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Writing the Now March 8, 2008

Posted by kayren in Writing.
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I often feel that learning to write is like learning to fly. You need a number of flying hours logged before you qualify as a licensed pilot.

You don’t need a qualification to write, but you do need practice. This is where you learn to tackle the very real problems of getting words onto the page. A typical practice session can take the form of a free writing exercise where you observe your immediate surroundings, record the details and then use those details as triggers to material for your memoirs.

You might want to put yourself in interesting surroundings for this exercise – a café, a park, a crowded piazza – wherever there are details, people and things that present concrete references for your writing. Notice the bright orange colour of the café signage, the trees on the foreshore leaning away from the wind, the odd couple at the next table.

ParachutingThe point of this exercise is not to produce a publishable piece of work, but to allow the writing process free fall. To go back to our flying analogy, you’ve jumped out of the plane with a parachute and the wind is pulling you out over a new landscape. Let the narrative flow in the same way, recording your thoughts as they come tumbling through your mind. You might find memories triggered by details around you, the tall girl in the blue dress or the dark taste of coffee, the aroma of fried onions coming from  an apartment nearby.

If memory takes you out of the present and leads you to good writing material don’t stop to edit or look for clever analogies, keep the sentences flowing even though the words you produce might seem to be written by the proverbial monkey at the typewriter. If you come to a roadblock go back immediately to recording details of your surroundings.

Confronting the blank page

Freeform writing is also a useful tool for getting started. There are days when confrontation with a blank page, either paper or electronic, can produce a type of mental torpor that leads nowhere. Joseph Conrad once described this problem.  He sat at his writing table looking out of the window and when a man walked past in the morning he added a full stop to a sentence.  When the same man walked back again in the afternoon he removed it.

Learn to take control

While this exercise is useful and will help remove roadblocks and stimulate ideas, it’s important to remember that you must ultimately learn how to establish control over your material. Unless you are writing a journal for your eyes only you need to develop the skills that help you write your story in a way that is both coherent and satisfying to your reader.



The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Autobiography February 16, 2008

Posted by kayren in Writing.
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the universeWikipedia strongly discourages the publication of autobiography on its site. Here’s why:

“Writing autobiographies is discouraged because it is difficult to write a neutral, verifiable autobiography and there are many pitfalls.”

To illustrate their claim Wikipedia provide the following humorous quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

It is said that Zaphod Beeblebrox‘s birth was marked by earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, firestorms, the explosion of three neighbouring stars, and, shortly afterwards, by the issuing of over six and three quarter million writs for damages from all of the major landowners in his Galactic sector. However, the only person by whom this is said is Beeblebrox himself, and there are several possible theories to explain this.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Ninth

Truth in autobiography has always been a complex question. What we know of our past is reconstructed through the perceptions of the present and the way we see an event today may be very different to the way we viewed it at the time we experienced it. How often have you heard people say something like: ‘I can laugh about it now, but at the time…’ expressing the fact that they have changed their ideas about an experience that may have once been difficult or unpleasant.

Writers who publish autobiographies for the general reader are less likely to regard truth as the most important quality of their writing. Writing may be based on fact but extended by imagination to provide a different kind of truth – the truth that comes from allowing the reader to feel the emotion behind a series of events.

How far can you go when reshaping reality

When you begin to construct your autobiography or memoir you may well start with a list of events that happenend in chronological sequence. However, as you continue to develop your material you will feel a strong need to shape these events into something more compelling.

A memoir that describes real experiences has a particular fascination. You are there with the climber who scaled Everest every step of the way. You feel the challenge to keep going and the fears that hold you back. You see the way blocked by an avalanche, or the struggles of a companion suffering from altitude sickness. Should you help her back to base camp? No. You’ll go on and hope she recovers enough to make the return jouney alone. You are aware that this is real.  The author has unlocked his memories of dangerous and traumatic events and as you read on you might alternately sympathise and condemn.

This same story written as a novel, however, would produce a different reading experience. You now expect the author to use recognised literary devices such as plot, character, and dialogue to develop the story and keep it moving. You want your imagination stimulated by the way the characters are drawn and their interactions with each other. You hope the author will surprise you with unexpected twists of plot and let you follow it all from the god-like perspective that sees much more than we mere mortals are allowed. As a reader you will be prepared to accept whatever the fiction writer tells you as fact – simply and paradoxically because you know it’s not true.

Autobiography writers and memoirists are free to use the same devices as novelists to bring their works to life in the minds of the reader. A good writer does not simply set out to merely record fact, but to show the reader what it feels like to be the person who is writing and to help them relive the unique experiences of a life.

A note of caution

There are no set rules as to how far you can stretch the truth. Once again it comes down to the essential question of audience – who are you writing for? If you are creating a factual record only for the eyes of friends and family you could decide that exaggeration and embellishment of the ‘truth’ is neither necessary nor acceptable. If, on the other hand, you are writing for a wider audience, like the Everest climber you will need to consider what the reader expects from your writing and how you will satisfy the need we all have to mythologise certain instances in our lives that point to a wider and more poetic truth.

You are free to embellish the truth to make your point more strongly, but the reader trusts you not to tell lies and if you set out to deliberately decieve rather than to tell a good story you run the risk of exposure.

If you plan to alter names and the sequence of events in your story you could consider writing a simple disclaimer such as:

Some names and biographical details in this book have been altered.

Or you could take a more poetic approach with an explanation such as this one by Janet Frame at the beginning of her autobiography To the Is-Land:

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always to the Third place, where the starting point is myth.

Your Life is a Story January 11, 2008

Posted by kayren in Writing.
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How to Write Your Life as a Story

When you approach a writing project the first question that needs to be addressed is – Who am I writing for?

Technical authors, or those who write specifically to pass on information, know they must first define the needs of their audience by answering such questions as:

Who is the audience?
What is their level of skill?
What benefits will they gain from this piece of writing?

This process of identification helps establish a starting point. Once an author knows her audience she can orientate herself to the level of knowledge the reader has and establish the point where he would naturally want to begin.

When writing your life story, you need to ask similar questions of yourself.
Is the audience your family and those who come after you?
Are you writing for yourself alone, to satisfy a creative need and to impose meaning on the disjointed and abstract series of events that make up your life?
Are you perhaps hoping for publication because you think your life story has relevance to people you are never likely to meet? (more…)