- by Dara Girard
I’m happiest when I’m outside, away from the computer. I love to kayak, hike, backpack, run, and travel to weird new places. My husband and I have just started work as a travel writer/photographer team in earnest, and our four-year old daughter Maia comes along for the ride. I’ve been writing since nine years old, when my mother set me in front of her electric typewriter and handed me a copy of the Writer’s Market. She told me to write a short story and send it to a magazine, so I wrote about a girl in a mental hospital who befriends a white tiger cub and sent it off to Seventeen. Needless to say, the editors didn’t publish it. I have no idea what gave me the idea for the story, but I’ve been writing about disenfranchised people and animals ever since.
How did you become a contributing editor for The Writer magazine?
I started by writing feature articles on craft, and profiles of well-known writers such as Natalie Goldberg. Later, I began reviewing books for the magazine, and profiling a few literary journals such as Northwest Review and Creative Nonfiction. The editors asked me if I’d like to write the monthly “Literary Spotlight” column profiling literary journals, and I jumped at the chance to become a columnist and a contributing editor. Now, I write the Spotlight, and book reviews, and occasional feature articles. I love to give emerging writers practical information in an entertaining and colorful manner.
In your classes what do most students get wrong about memoir writing? What common pitfalls do you see?
Both young and older students think they need to start their memoir around the time of their birth. Editors and readers simply don’t need this much backstory, unless the writer’s birth was particularly remarkable and someone got dropped on the head or something. I teach people to identify the most compelling theme or time in their life and structure their short or book length memoir around it. For instance, Claire Dederer, in the excellent new memoir Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, writes about a few years in her life as a new parent in Seattle and a student of yoga. In Fat of the Land, Langdon Cook documents his adventures as a Washington-based forager of local foods. Their focus on a specific time and theme keeps readers engaged and keeps the writer from wandering off on too many tangents.
One of the most common pitfalls I see when I edit memoir for students at writing conferences is confusion about the most exciting parts of the story. For instance, Alzheimer’s memoir has to be incredibly original and compelling now, or no one will want to read it. The market is saturated. I told this to a writer who’d given me 20 pages of her memoir. Sadly, it looked like every other memoir about Alzheimer’s that I’d read. In talking with her, however, I discovered that both her parents had suffered from the disease, and that her mother killed her father by pushing him down in the shower. She hadn’t mentioned a word of this in her manuscript. Had she put that scene right up front, I would have seen how her story differed from the others already published.
Another woman whose work I edited had a shocking story of growing up in Europe in filth and poverty with an abusive mother who worked as a prostitute. She herself became a sex addict, and her stories were extremely compelling. However, her manuscript lacked any sort of narrative arc, and it wandered all over without any structure. Each chapter of a memoir needs to show evidence of that classic rising action-climax-falling action pattern, organized around a central theme. In her case, the theme was her resilience . . . that made it into her next draft and it really helped to solidify her story.
How about in journalism?
I work with mostly young journalists, and they’re still learning how to write, as well as how to navigate ethics and interviews and various genres. They’re busy people trying to balance classes with internships and jobs, and they don’t always take the time to research a subject thoroughly and to interview people who represent all sides of a topic. Research and interviews can bring such depth to a piece, regardless of genre. For instance, I just researched Oregon’s charismatic Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two Senators to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for an essay on his farm near my house. The farm is a public park now, and I interviewed people representing the various demographics that use the park. I used the research and interviews to deepen a personal narrative about my relationship to the place.
The other thing I see as a journalism teacher is confusion about how to budget one’s time. Everyone, young and old, admits that we waste too much time on Facebook, on YouTube, on Twitter. I’m right there among them. But you’ve got to have so much discipline as a writer, whether you’re freelancing or on staff. We still have a modem in my house, and I turn it off when I have a piece to write. I also get out of my house to write where there’s no Internet access. I have about as much willpower where Facebook is concerned as I do with chocolate chip cookies. There’s a computer program now called “Self Control” which lets you block certain websites for a specific time . . . I haven’t used it yet, but students of mine have tried it and love it.
In an article you mentioned how memoirs can be fun and your writing is noted for its humor. Why are most memoirists attracted to the tragic?
Tragic stories have so much power, and we want to get them out on the page. It’s affirming of our experience, especially if editors and readers connect to it and to us. In some ways, I think it’s easier to write tragedy. When I was writing Gringa, I’d finish the rough draft of a chapter and it would be pathetically sad. I’d be weeping as I finished the last sentence, but that’s not what I wanted to leave the reader with—this sort of one-sided, sorrowful account of losing my mother. I’d ask myself, “Okay, Melissa, what’s funny about each scene in this chapter?” and make myself take note of the quirky, weird, surprising parts of my story. That’s some pretty fantastic therapy, by the way, to challenge yourself to find the funny parts about things like losing your mother to a homophobic court system, dealing with your abusive father, and finding yourself naked in the midst of a 6.9 earthquake.
In your review of The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide by John McNally you like his quote “the world doesn’t need another blog by a blogger blogging about writing” and yet you maintain your own fun blog http://www.butt2chair.wordpress.com/ how do you explain that?
As soon as I read that line in McNally’s fantastic book, I decided to stop blogging. My blog never knows what it wants to be. I have an irreverent sense of humor which finds its way into blog posts, and I’m never sure when I’ve gone too far. I walk a constant tightrope between academia and the legacy I appear to have inherited from my vaudevillian great-grandparents with their comedy act, and so I thought I’d use McNally’s observation as an impetus to stop blogging.
However, blogging can be a form of literary citizenship, a concept I adore. As soon as I remembered that my blog doesn’t have to be about the 100 reasons you should buy Gringa, and that I could actually continue using it to promote authors and teach emerging writers valuable skills, I returned to blogging . . . albeit, sporadically. I’m cutting myself some slack about how often I post—with duel careers in teaching and writing, and a four-year old daughter, I’m simply not going to post once a week—but I’m rededicated myself to the blog and always open for suggestions from readers on topics they’d like discussed.
In your review you also mention how former students want you to edit their work. How do you balance the demands of former students, present students and your own writing assignments and projects?
McNally’s frustration obviously resonated with me. It’s heartbreaking to tell former students that I can’t edit their work without compensation. But my allegiance must be to current students in my classes, and so they get about half my time, while my writing assignments and projects get the other half. I write up a schedule for myself each week; I tend to devote Mondays and Wednesdays to writing, Tuesdays and Thursdays to teaching and grading papers, and Fridays to working on any outstanding papers or projects. But my husband and daughter and I will be traveling a lot on Fridays now, so we’ll see what chaos this throws into the mix.
What do you think fiction writers can learn from the craft of writing memoirs?
I just spoke about this topic for the Southern Willamette Writers in Central Point, Oregon. There’s so much cross-over, in terms of literary technique. Memoir writing depends on characterization and dialogue, on setting and theme, narrative arc and figurative language. Writers who masters these in a memoir manuscript will find themselves well prepared to take on similar devices in a novel. The best memoirs incorporate conflict and tension on every page, as well as anecdote and reflection. These are also vital techniques to incorporate into fiction writing.
Is there anything else you’d like to address?
I know a writing career can seem impossible to people, especially if they already have a job or have just retired from one. There’s no guaranteed formula for success, but I do believe that if someone reads good books on the craft of writing, reads deeply in a favorite genre, and writes every day, he/she will improve and get published. I urge emerging writers to write for free—profiles and articles for newsletters and those complimentary magazines outside grocery stores. Opinion pieces for local papers, radio commentary, whatever gets your name out there and motivates you to write, revise, and polish your work. And get a decent headshot of yourself to include with your work, so that people begin to recognize your image, as well. Eventually, the paychecks will start rolling in, and you’ll find yourself with more work than you can handle.
Find out more about Melissa Hart and her works, including Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, on her website: http://melissahart.com