Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #1: Getting Alice Out of Wonderland

Heart Speak, The Memoir Writing Advice Column #1: Getting Alice Out of Wonderland

Dear Lisa,

They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement.

My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got distracted by a witty rabbit and followed him down a chasm into Wonderland. Along the way, I’ve met wizards and mad hatters. I’ve explored shadowed lands and faced mystical questions about power and energy. And while that may sound like the stuff of a really fascinating and unique memoir, that’s precisely where I am stuck. My story is all true. And it’s much stranger than fiction.

I jokingly tell friends that my life is so surreal, I need to “reinvent genre” to write my memoir. But maybe this is not such a joke? Am I actually staring smack at a perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative? And if so, how am I supposed to write my memoir without feeling impossibly overwhelmed and daunted by this seemingly insurmountable goal? It’s one thing to write my story (and deal with all those inherent anxieties and doubts), but it takes a whole other enchanted wand to create a genre that may not even exist.

In general, I am vulnerable and raw in my writing. I’m unashamed to shine a spotlight on my heart. I’ve attempted to get this memoir out of my swirling mind, and into a few short essays and outlines. But I find the essays lack a higher purpose when I’m too focused on plot points or dialogue. And yet, the details of circumstances matter.

I’ve asked myself: “How do my stories either define or blur my place in this world? How can I claim my own hero’s journey? And what have I learned about safety, trust, power, energy, love, and connection?” But, I worry that such an approach will evolve into a motivational self-help handbook. That is the very opposite of my goal, and the antithesis of my identity. I’m far more Joseph Campbell than I am Louise Hay.

Lisa, how do I hone MY very unique and authentic memoir, with all the existential magic and epic wonder it deserves, without falling too far into fantasy folklore or too off-track into inspirational guru guide?

Alice in Wonderland


Dear Alice,

You’re right, the truth is always stranger than fiction. One of the reasons we’re drawn to memoir is our desire to derive meaning from experiences we don’t fully understand. This is especially true when these experiences contain fantastical elements or a colorful cast of characters. You begin your letter, Alice, with questions of reinventing the genre, asking whether writing your life story is the perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative. Experimentation can foster growth for writers if it helps generate pages, but to think about re-inventing the genre is to put too much pressure on yourself and your book. It’s likely to squash your creative process as you think not just of writing a book but THE BOOK. That’s like asking the Cheshire Cat for directions.

The very first activity I give my memoir students is to create an intention for their books—one that has nothing to do with publishing or success. I ask them to consider how they may act or behave differently or believe something new as a result of writing their story. There are few guarantees in this competitive publishing market, but the one thing I can promise all writers is that the process will change them. My advice to you is the same: consider how you wish to transform as a result of writing this manuscript, then let your book work on you.

When I think of Alice in Wonderland and how it relates to the memoir writing process, I think not so much of the characters, which are all interesting, but of the way Alice shrinks and grows over the course of her adventure. On her hunt for the white rabbit, she encounters a bottle on a table labeled “Drink Me”. In real life, drinking from mystery bottles is about as safe as being a sex-crazed teenager in a horror flick investigating the noise coming from the basement. No good comes from it. But for Alice, drinking the potion helped her shrink enough to fit through the small door in front of her and continue her journey.

My invitation to you is this: brew yourself a cup of tea, close your eyes, and commit to writing your story. Then drink up. Let your metaphorical potion narrow your focus to the work at hand. Jot down a few key scenes that reveal what happened. Make them as vivid as you can. Leave behind fears of believability or the need for labels. Simply immerse yourself in the stories you’ve always told, and your hidden stories will come find you.

Memoirists make two contracts with the reader: the story must be true, and the quest must lead to some form of insight or transformation. It’s not just about what happened but why it’s important. Mary Roach Smith, author of Another Name for Madness says memoir is about something and you are its illustrator. She has a handy formula for helping writers hone their messages: it’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in Z. For example, it’s about finding your voice, as illustrated by your experience of not being believed as a sexual assault survivor, to be told in a book-length memoir. In other words, the events in your life are merely the backdrop for the topic at the heart of your story. The something is what you’re after.

The drafting process is about sense-making and finding the universal truths inside your specific circumstances, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. That specificity is the reason we’re willing to follow Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail even when it may seem impossible that she carried an eighty-pound pack across a thousand miles, or that Tara Westover or Mary Karr could achieve academic success and stability after their impoverished, chaotic upbringings, or that Sarah Manguso could run a 5k after being paralyzed by Guillaume Barre Syndrome. Memoir is about making unbelievable true experiences believable.  We do this through vividly rendering events in service of the story’s main goal.

If you’re not sure what your story is about (healing, recovering your power, finding your voice), write what happened one scene at a time.  Once you have a collection of episodes, ask yourself what they have in common. Determine your X, Y, and Z using Marion Roach Smith’s formula. If your X is unclear, or you’re feeling blocked, you may not have enough distance from the events to examine their meaning. Continue drafting or write something else and try again later.  

Once you know what the work is about, write like a motherfucker. Draft as bad and as fast as you can. Open your heart to the process. Write with the belief that your story is worthwhile and that it will change you. If you draft without expectations, your book will tell you what it wants to be.

Later in her adventure, Alice finds the white rabbit. Inside his home, she eats a cake that causes her to grow. In a similar vein, once you have arrived at a solid working draft, you’ll be ready to expand your perspective. Write down one-sentence summaries for each scene on a series of index cards, then spread them across a table. Give yourself an aerial view of your work and examine your narrative arc. Perhaps, like Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel We the Animals, your manuscript begs for some magical realism. Maybe the story needs a unique structure like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index or Sara Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s possible some poetry or episodes of speculative fiction could be in order. Suppose there are blank spots in your memory. Like Sharon Harrigan in Playing with Dynamite, you may need to imagine scenes to address the gaps in your story. If your manuscript could benefit from a rich metaphorical landscape, Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours comes out in February of 2019. Take a deep dive into her exquisite sentences. Read as many genre-bending memoirs as you can. One of these books may inspire you to create something altogether new.

The stories of our lives are precious. Give yourself time to process unexpressed feelings, delve into what’s behind the stories you’ve always told, and create meaningful reflections. In preparing my response, I spoke with Joan Wickersham about her creative process. It took Joan eleven years to write The Suicide Index. Her story began as a work of fiction and slowly turned into a memoir. It wasn’t until year nine that she figured out the right structure.

Draft by draft, you will reveal the truth masked by the wardrobes, mad hatters, and wizards in your life. By taking a critical look at your stories, you will transform challenging life experiences into art. Your job is not to judge the story or to worry about how the world will receive it. Your job is simply to write it to the best of your ability and accept that only you can tell your story, whether the format is inventive or traditional.

Let this quote by Martha Graham be your mantra as you follow your own white rabbit:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Have patience with the process and keep your channel open. The rest will work itself out.

Lisa Ellison

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Meet Our Memoirists: Melanie Brooks

Meet Our Memoirists: Melanie Brooks

Dear writers,

It’s been a long time coming, but with this post we’re thrilled to officially launch the Moving Forewords collective! There’s so much to comeinterviews with our members, our Heart Speak column by Lisa Ellison, blog posts on all things craft, and more.

To kick things off, we interviewed Melanie Brooks. Melanie is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She is also at work on her own memoir, All The Things I Couldn’t Say. Melanie’s writing is a gorgeous testament to this truth: Getting vulnerable on the page is both our greatest challenge and strongest virtue. If you are looking to get courageous this year with your writing, or if you are an avid reader of this growing and ever-evolving genre, we invite you to watch the author chat, read the interview below for a deeper dive, and encourage others to join us for the ride via our weekly newsletter.

Dana Mich: In your book Writing Hard Stories, you end with this beautiful passage: “If we’re writers, coming to terms is exactly what we do. We find language to unravel the complexities of what happened, and we re-stitch those complexities into narratives that can become meaningful to others. And those are the narratives that have the potential to give others the courage to find their own.” I love the idea that putting words to our life experiences helps us achieve a certain kind of inner reckoning. What has this been like for you in your own writing?

Melanie Brooks: Writing helps me make sense of my life and the world I live in. Joan Didion has this wonderful quote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking. What I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I find her words to be absolutely true in my own writing practice. When I commit words to the page, give them form and contour, peel back the layers of emerging narratives, I’m embarking on a rigorous and intentional act of self-reflection. I’m asking, Who am I? and How have I gotten here? As a memoirist, though, my journey doesn’t stop there. My inner reckoning has to be accompanied by the understanding that it’s not just about me. By writing through my stories, I’m engaging in an act of community. I’m seeking language that bridges my experiences with those of others, and I’m hoping that my words will open space for their words.

DM: You have a memoir in progress about your father’s secret illness and the decade-plus long silence you endured. (I love the working title, by the way: All The Things I Couldn’t Say.) At what moment in your life did you realize you wanted to write your story? Was there any particular catalyst?

MB: For ten years, my family carried the secret of my father’s HIV infection silently and alone. After his death to AIDS-related complications, I spent almost twenty more years carrying the immense pain of that loss in the same way. It buried itself deep in my bones. For a long time, I tiptoed around my story and did everything I could to avoid the razor-sharp grief that lined its edges. The last thing I wanted to do was get any closer. But this story had a different agenda than mine. It pushed back against my resistance and wouldn’t leave me alone. That ache in my bones got worse. Look at me, it said, over and over. Eventually, I knew that I needed to listen. So, in 2013, I enrolled in an MFA program and decided to start writing.

DM: When you first sat down to write, did you think the act of putting words to your memories might transform you in some way? If so, how? And when you finished–did you achieve the outcome you anticipated or did you encounter surprises along the way?

MB: I’d carried this story so close for so long that when I first sat down to write, I had one main goal: to get rid of it and its crushing weight once and for all. To purge it from my system, leave it somewhere on the road behind me, and get on with my life. I could never have imagined that the process of writing about it would eventually lead me to understand that my story is an integral part of my life that I not only can’t, but don’t want, to let go. I had to write my way toward that understanding. I had to write through fear and heartache and vulnerability, give myself over to the material completely and take a deep dive into painful memories I’d never really examined before. I had to linger there long enough to unearth the authentic story those moments held. A story I didn’t know existed until I finally arrived at it.

DM: Once in a blue moon, writers experience these magical moments when they tap into subconscious terrain and write something revelatory. Did you have any of these moments in the writing of either of your books?

MB: There were many moments like this in writing All the Things I Couldn’t Say because so much of that experience dwelled in my subconscious. The nature of living with a secret is learning how to keep things shiny on the outside and hiding the turmoil on the inside. I became really good at distancing myself from the grief-stricken, confused, and terrified girl I actually was. Pretending to be someone else became a way of life that I taught myself to believe. So, digging into that subconscious terrain forced me to look really closely at that girl and reevaluate who she was. I had to recast the story I’d told myself about her until then. That rigorous and intentional act of self-reflection I talked about earlier showed me a lot of things about myself and my story that I hadn’t been willing to see before, and it’s those things that have filled the pages of my book.

Every conversation that I had with the writers in Writing Hard Stories was revelatory for me. They all shed light on so many pieces of the memoir writing process that I needed illuminated to move forward in writing my own hard story. The magical moment in writing that book was when I recognized how different a writer I’d become by the end of that experience of interviewing memoirists than the one I’d been when I began. Their collective wisdom and encouragement cultivated my confidence and demonstrated so clearly the role that community plays in the lives of writers. The companionship and support of fellow travelers is so vital for us on this journey.

DM: Is there anything that scares you about the prospect of having your life story out in the world? What words of advice do you give your students in dealing with these kinds of fears?

MB: To be honest, everything about having my life story out in the world scares me! It’s a vulnerable prospect to think that my most intimate thoughts and experiences are going to be open to other people’s scrutiny and judgment. I have a pathological fear of people thinking badly of me – whether it’s people I know or not – so, that’s definitely a factor. Even more, I fear people will think badly of my writing. I’ve devoted so much time and care to crafting what I hope are beautiful sentences on the page for readers to value and connect with. What if they don’t? The list of doubts is endless.

The gift of spending so much time talking to other memoirists who’ve gone before me is the understanding that everyone feels this way to some degree. Their advice is what I’ve internalized for myself and what I pass on to my students. You can’t control what other people do with your story once it’s out there. You can hope that people will look after your words, but they are going to take from them what they take from them. You can only do your best with the best of intentions.

DM: Thank you so much for your insight and your time, Melanie. I’m elated to have you with us for this journey, and I can’t wait for the author interviews you’ll be conducting as you take this exciting endeavor from here!

Photo credit: HALDANE MARTIN on Visualhunt

Moving Forewords: An Author Collective.

Moving Forewords: An Author Collective.

It’s with a great amount of excitement (and, admittedly, a big sigh of relief and hot cup of vanilla caramel tea!) that I get to announce the launching of Moving Forewords as a hub for personal resilience stories. What once was an individually owned blog featuring guest posts from contributors is now an authors’ collective (…more on that emerging trend here) with a mission to share true journeys of perseverance: from grief to healing, abandonment to belonging, strife to peace, and everywhere in between.

We’re hardly the first pioneers of this concept. Personal transformation stories—rife with hurdles to leap, mountains to climb and rough seas to brave—have been ingrained in us for millennia. They appear as ancient legends in aboriginal cave paintings and as etched hieroglyphics on sandstone pillars. They get passed down to children from the time they’re first born into this world in the form of fairy tales, fables and storybooks. They persist today through religious doctrines and systems of belief. They’re how everything from Disney to the literary genre of memoir exists. These stories of growth and change are how we make sense of the world around us, as well our places within it. They’re so fundamental to our human experience, in fact, that—as mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell suggested—they seem to be embedded in our psyche. (Check out this awesome video tribute to Campbell’s idea, which he termed the “hero’s journey”, below.)

“The hero’s journey myth exists in all human cultures and keeps getting updated because we humans reflect on our world through symbolic stories of our own lives. You leave your comfort zone, have an experience that transforms you. And then you recover and do it again.”

So, no—we’re not unearthing a new field of thought here at Moving Forewords. (Remember that time that Heraclitus said “The only constant is change”? Or my personal favorite of his: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” …Those were circa 500 BC.) What we are doing is adding a current-day, real-to-life touch to this long-standing tradition. We’ll be promoting true personal stories that celebrate resilience and renewal through facing life’s many challenges: heartbreak, divorce, addiction, financial distress, shame and stigma… you name it, we’ll cover it. These stories will be ones we’ve published ourselves—both via our blog and other media sources, as well as ones that we find while panning for gold in popular news columns, literary magazines, and elsewhere in the vastness that is the World Wide Web.

Why? Because, like stones being skipped across the surface of a pond, each touch point ripples out. As we see it, one good thing begets another. And another… and another… and another. Through sharing our trials and the ways we’ve weathered them in our writing, our hope is to create a safe and encouraging space for others who can relate. But it’s more than that, really. We’ll be gathering a community of readers and followers who wish to engage with us on the topics of facing personal adversity—in its infinite shapes and forms—and realize their own innate potential to pull through.

…So! Over the coming weeks, months, and yes… years!… (“To infinity and beyond,” right? 🙂 ) this lovely little piece of cyberspace will unite writers and readers who wish to engage in a dialogue that emboldens the spirit and builds grit. Now, it’s going to take some time to work toward this vision, so hang tight while we gather our talented member authors. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing some must-reads via our newsletter and social media channels. Be sure to check out the new site, follow along @movingforewords on Twitter, and join our (NEW!) Facebook group. And if you have any favorite resilience stories to share (be they books, published personal essays and op-eds, etc.), be sure to post them in the comments below, or send them our way.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Dana Mich
Moving Forewords


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