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 […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
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 memoir, worth reading because you’ve aimed it at the social good.
I am also establishing with this new year a blog entitled: 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly for the submission and publication of short memoir of the sort included here. Submission guidelines are at the end of this newsletter.
I initiate this blog as a forum for short memoir, but also to urge writers to use memoir for socially just reasons. We live in a time when such efforts are greatly needed. Share this newsletter so others can join in.
Here is my short memoir entitled Why We Write Memoir:
I live in Park Plazas in Santa Fe, an area managed by a Stephanie Davis-Namm, and a Board of Directors led by Richard White, President of RKW Enterprises, Auction Support Services. I tell you these details because memoir states the facts.
When reparations were requested, Davis-Namm and White disavowed responsibility for clean up. The Park Plazas employee tasked with managing the installation, and the plumber, both men, walked away without repercussions—and the Board of Directors, led by White, side-stepped. A woman, Davis-Namm, made it possible for each of these men to avoid responsibility.
I tell you these facts, because facts are at the heart of memoir.
I tell you these facts also because they illustrate daily life for people across this country—small insults, big abuses. Over and over, men in positions of power, the organizations they steer, and their functionaries, ignore, abuse, and take advantage of women—and people of color, and religious minorities, and gays, and elders, and on and on.
That is why we write memoir.
We write memoir to hold accountable those who are responsible. We write memoir because when one person speaks the truth, she opens the door for the next person to speak the truth.
That is how we change the world, a world with problems so mammoth it seems impossible to find solutions. It’s easier to lose oneself in social media than to figure out what to do. Where do I start? is a familiar refrain.
A memoir doesn’t have to be a book. It can be the story of an event. You state the facts and name the truth housed inside those facts.
The truth for millions of women, every day, is that if they had been men, their experiences would have gone differently. That is why we write memoir.
#MeToo is just one big screaming memoir, and thank the Gods. Finally.
But when women throw women under the bus, as emissaries of men, they deserve being called out. We are used to men in positions of power ignoring situations that disturb the status quo; it’s predictable. But women perpetuating these patterns? Make no mistake, these are the women who keep the world stuck in the same-old-same-old for those who suffer the indignities of inequality. Like Davis-Namm, they cover for men; they do their bidding.
Women will write memoir for as long as it takes to get women like Davis-Namm to do the right thing, for as long as it takes to dismantle the forces that keep their pay below that of men, to get affordable healthcare and equal opportunities for their children, for as long as it takes to disempower the men who abuse, and who wink at the abuses of their peers.
Whether it be water spilling into a home in New Mexico; a tainted drinking source in Flint, Michigan; the abusive behavior of a Supreme Court Justice; children locked up at our southern border; young black men shot in the cities of our democracy, it all starts in the same place: small acts and tiny choices made by boards of directors, community representatives, office clerks, middle managers—brick-upon-brick—laying the foundation for a culture of dominance and disregard.
State the facts.
Write memoir to right wrong.
Such is my example of how to use daily life to write a short memoir. Happy 2020, the year of seeing clearly.
Submit your short social justice memoirs for inclusion in Norton’s blog: 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly. Focus on daily experiences with systems that perpetuate inequality. Guidelines: Maximum 750 words. Get the facts right. Skip the vitriol. Name the issue. https://www.lisadalenorton.com.
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 […]
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 that will get your memoir done by the end of this year.
Whatever the strategy, it’s yours to develop, but the assignment is not negotiable. Three times a week: four pages. By the end of the year you will have composed another 50,000 words of your story. That chunk of writing should get you to the end of your draft.
2. For those of you who are almost done with your memoir, your task is similar but slightly different. You need to keep up whatever writing routine you have developed, but be sure you are writing 3000 words per week.
In addition, if you desire publication, and are committed to going beyond self publishing, you need to research editors who can help make your manuscript as good as it can be. Find someone who is a good match. You’ll find many people online. Others come via word of mouth, or you earn about at a writing conference. Whatever information gathering process you use is fine, just don’t assume you can skip this step.
The marketplace is grueling, and if you think you’re going to prance out there with your (brilliant) story and capture the spotlight, think again. Get a smart, savvy editor in your pocket, and then listen to what he/she tells you. And get ready to edit. Between now and the end of 2019, you need to orient yourself to this reality: finishing your draft is the first step, finding a smart developmental editor who can help you knock that draft into shape is the next step.
One word of advice: While there are a lot of editors out there, be sure you find one who can not only wield the editor’s pen, but can help you understand why something isn’t working and show you how to fix it. This requires a good communicator, and a person with a teacher’s gene. Not all editors are alike. And be sure you understand the difference between a copy editor who is tasked with correcting your grammar and punctuation (something that happens at the end of the book process when your manuscript is ready to go to print), and a developmental editor whose genius is helping you see how a story works and how to make yours do what it needs to do to be successful.
3. Now, for those of you who are dreaming of writing a memoir, but just haven’t gotten started, or you’ve started—kind of—but no idea of where you are going with ALL THAT STUFF THAT’S HAPPENED IN MY LIFE, here is your strategy:
First, decide if it is, in the deepest part of your soul, something you NEED to do before you die. Yup, it’s that serious. Because it’s going to take time, and heart energy, and money, and hard, hard, work. In a word: dedication, or rather obsession. If you can honestly say: Yes, I have to do this or I will die incomplete, then step up and find someone to help you start.
Yes, books, can help, but it’s like an exercise routine. You can read about it, but you are apt to be more successful if you get out of the house and go to the gym and engage in an organized routine. Same with starting your memoir. Find a class where you have to show up (and then SHOW UP), or find a writing editor/coach/mentor/teacher who can set deadlines (AND THEN MEET THEM), explain how memoir works, guide you in the composition process, and help you sort out the story thread from all the dross of daily living we each pile up in our years, months, and days of time on this planet.
You need guidance, wise teaching, and support in the initial often clunky, exhilarating, and confusing process of getting the memoir rolling. Once you are into it, over the hump of procrastination, you will be into a different stage of writing, and you can reevaluate your strategy. (See #1 above.)
If you select the option that fits your situation, and do the work, you will finish your memoir by the end of 2019—or in the case of the beginner, you will be chugging within view of that final station, smile on face, bragging to your friends.
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 […]
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 […]
Sometimes the story we begin writing outgrows the boundaries of memoir and branches away from the task of reconstructing real people and lived events and leaps imaginatively into invention—first, invention of little this’s and that’s, and then (oops!) into the invention of bigger this’s and that’s—until, at some point you sit up at your computer and think . . . hmmm . . . am I writing memoir or fiction?
Because, of course, the root of what the memoirist does is invent on the page, or re-invent, we might say: a memory. She paints for the reader remembered experience.
Is that fiction? Good question. One could argue: Yes. One could argue: No.
As memoirists we allow a certain level of invention. We have to, because words on paper are not the real event, hence: invention. But furthermore, you are not writing history when you write memoir; you are not recording factual information gleaned from sources in libraries and public records (although you might have used such material for research). The point is: You are writing a story, and in that process, there is the act of re-creating the remembered moments of a life.
The question becomes: When does that act of re-creating go too far? When are you writing fiction, and if you discover you are, is it okay to just go with it—to do that—to bridge over and write fiction?
You have gone too far (for memoir) when you invent characters and events. Not when you are recreating dialogue spoken between real people for events that actually happened, but when you start adding people and taking the conversations into wholly new and imagined territory (which you know in your little heart of hearts, didn’t happen—oh, you may wish it had happened that way . . . but it didn’t). Good news! There a place to do that. It’s called writing autobiographical fiction.
Is it wrong to take your story in that direction, to just go with the imagination and take the bridge away from memoir and into the land of fiction? No, of course it’s not wrong. Sometimes a story is best told by letting go of the facts and allowing the imagination to make a better tale than you are able to create via that messy fallible thing called memory.
The key here is: Should you wander away from actual known people and lived events, you can not call that piece of writing memoir, or rather, you shouldn’t. Too many people out there have this notion that memoir is a direct recitation of facts, and you can get yourself in a pickle if you bend their interpretation too far. Hence, it is just easier to call it fiction, and enjoy creating a story that works, and that is what you are trying to do; that’s what all storytellers are trying to do: create a story that works.
And what does that mean? A story that comes to satisfying conclusion, all threads tied up in some way—not necessarily happy-face-bow-on-top tied up, but outstanding issues addressed—characters believably thwarted or successful in attaining their desires, and lingering questions answered. That’s a short cut answer, but it’s helpful to have one in this discussion, because it helps you understand why sometimes a memoir doesn’t work. Without inventing you can’t bring the story arc to completion. In the pursuit of a good story, sometimes imagination wins out over the facts.
Concerns about hurting family and friends are some of the most worrisome for memoirists. My advice? Quit obsessing about it and get on with the writing. Plenty of would-be memoirists have stopped themselves before even getting started, due to such concerns, and many who have […]