Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Effective Writing’

On How to Write Memoir

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on January 19, 2014 at 11:00 am

Writing a memoir can be a tough assignment, because it takes digging into the self while also telling the truth of memory as accurately as possible.

The result is self-awareness, instead of wondering how the past did its damage or had its impact.

Memoirs typically follow a particular theme or main subject, but can have a couple of subplots, while also offering good storytelling.

Finding this theme may take hard work of remembering, researching and writing, because a person’s life doesn’t normally have a theme song or a statement. The events of life don’t line up nicely on index cards.

To find a theme or focus, identify the patterns of your experience and select what is relevant from your life story. Commit to telling the truth and to give full disclosure, because readers notice when something is missing. From this truth, develop an honest and complete story with a beginning, middle and end, not a string of “and then this happened.”

I find memoirs that are episodic to be frustrating, unless they are told in short story format. The episodes, when they are unlinked, take the reader on a bumpy roller coaster ride of meaninglessness without overall tension or conflict in the story’s unfolding. It’s back to the series of events and happenings.

Truth telling in memoir requires being authentic to what you remember and felt at the time. Let the reader know how you’ve changed and grown from your experiences, how you were affected physically and emotionally by those experiences and how you found meaning and insight from them.

When telling your story, start with a hook that compels the reader to want to read more and show them that you are taking them through a story with a clear direction. You’re not going to give them a random memory dump of incidences that have no connection.

One approach to drafting the story is making a timeline outlining the big events and any turning points in your life, avoiding tangents that go nowhere.

Identify who you are as a character, fleshing out your identity beyond the “I” who does this and that. Get beyond what happened to the inner life of “who am I?” Show your personality and establish a strong writer’s voice.

Finally, ask what you wanted and what prevented you from getting that. What were your setbacks and obstacles? How did you try to get what you wanted? And then write and rewrite until you have a story that no one else could write because it’s all you.

Transitioning to Transitions 101

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on November 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

Transitions are the go-between, the white space surrounding dingbats and a way to get from here to there.

I realized in my quest to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I forgot about this writer’s tool.

There’s a reason for that – transitions are one of my least favorite things in my toolbox, though they are a necessity.

Readers notice the lack of transitions and quickly become annoyed if the story’s direction is unclear. The writing skips awkwardly along from one time or place to another, confusing readers as they try to figure out where exactly they are in the story.

They might think they and the point-of-view character are in a coffee shop and suddenly they are in some memory about traveling to another country.

Transitions serve as a bridge that signals a shift in the story, such as a change in time, place, mood, tone or point of view.

They mark a scene break, or a change in scene, which can be indicated with dingbats, asterisks or extra space. The break in scene ideally cuts at the moment of heightened suspense, causing the reader to want to know what happens next.

The point-of-view character’s physical environment, or what’s happening around her, can transition into her internal thoughts, memories or reflections. She may see a type of flower or a ceramic vase that triggers recollections of some event from her past.

The recalling of past events in the present through flashback interrupts the flow of narrative.

Changing the tense – such as present to past or past to past perfect – is a way to enter and exit out of the flashback.

Using sensory impressions is another way to invoke a memory, such as Proust’s tea, or to return the character to the present moment, such as the howl of a coffee grinder.

Or dialogue can cause the character to come back to the scene at hand, though she might ask, “What? What are you talking about?”