Video from a recent dinosaur attack at my house. Luckily, it was an adorable dinosaur.
Video from a recent dinosaur attack at my house. Luckily, it was an adorable dinosaur.
What’s your story? Read More
This is a handout I gave to my new beginning memoir class at The Grotto. It’s just me feeling my way through, as usual. If you think this list is total bullshit, let me know. You can also let me know if something on it seems accurate. I’m always interested in becoming a better teacher of what is kind of a delicate subject.
Everything I Currently Know About Writing Memoir
by your friendly workshop facilitator, Heather Donahue
1. Start from the body.
My body and your body have had some similar experiences–some of our most basic, potent ones. This is a vivid palette to paint with. It unifies.
2. When in doubt, go back to the body.
A good memoir tracks the evolution of a consciousness. The body is the vehicle of consciousness. The skin is a permeable membrane. The senses mostly filter, theyʼre the doors we open or close, voluntarily and involuntarily. Consider the multiple conversations at a party that we don’t hear because our ears are built to limit our hearing to that on which we direct our attention. Our attention tracks how our consciousness expands and contracts in different situations. Well-chosen sensory details share this shifting with the reader. In this shifting is the story.
3. Anecdotes, like adverbs, are not your friend.
Well, maybe like facebook friends. Nice enough, but you really don’t have time for them. You’re busy with touchable spines.
Events and situations that don’t illuminate the evolution of our consciousness/insight as it relates to the story we are telling, qualify as anecdotes. Anecdotes donʼt belong in a good memoir. As anecdotes are to story, so adverbs are to sentences. They bring the flaccid. Keep everything tight and strong. Keep flaccid at bay. Wait, what was I talking about?
4. The selection of details reveals the consciousness of the narrator.
If you’re about to kiss someone and the crack in the wall behind their head, or the hairs on their face suddenly take on monumental significance–that says a lot. Ideally, something the narrator notices outside the body will be accompanied by something inside the body and these details will amplify each other, allowing the reader to co-experience something awesome.
5. In the beginning, expect to write about 50 pages per one shareable page.
I say this not to defeat you, but to free you up to just get on it and write as poorly and as dangerously and as embarrassingly as you will. Go for shame, go for grief, go for terror, go for bliss, go for humor, go for insight. Go for all of these things and more and miss them often. Miss them most of the time. Miss them for about 49 pages. Fail. There is no substitute for it. You’ll tune your sensor to your emotional hot spots/pink bits and this is probably where your story is. You will probably write around your story for awhile. I find that stories sometimes pop out of the negative space, squatting in what you’re not writing. This negative space can (and should) remain in your stories. But you should be aware of it. And it should vibrate. Like Ikebana.
6. The narrator and the author are two separate entities.
The narrator can lack insight, not realize what is really going on in a scene, but the author needs to know why that scene is there and what it needs to do. The narrator is a product of the author, a persona crafted to tell the story. (See also: Vivian Gornick “The Situation and the Story”)
7. You have time to write.
Try the Pomodoro technique. It helps get my ass in the chair and keep it there for at least 25 minutes. Try Freedom, a simple application that blocks email and internet. Without distraction, it’s amazing what 25 minutes can do. You can get out some kind of first draft of a scene in that time, Iʼm sure of it. You can look at the street view of the neighborhood youʼre writing about when you revise. Later. Donʼt sacrifice momentum for fact checking in first drafts. Stay in the rooms. Both the one youʼre writing in and the one your story is happening in. Unless your story is set outside. Then you should stay in the room, and outside.
8. Get into a scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can.
This tip is blatantly stolen from Syd Field. He writes screenwriting books that are really helpful with memoirs if you are someone who tends toward the nebulous and rambly. This particular tip can help you clarify the purpose of a scene within your story. It’s also helpful for pacing.
9. Be sparing with essayistic reflection.
In a memoir, I’d rather be alongside the narrator as s/he earns some insight. There are many lovely ways to say “I have become wise” but I find that they are rarely as interesting as allowing the reader to co-experience the “becoming” with you via scene. I’m of the opinion that you have write several scenes to earn your moments of reflection. Possibly this is just me. Feel free to fight me on this.
10. “Generality is the enemy of all art” –Stanislavsky
Be specific. You might think that the flavor and color of the Kool Aid powder that you shouldn’t have been eating with the neighbor boy in the back seat of his Dad’s blue Nissan doesn’t matter, but it does. Especially if it’s cherry. What might matter even more is how it stuck to your sweaty fingers and thighs because it was Independence Day and everybody else was watching fireworks and how those same sticky thighs got poked by and stuck to the torn white vinyl until you moved them closer to the boy who stayed just where he was.
Specific details, particularly those of the body, plunge the reader into the scene so that she can co-experience it. Our bodies have a shared vocabulary that words can almost magically evoke. I find it magical, at least. A bunch of letters can make your heart pound. Nice.
11. When in doubt, be more specific.
If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in anybody else’s memoir, be suspicious. If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in everybody else’s memoir, cut them.
12. Judicious use of metaphor is your friend.
Metaphor helps dissolve and reassemble things, notions, in unexpected ways. The way you use this device will inform/develop your voice. See also: the effects of sentence length, prosody, the difference between the way words from the punchy Anglo-Saxon branch of the English family tree land versus words from the more formal Latinate side. Split things, let them dangle and run on. Then revise. (See also: #16)
13. Imitation can be a useful practice.
Imitate writers whose voices you love. Imitate writers whose voices sound absolutely nothing like yours and see how these change a scene’s effectiveness. Notice how this imitation changes your relationship to a scene.
14. Vision is the least interesting sense.
In terms of crafting richer prose, please don’t forget about tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and any sixth sense stuff you’d like to throw in.
15. Memoir is the very subjective rendering of objectively occurring events.
Iʼm paraphrasing this from somewhere on The Rumpus and can’t find who wrote it. I agree. I think you can composite events and characters to serve the story. Some people disagree with this.
16. Scenes are the cells of a story. Verbs are the mitochondria.
Scenes, like cells, contain a world in and of themselves. Their specific accumulation makes bigger wholes. Verbs are engines, the powerhouses of your prose, much like how mitochondria function in a cell. Keep them strong (and specific).
17. Bulimia is bad for people, good for stories.
Your draft will sometimes be bloated. At this point, strip it down to the barest bones. Keep only what excites you. Then build it back up to make sense. Then blow some narration into scene and see what you come up with. Then purge again. Repeat this until your story is lean and agile.
18. It’s not about you. You’re more like a story filtering system.
If you want to write a memoir, you will excavate your shit. It will be uncomfortable and sometime you won’t want to do it. Maybe you’ll write a lot of impressionistic stuff that’s completely disembodied instead of getting down and dirty and mining the shit for nuggets. Nuggets have value. They can be shared, exchanged. Non-nugget material is for your pals. They care about you, the reader doesn’t. The reader wants to know how youʼre answering the question of how to live. And it should be urgently. You have to go so far, so specifically, and so courageously into you that you dissolve and only the story is left. This might feel self-indulgent at first. If so, go back to the body and be specific with sensory details until what you write breaks your heart, or at the very least, makes you cringe and think your loved ones wonʼt speak to you if they read it. You’ve probably hit a story vein. Keep digging. Get out of your own way. Run on the assumption that there are Dog Star Alien Gods who need to get this story out and you are really pissing them off by being such a clumsy egoic vehicle. You have a responsibility to get out of your own way. For everybody’s benefit, including your own.
19. There can be no douche greater than “I”
Which is to say that your narrator should be the most flawed character in the story unless your narrator is a child. Don’t go tediously easy on a child narrator though, kids do some effed up stuff.
20. Sometimes it helps to work from the insight out.
Often the insight that you have gained (or tried and failed to gain) is at the heart of your story. When you know this, itʼs more straighforward to choose the events/situations that best illustrate that insight. If you are still trying to sort it, all the better. Sort it to its mythic bedrock. Story is conflict! Yay! Now all that conflict doesn’t have to go to waste!
21. Yes, you are probably drinking too much.
22. Oh, and if you start a sentence with “I feel…” or “I felt…” you should probably revise it.
Or revise the whole scene it’s a part of, to allow the reader to experience that feeling with your narrator. This does not apply to dialogue.
Originally posted at Los Angeles Magazine.
Maybe it’s because I saw Craig Zobel’s Compliance around the same time as Eugene Jarecki’s award-winning documentary on the costs of the failed drug war, The House I Live In, that made it especially potent for me. Our acceptance of authority, of the way things are, seems to be butting right up against our desire for personal and economic agency these days. It’s difficult to sustain a sense of empowerment in an economic climate that only keeps squeezing, and that forces us to question everything that we’ve been told to respect. Compliance not only illustrates, but detonates this idea. When I saw it, the woman next to me gathered up her bags more than once, writhed in her seat, and sighed a lot, but didn’t leave. This, I think, is a testament to how well made this brutal but important film is.
In many ways, Compliance is an expansion of the famed Milgram experiment that tested people’s willingness to violate their conscience in obedience to authority. The press notes suggest, “As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: ‘Why don’t they just say no?’ and the more troubling, ‘Am I certain I would?’” Compliance was picked up by Magnolia Pictures by the fest’s end, so you too will have the chance to feel incredibly uncomfortable in an illuminating way.
Pat Healy plays Daniels, who calls the fast food restaurant where the movie is set pretending to be a police officer. His call eventually causes Becky (Dreama Walker of Gossip Girl, in a very brave, very vulnerable performance) to be stripped down and raped by her co-workers and their friends, all on the pretense that she had stolen money from a customer’s purse. Daniels never sees what’s happening at the restaurant. He is not even in the same state. The plot is based on a true story.
Curious why Healy wanted to play this deeply unlikable man and what it was like to be at the vitriolic Q + A that followed the film’s Sundance premiere, I met up with him at the Work Hard/Play Hard lounge where he was wearing his signature black framed glasses looking excited, exhausted, and a little bit buzzed.
What was it like to be at that first Q + A? Did you expect such a strong reaction from the audience?
The woman that was very upset after the first screening, I understood where she was coming from. She said, “Rape is not entertainment, Sundance, shame on you. You should know better. This is the year of the woman. We should make films that empower women.”
Ann Dowd, our lead actress [who turns in a virtuosic performance: maternal, brutal, obedient and unsure, but always relatable], now I don’t speak for her, but to paraphrase, she said, “I think that this film shows how women’s power is taken away.” And there was a woman in the audience who has young daughters who spoke up and said she wants her young daughters to see this movie because if you see how it’s possible, the chances of you getting in that situation are less likely.
I’m not gonna get on a political soapbox saying that I’m out there trying to teach people a lesson. I’m just an actor and an artist and I’m just trying to ask the questions. But I think it can be empowering to see that this is possible, and to see how it did happen.
Compliance is based on a true story. Did you try to reach out to the man your character is based on as you were preparing for the role?
Did you want to?
But you had to have some empathy to play him, right?
No. I think some people legitimately hate themselves. I hear actors always say you need to love the person you’re playing. Something has always struck me as off about that. This is a character who hates humanity, and those people hate themselves. Those are the people that most take it out on the rest of the world.
How did you summon up so much self-loathing?
The thing that informed the character most was a few days into it, the phone broke. And I had to go upstairs and read the lines off camera while I was looking at the other actors. And I was horrified and disgusted. I didn’t have that remove or distance that I had had on the phone. I thought, this must be the reason this guy did things the way that he did. He was on the telephone, he wasn’t watching, he was states away. And that’s the only way he could do it. If you think about it as a game or a prank with no real human consequences…
After your experience of making this film, what do you still obey?
I’m very much a person who thinks that people should follow their dreams and their instincts, but I also believe in civilization and I believe in what we call the social contract. I think the reason certain morals and religion, which I don’t believe in, or the law, exists because there’s an assumption that without some sort of structure, people would fall apart and eat each other. These sort of experiments and these sorts of real life incidents indicate that that may be true. But you know what? It’s 65% of people in the Milgram experiment that did that. It’s shocking because it’s more than half of us. But there’s 35% that didn’t. And there was zero percent compliance when he said, ‘you have no choice.’ Then no one followed.
From Los Angeles Magazine:
The actress and writer (her memoir, Grow Girl, was released last month) reports from the Sundance Film Festival
I believe the best way to gain access to a party—any party—as a plebe is to imitate a starlet to the best of your ability. There are not so many badges around at night, so just waft a little “do you know who I am?”
Three things you’ll need to pull this off are: youth, a great blow out, and totally impractical shoes, maybe a faux-fur Marilyn coat, because that never gets old. I, being too old for that shit, hitched a ride to Sundance with a one-time co-worker whose film is all abuzz.
Velvet ropes give me hives, even when they’re not velvet. We work through his lack of a plus one to the Bing Bar Cinetic bash by him flashing his badge with his movie’s title on it while I quietly add the penetrating eye contact. Plebe better work!
Once inside we wait in line for the coat check which is attended by a platinum woman that looks like the inverse of one of those eighties Robert Palmer girls. Coat check. Fancy. I’m on a budget, so my jacket stays on. Extra dollars are reserved for tipping bartenders. I have my priorities. I am introduced to what are no doubt an assortment of important people. They seem very nice.
There are a lot of L.A.-grade good-looking people here, but dressed like they live in San Francisco. Way to keep it indie! There is a gentleman’s equivalent of the starlet’s entry kit. It includes: fur lined ear flap hat (worn with a jaunty mix of irony and pragmatism), a shirt with some kind of stripe, and glasses that make you look objectively more attractive. I would add a note of caution about replacing the hat. Eight out of ten times an anachronistic hat (porkpie, fedora) gives a certain assclown-y air, but if you’re one of the twenty percent that can make it work, it really, really works.
Hors d’oeuvre trays are circulated with various organizations of tuna tartare as well as a delightful chorizo thing on toast that I kind of want to hoard. The DJ plays “Sweet Dreams” and a smoke machine billows. But what do you want? It’s the Bing Bar.
Overheard: “Last night I was at a party downstairs, which is a much bigger venue. Then there’s also the basement. You can tell how much money a company spent at a party by what level it’s on.” It’s not so much a party as an anthropological field study. There’s a large poster on one wall that illustrates the “Development of Life.” This party is off that chart.
The first person here that I recognize sees me writing and positions herself in my line of vision. Her hand gestures become more adamant. She looks over at me, performing. Yes, I see you. Yes, I’m writing about you. No, I’m not going to mention your name because your behavior is embarrassing. This is not such an exotic gathering except the drinks are free and the people more self-conscious.
“I wanna feel the heat with somebahdeeee….” I’m wondering if the song choices are deliberately meant to match the early nineties inspired pop art. The place feels like it was put together by a gallery owner who was huge in ‘93 but then ran into some substance abuse problems and after several stints at Promises is now doing things like decorating the Bing Bar for Microsoft.
Really though, a smoke machine? Couldn’t you just trust the effects of the open bar?
There’s a marijuana moment somewhere between midnight and 12:30. Short lived. “Girls just wanna have fuh-hun…” As the musical selections would suggest, this party is largely populated by white people. White people finally drunk enough to dance.
I venture downstairs to the larger venue. I have no idea whose party this is. Some girls are giddily posing for pictures taken by their friends in front of the Bing wall. Posing as celebrities posing. The music is live and the bartender has a handlebar moustache and white-framed glasses. Everything down here feels fresher. The art has an adorable, Portlandian quality. A nebbishy dude is flanked by starlets. “You guys want it straight up?” He asks them.
They nod in unison.
“Can I have a lime?” one asks.
“Oh, that’s a very small lime,” she says, with an invisible wink.
Cagey little dreamers take pictures of each other on the sofa under a blue-lit American flag. They have a film they hope will play here nextyear. American something. When I ask how they got in tonight they tell me it was an “inside job.” They won’t elaborate. They slip me a DVD of the trailer for their film, as a security guard approaches and tells us this section is for VIPs only now. It’s promptly roped off and two people sit on the couch. That’s it. Just two people sitting on the couch under the flag. The two big chairs remain empty and a guard with a curly, old school telephone cord shunted down his collar stands before them. It’s like a diorama at the self-important douche museum.
When I tell the American something guys what I would be calling this story they say, “I think we’d rather not be mentioned in that context.” Nobody likes to be thought of as a plebe, especially plebes. But then who’s left to make the world go round while crazy kids are making movies? If everybody was a superstar, who would make lunch? Or teach Pilates? Plebes need parties too. And free drinks, for sure. Cheers!
P.s. A high-altitude hangover feels a little like a grapefruit sized brain tumor has burgeoned overnight, so remember also to drink approximately three times more water than you think you need. At least. See you next year!
Photo: Art at Bing Bar
No shows booked at the moment.