Memoir hangs 100% on voice.
It's hard to believe that it took me so long to discover the work of Mary Karr. Karr is professor of writing at Syracuse University and her programmes are desperately over-subscribed. Yes, she is that good.
I first discovered her memoir, The Liar's Club, when it was recommended to me by a therapist, impressed by the way Mary managed to write to candidly and yet without indulgence about her dysfunctional childhood. As I read, sure, I was delighted to see how she tackled the subject matter, but more than anything I was blown away by her style. Here was a writer who broke the rules, finished sentences with prepositions and had a tone that was completely her own.
After The Liar's Club I headed straight for Karr non-fiction book, The Art of Memoir, and it was here that I read the words:
"Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself onto the page What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention."
In other words, you have to be true to yourself, your meaning and your story and the way you write must reflect this.
I went on from The Liar's Club to read Karr's second memoir, Lit, which tells of her failed marriage, her battle with alcoholism and the jerky progression of her career as a writer. Let me give you an example of her voice, found on the page that faced me when I cracked open Lit's spine at a random place:
"By age thirty, I'm not writing squat, which I blame on my ramped-up consulting schedule, knowing full well my favorite poet was a full-time insurance exec. Warren keeps urging me to deal with my complicated family on the page, but that seems too damp-eyed, though even I know the crap I crank out referring to Homer and Virgil is pretentious before Warren carefully pens pretentious on page bottom."
You see what I mean about voice? Sure, it's about what you write about, but it also about how you say it. If you are still confused, go read Mary Karr.
What do you think of my new phrase – writing ugly?
A few weeks ago I got an email from one of my current mentees, Keri.
“I guess my biggest fear is that the book just keeps dragging on and I’ll never finish it unless I give myself some targets,” she wrote. “ I want to embrace the writing 'ugly' concept we talked about.”
Like we talked about? Did we? Did I come up with that fab phrase? Sometimes I surprise even myself with my word acrobatics. I basked in the glow for a few moments, but deep down I knew this was not my phrase. It was not my phrase but I wanted it. Badly.
Ever since I found the wonderful Anne Lamott’s phrase the Shitty First Draft in her book, Bird by Bird, it has helped me and my students out of many a sticky situation. I love it and use it so much that folk now know it by the acronym SFD.
I can credit the Shitty First Draft as the reason I manage to write quite so much. 32 books and counting and still the irresistible ideas keep coming, usually in the middle of the night. I write this newsletter, I write poems, I write a journal and I write blogs and articles and every single time I stand by the SFD. I love it because, like with a belch, it’s ‘better out than in’. I know I’ll feel better about myself if I have written something, however badly, and reached the end. The thoughts and ideas have been set free of the bustling city that inhabits my mind and are on the page.
I love the SFD. I need the SFD and yet writing ugly has me in its thrall. Writing ugly seems to take the SFD a step further; it’s as if it wants me to write badlyon purpose. And, as I lay there, wide awake, one evening around midnight last week, I realized the power of this new phrase.
Writing ugly is about writing a scrappy, illegible table of contents for that book on a piece of paper you tear from the back of a book.
Writing ugly is about setting the timer for ten minutes and making yourself write with no particular direction in mind, again longhand, just to see where the words take you.
Writing ugly is about chucking random phrases down, one on each line and calling the result a poem on short lines, like novelist Catherine Cookson did.
Writing ugly is about ‘putting your pen on the paper and just going’, as Natalie Goldberg instructs in her seminal book on speedwriting, Writing Down the Bones.
Writing ugly is about sending your sabotaging inner perfectionist on a long hike.
Because, you see, the fundamental difference between the Shitty First Draft and writing ugly is that there is no sense even of ‘draft’ in the new phrase. And without the pressure of the knowledge that what you put down has to ultimately be useable, you can let rip. What does it matter if what you throw at the page never actually turns into a draft of something?
I had to thrash it out with Keri.
“Is that my phrase or yours?” I asked her. “Because I think I want to adopt it.”
“I think it’s mine, actually,” she wrote. “But you came up with the title for my book and so you can keep it. By the way, I plan to write ugly from 1 Feb - 30 April to really make some progress. I realise, after the ugly writing there will still need a whole lot of re-writing/edits afterwards...”
Keri knew intuitively that writing ugly was akin to limbering up, flexing her writing muscles and simply getting words down on paper and out of her head and the ether. She knew that it was a preliminary stage and gave me the credit for an idea that was actually all hers.
So there it is. I have taken my new phrase for its first outing. What do you think? Will it catch on?
Don't miss our new writer's award
Last month, I shared the tragic news of the brutal murder of Lindsay de Feliz, expat author of What About Your Saucepans and Life After My Saucepans. At the risk of looking like a broken record I'm writing about Lindsay again, this time, with news of our Lindsay de Feliz New Writer of Expat Memoir Award. Please feel free to apply and also, of course, to share this post.
If you want to learn more about my new Life Story Jar programme, the self-paced writing course to help writers of all levels to write and preserve their precious family stories, then please grab a cuppa and watch my new video.
Don't forget that you can get yourself a free trial lesson (to do in your own time) by clicking this link:
I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of Masterchef on the telly. It always seems to me that the chefs that get the most enthusiastic and throw the biggest variety of ‘stuff’ on the plate get voted off, while those who make something utterly delicious out of a small and carefully selected number of ingredients get through. Only today I watched Tom get through to the next round with his simple asparagus and hollandaise sauce. It’s the same with writing.
Ian and I have just spent a few days in Sicily and I knew that the trip would provide me with something inspiring for this newsletter, I just wasn’t quite sure what that would be. On the first morning we set off to visit the Greek and Roman amphitheatres for which Syracuse is famous. Within seconds I had stopped in my tracks.
“What’s that smell?” I asked. “It’s gorgeous. Like honey.”
“Oh yes,” Ian responded with more enthusiasm than I might have expected. “Where is it coming from?”
I looked around and noticed that the grove of olive trees at the roadside seemed to have been planted in a meadow of little white flowers. The flowers looked like the alyssum that Brits like to use in their rockeries. “Maybe that’s what gives local honey its flavour?” I wondered and we walked on, vowing to check it out on Wikipedia later*.
Less than an hour later, in gardens that have been created out of an old quarry I saw what would be the first of many lemon trees. I remembered that Sicily is famous for its lemons.
“Honey and lemon!” I said out loud to no one in particular. I could see a theme for the Inspirer was emerging. But then we visited the amphitheatres and I became enthralled by the deep pits that had been constructed beneath the stage for the ‘machinations’. More than two thousand years ago the theatre sets revolved, rose from stage doors and dropped away. Machinery was hidden from view but had a crucial part to play in the performance. I could feel a metaphor coming on and thought that maybe the machinations could represent the editing and punctuation, the rules and the conformities that turn the ‘shitty first draft’ of a piece of writing into something fit to be shown to the world.
So now I had a lemon and honey theme and an importance of behind the scenes theme for this piece. Already I knew it was too much, and as the holiday progressed I began to see typical ingredients popping up in Sicilian cuisine. Pistachio nuts, blood oranges, wild fennel, ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, basil, swordfish, pumpkin, pasta, of course, courgetti, aubergine, aubergine and yet more aubergine and golly those lemons were enormous – almost as big as rugby balls. There was no way I was going to get away with cramming all those different ingredients into one dish. If I did, I was bound to get voted off (aka unsubscribed).
But it was obvious wasn’t it? The lesson I learned in Sicily and that I am sharing with you now is that of selecting the finest ingredients and then stopping. The lemon and the honey belong together. The Greek and Roman history in another. The aubergine, capers, courgette and tomatoes can be set aside for caponata. They cannot all go on one plate nor in one dish. It’s the same for a poem, an article, a book. The finished piece will be better for being made with fewer, finer ingredients so that each element is the star of its own show. Better still, as you live your life, paying attention and foraging for inspiration you can collect a host of ‘ingredients’ in you metaphorical basket and use them not for one piece but for several clear and simple pieces rather than a larger muddled one.
“A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places,” said artist and teacher Paul Gardner. Writing is like that too. We can fiddle and add to it forever, but we must learn to stop and remember less is more and that sometimes just lemon and honey is enough.
*the flower did indeed turn out to be alyssum maritima (sweet alison) and yes it does smell of honey, though most Sicilian honey takes it flavor from orange blossom.
This month I want to introduce you to someone with whom, tragically, it is no longer possible for you to connect with. I first ‘met’ Lindsay de Feliz in 2011 when she contacted us to see if we might be interested in publishing her memoir called What About Your Saucepans? At first glance I thought it was a bit of an odd title, but when Lindsay went on to tell me it was about her move from a high-powered, well-paid job in England to become a lowly diving instructor in the Dominican Republic and how she had fallen in love with her life, the island and a local called Danilo. I was intrigued and asked to see a sample of her writing. I soon learned a number of things: this woman had a story to tell that was stranger and stronger than fiction; that she needed my help as a mentor and Jane’s help as editor to knock it into shape; that I really liked her and wanted to work with her; that “What about your saucepans?” was what her mother had said to her when Lindsay told her she was leaving the UK almost two decades earlier.
Over the next year or so she worked like a beaver on the manuscript while her real life began to get curiouser and curiouser. She had married a handsome local and became a generous and loving mother to his children, some of whom were very young indeed. Not only did she open her arms and her home to a new family but soon a four-legged family of stray cats and dogs joined the fold. Danilo became involved in local politics, ran for major and the two became affected by so much corruption the they were forced to run for the hills and into hiding. The book came out and we kept her quirky title, soon realising that Lindsay was embracing social media big time and many people now talked fondly of the Saucepans Lady, like me, they had never met but came to consider a friend. Her online marketing was second-to-none and sales were steady. By 2017 a sequel was inevitable as we followed Lindsay to her half-built Pink House in a tiny village beside the woods. Life After My Saucepans was published in 2017.
Her life was always complicated and chaotic but Lindsay, who temporarily lost her voice after being shot in the throat during a break-in in book one, continued to see the funny side of life and her readers loved her more with every word and blog she wrote.
This post is in tribute to a dear author who was brutally murdered in December. Lindsay's body was wrapped in bags used for pet food and buried in a shallow grave in the woods beside The Pink House.
I want to thank Lindsay for the joy she was to work with, the joy she gave to her many readers and the love she gave to so many.
And if I have a takeaway for you, learned from the last eight years with Lindsay it is that a bonkers title is not always a stupid idea. If it is catchy, or ‘sticky’ as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point, then that is always a good thing.
In memory of Lindsay, Summertime and Springtime authors will be funding a one-time bursary towards publishing an expat memoir. Further details to follow in early 2020.
Isn’t it time you started writing and preserving your family stories?
My gift of a taster lesson from The Life Story Jar programme is guaranteed to get your 2020 off to a great start.
Click below to get your FREE lesson.
The Inspiring Bit
Fifty shades of green
This time of year is perfect for the writer wanting to flex their writerly muscles. Autumn, when the leaves are turning and falling there is so much to ignite the muse within.
We all know the benefits of going out and walking in nature; it’s an antidote to the winter blues. For me, though, a walk in the woods at this time of year gives me time to think, to clear my head, to devise poems and lessons and to give my eyes the chance to focus on something that is not a screen within a few inches of my nose.
These are the times when I like to play a game with my inner lexicographer. It goes like this…
As I wander, I take time to mindfully look, I mean really look, at everything I see. And after a second or two focusing on something I make myself come up with an unclichéd description of it. So, the bark of the silver birch could be like old white paint peeling off in sheets from a damp black wall. The spreading branches of the horse chestnut are not allowed to be like arms reaching to the sky because that’s a cliché, but they could be goddess Shiva’s arms or a hanukkah candelabra. The few dried and shrivelled leaves that cling to the ends of those same branches could be the scorched remains of love letters the tree can no longer bear to read but still clutches with the tips of his fingers.
The painter inside you can have a field day trying to find exactly the right colourmatch for each of those leaves. No, you can’t say the beech leaves are like shiny new pennies, that’s been said before. But they could be butterscotch, discs of honeycomb or a cheetah’s iris. In addition, just to make this even harder the word you choose must also convey the emotion you feel. Those autumn leaves are beautiful, right? So while many leaves may remind you exactly of the contents of a newborn’s nappy, you can’t say that. No, you need to choose a word that describes something you love, like brandy snap tuiles.
On a walk in November I found leaves the colour of merlot and a whore’s fingernails. I saw lichen the colour of a 1960s bathroom suite and moss the same shade of green as mushy peas. You are not allowed to use sage, mint and basil to describe leaves because that would be too easy. They are plants too and have leaves of their own. Trying to come up with new words for green is the hardest part of this game.
William Wordsworth is known as the poet of nature and he delighted in personifying nature. He writes that leaves ‘kiss’ each other as they tumble to the forest floor and that his famous daffodils ‘dance’. As you walk among the trees and footpaths, notice how some tree roots might be the feet of marching elephants, others the slender feet and ankles of a pair of ballet dancers, high in en pointe. Might the deciduous yew be jealous of the jeweled colours of the beech beside it, for we all know that green is the colour of envy? Trust me, when you start to play this game you’ll soon find there are 50 new shades of green and that nature and your writing comes alive.
The Connecting Bit
Isn’t nice to hear about a success story about an expat writer who is making money from what she loves to do?
Olga Mecking is a writer friend of mine, based in the Hague, who is creating a storm with her upcoming book with the working title, Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. Just five years ago, after some time spent blogging as European Mama, Olga, who is Polish by nationality, decided to move towards writing and selling articles, seeing success with Huffington Post,The BBC, The Guardian, Playboy and many more. But then, about a year ago, after finding an article in Dutch in a free magazine she picked up at her local organic shop, she learned about something called niksen. With mindfulness being on trend at the moment, together with hygge, tiger parenting and slow-pressed juices, the new writer realised that the Dutch belief in just doing nothing could be bang on trend. First she pitched and sold a ‘trend’ piece to Woolly magazine, being paid about $400 for this. By February she had pitched a ‘service’ piece on the same subject to The New York Times, this time earning $600. After an initial rejection and three rounds of revisions, the piece was published in May and received an incredible 150,000 shares. Olga, it seemed, had discovered the next big thing.
A couple of months later she’d been spotted. Both a Dutch publisher, Kosmos Uitgevers and a UK-based agent reached out, urging her to write a book for them. By September she’d made a choice and signed a contract and shortly after foreign rights had been sold to nine other publishers worldwide meaning that her book will be published in 11 languages.
“They got a first draft in six weeks,” she explains, “and want my final draft December 1st.” This is moving so quickly but when you write about a topic that is bang on trend you need to act fast. The 50,000 word book should be published in April, less than a year after that piece in the New York Times.
When I asked Olga how this meteoric success made her feel, not to mention the size of an advance that most new authors can only dream of, she said one word, “Stressed.” She puts her incredible success not only to the fact that she hit on the right topic at the right time and received publication in a top notch publication, but that she had spent a few years establishing herself as a paid-for journalist first. “It was smart that I wrote for high-end publications,” she says. “More people were reading me. I got good bylines.” I think Olga is an example of someone who made their own luck.
You can read more about Olga and follow her journey at www.olgamecking.com and join her busy Facebook group, The Nikseneers.
I don’t know about you but I love a fast fix of inspiration now and again. This is why, for several years, ever since my friend Jacinta gave me my first, I’ve bought myself one of those stand up Page-a-Day calendars for Christmas. I always get the Zen Sayings one, which is a mix of haiku, koans, parables and sayings. A couple of days ago it read: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness,” which comes from Robert Frost, the nature loving poet best known for The Road Not Taken.
I read that extract the other day and it stayed with me as I considered its truth and the way, indeed, that so many poems begin with deep emotion, often sadness. In turn it inspired me to reflect on how art, such as poetry, can make something good out of a bad situation.
I’m off to buy myself my next Zen Calendar now because, thanks to Jacinta, it has now become an essential addition to my morning.
What I'm Working On
Watch out for the soft launch of The Life Story Jar programme – BUY ONE AND GIVE ONE TO A FRIEND
I admit that this isn’t ready as soon as I would have liked, but hey, I’m only human.
It’s almost time for my brand new 12-week e-course, The Life Story Jar, to go on sale. Now you can stop procrastinating and start writing your precious stories and preserving them for the future. the programme, divided into modules on themes such as Growing Up, My Travels, My Family and People in My Past will teach and inspire you to leave an important written legacy.
Want to register your interest now to be sure you don’t miss out? Just drop me an email.
What's on in December
WHEN: Tuesday 10th December and Tuesday 14th January, 09:30-15:30
WHAT: Definite Articles – learn to write articles based on your overseas experience
WHERE: Jo’s house, Archipel, The Hague
ENQUIRE: Email Jo
WHEN: Friday 13th December, 10:00-14:00
WHAT: Writers’ Circle with Christmas pot luck lunch and Secret Santa
WHERE: Jo’s house, Archipel, The Hague
ENQUIRE: Email Jo
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer