Writing from Life
Writing yourself as a character
It can take time to get to know your own character on the page. Self-consciousness or uncertainty can get in the way of development of the 'I' character, or a desire to paint ourselves in a particular way because we've decided already what the story is. By thinking of ourselves as a passive or 'neutral' character or, for example, always in the role of victim or hero, we can miss opportunities to develop a more nuanced character and ask complex questions about our lives and relationships.
The essay Mistakes Were Made in BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE by Charles Baxter (Graywolf Press) is about autobiographical fiction but applies well to memoir and is interesting on this point.
Exercise in the session: To take a situation and write yourself in the third person, perhaps through the eyes of someone else in the scene.
Write scenes that show you interacting with different people from your life and see how differently you behave with them. These could be fictional, for example imagine going to visit an old teacher from your school days, one who intimidated you at the time. Create a variety of scenes showing yourself with people of different generations and from different situations.
Look at scenes you have already written and the way you have written yourself. How do you think the reader will see you? What details would you like to add to make yourself better understood?
What changes, developments or shifts do you want to show in your character over the course of events and how will you do this?
Make up your own exercise to show the richness of your interior world while your character is going about some practical business.
In your notebook, jot down sensory details you notice as you go about your day and how you react to these (eg a colour catching your eye and reminding you of something else, background music you find yourself irritated by or singing along to). An awareness of these details and how you absorb them, will help in developing your voice, the particular quality in your prose that tells us this could only have been written by you.
What's the story?
How do we find the story in a memory? What gives your memory meaning?
Writing a list of questions the piece might ask is one way of finding out. You can go back to your draft and use these to shape it, to help you choose your details, decide where to point the lens, which characters to develop, where to put in some dialogue.
These simple questions are usually also helpful:
What made it happen?
What did I (or another character) want?
What did it feel like?
What happened as a result?
Why did it matter?
Even if you don't include all the answers (eg what happened as a result) in this piece, you might find it emerges somewhere in another piece.
Finding connections between memories – or being open to spotting the connections when they arise – will lift your work and make it make sense as story.
1. In the session we looked at the openings to three memoirs. Take these – or any other memoirs you like – and study that first paragraph. Use it as a model as you try out the same techniques with your own writing.
2. Take an element – an idea, object, image, familiar line of dialogue – from the draft you wrote in the session and trace it through other memories you have. Then write those memories and see what themes emerge.
3. In the session we looked at the way a line of dialogue can be used, without the rest of the conversation around it, to give us information and to give a character a brief but important presence. Try doing this in your own writing. In just one line, how much information can you convey? As a further exercise, you could take some characters from your life and think of particular sayings they had, or favourite words and phrases, ways they would respond to certain types of events, specific things they only said to you.
4. We talked a bit about different approaches to writing and revising. Some of us need to get the actions and events on the page first and then build atmosphere, detail and feeling in the next draft. Some of us need to know what the scene feels like before we can really know what happens in it. Of course, there's no right or wrong way of approaching your work but it can be helpful to think about what seems to work well for you and how to use this to your advantage. What do you need to know or feel when you start writing something new? When you come back to look at it, what's there and what's missing? What are the elements you might bring in as you revise and develop it further? Making a checklist of things to look out for can be helpful.
A simple object can evoke complex, layered memories. It can bring back childhood scenes, details of actions and events, people we know or knew and their particular habits and gestures.
Gather up some ordinary, everyday objects and spread them over a table.
In the session we used: a cotton reel; a fan; a map; chopsticks; a vase; a theatre programme; a toy aeroplane; a children's annual; a tape measure; a ring and necklace.
Note down memories associated with the objects. Some might be immediately evocative and bring clear memories of a particular person or situation. Some might be harder but it's worth persevering with these because the memories that do eventually come are often intriguing, unexpected ones, perhaps people or events half-forgotten.
Pick the object that gave you the most to work with and write freely, as though you're just stepping back into the scene. Use your senses and see what you can remember about colour, texture, smell, taste, voice and sounds.
How might this new material fit into your bigger project? What do you like about what you've written? What did you find out? Are there any gaps and, if so, what can you do with these?
These prompts could form a daily writing exercise or could be something you might do in your head as you're going about your day. Try devising your own exercises specific to whatever you're working on, for example, using objects with specific types of association if there'a particular time or era you want to recall. A pencil case, ruler etc might help you find your way back into hazy schooldays.
If you're writing about a particular person, you could use objects to guide you specifically into memories of that person. Some objects might be so full of meaning that they're hard to write about and you might find that more mundane, apparently innocuous objects are freer, friendlier way in to the same memories. Enjoying playing and experimenting to see what works best for you.
If you want to go a bit further, you could take some ideas that came up in the scene and write related scenes, for example involving the same characters or a piece of clothing mentioned. If you've already written scenes with the same characters in, are there details from this new scene that you can add to the other scene to connect things up, or reinforce or contrast character traits?
2. Writer's Notebook
If you don't already have one, now would be a great time to start. It's good, obviously, to note down thoughts as you have them so that you don't forget them. It can also be helpful to set yourself exercises and tasks to do. Timed writing sessions, a number of pages to fill, or simple observation tasks you might complete over a day are all helpful, both in getting ideas on the page and keeping your material alive and developing in your mind.
3. In the session we talked about metaphors that help us consider the shape or organisation of what we're doing. Even if you're not yet at a stage of knowing what shape your work will take, it can be helpful to have a few ideas in mind that give you something to look at or work with. You might think of your story as having a particular shape or form that holds it together. You might think of it in terms of colours, textures, light, a mind map, or an object that it resembles in some way. It might help you to sketch something or keep the object on your desk or a picture on your wall. Try things out and see what works for you (but without pressure so that you still feel free to go in all directions).