Post #93 – Memoir Writing Tips – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
It’s January 11th, which means we’ve all had plenty of time to break at least one of our resolutions. At the same time, it’s still early enough in the first month of the new year to see 2013 as our clean slate just waiting for us and what we choose to make of it.
I confess, I’m not really a resolution maker. Probably because it’s not something my family did on New Year’s Eve. Instead we waited for the Chinese New Year, which is late January or early February (and calculated according to the second new moon after the winter solstice) to make a single vow.
A Different Ritual
What this really was, was a chance for my mother to cook a huge Chinese banquet. While not Chinese, Moo (as we called her) had dedicated years to learning authentic cuisine. There was no General Tso’s Chicken for us. My mother labored for days to create a banquet so authentic that it could have been served in the Forbidden City.
After a meal of handmade egg rolls (including the skins) stuffed with savory pork and fresh water chestnuts, Lion’s Head meatballs steamed in Napa cabbage and served in a delicate broth, Aromatic Peking Duck with a skin so crisp it crackled when you cut into it, and so much more (usually about 8 courses)…and after we cleansed our palate with a dessert of ice-cold almond curd and lichee fruit, we turned to the matter of the Hearth God.
Earlier in the day, I would start with a brown paper bag. Fill it with red tissue paper, and decorate the outside with red and gold origami paper. Sometimes I traced and cut out Chinese symbols but usually I made our little Hearth God resemble a dragon. The Hearth God sat by the fireplace all day. Each person in the family was responsible for placing something personal (a toy, a school paper we’d written or even a favorite piece of clothing) inside.
Moo almost always added a recipe, and Daddy would usually wait until the last minute then scrounge around his workshop until he found something he felt he could part with. And we always included our pets in the ritual by clipping a small bit of fur, tying a ribbon around it and adding it to the Hearth God.
We also each added a slip of paper with something we wanted to accomplish or have happen in the coming year. With the Hearth God filled with our personal items, wishes and dreams and plenty of bright red tissue paper and with dinner over, into the fireplace it went. We all watched as first the red and gold paper decorations on the outside turned black then caught fire. Eventually the bag and its contents burned completely and the ash dropped through the grate to mingle with the everyday ashes in the bottom of the fireplace.
Ritual has its place in our lives. And there is something about a new year and the opportunity and hope it gives us for accomplishing our dreams that Matilda and I felt we couldn’t let January pass without some talk of resolutions and goal-setting. We’ve done this in the past, but this year we decided to take a slightly different approach by looking at what other writers have to say about resolutions.
In the past, too, I’ve compiled lists of ideas, resources and tips for everything from writing to marketing to publishing. My plan for 2013 is to resurrect these lists and fill them with links to writing techniques, inspirations and strategies for getting our stories written. And I’m starting today with a look at how writer’s approach their resolutions.
As a general observation, I didn’t find a lot of hopey, dreamy, wishy resolutions. I found writers (fiction, creative nonfiction and memoirists) who approached the new year with eyes wide open and eager to make the most of the next 12 months. I find their philosophy both refreshing and encouraging. Matilda and I hope you’ll find something in their thoughts that will inspire you to accomplish more and achieve your personal objectives in 2013.
Goals Mean Deadlines
I want to start with a young writer who grew up in rural eastern Oregon because leave it to a writer to apply semantics and remind us of the difference between “resolutions” and “goals.” In a post she wrote for The Writers Alley, Casey Herringshaw reminds us that goals have end dates and deadlines while resolutions come with fewer expectations attached.
It is for precisely this reason that most of the writers I looked to for inspiration did not issue lists of resolutions but focused on a few critical behaviors that they felt would serve them (and us) well throughout the new year.
Sophie Novak is a self-proclaimed life interrogator who is “dangerously in love with books.” In a recent post for The Write Practice, “Writing Goals for 2013,” she talks about writing goals that are action oriented: making a plan, collecting and organizing our notes, creating a new habit or two and experimenting with our writing technique as a way to stretch ourselves and keep growing. Finally she reminds us that because we are only human and, as we all know all too well, likely to come up short by next December, we should give our goals priorities…”so even if everything else fails your utmost writing goal will see the light of day, escaping the trap of starting multiple projects without finishing a single one.”
It’s not enough to say we want to write more or we want to get published or even that we want to finish our book. We need to be specific…be precise…in our intended outcomes. And I’ll point you to Joanna Penn and a post on her excellent blog The Creative Penn for examples. In “Stick with Plan A. Writing Goals for 2013,” notice how Joanna names the books she intends to finish, publish and promote in 2013. This is more than a list of goals; it’s her blueprint for a successful year. This is a writer who knows exactly where she wants to be by next December. We need to adopt her focus.
Don’t Think About It…Do It
The real key to success is not to dream or resolve or even to make lists of plans…not if you’re going to write it all down and then stick it in a drawer. For this reason, fiction writer and pro blogger Ollin Morales (on his blog Courage 2 Create) shares his three golden rules for staying on track with one’s goals. And I have to say that I really love these. I want you to read his post entitled “The Secret to Staying Loyal to Your Writing Schedule” but I’ll summarize here: Ollin says if you start to think too much about what you need to accomplish, you’ll manage to come up with excuses that will sabotage your progress. Thinking leads to postponing. At the same time, be realistic and when you’re setting aside time for writing give yourself enough time to sit and stare at that blank piece of paper. Everyone needs time to gather their thoughts. And finally, your writing ritual must become a sacred thing that everyone–family and friends both–know about and respect.
Matilda and I put a lot of stock in the ritual of writing and actually use tangible cues that tell us this is the serious time when we put everything else aside and focus on writing. We’ve combined several of our own devices in our new memoir writing kits. The [Essential] and [Ultimate] kits include our beautiful handmade Thai Silk Journals, our own blend of premium organic unfolding green tea (the unfolding adds to the ritual) and our Women’s Memoirs writer’s mug. These are our visual cues to let the writing process begin…and they can be yours.
Jumpstart Your Progress with a Writing Prompt
Not everyone agrees on the value of a writing prompt, and that’s fine. Each of us must find our own stimuli. Darcy Pattison, writing over on Muffin, the blog sponsored by WOW–Women on Writing, equates writing prompts with a quick dash to the gym for a little well-needed, post-holiday exercise. In her post, “Jumping Jacks for Writers,” she suggests a few ways to exercise your writing muscles, tone up and get down to business.
Matilda and I believe in writing calisthenics ourselves, and have come at the task in our own way. We developed StoryMap: The Neverending Writing Prompt as a device to give you plenty of story material for exercising your writing muscles. Rather than just writing something (anything) as a way to get into the rhythm of a writing session, we thing that writing prompts ought to help us hone our skills. StoryMap is designed to help you focus on character development, emotions, dialogue, sensory description and time and place.
Being honest and realistic was the message of several writers. Janice Hardy, the YA fantasy writer and author of The Healing Wars took some downtime during the holidays to rest and recover from a busy 2012. Her body’s response to the downtime told her a lot about what she needed to do in 2013. As she wrote, “I realized I needed a better routine.” I want you to look at her post, “Happy New Year! Welcome to 2013 and a a Look Back at 2012” because this is a successful author who is looking at the whole picture of her life as a writer…and that includes being productive without the stress and without neglecting other aspects of her life. I’ll leave it to Janice to fill in the details, but here’s her list of goals…note what’s first on her list:
- Stop making so many goals…focus on what’s most important
- Work less…move to a five-day work week
- Re-dedicate myself to writing…as a way of dealing with burnout and distractions
- Take better care of myself…we can all use a little more of this advice
- Find a good daily schedule…Janice has a very practical perspective about this
What I enjoy most about Janice’s approach is her practical, realistic assessment of the challenge and the humor she uses to lighten up what are her most serious professional objectives. When she lists her goals, she assigns a number that sets both a priority and a probability that she’ll meet the goal. She even has a category for “things I’d like to do but probably won’t.”
Change Your Habits
In the same vein, creative writer Jeff Goins and author of Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life gives us the post, “How to Make the Most of the New Year.” He says it’s not about the resolutions but about a basic, elemental change in habits. Jeff’s philosophy is to do more and get engaged in things (say yes). Don’t be indecisive (make quicker decisions)…make a decision and either benefit from the consequences, change course if necessary or learn the important lessons when something goes wrong. And finally (pick something) from your list of resolutions and do it. And when it’s done, move on to the next. Become a decisive, well-focused person who gets involved in living.
Even though Jeff isn’t into the whole resolution thing, he did create a second post entitled “13 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers.” He uses this list to focus on the things writers can do in their writing to be the best they can be. For example:
- Write what you’re called to write
- Tell the truth
- Write from the heart
- Write when you don’t feel like it
- Read widely
You should take a few minutes to look over all 13 items.
Embrace the Gifts of Writing
On January 3rd, Juliet Marillier, one of the regular monthly contributors at Writer Unboxed, posted “Nine Good Gifts for the New Year” because she accepts human frailty and hopes that if we focus on the gift we have all been given…to be writers…and remember the real reasons we first started to write that this will help to sustain us through the challenges ahead. And Juliet goes beyond the writing to embrace life and take the time to play in the soil, get outside, talk with people, make new friends and breath…slowly and deeply. Oh, and write because you love it.
Set Smaller Goals
I have just two more authors I want to share with you. The first is Jordyn Redwood–a writer who lives a true double life: “Pediatric ER nurse by day. Suspense novelist by night.” She has her hands full earning a living and writing a medical blog for authors who need accurate information. She published her first novel in June 2012, called Proof, and the second, Poison, in her Bloodline Trilogy is expected out next month.
In a post for Wordserve Water Cooler, which is a blog sponsored by the Wordserve Literary Agency for its community of authors, Jordyn posted “Goals?!?” While she admits to making New Year’s resolutions, she firmly believes in goal setting. She shares her own rules: “Have an overall dream (I’m going to finish my novel) but then set smaller goals along the path.” This is critical to success because meeting the smaller, incremental objectives gives you a sense of accomplishment and a reason to celebrate your own progress. Also–and I think this is crucial–smaller goals make it easier to overlook a missed goal or a bad day that can throw off all your forward progress. I think Jordyn’s on to something.
Don’t Let the Cynics Get You Down
Bottom line…it doesn’t matter…goals…resolutions…big…small…rules…habits. You need to approach the new year in whatever way best works for you. As novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig explains in his post “On the subject of Time and Self and Cynicism: Or, How I View Resolutions” over on his blog Terribleminds: “Yes, of course, January 1st is an artificial construct, an imaginary knife-slash in time. But it’s your day just as it is theirs. If you want to use this day to make a change, do so. The cynicism of others needn’t be a big dead bird hanging around your neck, too.” In other words, even if others tell you not to bother to make resolutions, but you want to follow the ritual…then DO IT. Ignore the cynics, and maybe some of the advice from writers in this post will give you the tools to be successful. This is a well-written post and worth a few minutes of your time.
Chuck acknowledges that maybe we don’t need a special each year to announce our plans. I guess the fact that I still wait for the Chinese New Year to secret my goals away in a Hearth God fashioned from a brown paper bag covered in red and goal paper is just as good as any other means. It’s the end results that we are all after.
Matilda and I wish you big successes, small milestones and plenty of reason to celebrate in 2013.