What I Learned From Having My Manuscript Work-shopped with Adair Lara

by Ann Gronvold

As of January 2014, I’d been working on my kidlit novel, Lindy Leeland Overcomes Her Great Fear of Spiders, for a year and a half.  I liked my characters, I liked the setting, but it just wasn’t working.

I was reading lots of books on writing, taking a few workshops, and learning plenty of useful things, but I was still thrashing around.  I needed help on structuring the novel and finding a way to make Lindy a more active protagonist. 

I found out about Adair’s workshop – I read Naked, Drunk & Writing and my writing took a leap forward. I read Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, and was really impressed.  The workshop is 12 weeks long – not something for dabblers.  This is a dig down and get serious workshop.  I needed help, and I needed to get more serious.  So I applied and, Yay! Adair accepted me.

The workshop offers an abundance of treasures:  The delight of driving over Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco on Saturday mornings; the walk from my car in a very cool neighborhood that sets my creative juices bubbling even before I reach the stairs to Adair’s house; the magnificent meeting room with dormer ceilings, lined with books, featuring three comfy sofas, and chairs, and a ping pong table.  Just walking into that room makes me want to write.

I was inspired and amazed by the determination and courage of my colleagues – working through such hard life experiences and finding a way to triumph as they wrote their memoirs.

I loved Adair’s enthusiasm, good cheer, fine wit, wisdom, great patience and artfully no-bullshit attitude.  She insisted that no one wants to read a victim’s whining.  Stories are only worth reading if the author works through all the tough stuff, and finds the inner strength, insight, and courage not to just endure, but to learn from what they’ve been through and triumph.  Recasting one’s terrible experiences works a kind of alchemy – the writer changes their own story for the better.

Every time we read, we first write “love letters,” the written comments that find gold before we cut into the flesh to improve what is there.  After the students critique, Adair sums up the essentials and adds her own insights.  Her ability to zero in and diagnose a problem, to recommend fixes and directions to go from here, is amazing.  I learned so much from just watching and listening the process with my workshop-mates, and as I worked to diagnose and give useful feedback myself.  I believe that my own ability to critique effectively has moved up a notch – in reading others’ work as well as my own.

As for my own novel, Adair stressed the importance of Lindy having a strong desire line.  With direction and encouragement, I began to dig deeper.

By the end of the workshop, I understood that I’d been trying to write two stories that didn’t fit together.  I was trying to write the story of a girl whose Grandmother had died, leaving a huge hole in the middle of her core family:  mother, Grandparents and Lindy.  “We’re like a hive who’s lost her queen.”  But the family wasn’t coming together, and Lindy felt abandoned and resentful.  She wanted to make her family whole, to find a sense of comfort and support as they worked through their grief.

My spider fear plot line was supposed to be a metaphor for intense grief which dwindled as the grief healed and as the family came together as a whole. 

But it didn’t work and only confused the readers.  Worse, Lindy was only reacting, not acting, and didn’t step into gear until 2/3 of the way into the story – long after my readers would have stopped reading.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  I had to push my storyline over the cliff.  It was only a little painful, because I’d seen it coming for a while.  I felt mostly relieved, if a bit disoriented, like I’d just thrown out 90% of all the junk in my basement that had been accumulating for years.

Adair was swift, clear and to the point.  Like a surgeon sewing up after a successful operation, she helped me to find 7 key scenes, to give me direction for writing a story that worked, with a truly active protagonist.

And so I began writing my new story at the beginning of the summer.  The direction was fine, but I wasn’t.  Lindy’s fear of spiders now seemed lightweight to me.  She annoyed me, and if I’d been reading this book, I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it.

But I delved into the characters and discovered a bigger story.  Lindy (now Lyndie) became the antagonist, and Nancy, a more conflicted and interesting character, became the protagonist.  I got inspired and began to write with more enthusiasm.

I couldn’t have gotten here without Adair’s workshop.  All the weeks of watching and listening, as people cut the dross and deepened the gold in their own work, helped me to apply what I’d learned to my own story.

Now I’m writing a novel about a group of kids, all of whom desperately want to get into a great school, and it all depends on how they perform at the summer nature camp, an intensive 6 week program focusing on field studies.  My characters are filled with passions, conflicts and complications that bump off each other and motivate their actions that push the plot forward.

At least I hope that’s what’s happening.  Today I’m sending in my submission to Adair for a diagnostic critique.  I can feel how much my writing and my reading has grown.  No doubt, I still have plenty to learn.

 

 

 

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MAKE YOUR WRITING SUCK LESS: VOICE AND PERSONA IN MEMOIR

Intro: I’m fiddling with an idea for writing about voice and persona in memoir, a topic I can’t shut up about these days. I’ve realized everything I ever tried to write that didn’t work, didn’t work because of voice.

Rather than leave the idea  as a large untidy pile of papers on my kitchen table onto which I regularly throw more examples, ideas, etc., I thought I’d start a sort of blog. Later a book with working title Make Your Writing Suck Less. Comments welcome!

Installments one

Is the voice in your memoir and in your journal the same voice? That might be a problem.

These days, with memoir categories saturated, everybody knows that its voice that makes memoir stand out. As Mary Karr said, “In  a memoir, the only through-line is character represented by voice. So you better make a reader damn curious about who’s talking.”

the voice of the narrator is  what pulls  everything together. Even if the structure of the book falls apart, the voice will still be there, as a guide to how to put it back together better. Michael Chabon said, “Above all, a quirky human voice to hang a story on.” He tries to hit on the voice he wants for a novel or short story right from the start. “I will keep hammering away at the first sentence till I hit that tone, the sense of rightness that’s very intuitive.”

Here’s one way to know if you have an engaging voice in your memoir: compare the writing in your journal about some event or person with the treatment of that same event or person in your memoir.

Is it the same? If so, you may be writing as your actual self, with all its complications, and that might flatten the writing. A journal is your real voice—and should show you why you want to change your real voice for the book. Writing creatively in much harder than writing in a journal. It takes imagination, planning. Revising. Very different from just writing down what happened to you in a journal. Cynthia Ozick said.

Since 1953 I’ve kept a diary, and I write in it almost every day. It’s a record of humiliation. The voice in it is my speaking voice. It carries all of life in it, all the dross and all the bad feelings, the humiliations, the anger, the envy, all that garbage. I know that it is a real voice, and that’s how I know all the other voices are constructs or masks.

So flipping through your journal in search of material for your memoir can be dangerous. Who would want to read this crap? you think. This is how  English writer Gina Davidson might have written about her 13-year-old in her journal:

Treasure is always asking me for money. She spends it or loses and then she wants more. From me, of course. Of course I don’t want to give her even more money, but if I don’t  she won’t have the money to do what she wants and will stay home. And I’d really rather she went out, as she is so unpleasant to be around now.

You can use such material, but it must be transformed with voice. Here’s that same content delivered with voice in her collection of columns, The Trials of a Teenage Terror and Her Mom:

Treasure was born to spend. She therefore needs huge amounts of pocket money. It is her life blood, she can scarcely move without it. She spends it, lends it, donates it, loses it. She buys snacks, tickets, make-up, bargain offers and presents. She is a fountain of pocket money and I am the source of her wealth – the magic porridge pot. Treasure says the correct words and up comes more money. Because without it she is a prisoner in the house, an unpleasant option for both of us.

Note that she has established voice here by switching from her own point of view to Treasure’s.

Vivian Gornick was writing about her mother in the memoir that became Fierce Attachments when she reviewed her own diary and had the same reaction as Ozick:

I opened the diary eagerly but soon turned away from it, stricken. The writing was soaked in a kind of girlish self-pity—“alone again!—that I found odious. More than odious, threatening. As I read on, I felt myself being sucked back into its atmosphere, unable to hold on to the speaking voice I was working hard to develop.

That was not the voice she wanted in her book. “The one I habitually lived with wouldn’t do at all: it whined, it grated, it accused– above all it accused.” To speak truthfully,  without cynicism, or sentiment, complaining or whining, she had to “find a tone of voice normally not mine” :

I began to correct for myself. The process was slow, painful and riddled with self-doubt. But one day I had her. I had a narrator on the page who was telling the story that I alone, in my everyday person, would not have been able to tell. Devotion to this narrator –to this persona –became, while I was writing the book, an absorption that in time went unequaled. I longed each day to meet again with her. It was not only that I admired her style, her generosity, her detachment (such a respite from the me that was me) , she had become the instrument of my illumination.

I reread the greats in the personal essay, the ones we think of as open, honest, confiding—Montaigne, Hazlitt, Orwell, Didion –and now I saw that it wasn’t their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their brilliant created persona.

She was constructing her own persona. That’s what the voice in memoir is called –the persona.

My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to worsen. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of softening, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room–a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces–”She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you, you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

Notice that this is not the author talking about her awful mother. The camera has been drawn back until the narrator can describe the relationship objectively, in a way that will interest us. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

Two people are in this together. She contrasts the above with moments of connection and similarity:

But we walk the streets of New York together endlessly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apartments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am forty-five now and my mother is seventy-seven. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.

Our best times together are when we speak of the past. I’ll say to her, “Ma, remember Mrs. Kornfeld? Tell me that story again,” and she’ll delight in telling me the story again. (It is only the present she hates; as soon as the present becomes the past, she immediately begins loving it.) Each time she tells the story it is both the same and different because each time I’m older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn’t ask the last time around.

And –and—she develops her mother as a character, as a novelist would.…

My mother was distinguished in the building by her unaccented English and the certainty of her manner. Although our apartment door was always closed (a distinction was made between those educated enough to value the privacy of a closed door and those so peasant-like the door was always half open), the neighbors felt free to knock at any time: borrow small kitchen necessities, share a piece of building gossip, even ask my mother to act as arbiter in an occasional quarrel. Her manner at such times was that of a superior person embarrassed by the childlike behavior of her inferiors. “Oy, Zimmerman.” She would smile patronizingly when Mrs. Zimmerman, beside herself over some slight, real or imagined, came to tell her of the perfidy of one or another of our neighbors. “Such foolishness.” Or, “That’s ridiculous,” she would rap out sharply when a tale she considered base or ignorant was repeated to her. She seemed never to be troubled by the notion that there might be two sides to a story, or more than one interpretation of an event. She knew that, compared with the women around her, she was “developed”–a person of higher thought and feeling–so what was there to think about? “Developed” was one of her favorite words. If Mrs. Zimmerman spoke loudly in the hall on a Saturday morning, we, sitting in the kitchen just behind our apartment door, would stare at each other and, inevitably, my mother would shake her head and pronounce, “An undeveloped woman.” If someone made a crack about the schvartzes, my mother would carefully explain to me that such sentiments were “undeveloped.” If there was a dispute in the grocery store over price or weight, again I would hear the word “undeveloped.” My father smiled at her when she said “undeveloped,” whether out of indulgence or pride I never did know. My brother, on his guard from the age of ten, stared without expression. But I, I absorbed the feel of her words, soaked up every accompanying gesture and expression, every complicated bit of impulse and intent. Mama thinking everyone around was undeveloped, and most of what they said was ridiculous, became imprinted on me like dye on the most receptive of materials.

Note that once Gornick has the persona of her narrator firmly established –so firmly that it can’t be derailed by that bleating self in the journal—she can read the diary and harvest useful details.

Adair Lara is the author of the popular guide to writing essay and memoir, Naked, Drunk and Writing

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Naked, Drunk and Writing is a Hit

The most helpful part of the book for me has been how to find an angle. Many stories live in my head, but I have trouble figuring out why and how I should tell them. What’s the point in talking about burning old love letters? Lara’s techniques have enabled me to get to the meat of piece and end up with something that, although personal to me, still touches someone else.www.bookendbabes.com

I made it required reading for my next class, as soon as I read this on page 63:  “Writing is turning your thoughts, abstractions, generalizations and opinions back into the experiences you got them from.” Phil Baer

I’ve always had a sense for what works and what doesn’t work.  But your book helped me to understand WHY some essays work and some don’t.  –Julia Anne Miller

I believe I could clear out a whole bookshelf of writing books and replace them with Naked, Drunk and Writing.– Susan Bauer

Naked, Drunk and Writing  changed my career, led to many bylines, and enabled me to launch my freelance business.–Christina Juliana

ND&W  arrived the same week that I started an on- line personal essay class that  cost $250.  I must say there was significantly more value in your book than in the class. –Mike Hockley

The chapter on tone is the best thing I’ve read on the subject. –Vesta Irene

Naked, Drunk and Writing combines the humor of Anne Lamott, the demystification of Stephen King (writers are people who write), the personal anecdotes of Natalie Goldberg, and the practical wisdom of the craft handbook.  Mary Whittemore

I just finished reading Naked, Drunk, and Writing, which I found both badass and inspiring, a rare combination.– Jennifer Landau I’m a full-time freelancer and sometimes teach writing workshops and LOVE your essay-writing “formula.” It helps keep me focused in my own work, and has been a backbone in my teaching. I have the inspiration and motivation — just give me the dang tools! And Adair Lara has. –—Diane Daniels

I was working on an essay about undergoing heart surgery and I was having a devil of a time with it.  I read ND&W, and suddenly I heard a voice in the back of my head say: “If you are right, it won’t write.”  And I realize…Eureka!…that was my problem.  The result was a published essay called “A Polite Girl’s Guide to Surgery” which showed how I learned to be more assertive through the process of having heart surgery.

Just trying to imagine myself Naked, Drunk, and Writing horrified me into deciding I could at least expand enough to write some awful prose in my nightgown first thing every morning.  –Trudy Elkins

Lara’s book on writing is not a dry, technical writing manual. It’s engaging and full of stories. I can’t put it down and it is one that I have recommended to every single friend that wants to write essays and memoir! So funny and thorough! –Rashena Wilson

Full  of useful information and  entertaining, unlike the slew of how-to writing books I’ve read that  have been equivalent to chewing dry Roman Meal. It’s good to read writing encouragement from a writer who delivers  it in a way that feels like you’re in the midst of a wonderful conversation. Gena-Marie Knight

I read Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, and  fell into the sort of love that causes hand tremors and hot flashes. Adair Lara reminded me of why I started writing. I want to make out with this book.Steph Auteri

Your book got in a drag-down fight with a highlighter. –Aisley Carroll

I am a missionary writing to you from Papua New Guinea. I am applying your book to my writing and have found a lot of inspiration. Since reading it, I decided to submit one of my stories.The editor wrote back within 12 hours and said she wanted to run it and asked for more! –Wendy Freeze

I’ve read the same damn thing over and over again in books and classes and not got it. When I read Naked Drunk and Writing, I finally did. -Tierney Tully

The perfect how-to guide for bloggers! –Claudine Wolk

Adair Lara states the process so simply in Naked, Drunk, and Writing that I think, “Oh yeah, I get it.  I can do that.” –Trish Tomer

Adair Lara ensures we understand what works in essays (honesty, humility, relationships) and what doesn’t (blocky dialogue, vagueness, psychotherapy).
Kevin L. Nenstiel

What set this book apart for me were the concrete, accessible examples set against the backdrop of an engaging narrative. You hold in your hands a perfect example of what of the book is trying to teach.–Adrienne Jones

“Adair Lara gave me the best piece of writing advice ever in one of her workshops: “If there is something that is keeping you from writing, write about that thing.”   And so I wrote about grief. It became my first novel. Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief.

Full of good advice and techniques; I intend to steal from it outrageously. The really fun part is the quotations from her students’ works. Don Fry, national writing coach

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I was so pumped and energized after reading this book  that I seduced my husband. – Rachel Rosie Sorenson

I was re-reading my pre-ND&W  chapter drafts last week.  They suck.  Not that I ever thought these chapters were great, but now I can’t read them without making loud snorts and “Oh, please!”s. that might not be the result you had in mind, but I am thrilled to understand why these earlier pieces don’t work.

PRAISE FOR NAKED, DRUNK, AND WRITING

I’m a full-time freelancer and sometimes teach writing workshops and LOVE your essay-writing “formula.” It helps keep me focused in my own work, and has been a backbone in my teaching.—Diane Daniels

In Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay” Adair Lara, who wrote a weekly column for the “San Francisco Chronicle” for twelve years and won the Associated Press Award for Best Columnist in California, uses her experiences as a columnist, author of more than ten books, and writing instructor to guide you through the writing process from coming up with an idea to write about to selling your essay to a magazine or your book to a publisher.

Lara’s book on writing is not a dry, technical writing manual. It’s engaging and full of stories. I can’t put it down and it is one that I have recommended to every single friend that wants to write essays and memoir! So funny and thorough! –Rashena Wilson

Half the people I know seem to haven take classes and workshops with San Francisco’s legendary writer and teacher Adair Lara. She is very savvy and smart and hugely entertaining.  I admire her greatly.

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird:

Adair Lara is one of our bestselling authors. Her books are wise, witty and wonderful. We love to put them in our customers’ hands, but it isn’t hard because customers tell each other about her books.

Adair teaches writing classes at Book Passage and the only problem we have is dealing with the disappointed people who can’t get in—her classes sell out.

This is an author who understands humanity. Reading Adair Lara is a pleasure, but not a guilty one, because we come away knowing not only about Adair, her friends and family, but especially more about ourselves. This woman makes us think!

Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage

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It’s good to read writing encouragement from a writer who delivers  it in a way that feels like you’re in the midst of a wonderful conversation.

Gena-Marie Knight

Without Adair’s insightful guidance and encouragement, my book might have been  just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.Now – at last – the depth and breadth of her experience as writer and editor are distilled into this one great book on writing.

Jacqueline Winspear, author of the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series

I read Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, and  fell into the sort of love that causes hand tremors and hot flashes. Adair Lara reminded me of why I started writing. And I love her  for that.

I want to make out with this book.Steph Auteri

Thanks again for all. I can’t thank you enough for your book. It’s changed my career, led to many bylines, and enabled me to launch my freelance business.–Christina Juliana

“Read” is a bit too gentle of a word. I’ve basically inhaled this book and can’t wait to share the tips I’ve picked up with my students!

Lara breaks down the pieces of an essay, discusses the importance of writing compelling scenes and bringing the reader right into the action, and expands on these tips to fit a personal memoir. She explains that a memoir is simply talking about something that happened to you and how you overcame it. And as you write, you need to ask yourself questions–What did I want?, How did I get around that obstacle? and to keep asking those questions as you go along to keep yourself honest.

This is one of the few books I’ve read “for fun” and tabbed, underlined, and made notations in the margin so I remember what I want to include in my writing classes this fall.

http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com/2011/07/book-review-naked-drunk-and-writing-by.html

Adair: ‘m in rural northern Arizona reading the Cottonwood Public Hello I am enjoying Naked, Drunk, and Writing. It’s full of useful information and it’s entertaining, unlike the slew of how-to writing books I’ve read recently which have been equivalent to chewing dry Roman Meal.
While I have decided not to throw caution to the wind entirely, (and how does one do that with a pen?) N,D&W has been a little breeze drifting through and it’s encouraged me to go for my dream. It’s good to read writing encouragement from a writer who first of all can write, and second, is able to deliver it in a way that feels like you’re in the midst of a wonderful conversation. –Gena-Marie Knight
I started by being inspired by the book title.  Just trying to imagine myself naked, drunk and writing horrified me into deciding I could at least expand enough to write some awful prose in my nightgown first thing every morning.  –Trudy Elkins

The other day I was working on an essay about undergoing heart surgery with Dr. Oz in 2000, and I was having a devil of a time with it.  I had read ND&W, and suddenly I hear a voice in the back of my head say: “If you are right, it won’t write.”  And I realize…Eureka!…that was my problem.  The essay was about what a great and happy surgery I had.  It was a story about how I’d been right, and it was going nowhere fast.  As soon as I heard that magic phrase I knew what was wrong, so I started looking for the vulnerability in that experience and also the change.  The result was an essay called “A Polite Girl’s Guide to Surgery” which showed how I learned to be more assertive through the process of having heart surgery.

I’ve always had a sense for what works and what doesn’t work.  But your book helped me to understand WHY some essays work and some don’t.  –Julia Anne Miller

I’m working steadily on a memoir and have over the past couple years gathered several how-to books. Yours is the best book I’ve found for people who are serious about the craft — vs. the books that are more about inspiring the writer. I have the inspiration and motivation — just give me the dang tools! And you have. I promise to thank you in my acknowledgements. –Diane Daniel

Your book got in a drag-down fight with a highlighter. –Aisley Carroll

I am a missionary writing to you from Papua New Guinea. I am applying your book to my writing and have found a lot of inspiration. Since reading it, I decided to submit one of my stories (on birth) to “Midwifery Today” (a trade mag for that industry.) The editor wrote back within 12 hours and said she wanted to run it and asked for more! How encouraging. –Wendy Freeze

I began reading Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, and I fell into the sort of love that causes hand tremors and hot flashes. I carried the book with me everywhere. I snuggled with it in bed. I neglected my husband.Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara reminded me of why I started writing. And I love it for that.

I want to make out with this book.Still, I’m not a jealous person. I think you should make out with this book, too. You heard me. Buy it, and snuggle with it in bed. Let it spend the night. Let it remind you what true love is.-Steph Auteri

Thanks to you I could not sleep last night. I finished your book for the second time in three days and now my head is spinning with ideas. Your book is one that gives instruction, inspiration, and most importantly, hope. –William Taylor

We are using your recent book in our women’s writing group, Wise Women Write.  Most of us are (aspiring) essay writers or memoirists and it is becoming our bible. You are amazing.  You inspire me.  You prompt me to become a better ME. –Jennifer Fabiano

In 233 pages, Adair Lara managed to supply writers with more useful information and tips than that contained in the sum of all the writing books on my shelves. –Marie Estorge, author of Storkbites and Memoirs of a Bi-Polar Ex-Prom Queen:

What does it say about me that I find a book about writing to be the page-turning, keep-you-up- all-night, type of read? Although I’ve published essays in two anthologies and two major newspapers, there were plenty of insights that were brand new to me, and I could scarcely wait to incorporate her tips and exercises into my own writing. I’ve read the same damn thing over and over again in books and classes and not got it. When I read Naked Drunk and Writing, I finally did. -Tierney Tully

The perfect how-to guide for bloggers! –Claudine Wolk

Adair Lara states the process so simply in Naked, Drunk and Writing that I think, “Oh yeah, I get it.  I can do that.” –Trish Tomer

Naked, Drunk, And Writing is the only one qualified to stand next to Strunk and White’s invaluable The Elements of Style. –Aaron Gutsell

Adair is to writing what Julia Childs was to cooking.–Jeff Forester

I’m slowly savoring the words of Adair Lara in her book, Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed your inhibitions and Craft a compelling Memoir or Personal Essay.Every page is rich with content and practical applications.–Blogger JoDee Luna

ND&W wasn’t in the house for 36 hours before I finished it. So many tips and insights and easy explanations, plus a boatload of inspiration!

“You don’t want to write a poor-me book,” Adair Lara states. She goes on to explain, “The best memoirs show how human beings change under pressure, not just the bad things that can happen to people. And that change means change in you.”  I savored Adair’s words as if a fine wine. I rolled them around my mental palate, sliding them over and under my tongue before sucking them down into the depths of my soul.–Laura Nalesnik

I am a columnist for a weekly newspaper and I found great inspiration and laughter in your book. It was like listening to a friend–and that is what all writers need, no matter what stage they are at. My column is 12 years old, and every week I have to come up with a new topic–your book has really helped me do that.–LouAnn Geauvreau-Karry

Your great new book is the  best I’ve read about writing in  any genre, not just personal essay and memoir. One of my favorite parts is the exercise section at the back of the book. It’s also great to see some good information on humor writing. I have had a hard time finding anything worthwhile on that topic until now.The book arrived during the same week that I started an on line personal essay class which cost $250 and I must say there was significantly more value in your book than in the class. –Mike Hockley

I write editorials for the local newspaper plus I manage people who write for businesses. I’ve often suggested that people “try to find an angle” to set the story apart and make it interesting, but I’ve struggled to go beyond those words with meaningful examples. I’m now routing my copy of your book among my team.

–Gordon MacKinney

I have been devouring your book since opening it. It reads like a steamy novel for us fledging authors hungry for technique and guidance. Because of your book, I finally found a home for my writing style. I believe I am an essayist. It feels good to know that.–Jana Gullick

The explanation about the difference between an anecdote and a story is one of the most useful passages I’ve read in a writing book.–Teresa O’Neill

I’ve been inspired to apply some of your techniques to my writing, and I’ve gotten very good feedback from readers. Your voice is so true that it encourages me to listen deeply to my own. –Gregory Peebles, Soprano

Adair Lara could teach a rock to write. —-Lee Anna Hedges

This book completely changed my view of writing. Without delving into boring lessons, it gives you fun techniques to wake your brain and motivation up.—-L. Wimberley

My husband, the fiction writer, stayed up all night with this book. Then, the next day, started revising, more like improving, a story he’d written. He told me that he thinks the chapter on tone is the best thing he’s ever read on the subject. –Vesta Irene

Memoir Course in a Book! I’m taking a memoir-writing class at Grub Street, in Boston, and this book includes everything we’re covering in class (and then some). –Howard Goldowsky, “ChessWriter” (Amazon.com)

re essentially a combination of a bunch of pointers, coupled with some agonizing about the difficulty of writing. This book seems more like a transcript of a good, well-focused writing class or workshop. Her tone is personable, much like that of a friend offering advice. –L. F. Smith (Amazon.com)

The  advice and exercises apply equally to fiction writers… I can already feel the effects of the book on the composition of the stories always running in my head.–A. B. King (Amazon.com)

Ms. Lara stresses finding a writing partner; something I have never done or considered. But she has convinced me otherwise and I will now seek such a partner…–Alan Dale Daniel (Amazon.com)

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If you know anyone who wants to write, find an excuse to give this book as a birthday or holiday present, the sooner the better. Dr Cathy Goodwin (Seattle, WA USA)

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I’ve already highlighted passages I think will be helpful, and I’m not lending it to anyone. If you want to read this book, buy your own. –Christian Walters

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Adair Lara ensures we understand what works in essays (honesty, humility, relationships) and what doesn’t (blocky dialogue, vagueness, pychotherapy).
Kevin L. Nenstiel

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Lara answers the burning questions of all memoirists, and she does it in a voice and tone that make you believe she is your best friend from high school. Her advice is dead on, her tone encourages without forgetting that writing is hard damn work. This book shows you how to make that hard work result in something you’ll be proud to submit to an editor. SeattleK8 Amazon.com

One of her more helpful hints is the exercise to write 500 words a day. It doesn’t have to be good but it does have to be 500 words and it does have to be every day. The discipline of writing (or trying to write) 500 words a day, knowing that they don’t have to be perfect, or necessarily even good the first time around, has freed me up to write more and more often. Patricia H. Kline

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What set this book apart for me were the concrete, accessible examples set against the backdrop of an engaging narrative. You hold in your hands a perfect example of what of the book is trying to teach.

–Adrienne Jones

If you’re just beginning, start here. If you’re an experienced writer, you’ll learn things you don’t know yet. I promise, you won’t be able to keep your fingers off the keyboard or pen from paper once you start NDR!–Katherine Olivetti

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Best writing book I’ve ever read. –Tanya Taskila

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“Adair Lara gave me the best piece of writing advice ever in one of her workshops: “If there is something that is keeping you from writing, write about that thing.”  There was: grief. And so I wrote about grief. It became my first novel. To this day, if I am stuck and just CAN’T write because of gummy guck life-stuff in my brain, I force myself to write about the thing I’m ruminating about or fretting over for at least for twenty minutes. Even if it’s laundry lint. The first time I tried it, it turned out to be the whole dang story I needed to write.

Lolly Winston, author of

Your insights are terrific and so is your voice:

funny and self-deprecating, ballsy and enthusiastic.Tracy Johnston, author of Shooting the Boh

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The  examples are exuberant, irrepressible. Here’s a lone, enchanting exampe: Because you have that camera, you see not just the houses, but the light on them. That’s not a bad thing, noticing the light.

Joan Frank

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Full of good advice and techniques; I intend to steal from it outrageously. The really fun part is the quotations from her students’ works. Don Fry, national writing coach

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“I felt as if every word went straight inside me.”Ann Taylor

One exercise asks us to write five quirky (or odd) things about ourselves. I wrote a piece which I titled “My Big Fat Greek Hair” from that assignment. And one afternoon, in a moment of bravado and having had a large Peet’s coffee, I called the articles editor at O. Her outgoing message said something like, “We do not work with freelancers. We do not take unsolicited pitches. Do not leave a message. Do not send a manuscript.” Basically, go away. I left a message anyway giving her the title of my piece. She called back thirty seconds later and asked me to email it to her. While they didn’t take that essay, they took another piece.

I was so pumped and energized after reading this book  that I seduced my husband. – Rachel Rosie Sorenson

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I learned a great deal about epiphany and the importance of a good-no, a great-opening line or need to “hook” the reader.

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I was re-reading my pre-ND&W  chapter drafts last week.  They suck.  Not that I ever thought these chapters were great, but now I can’t read them without making loud snorts and “Oh, please!”s. that might not be the result you had in mind, but I am thrilled to understand why these earlier pieces don’t work.

I had the weirdest dream last night after I finished your book.  I was sitting in your living room talking with you and then I reached down a pulled a nail out of my foot. A quick predawn search of an online dream dictionary indicates that it symbolizes “removing an obstacle that has prevented you from taking a step in the right direction.” So thanks for helping me get rid of whatever was holding me back, writing-wise. –Nancy

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Writing the Personal Essay

Telling a Story

For all its charm and sometimes apparent aimlessness, an essay has a skeleton, an underlying structure that makes it work. Often it’s the age-old structure of a story. By “story” I don’t mean “something that happened,” but a story in the formal sense of the term: somebody (in this case, you) wants what they can’t have and tries to get it. The end resolves the problem. Almost every movie, every novel, every short story, has this structure, and no wonder. A story is a world where every character, every action, has meaning and purpose. A story is why we read: it’s life arranged to fill the basic human need that life have purpose, that events lead somewhere, add up to something. A story takes random events and gives them meaning. It takes life and gives it meaning.

An essay that tells a story (called a narrative essay) has these elements:

Character

Problem

Struggle

Epiphany

Resolution

The character is you—which is why we want to know and like you.

You have a problem: you are, say, stranded at home because you don’t have a car.

You struggle to solve your problem. This can be several actions: You take a part-time seamstress job to get the money for a car. You take driving lessons.

Epiphany: You realize something that changes you. For example, you realize you wanted a car so you can leave your husband.

Resolution: You do something that shows you really did change. You get the
car anyway.

In between these major story elements, we get image and detail, tone, fantasy, memory, style and language and the other elements that draw us into any pleasurable reading experience.

Character

You are the “I” voice of the book. Cells snapped into something singular when you came along — and that’s what you want to get on the page. It’s not enough to tell us what happened — let us know who it happened to. This is where tone comes in, and images, both of which I deal with in future chapters.

In the rest of this book, by the way, you will find that I sometimes say “you” and sometimes “the narrator.” Once you hit the page, you are the narrator, the one telling the story, and the one to whom, in autobiographical writing, it is happening.

Problem

In an essay that appeared in the Chronicle, my student Marilyn Penland’s problem appears in the first paragraph: “I have hundreds of images of her from our nine years of life together, but the sound of my mother’s voice eludes me.” The middle of the story gives us the only four sentences she can remember her mother speaking. At the end, she realizes that she sounds just like her own mother, and her daughter sounds like her. “I hear my daughter’s voice and know my mother is speaking to me from across the years … I no longer wish I had more words from my mother.”

Struggle

If the beginning (also called a lede, or lead) of your essay describes the problem, then the middle shows you trying to solve it: you try something, you react, and a new obstacle pops up. These two — action, reaction and new obstacle may be repeated several times, depending on the length of the essay and the complexity of the struggle. (If this process is long and complex, you have a memoir.)

Some obstacles will be external: you want a car, but don’t have the money, your husband doesn’t want you to have a car, or you can’t drive. If you stay with purely external obstacles, though, it won’t be as interesting (we can read a how-to article on how to buy a car). The interesting obstacles will be internal: you are afraid of driving because your parents died in an automobile accident. You hesitate because you sense that once you get the car, it will help you steer a course out of your marriage.

Here’s an example of an action and reaction in “Without Me, I’m Nothing,” an essay that San Francisco writer Bonnie Wach wrote about her post-partum depression. One of her many actions to make herself feel better is to join a baby support group. This is her reaction, which shows us that she will have to try something else:

Even in places where I should have felt some kind of kinship — new mom’s classes, support groups — I was an outsider. Happy new mothers made my flesh crawl. Trust me when I tell you that nothing can drive a depressed mom to the bottom of a shame spiral faster than a circle of blessed-out breast feeders happily comparing burping techniques, smug and satisfied in the certainty that they are exactly where they’re supposed to be, doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Saying that your infant feels like one of those animal leg traps, and that you’re contemplating chewing off your own foot to get away from it, isn’t exactly the stuff of baby chitchat.

Bonnie’s paragraph also shows how you get yourself across in an essay — become someone with such an interesting voice that we want to follow you around as you wrestle with your problem. In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate refers to this as “the need to assert a quite specific temperament.”

Outlining the Essay

Before we go on to epiphany and resolution, let’s look at outlining the essay. It’s a handy way to get a quick sense of where the piece is going, what to put in and what to leave out. (Later we’ll see that drawing an arc does the same for the memoir writer.) You can try to outline it like this:

I wanted _____

I wanted it because (back story) _____(this is where character comes in)

To get it, I _____ (action)

However, something got in my way: (there may be several actions/reactions sequences depending on length) _____

I had to try something different, so I _____

All the time I was thinking that _____

The turning point came when_____

When that happened, I realized _____

Resolution: After that I _____

My student Rita Hargrave, a psychiatrist by day who now carries dance shoes in the trunk of her car, used this exercise to plan an essay on how she got into salsa dancing:

I wanted to go salsa dancing

I wanted it because I was bored and alone and it seemed as good an idea as any.

To get it I headed for a salsa club recommended by a hotel maid.

But some things got in the way: The cab driver did not want to drive to a Latino neighborhood, and once I got there the bartender at the club was hostile, and there were no empty chairs or tables.

So I asked one of the women who was seated with friends if I could use the empty chair.

But I couldn’t dance.

So I told myself not to worry about it.

The turning point came when An elderly man embraced me, danced with me, and I passionately connected with him. When the older man clasped my hand and started dancing with me, I realized that what I really wanted was an emotional and physical connection with a man and to be seen as desirable and seductive, and that I could do that as a salsa dancer.

Resolution: I found the passion and caring that I was searching for in my life. I have been a salsa dancer ever since.

An outline will sketch the story in the order it happened, but an essay doesn’t necessarily have to be written in chronological order (in fact it’s often better to start at a point near the end). A story is a series of events recorded in the order they happened, but a plot is that same story rearranged for maximum effectiveness.

The End/Epiphany

If you’re having trouble with one of your stories, it could be missing an ending. If your story is about buying a house in remote Mono Lake, for example, and you are still torn over whether moving there is a good idea, you can’t yet write an essay with a conclusion. You want to avoid such unresolved, ongoing stories — your conflict with your sister, your penchant for picking the wrong men, your patients with their same old stories.

try this:

Summarizing your story in 200 words or less will help you see if you have an ending or not.

example:

My father was going to die. I knew that if I didn’t confront him with all these angry feelings I had that I would be stuck with them after he died. I confronted him at his house in Minneapolis, MN, told him how angry I was at him, and threw a Polaroid camera on the floor. He was amazed. Not mad — amazed that I felt that way. He had no idea. I felt much freer after that. AND THEN…he didn’t die. So we had around ten years after that in which we had a nice relationship with most of the baggage just dropped overboard…

The end of the essay must in some way resolve the problem brought up in the beginning. Since the problem will be internal — the narrator in conflict with herself or himself at least as much as with outside forces — the solution will be internal too. The solution won’t be getting the car. It will be deciding to get the car.

You can think of the essay in its simplest terms as problem-solution.

Problem: My husband makes unrealistic marital demands (clean house, sex four times a week, wife stay in shape) one month before the wedding.

Solution: I realize that his demands are the result of cold feet and marry him anyway.

Problem: I hate the large, ugly dining room furniture my mother insists on hauling from small apartment to small apartment.

Solution: One day while dusting the French sideboard I see how it forms a link to our family’s story.

In an essay, the solution is the moment of change that’s called an epiphany. This was James Joyce’s word for the moment where things change irrevocably in a flood of new understanding. Magazines, more prosaically, call it the payoff, or the take-home point. The epiphany is what turns a mere story —
or what might have remained an anecdote — into an essay.

You may have heard teachers stress that the point of an essay is to show, but showing is not enough. The reader knows you actually lived through the experience you’re describing — he expects you to understand what happened and have reflected on what it meant.

Let’s look at an epiphany April Martin wrote in The New York Times in a piece about taking up ice skating in her forties:

Skating has helped me to reclaim the body with which I spent too many years at war. I stop briefly to reflect on the apparent contradictions: I have deepened and matured as a woman in a sport geared to little girls. And I am now nourished and replenished by a sport whose standards of femininity were once a form of bondage. Though I bring to the ice the painful bunions and chronically stiff muscles of middle age, I also bring one of its benefits: the increased capacity for living comfortably with contradictions.

I’ve read that a hundred times, and am still moved every time I read it. That last phrase is even alliterative: “the increased capacity for living comfortably with contradictions.”

Admittedly, some epiphanies give the whole business a bad name, like the one a guy wrote in a New York Times piece about how he had his girlfriend’s smelly dog foisted on him, and then how he got to like the dog. He concluded: “Because their emotions are so pure, dogs can often touch the deepest part of us. And in so doing, they might in their own way prepare us to understand ourselves.”

That’s the kind of epiphany that makes a reader go, “Huh?” You can substitute anything as the subject of that sentence and it will make about as much sense: “Because their emotions are so pure, angry geese can often touch the deepest part of us. And in so doing, they might in their own way prepare us to understand ourselves.”

(It’s a good idea in fact to avoid the “we” sort of epiphany altogether, as it tends to make the reader growl, “Speak for yourself, buddy.”)

A good epiphany is surprising, not cloying or trite. It doesn’t condescend, or offer a predigested insight. My friend Wendy Lichtman had an awful thing happen to her: a doctor told her that she was dying of liver cancer. Days later, she learned that she wasn’t: the “cancer” the X-ray was seeing were harmless birthmarks on her liver. At the end of the essay she wrote about that scare, she said:

I know people might expect me to say that the experience taught me to better appreciate my life, to savor every moment. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. What I appreciate, in fact, is that I don’t have to feel as if each moment is a treasure. Now when I watch my children do their homework, it’s not a particularly touching experience; it feels, instead, like the normal business of a school night. That normality is what I’m most grateful for.

The epiphany transforms your story from a window into your life into a mirror where the reader sees himself. You can test this out: If you write a piece about your mother, and your reader starts talking about her mom, the piece works. I often wrote columns about my wreck of a dad living in a truck in the Mohave Desert. If someone came up to me at a party and started to talk to me about my father, I’d be embarrassed. Was I writing a soap opera? But if someone read the column and then told me about how he flew across the country to see his 87-year-old father, how the two of them sat up late, drinking scotch, and that he blurted out to his dad, “I think I came here to tell you I love you,” and then burst into tears — then I’d know the column worked.

Let’s return to April Martin’s piece about ice skating. You say, Fine. I’m so glad this Martin person found meaning in her new hobby. But I don’t live in New York, am not middle-aged, was not once a feminist, and don’t skate. What does Martin’s experience have to do with me?

Well, nothing maybe. But you might recognize a truth in what she says — a truth for yourself, as well as for her. Maybe you too have done something out of character that’s surprisingly satisfying, like a student of mine who was violently anti-gun until she discovered the local shooting range.

If there’s any justification for telling personal stories, it’s that every person, every selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, including you, including me, contains within himself the entire human condition (as Montaigne pointed out). If you can tell me you made sense of something in your life, it can give me a moment — a fleeting flash — where I get the distance necessary to understand my own struggles. That connection between Martin’s experience and your own? It’s what you get to keep when you put the article down. It’s the door prize, the booty bag.

By the way, not all pieces need epiphanies. Humor pieces don’t. I discovered this when I sent a piece on my son Patrick’s birth to Parenting magazine. They wanted me to put in the epiphany (you will find magazines are big on this: they want the reader to have that “take-home point”). I tried to put it in — magazines pay well — but it kept sounding stupid. You can’t write a piece in which you crack jokes (“I was going to give the doctor one more chance to give me drugs, and then I was going to try to get somebody with real connections, like a screenwriter”), and then suddenly stop and say in a completely different tone, “Until you have a second child, you don’t know how you can love another the way you do your first.”

Opinion pieces don’t have epiphanies either: opinion pieces are not about change. You start out in favor of the return of the martini and end up in favor of it. They’re rants, or arguments.

Writing the Epiphany

There are two kinds of epiphany. An implicit epiphany shows us the change wordlessly. This kind is what you see in fiction, and especially in movies, which can only show, not tell. In the scene at the end of “The Paper Chase,” Timothy Bottoms, after sweating through a year of Harvard law school, even taking a motel room to cram for finals, doesn’t even open his grades when they come, but throws the envelope into the waves: we get it that he no longer cares about his law-school grades.

An explicit epiphany, on the other hand, spells out the realization, as in this piece by a woman who lost her parents when as an infant she was thrown from the car that killed them both:

We were together for only a few months, I want to tell them, but I am grateful for what memories I can collect, even if they are secondhand. Looking at you now from across the years may not tell me what kind of family we might have been, but it reminds me to treasure the life I’ve made, even if I was not the fairy tale princess I once imagined myself to be.

an excerpt from Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara

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Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing – Clement Fleming’s blog

Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing – Clement Fleming’s blog.

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Essay and Memoir: writing about what changed you

Essay and Memoir

Change

Is It About You?

What if Mom Reads It?

The Hot Heart and the Cold Eye

The word “essay” may remind you of what Mrs. Bernardicou with the baggy arms made you write back in high school, and in truth the word covers a lot of ground. In this book I talk about only one kind: a short piece, about 800 to 2,000 words long, that you write in the first person about something that happened to you. Over the years of writing the column, I wrote hundreds of these, although of course mine were all the same length, about 700 words.

A memoir is longer—a book, in fact—but similar. You can think of the short personal essay as an extremely short memoir, and of the memoir as a very long essay. A memoir is more complex, with a story that unfolds over months and years. The two have the same relationship that the short story has to the novel.

Successful personal essays and memoirs share these four elements:

1. They are about change

2. They are about you (this is less of an obvious point than it may seem to be)

3. You write about real people

4. They are well-crafted — put together in a way satisfying to a reader, rather than just blurted out

Let’s take this list one by one.

Change

Whether you’re writing a short essay or a 100,000-word memoir, you aren’t required to find a new universal truth — a weighty topic that has never been addressed before. That’s impossible. Humans have spent centuries documenting such truths. What you do is share your personal, eccentric struggle with one of them and tell us how it changed you.

By changed you I mean altered your behavior, your choices, your understanding, or your relationships with others. Knowing that you will be writing about change helps you choose which of your stories will have meaning for others.

Some life events feel huge, but do not necessarily change you. You and your mother haven’t spoken in six months. You got fired, you got dumped, you got cancer, or you got treated unfairly. These stories affect you deeply, and feel as if they have meaning for that reason. But many upsetting events come up under the heading of Shit Happens. You can lose a lot of time trying to write about them. Practically everybody who gets fired sits down to write a book about it — but what’s the story? Getting fired makes you mad, but that’s not change. The change may be in what happens next: after you were fired, you realize you never meant to spend your life cooped up in an office anyway, and go to Guatemala to rescue street children.

Let me give you an example of a vivid event that nonetheless doesn’t show change. My sister Nora told me about taking a cab down a dark back street to a business meeting at a hotel in Taipei when suddenly the driver jumped out and ran off. Nora was left with her suitcase and little blue overnight case in an empty cab. She couldn’t even read the street signs, and had no idea where she was. In the end, though, she found her way back to the hotel without much trouble.

“Did that experience change you?” I asked her.

“I found out I could take care of myself when I needed to,” Nora replied.

“Before that cab ride, did you think you couldn’t take care of yourself?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said. “I always knew I could.”

No change. She was the same confident person after the experience as she
was before it. She didn’t find out anything new about herself. She remembers that night because she was alone in a strange city, with street signs she couldn’t read.

Nora’s story is an anecdote — a short recounting of an interesting or humorous incident. Anecdotes have a strong role to play, but they don’t always add up to an essay no matter how much time you spend on them. It’s funny that your old mother bought a BB rifle to kill her squirrels with, but that’s all it is — funny. An anecdote is just something that happened. Running into Mick Jagger in a sports bar in New York was exciting, but where’s the struggle, the change in you? Belinda Hulin, an editor at Skirt! Magazine who took a workshop from me, put it this way:

If there’s no catharsis, no growth, no change involved, then you’re left with an anecdote — a part of some larger whole — rather than a self-contained essay or story. Like that of most women, my life has been full of hilarious-in-hindsight incidents. But alas, my accordion body, my landfill approach to housekeeping, my bizarre divorce, my cradle-robbing second marriage, my unseemly yearning to become a born-again trust fund baby and the myriad instances in which my slow-to-rehabilitate smart mouth have gotten me into trouble, are just not going to write. Why? Because I’ve happily, gloriously learned nothing from these romps.

the crafty writer

You want to write about your anecdotes anyway, because they’re so vivid or shocking or funny. Everybody says, “You should write about that.” Group them with other anecdotes to make a story: “My Brushes with Celebrity,” “Disasters That Didn’t Happen,” or “Three Things That Happened That Led Me to AA.”

Not all experience reveals, but all revelation comes through experience. Find the points of change (turning points, learning points) in your life, and you will find your material: the time you realized you were gay, that your mother was not going to get better, that it was a mistake to move to the country, that you are not going through with the adoption. Or the day you threw your estranged husband’s nail gun into the bushes, and realized that the worst part of divorce for you was not how badly your spouse behaved, but how badly the process made you behave. The time your Volkswagen filled with twenty pairs of expensive shoes was stolen in Mexico, and to your surprise you were glad. The time you discovered you had a twin who died at birth, and decided to become a pediatrician.

Everybody’s life is filled with such moments. When you sat on the steps in your wedding dress and realized you had made a mistake. When the friend who’d annoyed you every hour of your trip together in Ireland saves you from a gypsy and you realize it is not the first time she has saved you, that she has always been your protector.

I remember a turning point in a graduate seminar at San Francisco State. I’d been a shameless grade-grubber: my idea of getting ready for a discussion of a book in class was to streak over to the library to look up what other people had thought of it. I wasn’t about to be caught thinking that Moby Dick was actually about a whale, or that Women in Love wasn’t really a very good novel.

One day my classmates and I were assigned a paper on a poem the professor handed out. As usual, I tried to crib the answer from the library but I couldn’t — the poem was unpublished. I studied that poem for days, carrying it around in my purse on the N Judah streetcar, puzzling over it at meals. I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the thing. Finally, I wrote something or other and turned it in. When the papers were returned, mine had a scrawled red D on it, as did most. What was the poem about then? we demanded to know. The professor said, “This poem is an extended metaphor about the act of writing.”

I sat there with that D paper in front of me. I unfolded the poem, wrinkled from my many readings, covered with my notes.

The turning point would be something like this: I must have read that poem 20 freaking times. I have normal intelligence and I was paying attention. If I didn’t get that the poem was about writing, then the poem deserved the D, not me. That moment came late in my formal schooling — I left the next semester — but it was the beginning of my education. Before that day in class, I went to the library to find out what I was supposed to think. After that day, I thought, what do I think? I never again looked up the critics.

Is It About You?

You are the subject of the personal essay or memoir, the one to whom the experience is happening, the one who undergoes the change.

Is a piece you’re writing in first person about something that happened in your life automatically about you? Not necessarily. You may just have been in the neighborhood, or in the family, or in the way. If your best friend’s mother just committed suicide, how is that your story? If the memory of that kept you from later taking your own life, it’s important. If it was just something shocking that happened when you were around, it might not be. A story about the scheming hospice nurse who got herself written into your mother’s will and ran off with your inheritance still has to be about you changing. Being the victim of a swindle, or suddenly being poor, is not change, but bad luck. Finding out that people can be rats is not change, either.

This may sound obvious. It’s not, really. One student wanted to write about being conceived after her father had a vasectomy. But she wasn’t there. (Her father might have a story to tell us, though.) I wrote the whole first draft of my memoir about my teenaged daughter Morgan without grasping that a memoir written by somebody’s mother has to be about being a mother — not about having an at-risk teenager. In fact my early drafts were not so much a story that built to anything so much as an annotated list of Morgan’s escalating escapades: “And then she cut class and lied and got in stolen cars with boys who went to other schools. … And then she met a boy who introduced her to speed and got her pregnant. … And she refused to go to the drug program and I kicked her out. …” In between each of her adventures you were treated to some shots of me sobbing on the bed or wetting her stepdad’s shirt, the ocean air blowing in from the window Morgan had so recently disappeared out of.

I didn’t even know that a memoir had to be about me.

If you’re writing about your stepdaughter’s severely disabled child, the essay is still about you — how you feel about that child, perhaps how you have tried and failed to accept him. If your father shouts at you, it’s not about him. It’s about why you put up with him, how this affects your life, what choices you make because of it.

(If the story is not about you, by the way, that’s fine — it just means it’s a different essay than the one we’re talking about here. It might be humor, or a first-person piece about another person, or any of a number of first-person forms that are not the personal essay.)

Your writing is not only about you, but about you not exactly at your best. Personal writing works best when it has a rueful aspect — illusions shed, wrong turns taken. You got something wrong, did something wrong, thought something wrong. Thus your bad moments are gold. (If your life has been one of ping-ponging from triumph to triumph, keep it to yourself, thanks). It’s much easier to write about trouble, because you are vulnerable and we like you when you’re in trouble. As J.P. Donleavy said, “Writing is turning your worst moments into money.”

My friend Steve Rubenstein, a reporter and columnist, was riding across the Golden Gate Bridge once when the handlebars snapped off his bike. “I had the first line written,” he told me, “before my head hit the pavement.”

George Orwell said that many writers never mention the humiliations that make up seventy-five percent of life. Write about what you really think and feel, and how that’s different from what you’re supposed to think and feel, like the day your friend left a telephone message saying she had cancer, and you waited until the next day to call her back. Cop to things: you don’t want your ailing mother to live with you; you backed your SUV into a Miata when it was raining and didn’t leave a note. Write about the “I Hate Sarah Club” that you and Shirley Matson formed when you were eight.

Philip Lopate said in his wonderful introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay:

The real possibility of the personal essay, which is to catch oneself in the act of being human … means a willingness to surrender for a time our pose of unshakable rectitude, and to admit that we are, despite our best intentions, subject to all manner of doubt and weakness and foolish wanting.

That doubt and weakness and foolish wanting? That’s your material. My dad’s mother died when he was five, so that as a child he went from house to house, and stayed sometimes in orphanages. He said to me once, “I ever tell you about sneaking down to the cellar at about sixteen, to study not a corset ad, but a bloodied fighter held in the arms of a woman in his dressing room? You can believe I never told no headshrinker that. That gave the whole show away, and I’ve always known it.”

Your aim is to give the whole show away. Rip the curtains from the windows. Describe what you long for, because your mother died when you were five, and no one held you in her arms like the woman in that picture.

try this:

Did you ever do something that you knew was wrong? Been wrong about someone? Been surprised by your own behavior? Write about it.

try this:

Write about the contents of your closet. Who did you buy that rabbit shearling fur coat for? And those tall, spiked black boots, the ones that were going to change your life? How many of the clothes fit you, or fit who you are now? Be specific.

excerpted from Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara (Ten Speed)

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Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing | Freelancedom

I began reading Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, and I fell into the sort of love that causes hand tremors and hot flashes. I carried the book with me everywhere. I snuggled with it in bed. I neglected my husband.I realized that I was no longer doing the writing I loved.It’s the perpetual dilemma of the freelance writer: If you want to write for a living, you have to write the stuff that pays the bills. And more often than not, the fun — or the most fulfilling — stuff doesn’t. Soon enough, you find that you’re always writing to pay the bills, and never finding the time to… just write.Lara’s book reminded me of why I started writing. And I love it for that.But it did so much more than that:It got into the nitty-gritty of essay and memoir construction.It reminded me that smaller can be better at least in terms of the focus of your narrative.It pointed out that a personal story should have a definitive end before you delve into it in your writing a lesson previously learned from Emerson College professor Kristin Lund… who, coincidentally enough, happened to be a student of Lara’s.It stressed the importance of writing partners and writing groups, making me realize that accountability, above all, was what I was lacking.It also got down to the business of revising, market research, book proposals, essay submissions, and more.I want to make out with this book.Still, I’m not a jealous person. I think you should make out with this book, too. You heard me. Buy it, and snuggle with it in bed. Let it spend the night. Let it remind you what true love is.But before you do that, tell me:Which type of writing is your true love? And have you been neglecting it?Related: Breakneck Book Report: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Baring It All: Personal Essays Are Tough, Cornering The Market? Or Feeling Cornered?Pass it on!

via Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing | Freelancedom.

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Adair Lara Articles – Columns | Grandparents.com

Adair Lara Articles – Columns | Grandparents.com.

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The Urban Muse: Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing

The Urban Muse: Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing.

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Another online review of Naked, Drunk, and Writing

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir Or Personal Essay“ by Adair Lara is a thought provoking, informative, and inspiring book on writing personal essays or memoirs….

As a writer who focuses on writing essays and memoirs, it makes sense that Lara’s book on writing is not a dry, technical writing manual. It’s engaging and full of stories. I found it enjoyable to read, as well as informative and educational….

I enjoyed reading this book, and found it to have some great advice for writing in general, and especially for writing essays and memoirs. If you are interested in this type of writing, I recommend this book. Not only for the practical advice it contains, but also for the motivation and inspiration reading it provides.

Read the whole article by Alain Burrese on EzineArticles.

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