Creating Character in Memoir: A Blog Hop

The brilliant intellect Thaisa Frank, author of the stunning novels Heidegger’s Glasses, Enchantment, and A Brief History of Camouflage, tagged me in a blog hop, so that means I’m “it.” In this chain of blogs, started by publisher Mark Cunningham, writers of all persuasions are addressing seven basic questions about “character” in  their recent or upcoming books. Most of those books are novels, so Thaisa thought it’d be interesting to get a memoirist’s take on the subject of character: how does creating character in memoir differ or align with creating character in fiction? And at the end of this post, I pay it forward, tagging five more writers working on fascinating books, who then address the same character questions.

the classic flat white sandal for little girls

Many little girl characters wear this classic sandal

What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person? My character is myself, since my book, To Have Not, is a memoir, though it does read like a novel, in its collision of plot, character, setting, desire, conflict, repeating themes, and some kind of not-quite-tidy resolution. So the main character’s name is Frances. When I was writing about her, I did indeed see her as a character, as separate and distinct from myself, and often referred to her as “she” and “her.” That separation felt necessary to allow me to write memoir as literature, to turn my life into art, to be able to see the symbolic themes and allegories of her journey.

When and where is the story set? The story starts in the 1970s, in San Francisco, where I was born and raised, mostly in and around the Mission District and other low-rent neighborhoods (well, they were low rent at the time). Then it spends a few decades in New England, where I attended Brown University on scholarship, and discovered the stark realities of class in America.

What should we know about him/her? She’s poor and white, growing up in the inner city with parents who straddled the line between Beatnik and Hippie and had a laissez-faire parenting style. She grows up with brothers and other boys and eventually makes it out of the neighborhood into the white and wealthy world of the ivy league, so she straddles quite a few lines herself.

The To Have Not memoir version of  me paired Chuck Taylor high  tops with dresses and pants alike.

Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, high top, black: my footwear of choice as a kid in To Have Not

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life? Her conflict is with money and all the privileges it bestows. She’s perfectly happy in her little concrete world of schoolyards and corner stores, until it begins to dawn on her, at around age eight, that not everyone lives this way, that the world is divided into Haves and Have Nots, that race and gender and money and optimism all contribute to this divide. From then on, she is consumed by want, shame, rage, and ambition. It turns out the poverty has gotten too deep inside her, nestled into her bones, and molded how she thinks, sees, walks, eats, kisses, dreams.

What is the personal goal of the character? It’s not wealth she’s after; it’s the confidence of the born-wealthy that she desires, the sense of entitlement that she believes is innate to the Haves, the way they see the world as open and full of opportunities just asking to be plucked. Of course, by her own logic, she will never be gifted with this innate sense of “I can do anything I want” because she was born poor. So, something has got to give: either she changes her philosophy and interpretation of the world or she swallows her ambition and remains poor. And I don’t mean poor just in money, but in confidence, love, happiness, and all that.

What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it? To Have Not.

When was the book published? It was published in 2010, named a Best Memoir of that year by SheKnows.com, and is available online in paperback or e-book versions.

Next up:

Janis Owens, author of the hauntingly beautiful, you’ll-never-see-the-world-the-same-again novel American Ghost, one of my top books of 2012, who is busy on her next novel.

Alison Luterman, poet, playwright and essayist extraordinaire, whose new collection of personal essays, Feral City, is coming out from Shebooks later this summer.

Theresa Williams, the multi-talented poet and fiction writer, who’s newest, Blue Velvis, will be e-published later this summer/early fall by Shebooks.

Brent Winter, the extremely clever jack-of-all-trades just putting the finishing touches on his first novel.

Marianne Rogoff, another Shebooks author who writes fiction and memoir, and blends both forms in her upcoming book Endlessly Rocking.

Go-To Memoirs: Recommended memoirs for readers & writers

Another question I get asked by readers and writers alike: What are your favorite memoirs? Whether you read memoirs to pass the time or to study the form for writing your own, these six favorites show off a range of voice, approach, style, and story. You may not like them all, but you will like at least one. If not, let me hear it!

Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood by June Jordan. Jordan grew up in 1940s New York City, the sole child of West Indies immigrants, and she writes here from that wondering child’s POV. Her complicated relationship with her ambitious father–he treated young June more like a son than a daughter–takes center stage, with equally complex race relations in the background. Because she is a Poet (and I do mean with a capital “P,” given her stature in the world of arts & letters), even Jordan’s prose is poetic. How is this lovely, piercing memoir like a poem? Let me count the ways: lots of airy white space and one-line paragraphs; a structure that is sometimes roundabout but always captivating; every word counts. Highly recommended.

In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country by Kim Barnes. Barnes writes fiction as well as memoir, and she brings a novelist’s lush sense of story to her portrait of coming of age in rural Idaho in the 1950s and ’60s. Like Jordan, she looks particularly closely at the father-daughter relationship; in this case, the father is a loving but stubborn lumberjack who becomes a domineering born-again Pentecostal right before his daughter’s eyes. (Barnes’ follow-up memoir, Hungry for the  World, is just as captivating, but less universal, as it details a strangely abusive relationship she got entangled with after she left home.) Need I say this is a highly recommended memoir?

 

Highly recommended memoirs

Janet Frame

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame. Born into a poor family in rural New Zealand in 1924, the novelist and short-story author was occasionally incarcerated in mental hospitals because her creativity struck some as a form of craziness. What I love, in addition to her emotional and intellectual intelligence, is her defiance: she had no choice but to pursue her art, regardless of the consequences. Eventually she became one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed writers, but this is a window peek into the heart and mind of someone who grows up a Have Not. This is the second slim volume in a trilogy; it was made into one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, Jane Campion. Read it; see it; swim in it. Yep, this, too, is a highly recommended memoir.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Proving that a Midwest suburban-ish childhood can indeed be fodder for a gripping memoir, Beard astounds with fourteen essay-like chapters that loosely add up to a life. It’s the telling more than the tale that carries this: the concrete imagery and direct voice that put you right there sitting on the dock at the lake, watching your mom smoke Salems at the kitchen table, and leaning your forehead against the window screen, “breathing in the night air and the funereal scent of roses.” I must give this a “highly recommended memoir” star, as well.

 

highly recommended memoirs

Maybe someone Mary Karr once knew in Texas wore these boots.

The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. Another poet, and therefore another memoir as stunning as a poem, with pitch-perfect prose. Plus, Karr’s got the kind of life story that’s just begging to be made into a book: raised in East Texas to larger-than-life parents (her mother was married seven times) who drank and fought and pulled guns and generally raised hell. Still, someone else could have told this story and made a bad book; it’s Karr’s how, as well as her what, that makes this so astonishing. Simply put: a highly recommended memoir.

To Have Not by Frances Lefkowitz. Sorry, how could I not? Growing up poor, white, and female in urban San Francisco in the 1970s, Lefkowitz (that would be me) looks at the nuances of race and class in America and tries to make sense of the cosmic sense of deprivation that affects even the Haves. This also peers rather deeply into the nuances of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Like Boys of My Youth, these chapters could easily stand alone–and many of them did, as personal essays first published in The Sun magazine.paper in my shoe blog Would it just be too too to place this on the highly recommended memoir list as well? I don’t want to try your patience…

Now, let me put the question to you: What are your favorite memoirs? I mean the ones that you would call, with no hesitation, highly recommended?

Annoy the Editor #2: Get published in magazines + journals

I got a new pair of shoes (half-off sale at the thrift store!) and had to write a new post so I could show them off. This post continues my Annoy the Editor series and will help you to improve your writing and also to get published in magazines and journals. It’s about detaching from your story and letting the editor do her job, which is, among many other things, edit.

Red Shoes Paper in My Shoe

How could these red backless Mary Janes annoy anyone, even an editor?

Take Line Edits Personally. This is a great way to annoy the editor and make the experience of working with you so unpleasant that she won’t want to do it again. What can I say to assure you that those deletions and insertions are not about you, that your editor is focused solely on making your story the best it can be? I understand: you’ve evaluated every word, considered every comma, constructed every sentence just so. Naturally you are attached to them. But they may not come off as you intended. What you thought was intrigue may read as evasion. That bit of slang may sound dated. The confession you made may be over the edge of TMI. What you intended as sophistication might actually be a run-on sentence. Your editor is there to identify these discrepancies, to save you from yourself, to help your story say what you want it to say.

Representing the Reader. The editor is also there to represent the reader’s interests. And she knows her audience; She is intimate with the expectations and desires of the readers of her particular publication. An editor at a consumer magazine like Health knows that her readers want practical tips, so she may condense two paragraphs of your personal reflections about recovering from postpartum depression. The writer who takes line edits personally will interpret this as callous disregard for an experience that meant a lot to her. The writer who doesn’t take it personally will understand that for this venue, two sentences about your own private hell is appropriate.

Red Shoes Paper in My Shoe

Well maybe the hard sole makes the tiniest clacking sound on a bare floor…could be annoying, especially to an editor

Trying to Make Everybody Happy. While the editor is trying to meet the needs of the reader, she is also trying to meet the needs of the publication’s designers, advertisers, and publishers, as well as the constraints of physics and geometry. Say the art department decides to enlarge an illustration or needs to add a new ad. This may cut into the space allotted to the text. Often these decisions happen at the eleventh hour; I’ve been there, when I was a staff editor, getting proofs with four lines of run-over text and a mandate to make it fit. It hurt to delete a great line, but it had nothing to do with the greatness or not-greatness of the line.

A Detached Perspective. With literary journals, the work of the editor is more subjective, but still, she is not changing your words to spite you. She is doing it to better the work. An editor at The Sun changed a phrase in No Camping on City Streets, my essay about my evicted family spending a summer at a lake, from “wandering back and forth between liquid and solid” to “… between water and land.” I thought my way sounded poetic; he thought it sounded like a chemistry experiment. He was acting in his capacity as someone detached from the work and wanting to publish a great piece, and I believed him. It became “water and land,” in the essay, and in the chapter it eventually became in my memoir To Have Not, and every time I give a reading from that section, I cringe at what might have been. I didn’t accept his changes 100 percent of the time (just 90 percent), but I always knew they were in service of the story, and had nothing to do with me. paper in my shoe blog

 

How to Annoy the Editor: tips for getting published in magazines

Annoying the editor is not a good way to get stories and articles published in magazines. And the best way to annoy an editor is to not read the magazine. Like Santa, they know. They can tell by the title or first sentence of your submission if you’ve read the magazine or just read about it. You don’t even have to buy the magazine, but at least open a copy at a newsstand or, better yet, a library, where you can spend a few guilt-free minutes with a few issues. Otherwise, you will likely submit a story that is wildly inappropriate, in topic, tone, and/or length. The editor–or the slush pile reader–will open your submission, take one look, exhale an exasperated breath, and toss it in the recycle bin, cursing you for wasting paper, postage, and their time.This advice applies to literary journals as well as trade and consumer magazines.

So, do everyone a favor and peruse the magazines on the stands, to find the right venue for your story. Look first for those running stories on the topic you are writing about. When I was Senior Editor at a national health magazine called Body+Soul (now Martha Stewart’s Whole Living), I’d get submissions on the latest in children’s books, or new products for African-American hair. Apparently these writers interpreted the magazine’s name any old which way they wanted to, without bothering to see what we actually published or who we published for. Some magazines cater to married women or middle-aged men even if the name doesn’t imply it. If you looked at the articles and the ads in Body+Soul/Whole Living, you’d deduce that our audience was primarily female, and you would not, as one hapless writer once did, send me an article on prostrate cancer. Others focus on particular regions; no matter how well you write about Niagara Falls, for instance, Sunset Magazine, with either its old tag line (“the magazine of Western living”) or its younger, hipper, new one (“Life in the West”) will toss your query in the circular or the compost pile or where ever Westerners toss garbage. And the best way to annoy the editor of a lit mag is to send poetry to journal that publishes only prose, or nonfiction essays to one that only publishes fiction.

Would you wear these to a black-tie gala?

PaperinMyShoe.com advice on writing, publishing, and footwear

1970s -style platform shoes

Then don’t send a 3,000-word story to a 500-word column

Topic is key, but tone, style, and length are also essential to finding a good fit for your story. OK, you’ve written a story on perfume and you’ve found a magazine  dedicated to scents. Now, does the magazine cover the chemistry of scents or the history of scents or the business of scents? Does it publish first-person personal essays, or does it only run reported, fact-based stories written in the third person and quoting research journals and experts in the field? Does it run 3,000-word articles or do the stories top out at 1,500 words? Each magazine has an established format and your story must fit into it, not vice versa.

Learn the anatomy of the magazine. Publications are divided into departments, sections, and/or columns, and regular features, all with consistent addresses in the mag, so readers can find them easily. The traditional consumer mag layout starts with short, breezy items, several to a page, then a column or two, followed by longer stories in the “feature well,” then more columns, and finishing off with some tasty treat on the back page (a light essay; a photo; a cartoon caption contest, if you’re the New Yorker). If the short items are unattributed, or if they are attributed to people listed on the masthead, they are all done in-house: don’t bother proposing to write these. Same story with a column that’s always got the same byline: don’t offer to write a Borowitz Report, as Andy Borowitz has got that covered. But columns without regular writers are open for proposals. In fact, these are great places to start, as editors prefer to see how you do on a 1,200 word column or department story before giving you a 6-page feature spread of 3,500 words. Most column and department stories get the same lay-out and the same amount of space in every issue; the Blessings essay on the back page of Good Housekeeping–written by a different writer each month–is always one page, and about 500 words. So don’t send in a 1,000-word essay and hope they’ll change the whole lay-out of the publication to accommodate you. You’ll only  annoy the editor, which, as I’ve said, is not a great strategy for getting your stories and articles published in magazipnes.paper in my shoe blog

Tips on Writing & Publishing Memoir

I couldn’t have summed up my recent talk at the Writers Forum any better myself, so I’ll just link you right to writer Nicole Zimmerman‘s excellent summary at Paper-Pencil-Pen.

To jumpstart the evening’s discussion on writing and publishing memoir and personal essays, I interviewed myself, asking and then answering tough questions, such as “What if you can’t remember every detail?” and “After you published your memoir, did your parents stop speaking to you?”

Bonus: my shoes get some press…

maryjanes on steroids

maryjanes on steroids

At the Writers Forum, I not only wore these shoes, but I also talked a bit about the distinction between the process of writing a memoir or personal essay and the process of publishing one. When writing, I don’t think about anyone, such as my parents, reading it, because I need to write freely and allow the thoughts, feelings, and images to emerge. Censorship in any form, including self-censorship that comes from a fear of hurting someone, hampers the creative process. But publishing–making this writing public–is a whole other story. Then you have some decisions to make about what you are willing to reveal and risk in your life, for the sake of your art. When my memoir manuscript was about to become a book, I gave it a final read, looking just at how I had portrayed the people in my life, especially the ones  I wanted to remain my life. What I nipped and tucked did not hurt the veracity of the memoir, and may even have improved it, because I applied an extra layer of empathy. And empathy is so crucial to a good memoir–and a good life.

How to Get Your Book Reviewed

How do I get my book reviewed? First, you’ve got to learn something about the physics of publication, and the simple fact that magazines and newspapers work ahead of time. The publishing process involves many steps (writing, editing, designing, selling ads…) each with its own due date. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese deadlines are set in an editorial calender, determined by the Big Kahuna of deadlines: the date that the printer must receive the final proofs in order for the March issue, say, to be printed, and sent to subscribers and newsstands, by March. Each department (sales, art, production, editorial) works backward from this deadline to set all the other deadlines. And hidden in these compounding deadlines lies the secret to getting your book reviewed.

Here’s the two-pronged take-home: 1) It takes a minimum of four months “lead time”  for a review (or any article) to go from assignment, through writing, editing, rewriting, designing, proofing, and printing, to bound, boxed, and delivered to stores and subscribers. 2) Most magazines only want to cover new books, and by “new,” they mean books published the same month as the issue of the magazine.

So, if your book is due to be published in August, and a magazine starts assigning articles for the August issue five months earlier, in March, how can your book possibly get reviewed? Given the physics of time and the fact that it doesn’t run backward, the book has to come out ahead of itself. This time-space conundrum is solved by the pre-press galley or Advance Review Copy (ARC). Four to six months before the book comes out, the book publisher releases a limited number of ARCs on cheap paper with a mock-up paperback cover (because the real one isn’t usually designed yet), and sends them out to editors at magazines and newspapers. type box shellsARCs also serve as a convenient way for the author, editors, and designers to do a final proofing, but they are an absolute necessity to getting your book reviewed in most national or regional print publications.

The rules differ for online reviews (since it takes much less time to go to “print” digitally) and for smaller or local publications less concerned with being right on top of the news. Also, since printing ARCs takes money and forethought, some publishers cheat by just printing manuscripts, bound or even un-bound, and sending those to reviewers instead. Then again, some reviewers don’t like to read these manuscripts because they are awkward and messy compared with galleys. (You can check the submission guidelines or ask editors whether they’ll accept a bound ms, and how long is their magazine’s lead time.)

All-too-common scenario between Excited Author or book publisher and Seasoned Reviewer or magazine editor: EA: “Can I send you my book to review?” SR: “When does it come out?” EA: “Next month!” SR: “I’m sorry that’s too late.” EA: “It’s not even out yet and it’s too late to review?”

Don’t let this happen to you!

 

Buzzing Books: Feb & March

Always fun to recommend books I have not read. Here are some February & March releases that look intriguing, notable, and possibly bound for glory.Buzz Aldrin I wish I could tell you more, but I haven’t, uh, read them.

Her: A Memoir by Christa Pavaranni. The author is a twin; her sister died. Blurbs from Jayne Anne Phillips, Dorothy Allison, and more. This looks like one of those books that might start a small earthquake inside you.

The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy. The British author writes a lot of books that win a lot of awards. This one’s got an intriguing love-and-deception premise that looks like it could boost the Entertainment value of Literature: Two fake-psychic con artists, who used to be lovers, bump into each other on a cruise ship. She’s with her new boyfriend, but can’t seem to let the old one go…

After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story by Michael Hainey. A newsman like his dad, Hainey (Deputy Ed of GQ) sets out to find the truth about the death of his father, who died alone, of an apparent heart attack, in a car parked on the North side of Chicago.

phonograph tattooThe Memory of Love by Linda Olsson. There’s something so intangibly attractive about this petite novel (a slim 5×7) about the friendship between a middle-aged woman with a troubled past and a young boy with a troubled present. The Boston Globe has praised Olsson’s “dark lyricism.” This takes place on the rugged New Zealand coast.

Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We tell About Our Pasts by Charles Fernyhough. Perhaps it’s because I write and teach memoir, but I can’t wait to read the facts about the fictions I think are facts.

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. A first novel about the man who tries to climb Everest “because it’s there” (George Mallory) and the woman who loved him (his wife Ruth). History+Romance+Frostbite= Bestseller? Looks lightish but yummy.

If you read any of these, please let me know if they live up to my hype.

 

How to Become a Book

As a reader for a literary agency, I read lots of manuscripts of novels and memoirs that would like to become books. As a book reviewer for national magazines, I read lots of advanced review copies (ARCs) of novels and memoirs that are about to become books. How does a manuscript get from the first category to the second? What makes an agent, then an editor, then a publisher think, Yes, I can sell this?

unique tightsIt’s not enough to be well-written, with flawless sentences, believable and intriguing characters, interesting settings, twisting plots, strong pacing, vivid scenes, a structure that makes sense, etc. Many manuscripts have all these qualities and more; their mechanics are perfect; they read like real books. But they read like books I’ve already read or don’t really feel compelled to read. Supposedly every story under the sun has already been told, yet every month publishers release captivating novels with new takes on the old human story. My advice to manuscripts that want to become books is to reach beyond the competent and the familiar, to find your unique self. Maybe you tell the story from an unexpected point of view, or place it in an unlikely setting, or probe more deeply into the forces at play, or twist the plot in the direction opposite from where it was headed.

It’s hard to get a first book published; with so many writers submitting manuscripts, the numbers are against you. And then there’s luck, happenstance, connections, and the vagaries of uniquethe marketplace: things no one can predict or control. So give yourself whatever boost you can in the writing, and make sure your story sits apart from the other books you’ve read. I don’t believe it must be great in order to sell; if it’s good and it’s different, I think it has a shot.