Now I am Ready to be a Memoirist – Well, . . . Maybe

Yesterday, I attended the final workshop in the Writing Your Life: Crafting Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir from Life Experience workshop in Salida, Colorado. Presented by New York writer, Alex Van Ark, this workshop was really a great experience. I chose to attend this workshop for two reasons: the main one being that I have started a memoir about the life of my son, Michael, and the bond that he and I shared; and the workshop was free, so it fit into my budget quite well. Although I was unable to attend the first of the three Sunday afternoon workshop sessions, the two that I did attend taught me a lot about my own writing. Now I sit here, chewing on an English muffin, reflecting on what I really got from this workshop:

Through a series of writing exercises, Alex showed us all how to write more factually, by writing with only nouns and verbs, thus eliminating all opinions. This is more difficult than it sounds, believe me. Using this method though, you can create a picture that is much more clear and concise, (and it also seemed to cut down on run-on sentences, but maybe that was just me). It is amazing how much we tend to interject our own impressions and biases into our writing, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, the exercises showed us how those same impressions can be portrayed through the action in the scene being described, so that readers can reach their own conclusions. While you can say that a character was not a good mother, but it is much more effective to show the ways in which she was not good. For example,

       “More often than not, she would promise her boys that she would

        be there for Christmas and then never show up, making up       

       some excuse, maybe car trouble or some fictional emergency

       that didn’t really make sense, but would be believable enough for

       two young boys who needed to have faith in their mother. She

       would promise to send the presents, then, claim that she had to

       move, and the presents were in storage, so she couldn’t get to

       them, or claim that they must be lost in the mail. Sometimes

       they would arrive in March, or May, with price tags still

       attached, but sometimes they would never come at all. One

       of her favorite tricks was to ask, “Didn’t you receive the card

       that I sent?”, knowing full well they hadn’t. There never was a

       card. She would claim that there was money in it and their

       father must have stolen it, when they said that they had not

       gotten it, with tears in their eyes.”

When you read this piece of writing, you can easily imagine how disappointed her children must have been, over and over, and most people reading this would come to the conclusion on their own that this woman was not a good mother. Moreover, this is much more powerful than simply stating that she was not a good mother. Readers may or may not believe it just because you say it, but they believe it after reading the passage about how she disappointed her children, because they came to the conclusion themselves and her actions leave no question as to the matter.

We also talked about how not to get sued when writing memoir and including real people and places. You can change the names, or use titles in place of names, or have the real life people sign clearance forms, giving permission for you to write about them, or you can turn the whole thing into creative fiction. Even with clearance forms, people can come back on you if they don’t like the way that their character is portrayed. In my case, many of the people involved, especially those associated with his death, would probably not be very open to giving clearance anyway, so I will have to come up with another solution.

The other thing that I learned was how to use archetypes to create my characters. Combining different types of characters creates diversity and adds conflict to the story. One exercise had us pick an archetype and write a description, using behavioral examples, of course, the reading our descriptions to see if the other workshop participants could identify the archetype. Another writing exercise involved having two archetypes interact. I think that by placing characters into an archetypal mold, it allows the character to be more rounded, while remaining focused. I found both exercises to be very interesting and helpful, as character portrayal can be a very difficult thing for me.

The last session, yesterday, was a Cowboy Story Hour, where each of us did a reading of some of our work. I chose three pieces, two of which were poetry. I had been fortunate enough to attend a Poetry Performance Reading with Rosemary Wahtola-Trommer, of Telluride, (The Word Woman), whose reading was vibrant and filled with energy. I couldn’t hope to do a reading even close to that quality, but I tried to keep her in my mind and emulate her, as I stood before the other workshop participants and did my first reading ever. I tried to read slowly and pause in all the right places to give the proper inflection of my words. I probably should have selected different pieces, as the ones I chose were maybe too personal, and I can’t even read them to myself, without choking back tears. My fellow workshoppers were very gracious though and gave me a nice round of applause, even though they may not have understood the last lines through my tears. It was scary to walk up there to read my work, but I think I did okay, and I definitely lived through it. I know because I couldn’t have heard all the other readings if I were not alive following my own. The talent of all those in the room was just amazing, with readings that carried us all over the world, to places that I had never been before, but never the less, made me feel as if I were really there. That was the best part: all of the great writers that I met there.

The facilitator, Alex Van Ark, was just a wonderful guy, who had the ability to draw on your hidden talent with his exercises, which aside from their learning value, were also quite fun. He was easy to talk to and he never asked us to do anything that he did not do himself. He did a writing of his own for each exercise, and then read what he had come up with, right along with the participants. He is a very talented writer, as are many who attended. All in all, it was a wonderful experience that I very much enjoyed. I am looking forward to Alex’s promised return next year and plan to attend his workshop again. It will be interesting to see how my memoir has developed over the year.

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