Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

5 Fabulous Tips for Plotting Your Novel

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL CAN BE CONFUSING. If you don’t have a guidance system to help you navigate, you might find yourself asking questions like these: Where do I start my story for greatest impact? What events will force my main character to undergo the change they so desperately need to make? How do I construct stakes that are high enough to keep my main character engaged with their quest all the way to the end?

If you, like me, need some help to deal effectively with these and other pressing plot questions, read on. I’ve compiled a short list of tips, approaches, and resources that demonstrate ways to successfully traverse the rough terrain you and your main character must travel to create a compelling tale.

FABULOUS NOVEL PLOTTING TIP #1: Explore a myriad of plotting methods.

Fortunately, for those of us who are writing novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, or memoirs—basically, anything that tells a story and develops a character arc—many writers have gone before us and have generously blazed a trail through the wild woods of plot for us to follow.

So which of these many plotting methods is the best? I think that depends on your learning style.

When I immersed myself in the mysteries of plot, I read book after book on the subject. But I always felt I was missing something. Then Joyce Sweeney and I started developing the plot clock—and everything fell into place! The plot clock’s approach made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, I saw how exactly how plot can create a character arc—and what steps to take to make that happen.

For years, Joyce and I taught the plot clock at workshops, writing conferences, and to our clients one-on-one (which I still do).

But now, we’ve also written the book! As you’re browsing Amazon looking for good books on plot, check out our PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK. It’s short—just seventy pages! And yet it explains how to accomplish the two most important tasks you face when writing a novel or memoir: 1) relating a dynamic set of story events and 2) making your character changes in response to those events.

Of course, as I said, this is just the method that works best for my brain. You might love any one of a number of other more linear takes on plot, like SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Or you might enjoy diving really deep in story theory with a book like THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.

This choice is personal. Take the time to find what plotting approach works best for you—even if you have to experiment with several styles to do so. It will be worth it. Because once you find what fits, that method will be your trusted guide through the rest of your story-writing journey.

FABULOUS NOVEL PLOTTING TIP #2: Start with the basics.

Here are five quick, handy reference points to help you think about how to get your story started and where you’re going to take it. Considering your plot in these simple terms allows you to see if your basic idea has enough oomph to carry the story to the finish line.

Once upon a time there was … (Describe your main character.)

Every day … (This is a glimpse at your main character’s “ordinary world,” before the inciting incident changes their life.)

One day … (Aha! Inciting incident!!)

Because of that … (Here, we see how the main character responds to the inciting incident—and we establish stakes [see Fabulous Novel-Plotting Tip #5, below] that propel them forward into the main events of their story.)

Until finally … (This actually takes you past most of what happens after your character commits to their story—their trials and challenges; their low point; their lessons learned—and brings them to the climax, the battle to end all battles, the inevitable high point of your tale!)

FABULOUS NOVELPLOTTING TIP #3: Let the three C’s catapult your plot.

Raindance, an independent film festival and film school that operates in major cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Budapest, Berlin and Brussels, offers up a helpful article on the “The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II).”

The “three C’s” of this approach are conflict, choice, and consequence. Having a handle on these major story drivers will assure that your plot has the traction it needs to keep readers deeply engaged.

Further, in the above-mentioned article, writer Jurgen Wolff says, “{While] you can use these [the three C’s] to develop your main plot … they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story-–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle, or Act II.”

Learn about this concept at the Raindance site.

FABULOUS NOVEL PLOTTING TIP #4: “Yes, and …”

This improv acting tenet offers an easy-peasy way to allow your character to engage dynamically with the events of their plot. Every time the plot makes your character an “offer,” be sure she “accepts” that offer (says “Yes” to it), and then adds to the situation (or, better still, complicates it!) by adding an “and …”

For example, let’s say your character is walking down a crowded street and notices someone running from a store, having just robbed it. In improv, we’d call this an “offer.” In other words, the story has brought something to your character’s attention that she can act upon. Taking action in response to the “offer” is your character’s way of saying “Yes, and …”

Rather than allowing your character to just ignore the commotion—which can slow the story and make plotting more difficult—consistently require she make a “Yes, and” response to whatever happens in her story. In this case, she might give chase (the “Yes” being her acknowledgement of the thief escaping and the “and,” her taking off after the person). Alternatively, she could rush into the store to try to help anyone who was injured in the incident—or she could rush into the store to take advantage of the confusion and steal something herself!

In any one of these examples, your character’s active response to a situation raised by the story allows more and increasingly complex interactions with other characters to unfold. These interactions will drive her character arc and her plot forward.

This technique is particularly useful when you’re writing your first draft, as it keeps you from stalling out in the shallow waters of character ennui and unwillingness. Once you’ve “Yes, and-ed” your way through the entire plot, you can always revise to rein in or eliminate any excessive reactions on the part of your main character.

To learn more about improv and how “Yes-and” creates lively story-telling and a lively life, I suggest YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City.

To learn more about how to apply this improv precept to life off the stage, take a look at this MEDIUM article titled “Saying ‘Yes, and’—A principle for improv, business and life” by Mary Elisabeth.

FABULOUS NOVEL PLOTTING TIP #5: Create compelling stakes.

Stakes. They’re what gets your character off her duff and involved with a plot that, let’s face it, is likely to end up being a pain in her butt!

According to the Institute for Literature, “One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is ‘What is going to be at stake for my main character?’ By this, we mean, ‘What is the cost of quitting?'”

These are great questions!

If your character can quit the demands of your plot with few or no consequences, you’re likely to lose your reader early on. You see, we readers like to see a character struggle with conflict. It helps us understand better how to do so in our own lives!

So, how do you make sure you’re getting your character into a situation that has sink-or-swim urgency? Consider my four-question “stakes squared” approach.

Jamie’s Stakes Square: Your character is faced with a significant choice. You’ve backed her into a corner. She MUST say yes or no, not delay the decision—because her decision will set a significant plot point into motion! To establish the stakes inherent in the choice, ask yourself these four questions:

Question 1: What might your character GAIN if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 2: What might your character LOSE if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 3: What might your character GAIN if she says NO to the choice on offer?
Question 4: What might your character LOSE if she says NO to the choice on offer?

If you make sure that all of these potential outcomes create problems for your character—problems that are in proportion to the overall intensity of your story—you’ll be well on your way to creating plot-driving stakes that will hook a reader and not let them go!

(Be sure to consider how this stakes-setting technique impacts the perhaps-impulsive choices your character makes when you require that she say “Yes, and …” to everything the story offers her!)

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

A Good Writing Prompt Can …

IF YOU’RE WILLING TO LEAP INTO ITS INVITATION, A GOOD WRITING PROMPT CAN catapult you out of your writing doldrums, unstick your project if it’s stuck, and fling your work in fresh and unexpected directions! And, interestingly, a prompt doesn’t need to be complicated to work its magic. Take, for instance, the writing prompt novelist Heidi Julavits used to rediscover her writing mojo—after children and other obligations had back-burnered her literary life.

Over the course of two years, most evenings Julavits started a journal entry with this prompt: “Today I …” From that simple start, she would record details of her day—her thoughts, activities, pleasures, regrets. But she didn’t stop there. Instead, she allowed herself to stray far from the day’s events. Like a dragonfly, she would flit from topic to topic, shifting freely on the winds of association, revisiting the joys and puzzlements of past experience, as well as conjecturing about the future, often with only the most tangential of connections.

The result? A NEW YORK TIMES Notable Book, her 2015 memoir, THE FOLDED CLOCK.

I absolutely recommend reading THE FOLDED CLOCK—yes, for pleasure, but especially for inspiration if you keep a journal or are writing a memoir. But even if neither applies to you, you might want to take Julavits’s approach for a test drive. Try this: Set aside ten or fifteen minutes each evening for a week or two and write, starting with “Today I …,” then leap to whatever thought attracts your attention next.

I’ll give it a try myself!

(TRIGGER WARNING: So, when I let myself free associate, a lá Julavits, I ended up writing about cats. And, of course, the hardest thing about having cats is their inevitable loss. Which is where this writing went. Just letting you know.)

Today I … was drowsy. If not for the cats needing breakfast, I would have slept late, lying in bed, half-dreaming for hours. But the cats were not to be refused. Are cats ever to be refused? Not in my experience. Which includes a lot of cats. Present cats, of course, but past cats, too. And that’s where the heartbreak lives, with the cats of the past and their various ends—which started, in my cat-life, with the disappearance of our black Persian Sukie.

My mother was beside herself with worry—truly, I think, much more worried about Sukie than she ever was about my sister or me. I was eight or nine. Old enough to want to reduce my mother’s anxiety. So I told her I thought I could see Sukie under the house—a wooden farmhouse we were renting that year, its placement up on concrete blocks creating a long, dark crawl space beneath. Dark enough that it was plausible that a black cat could be hiding there, invisible in the murk, except for his eyes glinting if you shined a flashlight towards him. Which I didn’t, not having a flashlight. Although I reported to my mom that I had seen that green glint, wanting to buy her some hope.

In fact, that hope was fleeting. A neighbor pulled up to give us the news. Sukie was (predictably, as I all too soon came to understand) dead. Hit by a car. Like Floffleas and Wobble and, as the years unfolded, several other cats—until we understood that an indoor life for cats might be better for all concerned.

However they passed—traffic, illness, age—so many of the cats I’ve lived with have left an enduring mark. There are dents in my heart where they’ve curled themselves in its various chambers, as if that red beating muscle were a pillow. The special ones—Umphrey, Bertie, Jake, Pea Mouse, Roo—left lasting hollows behind in the exact shape of themselves, their permanent selves, the selves the cars and cancers couldn’t obliterate. “Past cats,” that’s what Jill said, when Jake and Bert died too young and within months of one another. And she was right. Because now there are Jack and Winter and Milo, present cats, each one kneading at the flesh of my heart, softening it up so it will hold their image long after they, too, have passed on.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

 

What Really Matters? Writing Your Ethical Will: A Writing Coaching Prompt for Difficult Times

THE OTHER DAY, MY NEW WRITER FRIEND RABBI RAMI asked me if I knew what an “ethical will” was. “Nope,” I said, “not a clue!”

WHAT IS AN ETHICAL WILL?

Turns out, an ethical will, also called a “legacy letter,” is quite different from the legal document we imagine when we think of a last will and testament. While what’s called a “simple will” indicates our wishes for the distribution of our possessions after death, an ethical will gives us an opportunity to pass on to future generations what we’ve learned through our experiences—our most profound lessons, values, and perspectives.

In addition, according to Next Avenue’s Deborah Quilter, ethical wills quite often include blessings for those who outlive us (particularly our children), our “hopes for the future, apologies to those [we] fear [we] have hurt, or gratitude to those [we] think [we] have not thanked enough.”

In a way, you might see an ethical will as a mini-memoir—one that gets right to the point: I did this; I learned this; I want to share this. And like any other memoir, there’s no need to wait until we are at the end of our lives to write it. In fact, in his article “Why Write an Ethical Will?” Dr. Andrew Weil says, the “main importance [of an ethical will] is what it gives the writer in the midst of life.”

WRITING YOUR ETHICAL WILL

We’re living in troubling times. Taking a few hours to create such a deep life inventory could help us remember what’s most important to us. We might focus our ethical-will writing on recognizing the positive impact we’ve had on others, or on the gifts that have been given to us by others. We can name for ourselves our true values: what’s most important to us; the influence we would like to have; the legacy we would like to leave.

On the other hand, this might be a months- or years-long process, a document we begin now and add to as our lives and understanding unfold—continuing to write “… in times of reflection,” as mentioned on Everplans, “whether in moments of happiness or hardship.”

WRITING PROMPT: 10 QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU WRITE YOUR ETHICAL WILL

1) List ten turning points in your life. What decisions did you make at those crossroads that impacted your future?

2) List the three most difficult challenges you’ve faced. What did you learn from each?

3) What sacrifices have you made? Were these for others? Or have you also sacrificed pleasures of the moment for longer term goals?

4) What had you hoped to have accomplished by this point? What have you actually accomplished? Which accomplishment gives you most satisfaction?

5) Which five people have had the most significant influence on you?

6) If you had the opportunity to give three pieces of advice to the world at large, what would they be?

7) What roles have you played in your family? At work? In your community?

8) What do you love to do most? List up to 100 items.

9) Have you had what you’d consider spiritual experiences? If so, write about one or more of them. If not, how have you been guided so far in your life?

10) What would you want to see as your legacy?

WRITING ETHICAL WILLS WITH YOUR FAMILY

No matter how young we are, we have learned something from the time we’ve lived. Rather than embarking on your ethical will alone, you might create a family event—just you and your children gathered at a table responding to questions like the ones above, or several generations sharing the experience via video call.

You might all agree to respond to a single question, then write together for perhaps ten minutes, before sharing what you’ve written. If time permits, repeat the process. This could become a family tradition—a weekly or monthly opportunity to dig into deep topics and learn what your loved ones think about the things that matter most.

WRITING INSPIRATION

Some folks have published their ethical wills. Here are a few examples:

THE MEASURE OF OUR SUCCESS: A Letter to My Children and Yours, by Marian Wright Edelman

EVERYTHING I KNOW: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother, by Sharon Strassfeld

Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters, written on the eve of his 2009 inauguration.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

* * *

Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Posted in News, Notes & Quotes | Comments Off on What Really Matters? Writing Your Ethical Will: A Writing Coaching Prompt for Difficult Times

Top Writing Coaching Tip #2: When You Wonder If Writing Your Memoir Is Worthwhile

DO YOU WANT TO WRITE A MEMOIR? If so, do you wonder if your story will have value for readers outside your immediate circle? Yes? Well, you’re not alone.

Often, I talk with folks whose experiences have been meaningful enough to them that they want to share what they’ve been through. They feel that, if published, their life story could benefit others—in part, by demonstrating to future readers that at least one person has survived the circumstances about which they want to write and also by offering others the wisdom they’ve gleaned in the process. These potential memoirists may have been subject to abuse or have hit a deep bottom after self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Perhaps they’ve had a serious illness or gone through the devastating loss of a child or spouse.

Whatever their story, having undergone a life-changing trial, they’re ready to share their experience of strength and hope. But faced with the long haul of writing a memoir, they may wonder: Will others really find what I have to say worth reading? (Then there’s the not-insignificant task of on-boarding excellent narrative writing skills!)

With all that in mind, I wrote a note—both in recognition of those who have shared their memoir-writing dreams with me and with the hope that, if I send it out on the ethers, it might reach the heart of someone hesitating at the brink of writing their story.

Dear Memoir-Writer-to-Be,

I understand you’re concerned that your story might not hold meaning for anyone else—that it might not be a valuable contribution to literature or society. But I want to assure you, if you can dig deep and excavate the shining core of your experience and convey it in a compelling way, readers will connect with what you have to say.

Of course, much skill and craft goes into writing a compelling memoir—but with patience and diligence, those can be learned. If you are really committed to the task, that commitment will be the reliable spark that will fuel the work of learning what you must to deliver the story you want to share.

Work hard. Find techniques that will make your story strong, that will convey the deepest meaning of it, that will showcase its worth, that will help you develop its shape and create of it a presence that will make its inherent value evident to your readers.

Tall order? Sure. But having lived through something so life-changing you believe you can impact others by sharing it, I bet you can tackle this, too.

Wishing you every inspiration and a basketful of determination,

Jamie

 

Memoir-writing inspiration

There are wonderful resources available to support you in writing your memoir. Among them, I recommend THE ART OF MEMOIR, by Mary Karr, and MEMOIR WRITING FOR DUMMIES, by Ryan G. Van Cleave.

If you’re looking for more suggestions, Meghan McCullough wrote an article for The Perch (the Penguin Random House blog), titled “The 9 Best Books on Writing Memoir.”

And for a shorter read, you might like my post, “Telling the Truth: A Memoir Writing Prompt.”

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Posted in News, Notes & Quotes | Comments Off on Top Writing Coaching Tip #2: When You Wonder If Writing Your Memoir Is Worthwhile

Banana Moons & Meerkats & Tigers, Oh, My! Writing Snapshot Memoir

ON THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR, my mom and I strolled softly lit paths through the wooded grounds of the Central Florida Zoo during the Asian Lantern Festival. As we wandered, we encountered illuminated lanterns shaped like crescent moons and meerkats and life-sized hippotamuses—and, yes, tigers. Oh, my!

Now that she’s 85, I treasure sharing quiet adventures like this with my mom. So I took pictures—lots of them. Of the tigers and cheetahs and dragon lanterns, yes. But also of my mom. Because these are moments I’ll want to remember, and the pictures will help me do so. But I know I can drop even deeper into those moments by writing about the photos that capture them.

In a blog post titled Why Do We Write? A New Year’s Exploration, I quick-list a dozen reasons I write (and in the post, I invite you to explore your reasons for writing, too!). While I somehow forgot to include “preserving memories” on that list, doing so is one of the wonderful gifts writing gives to us.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Natalie Goldberg says writers live twice: first in their immediate experiences and second in writing about them. Of course, if we have photos of our experiences, we have the opportunity to home in on details we might have forgotten otherwise. And vice versa: When we write from photographs of our lives, we tend to discover what’s hidden beneath a photo’s surface.

Snapshot memoirs

There’s even a sub-genre dedicated to writing from our pictured memories, the snapshot memoir (also known as flash memoir). In this form, we may be writing from actual images—on our phones or in our photo albums—or from indelible snapshots in our mind’s eye. Either way, though flash memoir is different from flash fiction—because we focus on our own lives rather than on the created lives of imagined others—many of the rules of flash fiction apply to this super-short memoir form, too.

Readers Write: THE SUN MAGAZINE

THE SUN MAGAZINE has a wonderful feature called Readers Write, in which SUN readers are invited to write and submit their own snapshot-sized pieces about real-life moments. On THE SUN’s site, you’ll find examples of published Readers Write pieces as well as the prompts and guidelines governing their submission process.

Mini-memoir writing prompt

Setting aside just ten minutes with pen in hand and a photo in front of you, travel back to the moment the snapshot has captured in its frame. Allow yourself to enter the picture. Look around carefully. Now, peek outside the frame to your memory of the wider context. What’s going on to the left of the image? To the right? Who’s taking the photo? Why?

You might take a deep breath and dive into the emotions the image evokes—both the sweet feelings and the bittersweet. Or maybe the photo calls to mind associated memories that add to the meaning and magic of that particular instant in time.

However deep you’re ready to delve, imagine the photo as a treasure map. It’s full of possibilities for sure! But to access the gold it promises, we need to follow the path the map reveals. When we write about the image before us, sentence by sentence, we step steadily toward riches the photo can only hint at. Because the real treasure lives inside us. And our pen creates the road that will take us there.

Posted in News, Notes & Quotes | Comments Off on Banana Moons & Meerkats & Tigers, Oh, My! Writing Snapshot Memoir

Writing a Memoir? Read Memoirs!

IF YOU’RE WRITING A MEMOIR, reading others’ memoirs can help you in a number of ways. For instance, you might find that the structure of an author’s story is applicable to the part of your life that you’re recounting.

Story structure

WILD, by Cheryl Strayed, is a great example. While the main thread of WILD takes place in the story’s present, during which Strayed is hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, the reader first meets Strayed at the low point of the story, about halfway through her hike. We’re then taken into a significant stretch of backstory, before being returned to her first steps on the trail. From there, Strayed dovetails backstory with tales of the trail, all the way to book’s end.

Tone and voice

Or, if you’re seeking the right voice for your story, you might consider the difference between the cool, journalistic tone of Jeanette Walls’s THE GLASS CASTLE and the sharp-tongued young persona of Mary Karr’s first memoir, THE LIARS’ CLUB.

Recently published

While all of these are wonderful works to learn from, if you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal for your memoir, reading work that’s been published more recently (within the last five years) will give you a sense of what’s in fashion, memoir-wise. Taking your cue from what’s currently being sold, you might freshen up your own approach to improve your chances of capturing an agent’s interest.

Apply liberally to all genres: young adult, women’s fiction, self-help, sci-fi, fantasy!

These ideas are applicable to all genres. For instance, a few years ago a rumor was circulating through my writing world: A writer, deciding she wanted to write middle grade (MG) fiction for a living, started her new enterprise by reading two hundred recently published examples of MG.

As I heard it, after finishing that research, she wrote her story, taking into consideration all she’d learned from what she’d read—and got a two-book deal with a big-time publisher!

Now, I never confirmed the details of this story, so I can’t send you hieing off to read this woman’s no-doubt fabulous blog about her diligent investigation into what gets agents and editors to pull the trigger. But I can tell you this: From what I know about the wild and woolly world of publishing, this (mythical?) writer’s approach seems likely to get any would-be traditionally published writer out ahead of the pack.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of The Chariot from the DREAMING WAY TAROT. http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/dreaming-way/

3 Emergency Writing Prompts

SOME DAYS, IT FEELS LIKE AN EMERGENCY. We want to write, but don’t have anything to write about. Be prepared for such a dire situation. Paint these three mini-prompts fire-alarm red and stick them to your wall so you’ll have them on hand … in case of emergency.

1) I SPY: Did you ever read HARRIET THE SPY, by Louise Fitzhugh? In this Middle Grade novel, the awesomely unsentimental, eleven-year-old urban-dweller Harriet M. Welsch spies on friends and neighbors—and jots her sharp observations in a notebook. (Sounds like an aspiring writer, to me!)

Of course, things go badly for Harriet. Let’s hope they go better for you! Today, spy on yourself. Make notes about your life, your environment, your associates, your habits—in third person, as if you had yourself under surveillance. As if you were a spy.

2) MEMORIES: What was your life like … before you were born? Go as far back as you like. As far back as you can! Take a wild ten minutes—and keep your hand moving!

3) TOP SECRET: What’s something you’re not EVER allowed to talk about? Write about your own secret or someone else’s … then burn, shred, delete, or flush the page you’ve written it on.

* * *

The photo illustrating this post is “Pulitzer prize winning photo” by betke2 and is licensed under CC0 1.0.

7-Minute Autobiography: A Memoir-Writing Prompt

FOR YEARS, I BEGAN EACH NEW WORKSHOP with this exercise from WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. It’s a great way to get to know other people in a group—and also a great way to get to know yourself, so I’ve adapted it here for your personal-writing use.

Memoir-writing prompt

Set a timer for seven minutes. Then, writing fast, hit the high and low points of your life, skimming across the years—from birth to this very moment—like they were so many tumbleweeds.

When the timer rings, stop and read over what you wrote. Mark three events that stand out to you. Pick one (you might save the other two for another day, when you’re looking for something to write about).

Take another ten minutes to write in detail about the incident or period you’ve chosen. Why is it important to you now? How is it relevant to the bigger story of your life-to-date?

Extra credit: Was a shadow* illuminated by your attention? If so, how can you write your way to a deeper understanding of what was hidden?

* * *

Image is of a Free 3D stopwatch. Find them here.
*Thanks to Bonnie Cehovet for seeing the possibilities here.

Tarot Writing Prompt: Beast of Burden

LIKE MOST OF US AT SOME TIME, the figure in the Ten of Wands bears a burden. She may have taken on the weight of a family conflict or, perhaps, she is staggering under a load of debt. Or maybe she’s carrying a multiplicity of stresses—long work hours, a child’s ill health, car troubles—which have added up to overwhelm.

When we feel likewise burdened, a good list-making session can help us separate out the various elements that comprise our current load. Once they’re untangled, we might find we can prioritize, deciding which big sticks to break into kindling before the camel’s back is broken.

On the other hand, our burdens might seem too amorphous, undefined, too slippery to be corralled into a list. We may only know we are teetering at the edge of our ability to cope. If that’s the case, the following exercise might help us get a peek at our more nebulous—yet still weighty—burdens.

Let’s dig in.

Tarot writing prompt

If you, like the figure in the Ten of Wands, are feeling weighed down, but, unlike her, can’t point to the precise nature of the burden that has you bent in half, give this (admittedly weird) exercise a try.

Grab a journal and describe your burden as if it were an object: Include things like the weight of it, its size, its color, its shape. Where do you carry it? How does it smell? Is it new or old? What does it sound like? Taste like? What texture does it have? Is it flexible? Or is it rigid? How many moving parts does it have? Does it need a power source? (You might find your list is the basis for a poem!)

Once you’ve spent sufficient ink to give yourself a concrete (albeit metaphoric) idea of your burden, do the following: Write a scene in which your burden (now a living beast in your imagination) plays a role. You might turn it into a character or let it act as the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s your burden! Make it work for you—at least on the page.

And who knows? Maybe asserting your authority over a fictive version of your burden will have a ripple effect. Perhaps, after doing so, you’ll find your relationship to your real-life burden shifting, even if only by a single straw.

Some writing inspiration

The classic THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, by Tim O’Brien, is a novel of lists. Heartbreaking lists. Lists of things soldiers carry as they trek through their deployment in Vietnam.

Reading poems from Dorianne Laux‘s collection WHAT WE CARRY can make us feel less alone with our burdens. (Laux is also the co-author of THE POET’S COMPANION, a wonderfully inspiring and informative book, which will enrich writing of any kind, not just poetry.)

Beast of Burden,” by the Rollings Stones: Put in your earbuds and play it on repeat.

***

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Ten of Wands from the SPIRAL TAROT.

Telling the Truth: A Memoir Writing Prompt (with Tarot)

THE QUEEN OF SWORDS IS A STRAIGHT-UP TRUTH TELLER. And she’s not worried about offending people, either. But, while this may very well make her the patron saint of memoir writers, she knows it’s not necessarily easy—nor safe—to follow her lead. Memoirists may be wary of putting their truth on the page. They may be concerned others will judge them. Or, they may feel guilt about revealing the harmful (or deceitful, immoral, or criminal) behaviors of someone close to them. They may even fear retribution from such a person.   

Writing the truth can be a serious—and, sometimes, risky—business. That’s why the Queen of Swords recommended I include this in my Terms and Conditions: Writing is deep work that comes with its own risks and discoveries. While I will endeavor to support you in your writing, I am neither a therapist nor an attorney. However, as you continue on your writing path, you may find the services of one or both offer you valuable guidance.

So, yeah. Serious business.

If you find yourself stymied when wanting to tell your story while avoiding upsetting someone else, the Queen of Swords may be able to help you slice through. Hers is the sword of discrimination. It separates the hard, nutritious kernels of truth from the chaff of words written to please others. And she brooks no nonsense from family, friends, or coworkers when she’s doing her honorable work.

At least, not in her first draft.

You see, we travel a long road between our first, exploratory draft—in which we record as much of the truth as we can remember and feel and understand—and our final draft, polished and ready to send out for publication. And there are many rest stops in the miles between those drafts. Those rest stops are perfect places for us to pause and consider whether to hit delete on passages that feel too hot, too pointed, too dangerous, or to keep them intact—until our next revision, at any rate.

Tarot writing prompt

With the clear-eyed Queen of Swords as an uncompromising example, try this: Pull out a memory that stings. Perhaps it’s of a secret you were told to keep. Or maybe it’s a memory of a trusted person hurting you or someone else. Or of something you did, something about which you carry shame. Or fear. Or both.

Whatever you’re ready to uncover, write about it as fully as you can—just for yourself, for the moment. You might need to do this in increments. Start with ten minutes. Then return for another ten-minute session … and another and another, until you have all the parts of the story and the accompanying feelings on the page.

Take as long as you need. Days. Weeks. Months. Years.

While you’re in the process, you might want to hide your notebook or camouflage the file you’re creating. Do so, if it will make you feel safer. And when you review what you’ve written, if it’s too much, too hot, you might decide to delete or shred the story in its entirety. You might also, as suggested above, consult with a therapist or counselor as you journey along this path. Do whatever you need to make you feel safer, protected, supported.

With these caveats in mind, then, if you have a wound in your writer’s heart, consider lancing it with the sword of truth. It’s your life. Write it down.

I’ll go first, okay?

This is a story I’ve feared sharing, both because I might be judged harshly for my behavior and because in it I point at my father’s difficult behaviors. It’s a double-memoir-whammy-bind!

What happened is this: A long-lost relative contacted my family (damn you, Ancestory.com!). This relative had a particular interest in meeting my father. But they were my long-lost relative, too. And I got there first. Then, I opened my mouth and toads and snakes fell out as I described my early life with my father, who, good points/bad points, could be violent, and unpredictably so.

Soon after, my father died. Without this person ever contacting him.

For the next several years, I ran a losing race with guilt. But one night, as I was circling the track yet again, a friend sliced to the heart of the matter. “Did you tell that long-lost relative the truth about your father?” she asked. “Your own truth? As honestly as you could”

Well, yes. I did.

“Then,” my friend said, “it is what it is. People make their own choices.”

She’s right. My father chose to act the way he did. I chose to disclose. The relative chose not to connect.

It is what it is.

So, while this story isn’t actually about writing down the truth (although, I have now written it down), it is about the risks we take when we decide to share our truth, and about the possible consequences of doing so.

The fear of such potential consequences keeps many would-be memoirists from writing their stories in the first place. Embarking on a memoir can raise a lot of questions, like: Whom will this hurt? How will I be perceived? Will I ruin relationships—either my own or those of the people about whom I write? Even if I’m telling the truth?

When I speak with a writer who faces questions like these, I never suggest they cast aside these considerations and just publish their raw truth—consequences and concerns and family be damned. But, first draft? The one only you will read? There, you can look your truth square in the eye and let the vorpal blade [go] snicker-snack.” Then, in a cooler light, see whether or how or if it serves you to release that truth into the world.

Memoir-writing resources

Mary Karr is a brilliantly honest memoirist (and poet). You might find her THE ART OF MEMOIR a helpful read.

The post “How True and Factual Does Your Memoir Have to Be? 5 Principleson Jane Friedman’s blog offers up some memoiristic nuts and bolts for your consideration. It is written by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann, who co-authored YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK.

The National Association of Memoir Writers considers “Challenges and Truth in Memoir” in the linked article.

***

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Queen of Swords from the RIDER WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

Posted in News, Notes & Quotes | Comments Off on Telling the Truth: A Memoir Writing Prompt (with Tarot)

1 2

Copyright ©2021 Jamie Morris LLC, Writing Coach | Contact me | 407.644.5163 | Privacy Policies | Terms & Conditions