experience in the cauldron of the today’s fiery social issues.
When you sit down to write a memoir you may wonder how long it’s going to take to finish the thing. The fact it, there’s no standard time frame. I have encountered several writers who say they worked for fifteen years to get it right—to […]