The making of a memoir

Fairfield’s Randi Oster (right) has written a Randi-Oster-214x300105,000-word memoir, Questioning Protocol. It tells the story of her experience acting as her teenage son Gary’s patient advocate during a difficult period of his battle with Crohn’s disease, a stretch in which he was hospitalized twice. In addition, it offers readers tools to deal more effectively with their own and their loved ones’ critical health-care issues.

A former workshop colleague of mine, Randi was highly energetic and organized, and a natural storyteller. She also was, as our Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield leader Carol Dannhauser liked to put it, a rocket scientist. Literally. What Randi was not in those early workshops, by either natural-born gift or education or profession, was a writer.

The story of the making of Randi’s memoir is also the story of the making of a writer.

Parroting Carol’s oft-repeated verbal reminder to her from our workshop days, Randi says with a laugh, “ ‘It’s comma, quote.’ I never learned this in school. I am a product of the ’70s Bronx school system. To escape a mediocre education, I went to the Bronx High School of Science, where I avoided writing and focused on math and science.  Then in college, I studied electrical engineering. I barely wrote papers, much less anything with dialogue.”

Randi went to work at General Electric, rising to key roles in leading teams that designed such technological marvels as sensors for the Stealth fighter. Eventually, she joined the executive ranks, where she received leadership training in GE’s legendary Six Sigma quality control program. After she left GE, she joined Carol’s exercise-based workshop, then moved on to another that focused on memoir.

Despite her late start in writing, Randi has always done something even longtime writers often cannot bring themselves to do: She submits her work for possible publication. One successful example was a local contest. In 2011, her piece “Countdown to Chili” was accepted for and included in the Writers’ Room of the Fairfield Public Library’s anthology Around the Table: Food Memories of Fairfield. An excerpt from her new memoir recently was published in a health-industry magazine, another is being reviewed for possible publication in one of the country’s most prestigious medical journals, and the manuscript has attracted serious attention from literary agents.

Here are some of the writing lessons Randi learned in the making of her memoir:

Composing: Get editing help. After taking Carol’s memoir workshop, Randi decided to devote herself to writing the book, making it a fulltime job with a goal of producing 10 pages a week. To help her, she hired Carol to spend one hour a week editing her newest copy. Randi is not the only member of our former workshop who recommends an editing approach. Gabi Coatsworth, a Fairfield-based award-winning essayist and short story writer, rarely submits a piece of writing before having a professional editor critique it. [See “Why hire an editor? Here’s why”; FWB, March 1, 2011]

Early on, both the writing and the editing went slowly. “One time I wrote a sentence that took me 45 minutes,” Randi said. “Carol, reading along, said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ Then she just went on to the next sentence. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That was 45 minutes.’ ”

Nevertheless, instead of 10 pages, or the more realistic seven that Carol had set as a standard, the first week they struggled to review two. At the end of their 60 minutes, Randi would go home with Carol’s red-penciled pages and “input the changes. Every single week. I didn’t let them pile up. I didn’t say, Oh, I’ll do that in three weeks.

“A lot of it wasn’t copy-editing,” Randi continues. “It was thought editing. She would have a note: Need to add more about Blah. That takes time, to add more about Blah. That wasn’t edited. That was material missing. I would probably spend Monday and Tuesday just updating what needed to get done. And then I would spend the last three days of the week trying to come up with the new stuff. I was making the same mistakes over and over.”

Such as? “I learned to stop ‘realizing’ for the reader.  Now, in the past I would have written, ‘I learned pretty quickly to stop “realizing” for the reader.’ ” And to eliminate those –ly adverbs.

Voice: Be true to yourself. Randi fell into the trap that ensnares many writers who read stories similar to their own between writing sessions. “I would like the style of someone else’s voice,” she says. “Then I would write my story with that other voice. Carol would look at my copy and go, ‘It’s crap.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m being literary.’ I learned that when I was authentic and real, the pages flew so much faster.”

But being authentic and real has its drawbacks for the memoirist. “It meant being brutally honest,” Randi says. “So I don’t always come out looking good. Sometimes I’m a bitch. When you’re writing, it’s hard to make yourself look bad. But the truth is, that’s what I needed to do. It was easy to find fault in everyone else. But the reader sees through that. You must not be afraid of showing the skeletons in your own closet. That’s hard. I got used to writing the truth, but now I realize that people are going to read it. Now the game isn’t fair. Someone else will know so much more about me than I’ll ever know about them.”

There’s an ultimate payoff, though: “People can relate, because now I’m not some figment of perfection. I’m a real person.”

Language: Think of your reader. Despite years as an electrical engineer and a GE employee schooled in the argot and acronyms of Six Sigma, Randi’s language in the book is a reader’s language. “Technical. Detailed. Boring,” she says in a singsong voice, “is what I avoided.” Yet her Six Sigma training plays an important role in the book, especially in the climax, where she shows how a focus on quality can make a difference and she gives readers tools they can use themselves in a real-life setting.

One method she used to make the complex simple was to draw analogies. For example, when she describes the tribal divisions of the medical personnel in the hospital cafeteria, she equates them to the different-colored flamingoes and other birds she had seen standing apart from one another at the San Diego Zoo. And to convey the personalities of the members of her family and other key players, she compares them to the characteristics of the Hundred Acre Wood storybook residents in Benjamin Hoff’s 1982 bestseller, The Tao of Pooh, derived from the A. A. Milne classic.

Structure: Tell a story. To be successful, Randi knew, her memoir needed to include the key elements of narrative storytelling that one would find in fiction.

An inciting incident that defined Randi’s personal conflict—and triggered her thorough note-taking that she referred to while writing the book—arose when a doctor prescribed Gary a medication without first telling Randi, which she had previously told the physician she wanted him to do. Three weeks after that incident, Gary was back in the hospital.

“If we’re talking about story arc,” she says, “I was blessed, in a weird way, that my son had a disease and that we got him through [a crisis] in a positive way. I knew there would have to be some growth in the main character, who is me, and that there should be an ‘aha’ moment.”

That came at the end of a darkest-hour turning point, a harrowing high-speed, 3 a.m. ambulance ride between two hospitals during a thunder-and-lightning downpour, complete with a demonic-looking EMT at the wheel and an eerie, heavy-metal soundtrack blasting from the dashboard radio. When the man changed the station and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” came on—the song was No. 1 on the charts the day Gary was born—Randi found peace in its message, which she defines as: “You’ll find the strength from within.”

She says that, “In memoir, unlike fiction, you have to hope that these moments happen, because you can’t make it up. But those are real things that happened.” What she leaves unsaid is that, as a writer, you also have to be able to recognize such moments and their proper places in your story structure.

Message: Incorporate a broader theme. Randi views her book as more than just a personal story of “how I navigated the health-care system.” It is, she says, a toolkit for “the 141 million people with chronic diseases who are constantly going in and out of the system.” Rather than blaming doctors and other medical personnel, she uses her quality-control training to suggest ways to “improve the performance and the process, so everyone does better. There were very clear tools that I used. . . .There were techniques that enabled my son to end up not needing medication and take a nutritional approach. All those tricks are in the book. And those skills and tips are easily learned and transferred. My goal, for every page and a half, was for readers to have learned something they can use.”

Reviewing & Revising: You are not done yet. Upon finally finishing her memoir, Randi hauled her edited stack of pages north to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Every day, she’d go to a different tourist landmark—Norman Rockwell’s veranda, Edith Wharton’s garden, Mt. Greylock—and sit down, pencil in hand, to read the book from start to finish. At night in her B&B room, she would type in the changes on her computer.

Some of those alterations involved cutting. “There were times when I would take four sentences to make one thought,” she says. “To go from four sentences to one sentence makes it powerful. It gets faster and smarter.” At least 25,000 words ended up on the floor.

More illuminating to Randi than finding places to cut “was how I was able to tie things at the end back to the beginning. Because I could see it all, I could see where I could build up a more of the story. So now it has more of a flow.”

When she returned home, she went through every single page of the book a final time.

Even now, though, Randi may have more to do. After reading the final manuscript, a friend asked her, “What happened at the end? I feel like your pen ran out of ink. I wanted about 15 more pages.”

Randi expects that the book’s eventual publisher may say the same. But after all her hard work, she says she told her friend, “I couldn’t take it any more.” Yes, even she had run out of writing energy.

Final Lessons: Write and enjoy. Randi concedes, of course, that not every aspiring author can afford to hire an editor. Nevertheless, she says, “A person with a story should not limit themselves because they feel inadequate. Write. Read. Write. Then write more. If you can afford to, take a workshop and learn. I couldn’t have done it without the writing workshops. In my case, specifically, the memoir workshop taught me to be honest on the page. Eventually, you will find that you have completed a work, and then you will be able to figure out the next best step. But, there is no next step if you don’t start!”

In the end, to write a book, be it a memoir, a novel, or anything else, something inside is more important than one’s inspiration, education or professional skill. “I think it’s passion,” Randi says, “and a determination to give yourself the gift of saying, I did it. It doesn’t matter what happens to your book. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a bestseller. But allow yourself to be able to say, I finished. The book is ancillary to the passion. Enjoy the process.”

Publishing: Build a platform. Having finished the manuscript and embarked on the agent search, Randi has been “building her platform.” She has her own website and she’s established a presence on social media. She has attended conferences where she’s met authors of bestselling books on her general subject but approached from other angles (with the hope of getting one of those authors to write a foreword). She has become a screener for the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge Awards. She has submitted excerpts, and seen one get published. And she has done interviews like this one, with broadcast outlets as well as print.

Thus, when the next interested agent calls and asks the inevitable “Do you have a platform?” question, Randi will be able to answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

That’s exclamation point, close quote, Randi.—Alex McNab

What it takes to be a fiction writer

Alliterative lists are a staple of how-to advice, so why not a few for aspiring fiction writers?

For example, a few years ago, when I asked award-winning Fairfield author Nina Nelson (who has been known to write in the Library) for some tips I could pass on to our writers’ group, she included her list of Three C’s, writing activities in which we aspirants should partake: critique groups, conferences and contests. In fact, her first book, Bringing the Boy Home, a middle-grade title, began its path to publication as a contest entry. It won the 2005 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Prize and was named a Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book.

A second list might be Three I’s: intelligence, imagination and inspiration.

What truly successful fiction writers share, I believe—what makes them start and, more importantly, finish one book after another—is another trio of C’s: craft, commitment and compulsion.

At least, that’s what I thought of when I read a recent interview with James Lee Burke (right) in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Burke writes bestselling novels set in Louisiana, Montana and Texas, the most notable being the 19-title series about New Iberia (La.) sheriff deputy Dave Robicheaux, including the recently published Creole Belle (copies are in both the Main and Branch Libraries). Burke is in his mid-70s and has published 33 books—and he shows no signs of slowing down; he’s hard at work to meet an autumn deadline for his next novel, he told the LA Review. When you are a writer, he said in the interview:

“[Writing is] all you think about. It is an obsession. The writing never stops for me. If I’m not actually doing it, I’m thinking about it. When I taught creative writing, students would sometimes ask me, ‘Do you think I have the talent to make it?’ I would never answer, because it is the wrong question. Those who have it, know it. You have a kind of arrogance, but you have to be able to see the drama that surrounds a person every day. Drama is all around us. It does not have to come from a grand panorama.”

Burke’s first few novels, all literary, were well-reviewed sales duds. Then he wrote The Lost Get-Back Boogie. How does it tie in to my three C’s? Concerning Burke’s craft, once The Lost Get-Back Boogie was published by the Louisiana State University Press, it was nominated for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. Prior to that, though, over a period of nine years, it was rejected by publishers 111 times. Yet Burke did not give up. Now that is commitment and compulsion.—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Versatile Blogger Award Winner: Thank You!

Hello to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you on this steamy summer day. Did you hear the bells and whistles? The Fairfield Writer’s Blog just received The Versatile Blogger Award! This is awarded to blogs that are considered helpful and excellent. Aw shucks. Both my colleague and fellow writing workshop leader, Alex McNab, and I currently keep The Fairfield Writer’s Blog going (along with our invited guest authors). We strive to be informative and always bring the blog back to its core mission of “literary connections.”

As writers we constantly hear about building our writing platforms. Part of building your platform includes creating and maintaining an online presence. Blogs are a great way to do that, and commenting on other people’s blogs can be invaluable. (See more about this in the list below.)

The Versatile Blogger Award was a connection that came put of the blue, thanks to blog reader Brooke Ryter.  Part of being nominated for the award is to select and share 15 blogs/bloggers that have been recently discovered or that we follow regularly. Here’s Alex and my edited and combined list, sorry we couldn’t put every blogger we know on it. The list is in no particular order, but we attempted to include blogs that are good resources for writers. Please check them out.
Mary Carroll Moore writes all about the book writing and creative writing process.
Jane Friedman – Being human at electric speed: Exploring what it means to be a writer in the digital age.
Ollin Morales Courage 2 Create inspires writers to do just that . . . write!
Patrick Ross: Travels of a MFA student and prolific writer.
Gabi Coatsworth: writing about a writer’s life in Fairfield County, CT.
Kim Craft Fiction, Memoir, Creative Writing (from Top Ten Blogs for Writers list)
Christina Katz: The Prosperous Writer. Her handle sums up her niche.
Anne Kathryn Smith, writer at large. She recently commented on The Fairfield Writer’s Blog and I was drawn to a helpful link to her blog.
Larry Brooks is one of many storytelling gurus online. He revisits the basics of structure from time to time in helpful ways.

Publishing news, author Q&As, plus a lot of links to pieces of interest on other sites.
Galleycat is a publishing news place. On the parent media bistro site, there are periodic interviews with authors and editors, under the heading What Do You Do?

The focus here is on plotting your story.
A rotating group of book editors has something new up every weekday. There are a lot of helpful gems back in the archives.
Dystel & Goderich Literary Management posts essays and links from its agents. Again, lots of good stuff in the archives.
She spoke at the Library a few years ago, and is currently doing the mega media circuit.

Thank you again to The Versatile Blogger Award for helping us here at The Fairfield Writer’s Blog continue to be a valuable resource to writers everywhere.

Until next time, stay cool, and keep on writing!

A Cure for Writer’s Block

I have writer’s block, oh my!
I’m going to sit in a tree, up high.
Where I will look down at my toes,
Wiggle my nose
And think up some prose.
Why can’t I feel flighty
Up here in my nightie?
Maybe a cuppa Earl Grey
Sipped here my tree
Will go with my warm scone and me.
Then onto writing with all my might
As I wave my silver sword in delight
On passion, on vixen, onto my mission
Will I finish in time for my next contest submission?

Hello writers, this is Adair Heitmann here writing to you today about the dreaded disease called writer’s block. All of us have had it at one point in our journeys as writers. Recently, after I developed a creative writing prompt for a writing critique group I lead, I was inspired to write the preceding poem.

The prompt for my writing workshop was: You have “writer’s block.” What is your cure? It cannot be practical or logical in any way. Describe it using all your senses.

The exercise was like a vitamin shot in the arm. The prompt reminded me of the invigorating power of being impractical. Often we approach problems with a like-for-like solution, only to feel drained and more dissatisfied. The next time you are at a loss for words, break out of your routine, do something illogical. You’ll be surprised what you find up there in your inspiration tree.

What are your favorite dazzling cures for writer’s block? Share them in the comments below.

Until next time, keep on writing!

Save Your Money, Just Write

At different times in March, three of us in the Saturday morning writers’ group at the Library saw the hit Broadway play Seminar with its original cast, before changes were made at the beginning of April. (Jeff Goldblum has replaced Alan Rickman in the role of Leonard; Fairfield’s own Justin Long now plays Martin, the role debuted by Hamish Linklater; and Zoe Lister-Jones is Kate, following Lily Rabe.) Colleague Ian Peterkin, who is an MFA student in creative writing, offers this takeaway.—Alex McNab

When novice writers realize their passion is more than a hobby, they will invariably seek out instruction. Whether they find that instruction in an MFA program, a writer’s workshop, or autodidactically, they must take the matter of writing seriously. For those hoping to learn their craft through books, there are many sources to choose from. Stephen King has his On Writing and of course there is that old classic by William Strunk and E.B. White—The Elements of Style. If fledgling writers do not have the time or commitment for an MFA program—and sometimes even after completing one—they often attend a writers’ retreat or seminar. This brings me to Theresa Rebeck’s play, Seminar.

Alan Rickman (center in photo) plays Leonard, an editor and writer, who leads a 10-week seminar on writing (at $5,000 a pop). Therein lies the problem. Leonard’s students collectively fork over $20,000 to be told whether or not their writing is any good. Writing seminars and workshops are like gym memberships—they make you feel good about yourself, like you’re actually making progress. But just like a gym membership alone will not get you the body you want, a workshop or seminar is not going to make you “The Great American Novelist.”

This all reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut said about creative writing programs. He basically told his students they were wasting their time in class and should be writing instead. An interviewer from The Paris Review once asked him if creative writing can actually be taught and he had this to say: “About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.” The interviewer went on to ask about storytelling talent and Vonnegut offered:

“In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by. . . They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.”

He would know, he taught at Iowa.

I have a wonderful mentor at Western Connecticut State University named Dan Pope. He’s an incredible editor and I hope to keep working with him in the future. He had this to say about writing: “All you need to do—all anyone ever needs to do—is read one book about writing. They are not good for much. Writing is the only way to learn.” And it’s the truth. I’ve more or less gotten everything I possibly can out of my MFA program after less than a year. There are schools in the country that charge between $20,000 and $55,000 a year to teach the same things.

Last semester, I worked as a graduate assistant in the writing department. I taught Writing 101 to more than 40 teenagers. My mentor in the department once told my cohorts and me that our students will be better writers at the end of the semester, not necessarily because of our instruction but from practice. He was right. I could not get most of them to pass their grammar quizzes, but they all became better writers.—Ian Peterkin

Bulletin Board Wisdom

According to lore, author William Styron had a piece of cardboard tacked to the frame of the door that led into his workroom at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. The cardboard was inscribed with these words from Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Looking for some writing wisdom, familiar or fresh, for your workspace bulletin board? See if you find some here, winnowed from an original list of one hundred.

• “Story ideas begin with a simple “Suppose” or “What if.”—Anonymous

• “. . .All art comes out of conflict.”—Joyce Carol Oates (right)

• “Get black on white.”—Guy de Maupassant

• “Words are sacred. They deserve respect.”—Tom Stoppard

• “When in doubt, use a simple declarative sentence.”—Robert B. Parker

• “My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.”—Joseph Conrad

• “In every scene something engrossing needs to happen.”—Suzanne Hoover

• “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”—Kurt Vonnegut

• “Everything a character says should tell you something about who he or she is.”—Nell Freudenberger

• “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”—Stephen King

• “Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained.”—Esther Freud

• “Research is best when it doesn’t show.”—Lawrence Block

• “Stop when you are going good and you know what will happen next.”—Ernest Hemingway

• “There is but one art, to omit.”—Robert Louis Stevenson

• “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”—Elmore Leonard

• “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”—Jane Smiley

• “The writer’s life is a life of revisions. . . .”—Jonathan Franzen

• “You can always edit garbage. You can’t edit a blank page.”—Jodi Piccoult

• “Don’t be jealous of others’ success. . . .Wish others well and hope to join them someday.”—Po Bronson

• “. . .Never, under any circumstances, give up submitting one’s work.”—James Lee Burke

• “The ordeal is part of the commitment.”—Philip Roth

• “Don’t be ‘a writer.’ Be writing.”—William Faulkner

• “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”—James Thurber

• “Don’t make excuses; make sentences.”—Rick Mofina

• “I decided it was okay to try and fail; not okay to fail to try.”—Hallie Ephron

• “It’s a long haul. Remember to enjoy it.”—Tim Parks

• “Finish the damn book.”—Laura Lippman

• “Being a good writer is 3 % talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet.”—Anonymous

PS. Congratulations to Joanne Hus. Her story “We All Fall Down,” which she workshopped awhile ago in our Saturday morning writers’ group at the Library, has been published in the new issue of Venü magazine, available at the Fairfield University bookstore downtown. Joanne also did the illustration that accompanies the story. She illustrated and designed the Library’s collection of original essays Around the Table: Food Memoirs from Fairfield that was published last year.—Alex McNab

A Writer’s Gratitude List

Hello all you pre-Thanksgiving writers, it’s Adair Heitmann here writing to you today about gratitude. Here’s my list, what’s on yours?

1. hands to write with
2. eyes to see
3. a nose to sniff out a good story
4. ears to hear
5. a sense of taste from which I can describe my world
6. touch – one of the hardest senses to describe in words, but one of the sweetest
7. the Internet
8. journals of all sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and kinds
9. pens, paper, bark, charcoal, paint, even a hammer and chisel, anything to incise my words, making them permanent
10. writing contests – to keep me percolating in my writer’s craft
11. agents, of course
12. readers, of course
13. my heart – that swells to fullness when I communicate
14. publishers
15. my writing critique group
16. friends that love me and my writing just the way I am
17. social media
18. libraries
19. book stores, especially the independent ones
20. trees from which the printed word can last for generations

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Keep on writing!

Published in: on November 22, 2011 at 1:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Create a Writer’s Bio

Hello all writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann sharing hints and tips about building a writer’s bio. Writers often overlook this professional asset in their portfolios. Truth be told, crafting a gripping character in your novel is more exciting than writing your bio. However a well-honed bio may get you farther in your writing career than a spell-binding final chapter.

A writer’s bio is a two-three sentence summary of your professional accomplishments to date. To begin, you’ll want to:
1. Start where you are.
2. Describe what you’ve done, not what you want to do.
3. Update constantly with credits, publications, awards, testimonials.

Include the most important literary accomplishments in your career. If your writing falls into a specialty or niche, work that into the bio. For example, a writer in my Wednesday Writing Critique Group writes essays and memoirs based on growing up in London during World War ll. It makes sense for her to include where she was born and lived.

Another writer in the group didn’t think she had anything to say because she is not yet published. As we asked her questions it turned out she worked for a prestigious radio network in a past career. We exclaimed, “Put that down!” Our animated endorsement of her past, led her to reveal she graduated from The High School of Music and Art in New York City. If I put on my writer’s bio that I graduated from Stamford High School you would yawn and I would have wasted valuable character spaces, but for my writing group member it made sense. That high school is home to many notable alumni and is a litmus test that this writer already passed muster in artistic endeavors. After we fanned the flames of the creative spark she told us she is the editor of a newsletter for a local non-profit organization. From not thinking she had anything to put on her bio, to a unique and fully fleshed out writer’s bio proved the power of a writing critique group’s positive energy.

Writing your bio may not be as easy as you think, but try your hand at it anyway. It’s like writing your resume on Twitter, but your bio has a few more characters.

Until next time, keep on writing!