By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Memoir and Christmas: Finding Meaning in Family Memories

The Christmas season is upon us like snow on North Dakota. With it comes a sleighful of memories. But how to write meaningfully about this most evocative of holidays in a way that engages the reader?

In a first draft of my client's memoir, I mined a five-page document he had written about the Christmases he remembered from his childhood in Germany in the early 1950s and inserted it into the memoir in chronological order. I found the cultural details colorful and fascinating: the walk through the snow to the Gothic Stadkirche in the center of town; the candles on the tree; the Christmas Eve rolmoepse (rolled herring); the recitation of poems and the small tables of presents for each child. I researched Christmases of the 1950s and found a cache of wonderful photos on the Internet from which to draw for authentic descriptions of street scenes and interiors. My client loved it.

When it came to using the memory in the memoir, however, it was too much. It slowed everything down. It became a "travelogue" of a German Christmas.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Revision as Sculpture or Paring It Down to the Bone

On my fifth draft now and the revisions continue. The  journey has been illuminating and freeing. The metaphor that suggests itself for this process is sculpture, or shaving a shank of meat off a skewer till you finally hit bone. Here is the process I have followed:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Killing My Darlings

By now, with the release of the new movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as the pre-Howl Allen Ginsberg, many of you will be familiar with the advice given to writers to "kill your darlings." You may even desire to know who really coined that phrase, meaning to cut all self-indulgent, superfluous, if masterful passages of your magnus opus during the revision stage. If so, read the article by Forrest Wickman in the online blog of the culture and current affairs magazine Slate for the short list of suspects. As for me, it is time to take that advice to heart.

It is round two of revisions on the memoir I am ghostwriting (though perhaps that phrase is not entirely accurate as my client has told me he intends to credit my labors in the "as told to" category). If anything, getting my name on the tome only heightens my anxiety at this stage to make a decent showing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Creating Authentic Dialogue

I have just started revisions on my completed first draft, and one of the areas I will be focusing on is a review of sections containing dialogue. Dialogue is crucial for the way it can add dynamism and description to the narrative, move the plot along, and serve as a vehicle for showing the motives or underlying feelings of the characters.

When it comes to dialogue, the problem I have encountered in writing a memoir for my client is that he has a difficult time remembering conversations; at most I might get a line of two of a conversation between two people, and even then, it is the content of the exchange and not idiosyncrasies of speech that he provides. Entirely absent are characteristic expressions that would help to flesh out important characters in the narrative. In most cases, all I have captured are the bare bones of the exchange.

Just as I was grappling with this problem, I read author and writing teacher Mary Carroll Moore's recent post "Dialogue Do's and Don'ts" on her blog How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book. (I highly recommend signing up for this weekly gem.)  Ms. Moore briefly touches on when and when not to use dialogue (something dealt with at length in her popular workshops) and provides excellent insights into what makes for effective dialogue.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Apps for the Memoir Writer: Scrivener

A couple of posts back I wrote about a recording and note-taking app called AudioNote. Now I will share my experience with a word-processing app called Scrivener that provides a format and tools beyond what MS Word and Apple Pages can do. It is compatible with both of these operating systems as well as with more industry-specific formats in publishing.

Even though I am proficient in probably forty percent of the tools this app offers, I love Scrivener. Beginning with the assumption that any long text is comprised of a collection of much shorter texts that need to be arranged in a cohesive manner, Scrivener allows you to create, organize, manipulate and revise these short sections and then compile them into longer texts.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Trust, Confidences and the Voyeuristic Nature of Ghostwriting a Memoir

Illustration by Lisa Yount
About two months ago I had a vivid dream in which my client appeared. I woke up from it feeling embarassed, as if I had been presumptuous about our relationship and had overstepped some sort of professional boundary. I cringed to think what he would make of my dreaming about him.

It was a pleasant dream. It took place in a house. In the beginning of the dream it was my house. At the end of the dream it was his house. Was the house the book we were writing together?

I wondered why I had dreamed about the man. Had I subconsciously invited him in? If I had, what did that mean? Did I want some sort of deeper acceptance from him? After listening to his stories for eight months, did I want him to somehow reciprocate and travel a while in my land? 

The thought of his playing a part in my subconscious theater was all very disconcerting.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Word Games and Panlexicon

As the Millennials say, "My bad." It has been over a month since I have blogged. Seems that writing a book gets in the way of all sorts of fun activities. 

One activity I do indulge in, however, is thinking about and searching for the perfect word, not only for the book I am currently working on, but for passwords, user names, puns, snippets of email exchanges, and so on. 

One of the best I have come up with in the last year or so is "Palabramor" as my twitter name. In case you don't speak Spanish, that combines "palabra" or "word" and "amor" or "love." Cute, huh? Too bad only Spanish speakers will recognize my wit.

In this vein, I have been playing with the idea of a business name for quite some time that would incorporate all the writing services I offer, not just the memoir ghostwriting. Any writer will recognize the amusement value of such an enterprise. What fun it is to play with words. I suspect that most will also soon realize, after a Google search or two, how difficult it is to come up with something really original. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Apps for the Memoir Writer-Recording the Interview

Things have come far since I started writing and editing submissions for a newsletter a decade ago. While I had access to a laptop, it didn’t occur to me to use it when I interviewed subjects for my pieces. Instead, it was the usual notebook and tape recorder. Thankfully, those days of interpreting my scribbles, and then of rewinding tape, listening, and painstakingly transcribing the interview, are gone for good. 

Instead, there are apps! The first thing I did when I finalized the agreement with my client to write his memoir/autobiography was to explore recording apps. I had already upgraded my technology with a MacBook, and now I needed something I could download to my Mac to replace the tape recorder. 

What I found was AudioNote, a notepad and voice recorder app put out by Luminant Software. Designed for note-taking students and employees, this app is also perfect for interviewing a client or the subject of an article. It allows the user to record the subject and at the same time take notes using the keyboard.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Structuring the Memoir

With the first draft of my client's memoir now coming up to 90,000 words, I am looking ahead to getting the rest of his memories down on paper. At that point, when the complete narrative is lying in front of me like a cadaver on an examining table, (a simile I recently used in my client's story; he is a surgeon after all), I can focus on the structure.

This is a big thing, and in preparation for it, I have been reading samples of memoirs, seeing where they begin, what the author has emphasized, and how she (or he) deals with the chronology of events. (An anthology works well for those who want a quick view. Modern American Memoirs, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley is a good one, as is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser.)

Right from the get-go, I feel a little constrained here, because my project is essentially an autobiography, and not a memoir. In its current version, I have used a straight chronological format, from birth to retirement. Now, however, I need to distill out the meaningful events in each period, and tie them together in a way that moves the narrative along and creates, at the end, a thematic and structural whole. Perhaps, rather than move along a straight timeline, the themes that are emerging will dictate a different structure.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Memoir Ghostwriter as Therapist

As I mark my six month point in writing an autobiography with my client, I realize that what I am doing has certain elements of the psychiatrist's profession. Because I want the story to be compelling not only for my client and his family, but for the general reading public as well, I need to get at underlying feelings and motivations. I have to do this while respecting the client's dignity and privacy and honoring the way he himself sees his story. In short, I have to ask a lot of prying questions with a certain delicacy. It is not unlike taking on the role of a family therapist.

My client is a paragon of virtue. A truckload of glowing articles have been written about him, and after working with him closely for half a year, it is clear to me that his reputation is built on solid ground. Moreover, his story of moving from poor refugee to world-renown neurosurgeon is a fascinating one, and now that we are moving into his career phase, details on the medical profession, the brain, hospital dynamics, work-life balance, and other topics that you might be familiar with from watching Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs are emerging that, I think, should make for very good reading.

But a memoir or an autobiography cannot be simply a litany of virtuous acts or an account of professional development and success. Such a narrative does not make for a compelling story. There must be a necessary dark in contrast to which the light shines brighter. There must be a mature reflection on events that happened in the past and on key relationships.

As memoirist, poet and creative writing teacher Judith Barrington points out in Writing the Memoir, what is required is nothing short of the laying bare of the soul.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Going After Fact; Ending Up With Fiction

Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.  
Joseph Conrad
Writing a memoir or autobiography for another person, or perhaps even for yourself, presents the well known problem of getting at the fact versus the fiction or invention (the same thing) of what happened in the past. What do you do when the subject of the book only remembers snippets of a conversation or fragments of a scene? What if the subject does not have the descriptive skills to make a significant character in his story come alive with details about that character's appearance or mannerisms? What if his descriptions of place and people are limited to adjectives such as "beautiful" and "nice."

One approach would be to leave out everything from the period before my client could remember events clearly, as Stephen King did in his memoir, On Writing. That works for the the first problem but doesn't solve the question of detail. Another is to use a tool that historical fiction writers employ, research.

I decided early on that I was going to rely on research. I had photo albums from as far back as the 20s and a diary from the subject's mother to describe the environment that the subject, and his parents, grew up in and to fill in details about stories handed down from his parents. I used these materials as a jumping off point for further research on the Internet.

Friday, April 19, 2013

From Memories to Memoir: Getting the Story

OK, I got the client; I invested in a MacBook and the Audio Note app; now I had to gather the material for my client's memoir.

 Fortunately, my client had attempted to get portions of his life down in writing, and he gave me hard copies of four or five of these narratives, as well as a Power Point presentation he had done detailing the main parts of his life within the context of a major historical period. He also gave me the journal his mother had kept detailing his family's refugee/immigration experience when he was a boy, and photograph albums from early periods.

The point is, get your hands on any materials the client may have at the onset of the process. These materials were my starting point. They allowed me to construct a first outline of what he saw as his story.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Where I Write

I have been following a blog I recently found called Writing In Style that a writer named Melissa March puts out. She invited bloggers to submit a post about where they write.

I think that where you write is so important that I have used a photo of my desk to illustrate my blog. It took me a long time to get the kind of space I wanted, one that is private and has bookshelves to hold the literature, poetry, essay anthologies, and travel books from the library that is literally distributed throughout our house. (My husband is a retired psych and philosophy professor who was so traumatized by selling his set of Great Books back in the 70s that he hasn't let a book go since.)

My writing space reflects who I am at this point in my life. The desk area you see has a shelf of the books I need at hand, my MLA Handbook, Oxford Dictionary (still prefer both resources in book form), and collection of writing books and memoirs; selected images that inspire me and items that have become talismans over the years: the porcelain cat bookends a favorite cousin (now alive only in memory) gave me 30 years ago; an hourglass from my sister; two antique Japanese lacquer boxes for batteries and paper clips; mementos from a former life in Japan and Europe; photographs of those I love.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Prep, Process, and Tools

Tonight I thought I would share some preparatory steps I took as I prepared to "ghostwrite" my client's memoirs.

The first thing I did, even before accepting the offer, was to research ghostwriting in general, and memoir ghostwriting in particular. From what I saw out there, a lot of writers are ghostwriting a broad range of work from promotional materials to web content to articles and books, you name it. I have done some of that kind of work before, in particular for the marketing department where I used to work and in collaboration with my husband on our website Center For Future Consciousness. But my first well paid freelance gig has given me the opportunity to focus on memoir. Fortunately, I had collaborated with my husband, Tom, on his book Mind Flight, so I had some idea of how I wanted to approach the structure, in this case, straightforward, chronological narrative.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ditching the Day Job

I am three months into my new writing life and thought it was time to start blogging about my experience.

 So this is how it happened: In early 2011, my sister and I decided to start a writing group. We started with four women, one of whom then worked at a local hospital as senior editor for the publications department. I shall call her Sakura. Sakura and I immediately developed a real resonance based on mutual passions for art and poetry, as well as a shared pre-Raphaelite romantic sensibility.

 Around August of 2012,Sakura came to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking on the task of writing the memoirs of a noted neurosurgeon at the hospital who had approached her with the idea, hoping that she could take it on. She had too much on her plate, so she declined the offer, but told him she knew someone who might be interested.