The easiest place to start is with something you know, what you've done, or what has happened to you. That's the heart of memoir writing. After you've written a short story or event, go back and edit and polish. That's the hard part of writing for everyone, if you want to do it well, and it's what creative non-fiction is all about. The process for creative fiction is no different, other than you can let your imagination run loose.
Here's an example of the way I started writing prose for other's consumption:
"I had never written one word about my life before I retired in April 2009 and found I had the time. And I only started then because my wife Janet said to me one June day, “Why don’t you write your memoir or something? It’s better than doing nothing! All you do is read mysteries and thrillers and watch TV anyway.” Two weeks later it had sunk in and the idea had grown, I got my lazy ass up and went downstairs to our basement, pulled the chair up to the computer, and started writing about day one, May 1, 1950 in Doctor's Hospital, Washington D.C. Added some years before that, as I got going, so I could give some background on my parents, who both grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. I was done with it a year and a half later after 293 pages, using Calibri 11 point type in MS-Word. Plus13 appendices totaling 108 pages and a bibliography. And all that was size 8.5x11. Too much!
And it was all very easy. Again, I just started at the beginning and wrote what happened. I wrote what I could remember and didn’t embellish. I didn’t delve into records, photos, historical documents or other notes. I inserted an underscore _______ for details I didn't have at my fingertips. I only asked Janet three times to clarify some issues, and we’ve been married 42 years, so she knew. Then I searched the Internet for a cheap press to print it in paperback form, and got the book and appendices done for 30 bucks using VistaPrint, one copy only. Then I let Janet read through it, the unexpurgated version in 8 parts, which took her about three months. I was cool and aloof the whole time, never bugging her. She’s very good; an educator by profession. She didn't confront me or challenge my memory once, she just made short notes in the margins. Not even that many actually. And those were only to correct glaring mistakes in grammar. She is a teacher after all. After reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I think of Janet as my I.R. – Ideal Reader. I love Janet, I really do, and confide in her with everything.
I love her even though, on the evening she finished it, she looked over when we were both sitting in bed, and said, “Rod, to be honest, that’s one of the most boring stories I’ve ever read.” Totally deadpan, totally flat, totally sincere. I was crushed but didn’t show it. I didn’t ask why. I thought, Well, I’ll read her notes and see what I can improve. I thanked her for her honesty, and notes, even though I hadn’t seen them yet. However, I was really surprised over the next week when I studied them.
I knew Janet was an avid reader, so I couldn’t dismiss her viewpoint, not that I would anyway. She always has five or six books on her nightstand. She reads the current best sellers and then some. She loves mysteries and thriller authors like Deaver, Baldacci, Follett and Patterson. All guys I loved reading also until switching to non-fiction 2 years ago. She loves other bestsellers like The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, Fast Food Nation and that ilk too. I’ve read many of them after she’s done, before she loans them out.
The problem was, there were hardly any meaningful, or what I call meaningful, notes in the margins of her critique. I was expecting to see edit marks, cross outs, factual corrections and, most of all, opinions. I got very little of that. Instead I read: “No!” "Repeat of page 74," “Move!” Doesn’t fit here,” or “Not clear.” In other words, nothing telling me how to write better, or at least I thought not. So I spent time going through my manuscript, doing some moving and editing, but using my same tired style.
I do think my memoir has all the elements of a good story. Abandonment, murder, strict Catholic upbringing, hedonism, fights, drugs, arrests and jail stays, failed college, sex, mental hospitalizations, marriage, government work and more. Even the Baha’i Faith which no one has heard of. But how do I make all that interesting and compelling? I was clueless. I really didn’t know where to begin, even though my autobiography was done.
To be continued. Part 2: Finding My Writer's Voice
Copyright 2014 Rodney Richards