Changing the author’s point of view so we have the spirited hero we need.

 

It’s asking a lot.  A writing teacher –someone like me –casually says: “That version of your past, the one you’ve been carrying around all your life?  Doesn’t work for a reader. Too victim-y. just change your whole point of view toward your childhood, so we can have the kind of spunky, heroic, non-whining narrator we enjoy.

My brilliant student Eanlai, writing about a non-ideal childhood in a village on the west coast of Ireland, did do this.She’s  an astonishingly gifted writer. When she read her memoir aloud to the workshop, we all just looked at one another wordlessly.  She brought the very rocks and trees of the tiny Gaelic-speaking Irish village she grew up in alive.

Gorgeous prose like that can cover a multitude of sins, so you have to listen hard for the self-pitying whine throughout: a father in ill health who seemed about to die from a heart attack at any moment, a boy abuses the narrator throughout her childhood, a dreadful mother. Even though the book had some very funny bits, we in the workshop couldn’t enjoy them, as the pervading tone let lets us know that none of this was funny.

So Eanlai  set to work to get that tone out. In one potentially great scene, the narrator is incensed  that she’s not allowed to play a family game with a new soccer ball because she’s only four. To get her yelling self out of the way, one of her brothers pitches her over the fence to the neighboring field.

Furious, she hurls beer bottles at the offending brother.

Yet. As Eanlai wrote it, the point of the scene is that it’s the moment when the little girl  learned she mustn’t ever get angry like that again, because everybody’s so furious at her afterward.

So if you’re writing the story of this moment, you have choices. You ALWAYS have choices. The author can emphasize a moment of defeat., Or she can pause on that moment of hurling the bottle, on the girl’s flash of  triumph and satisfaction when it whacks a brother on the shoulder. She can linger  long enough (that is, add enough detail)  to make sure we feel it too.

Another  one of Eanlai’s scenes, shows  how awful it is for the narrator when the father has a heart attack. He and the mother are off at the hospital for days.  We’re told:

“I had to butter my own bread, nearly taking the eye out of my head with my mad swipes.”

Just those two words, “had to,” transform a sentence into a whine.

No good. Do we  want to read about a squashed, spiritless child? We do not.

Eanlai’s rewrite neatly gets rid of the whining tone:

I buttered my own bread, nearly taking the eye out of my head with my mad swipes, but getting it done.

Same event –buttering her own bread, right?  –but no longer a victim. A kid getting it done!

In another scene, the child develops a rash. When a doctor recommends that she be taken to see a child psychologist, the child perks up in the hope that the psychologist will drag her dreadful secret (being molested by a neighbor boy) out of her.

There was something inside that needed to be set right and she might be the very one to do it.

 

But instead of taking her to an expensive head doctor, the parents buy her a sweater instead. That’s a defeat. But a spunky child will manage to take something good from it: She could think,

Now I knew there were people you could talk to. I tucked that thought away.

That’s hope –and also the beginnings of power. A child’s power is small –people just can pick you up and move you to where they want you to be!

It’s there, though.  And the reader loves te child narrator for it, roots for her because she roots for herself.

As she revised, as she emphasizes those places in the story that show us a spirited child, Eanlai recalled that she was in fact a spirited kid.

She not only gets a better memoir, but a better set of memories.

Eanlai’s comment:

The development of persona is a pursuit, and the journey toward honing that perfect persona to tell a particular story is its own relationship within the writing of a book.

The shift from victim to hero in one’s own work is a momentous action because it not alone shifts the entire timbre of your memoir from defeated to defiant/triumphant but it also shifts your perception of yourself, your past and others from put upon and powerless to precious in many of their parts.


Try this: Write from their point of view

Eanlai writing in her mother’s voice

I wish to God I could get it across to my crowd how no one in this village can be trusted.  this is the place they’ve been born and bred and I can’t tell them that Wexford—my old home—is nothing at all like here—that the people here have a kind of poison in them that I never came across at home. Mother of God, I wish I could get through to them—but what can I do when they’re part of this bledy place and I feel like an outsider with my own flesh and blood?

I wanted to marry Micheal—the handsomest man I’d ever seen—a bit like Gregory Peck. Shur how was I to know that going down to Kerry to live in that village where he was born and reared would turn out to be the purgatory that it was? His bledy mother and no word of English by her when I came—only all Irish—and roaring at me day and night like some servant.  I didn’t marry her son to end up cleaning her pisspot and her arse.

people in Wexford had their notions of what a person should and shouldn’t do, but there was a kind nature in the people there. But this place. these people have a sickness like nowhere I’ve been—

In the workshop Eanlai was gratified at our response to the writing when she wrote a piece from her mother’s point of view.

“But I’m still confused,” she said. Then how do I occupy my negative feelings about the mother without seeming like a victim?  This new Mom is not readily recognizable.  She feels made up. She doesn’t reflect the author’s actual experience of her mother, and thus it feels false.  This person wrecked my childhood and I don’t get to put that in?

You don’t. Eanlai, who grew up on the west coast of Ireland and was a dazzling writer, worked hard on getting a pervasive victim-y tone out of her pages about that childhood, in which a neighbor molested her from age 5 to 15. Then she read that fucking Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and … I’m a temperate sort of person.  For example, I’ve never thrown anything, except the Bridges of Madison County. But the temptation was there after I read it.  She’s a lovely writer, but in that book keeps her craft secrets to herself while spending two whole strident chapters on telling the truth. This is the kind of advice people are always giving writers, while pocketing their checks for books, conferences, their whopping manuscript-reading fees, and their bookstore dollar. “Just tell your truth.”

The answers don’t come from the heart.

Despite all advice to the contrary,

Writing from the heart hardly ever produces good writing. The heart is full, but the heart is stupid. It’s full of resentments (I was sick and he went off to see the solar eclipse!), old griefs (my husband died ten years ago and I am still unable to go on with my life), and unexamined beliefs (if it obsesses me, it must be a good topic for writing).

 

 

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About Adair Lara

Adair Lara 95 Scott Street San Francisco, CA 94117 415-626-9157 Adairlara.com Adair.lara@gmail.com Adair Lara is a writer, teacher and author in San Francisco. A former magazine editor, she wrote a popular, award-winning personal column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years before leaving the paper to write and teach full time. She has appeared in dozens of national magazines. She is the author of 12 books and is a popular voice on Facebook, with 5000 friends who are mostly writers and teachers of writing, many well-known. Her most recent book, which has become a cult favorite in the writing blogsphere, is Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essays (Ten Speed). She is at work on another, with the working title Make Your Memoir Suck Less, on voice in the memoir. She holds sold-out workshops in her house on writing essay and memoir and other forms of autobiography, and consults with authors individually, in person or long-distance. Her essays appear in many national magazines, and have been anthologized in dozens of textbooks. • BOOKS • • Naked Drunk and Writing (TEN SPEED) 2011 • The Granny Diaries, Chronicle Books (2008) • The Bigger the Sign, the Worse the Garage Sale, Chronicle Books (2007) • You Know You’re a Writer When, Chronicle Books (2007) • Oopsie! Ouchie!, Chronicle Books (2004) • Normal is Just a Setting on the Dryer, Chronicle Books, 2003 • Slowing Down in a Speeded-Up World, Redwheelweiser (2002) • Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, Broadway Books (2001) • The Best of Adair Lara, Scottwall Associates (1999) • At Adair’s House, Chronicle Books (1995) • Welcome to Earth, Mom, Chronicle Books (1992) • History of Petaluma, a California River Town Scottwall Associates 1982 • Anthologies (a sampling) • Over the Hill and Between the Sheets Springboard (2007) • The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedding Wives Inner Ocean (2006) • Too Young to Be This Damn Old by Inc. Sourcebooks (Paperback - Mar 1, 2006) • The Thong Also Rises: Further Misadventures from Funny Women on the Road (Travelers’ Tales Guides) by Jennifer L. Leo, Ayun Halliday, and Laurie Notaro (2005) • A Sense of Place Shapiro (2004) • Sand in My Bra & Other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road, Travelers’ Tales (2003) • Coming Alive From Nine to Five in a 24/7 World: A Career Search Handbook for the 21st Century by Betty Michelozzi, Linda Surrell, and Robert Cobez (2003) • The Nine Modern Day Muses: 10 Guides to Creative Inspiration for Artists, Poets, Lovers, and Other Mortals Wanting to Live a Dazzling Existence by Jill Badonsky (2003) • How to Say It Style Guide by Rosalie Maggio (2002) • Romancing the Ordinary by Sarah Ban Breathnach (2002) • Paris: An Inspired Anthology and Travel Resource Three Rivers Press (2000) • Simple Pleasures of the Home: Cozy Comforts and Old-Fashioned Crafts for Every Room in the House by Susannah Seton (1999) • Mama Get the Hammer! There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head! by Barbara Johnson (1994) • A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit (Chicken Soup for the Soul) by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (1994) Awards: • 1990: Associated Press, Best Columnist in California. • 1997: Humor Columns for Newspapers over 100,000, National Society of Newspaper Columnists • 1998: First place, general interest columns, National Society of Newspaper Columnists. • 1999: Second place, commentary, American Association of Sunday and Feature editors contest, competing against papers with circulation over 300,000. • May 17, 2002 was declared Adair Lara Day in San Francisco by proclamation of Mayor Willie Brown Book consulting My students also include Robin Wolaner, founder of Parenting Magazine and author of “Naked in the Boardroom” ; Terry Gamble, author of several novels including “The Water Dancers”; Susan Parker, who wrote columns for the Chron and came out with “Tumbling After,” Peggy Vincent, author of “Babycatcher,” David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green,” and James Frey, whom I told not to worry about making stuff up, no one would notice. (Ok, made up that one). JT Leroy may have taken my class, who knows? John Brooks The Girl Behind the Door The Girl Behind the Door (Simon & Shuster 2016) Without Adair's guidance, sharp wit, coaching, seasoned interviewing skills, succinct editing and experienced counsel, there is no way that my memoir would ever have been published. David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green” Adair's keen editorial eye and sharp sense of story arc helped me pare a 500-page manuscript into a tighter, plot driven read. Her coaching and enthusiasm opened doors to locating an agent that had previously been bolted. Mary Patrick, author of Family Plots The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Susan Biggar The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Sunshine Mugrabi Based on your suggestions. I’ve cut the manuscript by about 20,000 words and three chapters. It’s down to about 93,000 words, 35 chapters. I’ve cut pocket bios, tightened dialog, looked for inconsistencies, listened for clinkers, tried to strip out redundancy and make the narrative taut and linear, while retaining the lyricism and improving pacing and rhythm. Your critique really helped me see how to cut and focus. I’ve carried your printed suggestions around for the past three months, the pages now tattered and coffee stained. I’m grateful for your thought- provoking suggestions and encouragement. Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention. Peggy Kennedy When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief This was my first writing workshop and it snowballed on me. First you talked about needing conflict/struggle in your story and I thought, "Well, crap. There goes my non-fiction piece about living in an RV for ten years. No conflict. Won't work." (I know - these are my thoughts and they're supposed to be italicized but the email font won't do it!) After the first day I was thinking maybe I should just try essays and forget my project. Then, on the second day, you honed in on specifics and I got inspired. I'm just going to write. I don't care if it gets published. I'll have my story and it will be mine to keep. Thank you for your humor, your insight, your warmth and your knowledge of writing which you so willingly Peggy Kennedy author of Neverland Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention.
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