Lorrine T. asks: Hi Elisa- I've always wondered what it takes for a working, successful writer to get to that place of focus where you can be productive. I’ve heard some use music, and some create a special writer’s space. What helps you get to that place?
Elisa answers: That’s a great question, Lorrine. I think every author would answer this differently. My greatest weakness has always been poor time management skills, so focus and productivity is something I occasionally struggle with, especially in the last two years when so many life changes have happened. When I was single, I had more or less a set routine that focused predominantly on my work. Now I have spousal responsibilities that include helping to care for my father-in-law, a bigger household, and pets. We also have a side business now, so I’m not solely writing books anymore.
When it comes to writing, I need to avoid procrastination. That means finding the discipline to stay off social media and make writing the priority.
Space is important too. My husband and I each have a room in the basement for our offices. However, lately I’ve been ending up in other places in the house, like my bedroom, or I go to the library, where I can stare out the window. I feel a little guilty about that, given that I’ve got a perfectly good office space! I think the room needs a couch so it feels more like a studio and less like a formal office (although it’s painted tangerine—not many formal offices are tangerine). I need a more comfortable desk chair too. Both are on my wish list.
When writing, I need relative quiet. I don’t like to write with music or TV in the background. Writing in a coffee shop is different; for some reason, I’m able to tune out that white noise, although if the place is too loud or busy, then I’m unable to concentrate.
If I’m in the drafting stage of a novel, I set a word count goal and do my best to meet it. If I’m in the revision stage, I usually work on a couple of chapters per day, depending on how problematic the writing is. If I’m in the editing stage, then I set a page count goal. If I’m struggling in any of those areas, I either go for a long walk or drive, or take a shower for as long as the hot water holds out. All three of those things will help me get unstuck or recharge my battery.
I tend to work in 45- or 60-minute time blocks with frequent breaks. My husband and I are increasingly busy with additional projects and responsibilities, so we try to connect and touch base throughout the day whenever we can. Sometimes we’ll go for a walk. Sometimes we’ll have lunch. Sometimes we’ll take a nap. Sometimes we just pop in on each other and say hello. It’s very important to us that we maintain connection no matter what, for the sake of our relationship as well as our work.
Craig and I read our books to each other. Usually at night, in bed, before we turn out the lights.
Dare I say, there are few things more romantic or intimate.
This is not an act of hubris—it’s not like this takes place every night, like some sort of pat-yourself-on-the-back-ritual. What I mean is that rather than showing each other our works in progress, near completion, in manuscript form, we wait until the finished product: a book we can hold and touch and smell. And then one of us proceeds to read to the other, usually a chapter or two per night. When it gets really good, we beg for another.
The most recent was Craig’s novel, Julep Street, which launches today.
Throughout my life, I had given considerable thought to the qualities I wanted to attract in a love relationship. I’d write them in lists—some detailed, some general—and more often than not, three items appeared in each one: funny; best friend; same profession.
I can’t tell you how many people frowned upon that last one, back when I was foolish enough to share such things. “You don’t want that,” they’d say. (A lot of people took it upon themselves to tell me what I didn’t want. Every last one of them was wrong.) Mind you, a potential lover or spouse with a different career wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; but I instinctively knew that it meant something to me, although I never could put my finger on what.
Sometimes it still astounds me how Craig ticked off just about every item on those lists, especially the top three. And I was right about the shared profession. We are able to do what we love without being in direct competition with one another. We are able to talk about and listen to each other’s workdays without the conversation being obligatory. We support each other. We serve as sounding boards for each other. We contribute complementary talents. We know where the other person is coming from.
I still can’t tell you why that’s so important to me, but I can tell you that as a partner and spouse, I feel more at home with Craig than I have with anyone else I have ever dated. And it’s not that I sought sameness; on the contrary, our writing styles vary, our process and approach varies, and sometimes even our opinions about the publishing business vary. But at night, when the book is open, and I am hearing him read the words he wrote, tell the story he crafted, I fall in love all over again. And he with me when the words and voice and story are mine.
David O. asks: I love books, read all the time, but I’ve never reread a book. Even if I absolutely loved it. Have you ever reread any books and how did it differ the second or third time if you have done it?
Elisa answers: This is a great question. I am a creature of habit, so there are certain books and/or authors I’ll repeatedly read. I read all of Judy Blume’s books over and over when I was a kid, and have reread a few of them as adults and still love them. My sister read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders in school, and loved it so much that she read it to my twin brother and me; I, in turn, loved and read it incessantly throughout my adolescence. There were books I slogged through in junior high and high school--Animal Farm, A Christmas Carol, for example—that I reread in my thirties with a much deeper understanding and appreciation (A Christmas Carol is a yearly tradition now, especially to pass the time when I'm traveling). I’ve read Richard Russo’s Straight Man a couple of times and laugh just as much.
And the more I reread Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, the more I am fascinated by just how good it is. I didn’t have that appreciation for it the first time.
I read John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove once and then listened to it on audiobook. (I mean, come on—who wouldn’t want to be read to by John Taylor?) And I loved my husband’s The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter so much I read that one twice in a span of months—once when he sent me an advanced copy for me to offer an endorsement (this was well before we got involved; I think it’s still on the Amazon product page, but it’s lost its value completely) and again when the book launched. I read it again the following year. It’s still my favorite of his books, which kind of surprises me. I’m sure if I reread it now, it will take on even more meaning since it’s set in Billings and I know the city so well now.
There’s also Stephen King’s On Writing, which I occasionally reread just as a refresher or battery charger for my own writing.
But to specifically answer your question, the second or third reading experience varies with each book. As I mentioned, sometimes I develop a deeper appreciation for the writing or the story, or notice something about a character I hadn’t previously. Sometimes the entertainment factor is exactly as enjoyable, like watching a favorite movie or TV series repeatedly. I can’t recall any book I’ve reread where I thought, That wasn’t as good as I remembered.
Books I would like to reread in the near future:
Steve Healy’s How I Became a Famous Novelist
Richard Russo’s Straight Man (yes, again)
Karen Booth’s Bring Me Back
Marien Keyes’ The Other Side of the Story
And, believe it or not, one of my own books--Adulation. That one has been on my mind lately for some reason. The problem with rereading my own books is that I constantly find something I wish I'd worded better.
But I have such a long To Be Read list that I’m not sure I’ll get to any of them any time soon. (So many books, so little time…) It’s a good problem to have.
Have you reread a book? If so, tell me about it in the Comments!
In addition to the A Year With Nora Ephron series and other blog topics, I'm starting a new feature called Ask the Author in which I answer one or two questions per week submitted by readers.
Ellen D asks: What’s your go-to snack when writing?
Elisa answers: In a word, chocolate. It’s always some form, like a Ghiradelli’s square or Dove bite (and there’s almost always a stash of either), or a more guilty pleasure like a Reese’s peanut butter cup, which I don’t stock in the house. When I’m itching to bake I’ll make something like chocolate chip muffins from scratch, or I’ll fix myself a grilled Nutella and banana sandwich with cinnamon.
My other go-to writing snack is Pop Tarts, although the newer flavors are so over-the-top sweet and fake that they’re losing their appeal. Despite the way I go on and on about them, it will probably surprise many that I don’t regularly stock up on them. That said, I lost count of how many boxes of Pop Tarts I received as wedding presents, especially red velvet! I even took a box on my honeymoon.
Got a question? Ask me!
It’s possible I just kinda sorta met my soulmate. My Nora Ephron soulmate, that is.
I don’t remember exactly when Amazon alerted me to Linda Yellin’s What Nora Knew (other than it was earlier this year), but I had downloaded a sample on my Kindle and figured I would get to it at some point during my Year With Nora Ephron.
I got to it this past weekend. Especially after I saw it on sale for a buck-99.
Here's the product description:
Molly Hallberg is a thirty-nine-year-old divorced writer living in New York City who wants her own column, a Wikipedia entry, and to never end up in her family’s Long Island upholstery business. For the past four years Molly’s been on staff for an online magazine, covering all the wacky assignments. She’s snuck vibrators through security scanners, speed-dated undercover, danced with Rockettes, and posed nude for a Soho art studio.
Yellin knew her audience—I could have sworn she’d written it for me personally. In fact, I found myself wishing I had written it. And any book that has me wishing I’d written it is what makes writing such a challenge and reading so pleasurable. (That’s not the only criteria, but it certainly makes things interesting.) It wasn’t simply the subject matter—although let’s face it: I might not have picked up the book in the first place, much less noticed it—but the writing itself. Molly had a distinct voice. The story hit all its pulse points. And it was smart. Amusing. Romantic. Yellin captured the New York and Hamptons scene I had failed to capture in Faking It. She captured the wittiness I love. And there were little Nora Ephron Easter Eggs hidden all over the place.
Even if I had tried to write that book, I wouldn’t have succeeded. But it at least makes me want to try. Not to write that book, but one that Linda Yellin would like.
I couldn’t find much about Yellin other than her website—she doesn’t seem to have a social media presence—but her previous two books are now on my reading list. And if anyone reading this happens to know her, tell her I’d like to meet her on the observation deck of the Empire State Building sometime. Preferably in October. I just love New York in the fall.
Here’s one of the best things about having written and published Friends of Mine: I’ve met a lot of cool people.
Some I have yet to meet in person, but that’s just a formality. I know them. They’re my friends.
I confess I don’t remember how or when I first heard about Morgan Richter. Her Duran Duran comics began showing up in my Twitter feed months ago, re-tweeted by fellow Duranies. When I saw them, and its author, I thought, Hmmmmm, that name rings a bell… I didn’t make the connection, but anyone who turns classic Duran Duran videos into comics is OK with me.
Turns out she's a writer. And then I found out she wrote a new book about Duran Duran. Specifically, a collection of essays aptly titled Duranalysis.
Not gonna lie: she had me at the cover.
A vinyl record with a label that could pass for a Duran Duran design—simple, yet stylish—I had high expectations. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Richter opens the collection very candidly. In some ways, we share some qualities—coming to Duran Duran slightly later than some of the original Duranies (and confusing John Taylor for Nick Rhodes at the onset), growing up without MTV during their glory days—despite living on opposite sides of the country and in vastly different settings. I easily relate to her as a storyteller, however. And her essays do just that. As she deconstructs the key Duran Duran videos, from “Planet Earth” to “Girl Panic,” she chronicles not only the journey of a band, but also the journey of a fan. We are right back in our living rooms with our fellow Duranies (the ones who had MTV), staying up late, poring over pinups, planning our weddings to the Duran of our affection. We mark the milestones. We once again reconnect to the glamour, the fashion, the neon, the desperate hope and anticipation of them coming to our town.
And the music. Always, it begins and ends with the music.
Better yet, she does it all with a humorous approach, not taking any aspect of Duran Duran—the videos, the albums, the pandemonium—too seriously. She equally distributes compliments and criticism without being syrupy nor scathing. And yet, one can't help but be touched at times. Morgan finesses the fine line with stylistic precision that makes me wish I'd written this book. Her essays are intelligent as much as they are informative and entertaining.
In short, this is a book for Duranies—the diehards, who know these videos with their eyes closed; as well as the new generation, who are only now discovering them, either thanks to their parents or aunts and uncles or YouTube and iTunes and Coachella or Lollapalooza. But it’s also a book for those who dig fantasy, who dig pop culture, who dig music and 80s nostalgia and geekdom. It’s a book for people who love stories.
Count me in.
When she was five years old, Nora Ephron’s parents relocated to Beverly Hills from New York City. “The sunlight dapples through the trees, and happy laughing blond children surround me,” she writes. “All I can think is, What am I doing here?”
I always wanted to live in Nora Ephron’s New York. Not only the New York we saw in movies, with brownstones and autumn trees, but also the one with homey neighborhoods and specialty food shops and a new place to go every day.
Growing up, I never saw the city that way—and that’s what we Long Islanders called it: the city. New York City was a scary place. It was full of cold skyscrapers and high crime and pickpockets and honking horns everywhere you turned. Even when I was a teenager and was old enough to take the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station with my friends, whereas they relished the freedom and appreciated the city’s greatness, I looked over my shoulder at every turn and was afraid to walk anywhere there wasn’t a crowd.
As an adult, I have way more appreciation for Manhattan. When my husband and I are on Long Island for a visit, we try to reserve at least one day to take the train into Penn, and plan what we want to see that day. We’re OK with doing the more touristy things—the New York Public Library, Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, a hot pretzel stand—but by the end of the day, we’re more than ready to be back on the train, heading east, toward less noise and more green. We’re OK with returning to suburbia, chain grocery stores and gas stations and movie theaters. We’re OK with driving everywhere we want to go.
And yet, I still envy Nora’s New York. More to the point, I still wish I’d wanted to live in Manhattan. I wish I was the type to do city living regardless of the city. Moreover, I wish I knew, at five years old, where I belonged. At five years old, I didn’t have the cognizance to call Long Island the place where I was meant to be, or to identify any other place as such. Wherever I lived, be it in Massachusetts or North Carolina or Montana, I still identified myself as the transplanted Long Islander. But even for the year I moved back to Long Island, as happy as I was to finally have the Empire State license plates on my car, I still didn’t know where, exactly, on the Island I belonged. I didn’t know which town was mine (certainly not the one I resided in), if I was supposed to buy or rent, live on the East End or just visit on a regular basis.
I couldn’t find a community.
Montana still baffles me. Anyone who knows both my sister and me would think the universe mixed us up and sent the wrong sister westward. (She lives close to the water. See what I mean?) That’s not to say I’m miserable—on the contrary, I was immediately welcomed and embraced by the very community that was MIA in the northeast. We live in a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks and kids riding bikes and walking dogs and two-car garages. We live near a Target. We spend time in the heart of downtown Billings. On a clear day we have a lovely view of the Beartooth Mountains on the way to downtown. We’re ten minutes from the airport, a luxury you can’t get on Long Island even if you lived right next door to LaGuardia or JFK.
It’s a far cry from Nora’s New York, however. And once in awhile, even when I am at my happiest, holding hands with my husband after visiting with our closest friends and/or eating at one of our favorite restaurants, I still find myself wondering, What am I doing here?
I just want to know where I truly belong.
One look at my husband and the answer is clear.
I was doing great.
Portion control. Like, real, honest-to-god, proper portion sizes. Satisfying.
Points. I was a Weight Watchers point-tracking fiend. It’s fun when you want to do it.
Activity. I dusted off the treadmill. Found I liked reading inspirational stuff on my Kindle even more than listening to my 80s tunes. Shoveled snow. Cleaned.
This was more than a New Year’s resolution. I was ready. Committed. My husband was on board with his own commitment. We cheered each other on.
I was down eight pounds by the end of February. Twenty-two to go.
And then it happened.
My husband and I went on a date. Dined at a steak-&-grill downtown. Chose our dishes wisely. Watched our portions.
And then I said it: “I want dessert.”
I love dessert. I have loved it all my life. It’s like the metaphorical cigarette you smoke after sex. Or it’s the sex itself. I can never eat dessert before dinner. Dessert is like Christmas; it’s something to look forward to.
My desserts had been consisting of one Dove chocolate per night. Two if I had some flex points to spare. And I was content with that. Most of the time, a bite would suffice.
But that date night, something in me was clamoring for more than just a bite. That ol’ fear of depravity reared its head. At least I think that’s what it was. Or maybe I just plain wanted the dessert.
I ordered this brownie-cookie concoction. You know, with the ice cream and the sauce. It was delicious. Gooey and smooth and chewy. Sweet. Decadent. Everything a dessert should be. I didn’t finish it (I’d been getting full faster). But I sure did enjoy every bite, and I made sure to put down my fork for good before crossing the line from enjoyment to shame.
And that’s when the tracking stopped. And the weighing in. And the portion control. Two Doves per night. Three. And two after lunch. Somewhere after that dessert it stopped being about pleasure and started being about defiance. My commitment was shattered because I was back to the dilemma of balancing the need to be healthy with the need to eat pleasurably. I can’t seem to find the happy middle ground.
And not to blame this all on Nora Ephron, but she hasn’t helped.
No. Scratch that. She's helped quite a bit.
What I mean is that Nora Ephron loved food. She loved writing about it, she loved cooking it, and she loved eating it. She urged people not to wait to eat their last meal, because they may not get to eat it as their last meal when the time comes.
I envy her for that. I envy the relationship she had with food. So healthy—her mentality, I mean. Her emotional connection. There was no codependence. Just a mutual romantic love. And her body size reflected it. I don’t know if she ever had insecurities where her body was concerned (it’s rare to find a woman who doesn’t, and I don’t say that as a criticism but as a sad social reality), or what her eating habits were in terms of how much she consumed. I don’t know if metabolism played a role. My guess is that it didn’t matter. She loved food. Food loved her. It was a good relationship.
I want the same. And forgive me for resorting to the cliché here, but I want to have my cake and eat it too. (I love cake. Especially for breakfast.)
For the most part, I eat foods that are pleasing to me—who doesn’t? (I’m a picky eater, so I’m kind of limited—that’s another blog post for another day.) But some days I feel like I’ve chosen them out of obligation rather than true pleasure.
I wonder: What if I were to make a list of foods that make me truly, intrinsically happy—like chocolate cake for breakfast, for example—and do a 30-day experiment, eating them only and nothing out of obligation? And I’m not talking all-you-can-eat gorging. I’m talking about joy. I’m talking about mindfulness. I’m talking about allowance. I’m talking about listening to my body and heart and soul and silencing the scale and the points and the self-critics.
Heck, forget about the thirty days. What if I just made it the norm? What if I treated every meal as if it were my last?
Is something like that doable? Is it realistic? Is it selfish?
What do you think?
Recipe: Chocolate Cupcakes for Two*
*This is not my recipe. But I can't remember where I got it (just tried Googling it and none of the links look familiar). Thus, my apologies to the person who deserves the credit. Nevertheless, it's one of my favorites for a no-leftovers dessert. (Photo courtesy of Sprinkled with Jules, which has a recipe too.)
Chocolate Cupcakes for Two
Measurement Tip: Note that 1/16 teaspoon is about 1 pinch.
To date, in addition to reading Heartburn as well as the scripts for Lucky Guy and When Harry Met Sally, I have read four of Nora Ephron’s collections of articles, including those from Esquire and Cosmopolitan, as well as more recent personal essays and blogposts, many of which are featured in the anthology, The Most of Nora Ephron. The more I read, the more I wish I had known her—or, at the very least, met her.
I believe in the late Donald Murray’s theory that all writing is autobiographical in that “as we read someone else’s story, we read our own.” For example, this past weekend my husband and I went to see a local production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the play co-written by Nora and her sister Delia Ephron (Billings folk: go see it!). So many times I was transported into my own reservoir of memories, recalling a particular outfit or article of clothing that somehow defined me or captured a moment in time, be it my first Duran Duran concert jersey or the shoes I wore for my wedding. The point is, when my husband and I left, we wound up telling each other our own stories in addition to recalling the stories of the play.
As I continue to read Nora’s work (I feel weird calling her by her first name, as if we’re casual acquaintances, but referring to her by her last name seems too academic, “Ms. Ephron” seems too out of reach, and repeatedly combining her first and last name seems too tiring), I keep reflecting not only what I’ve learned about her life, but my own. I try to draw parallels where there are none. In the way she wanted to be Dorothy Parker, I find myself wanting to be her. Sort of.
Nevertheless, here are five things you may not have known about Nora or me, in no particular order.
1. Before she graduated from Wellesley College, Nora Ephron was an intern for the White House during the Kennedy Administration. She gave herself the distinction of being “the only intern Kennedy didn’t make a pass at.” Even for all we know about JFK’s philandering ways, he still remains something of a folklore hero in American history. Even if she was no more than a punctuation mark in that lore, I still find it a remarkable detail of her life.
I, on the other hand, was a Girl Friday (does anyone still use that term?) in the Human Resources office at UMass Dartmouth for my work study job, where no one made a pass at me, either. I learned quite a bit from that position, including that contrary to its name, most Human Resources departments are neither resourceful nor human. The paperwork one had to fill out for—well, anything—required a set of cognitive and motor skills all of its own. Also, secretaries are the eyes and ears of the university. The best part of my job was when I had to deliver paperwork to the various university departments and getting to know the secretarial staff in each. Whenever an issue came up in my student life, before I reached out to department chairpersons or deans, I talked to the secretaries first and got way farther, faster.
2. Nora was married to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, first made famous for uncovering Watergate (the presidential scandal that has spawned an atrocious trend of attaching “-gate” at the end of every political or personal scandal since), and then infamous when she fictionalized his adultery and the end of their marriage in her novel Heartburn.
I met Carl Bernstein in 1997 when he was a guest speaker at UMass Dartmouth. I remember two things: asking a question (I don’t remember what I asked, but it prompted a news channel to interview me), and attempting to ask a second question and him saying that someone else should have a chance. That sounds more off-putting than it actually was, and he was perfectly cordial when I was introduced to him after the event. Better yet, I wasn't that idiot who asked him who Deep Throat was (this was when the secret was still intact, for the most part)—someone else willingly stepped in.
Also, I hadn’t yet read Heartburn.
3. Both Nora and I attended colleges in Massachusetts, although both the institutions and the time periods couldn’t be more different. Nora had attended Wellesley College in the early sixties, when the women’s movement hadn’t really quite happened yet. In the commencement address she delivered in 1996, she tells a story about a dean who had encouraged her to take a year off to get married and have children following graduation—the exact opposite of her intentions. She later discovered that this same dean had told a student with ambitions of being a wife and mother to take a year off and work first. "And so I saw that what Wellesley wanted was for us to avoid the extremes,” she said.
What fascinated me more was the contrast to the account of her experience when she wrote about her reunion in 1972. The latter seemed much more critical, as if Wellesley had somehow missed the point of what it was they were supposed to do. Or was it the students that had missed the point?
I had the luxury of attending a university in a post-women’s movement world (also, the school was co-ed). No one at UMass Dartmouth cautioned me against extremes, but neither did they steer me toward what fulfilled me intrinsically. And it wasn’t that they didn’t care. More like by then the choices for women were there for the taking. The main concern was to choose one that was most practical. “Work,” was the number one piece of advice I got. “Just get out there and get some experience. It doesn’t really matter in what.” Thing is, I’d worked for five years before I matriculated. In fact, the skills and ethic I’d developed in the workplace helped me excel as a student (to the point that I later made the unpopular argument that 90% of young adults should go into the workplace rather than college straight out of high school). I was 29 years old and ready to do something more than just “get experience” and collect a paycheck.
What I really took away from my undergraduate education was this one-sentence-summation of psychology from my professor, Dr. Conboy: “People do what feels good.” It’s the intention behind every character I write now.
(Also, Wellesley College has the honor of being voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, while UMass Dartmouth has been voted one of the ugliest. I have a soft spot for it, however.)
4. Both Nora and I married former journalists. Her second marriage didn’t last. Her third, however, did. Granted, I’m only six months into mine, but I feel pretty damn good about our chances.
5. Nora had a house in Bridgehampton, on the East End of Long Island. My mom lives in the next town over. And while my mom did run into Alan Alda once (literally, with her shopping cart at the King Kullen, by accident), and ushered Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick to their seats at a Bay Street Theater production, she never encountered Nora Ephron. How I wish one of us had. Although I would have been terrified to invite her over for lunch.
Last night during the Craft of Storytelling class I am teaching, the subject of writing memoirs came up. I spoke a little about my experience regarding the memoir about my thirty-year fandom of the pop band Duran Duran, and it inspired me to share more about both the experience as well as tips for writing a memoir.
1. The same rule applies to writing a memoir as to writing a novel: Tell a good story. And use the same elements to do so: sensory description, engaging “characters,” dialogue, conflict, and the moment(s) of revelation.
2. Know your audience. For me, this is a more conscious (and constant) task when writing nonfiction. Whereas in a novel the bond occurs between readers and characters, in memoir the bond is between readers and the writer. Thus, as the memoirist you must connect with readers and know something specific about them at the outset.
The obvious audience for Friends of Mine was Duran Duran fans, but I also wanted to attract readers who felt equal adoration for their favorite band or artist, be it The Beatles or Beyoncé, and perhaps even recruit new Duran Duran fans. I knew my audience would relate to certain aspects of my story—collecting posters and watching music videos during the 80s, for example—but I was less prepared for the connection to the more personal aspects. I continue to receive beautiful letters from people who were touched by the book.
3. A memoir is almost never about what you think it’s going to be about. Memoir and autobiography overlap in that you’re writing about your life. However, a memoir focuses on specific events rather than a chronology. You can write about one particular event, or you can write about several throughout your life. But you’ll find patterns and threads that connect each event. It could be a theme, a lesson learned, a person, or all of the above.
My original plan was to write about being a Duran Duran fan in the 1980s. The more I wrote, however, the more I realized the memoir was about so much more than my “relationship” with the band. It was also about long-term relationships with family, friends, music, and writing, and the roles they played in how and why I loved the band. Everything connected to one thread: Duran Duran’s role in my life.
4. Writing a memoir is like undressing in front of an audience, and pulling other people’s pants down. I love this popular Anne Lamott quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But doing that sometimes comes at a cost. The stories I told involved other people—some were favorable, and others were not. Some were downright painful. I had to be considerate of them, especially my family and close friends who were being featured. But I also had to serve the truth of the story. I couldn’t sacrifice that in attempt to spare someone’s feelings.
I changed several names and asked others for permission to use their real names. I sent my family and close friends the manuscript before I published it. Although I didn’t guarantee I would remove something they objected to, I promised to listen to and consider their concerns.
If you’re casting someone in a bad light just to be vindictive, or telling a story simply for shock value, then I think you need to re-evaluate your priorities and consider your integrity.
And once it’s out there, it’s out there. If you’re revealing something personal, then you must accept the consequences. Some may thank you for it. Some may judge you. Others may even stop speaking to you.
5. There’s a fine line between “filling in the details” and outright making things up. Memories become foggy over time. I want to tell the truth about the event or experience with as much detail and clarity as possible, but what if some of the details are foggy?
Taking creative license with something like clothing is OK. For example, if I’m writing about falling off my bicycle when I was eight years old, I might have described my outfit as a Shaun Cassidy T-shirt and hand-me-down jeans, because that was typical of my wardrobe. However, if I made up a detail such as going to the hospital following the bicycle fall when in reality I had the wind knocked out of me, then my memoir loses authenticity and my credibility as a writer suffers. Above all, the account needs to be authentic.
6. Photos amplify and enhance the story. I read several memoirs before writing my own and found that the photographs accompanying the text added an emotional layer to the reading experience. I’ve never needed this for fiction. When written well, a novel invites you into its world and you’re able to fully immerse yourself using your imagination. But perhaps because a memoir involves real people, seeing photographs from the time being written about strengthens the bond between writer and reader.
Most of my success as a novelist comes from e-book sales. However, I promote the print version more than the e-book version of Friends of Mine because the paperback contains many more photographs than the e-book (due to digital file size constraints). I also love the book’s cover design—the doodles are all from my actual junior high school notebook—and physically holding that portable piece of art.
7. Be prepared to live with your subject for a long time. A memoir might not always be about you. It might be about someone close to you, like a grandparent or a teacher. Regardless, your subject will likely conjure many memories and emotions. For however long your memoir takes to write, revise, edit, and publish, your subject, people, and feelings will be with you. Will you be able to handle that?
I was afraid I’d be sick of Duran Duran after spending a year working on Friends of Mine. The opposite happened: I fell in love all over again, and I made some wonderful new friends as a result.
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I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.