NYC and Writing Class

Jane and I spent the past weekend down in New York City where I took a one day intensive writing class at the Gotham Writers Workshop. The class focused on Memoir writing and our instructor was Stacy Pershall who wrote her own memoir, Loud in the House of Myself. Basically we spent the time experimenting with various writing exercises and ways in which one goes about writing a memoir. Unlike fiction, where you can use the characters to work out the situations in a memoir you are basically telling a story based on how you see things work out. In an article she gave us the author writes, “To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly—inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires—but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public—and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.”
The great challenge is to first find ones own voice and that starts by basically creating a timeline, places of great challenge and change that brought you to the place you are right now. One of our exercises was to write down at least ten moments in our lives where something happened that changed the course of our lives, an event or moment, that forever altered the path we were on at that time. Once that was accomplished, I got up to six of those moments, we then were asked to identify what was happening using six adjectives, love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice. After that we then began to add even more adjectives such as, empathy, ambition, hope courage, fear, anxiety, desire, lost, lust, escape, shame, anger, discovery and regret. Building upon each of those moments you begin to develop, what Stacy called a Major Dramatic Question, the question that will become the theme of the memoir.
All memoir requires that one “inciting incident” that something that brought about the change either in the path one was on or opened a new path. Christopher Booker talks about seven basic plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, from these seven come five stages: anticipation stage–narrator is called to the adventure to come, dream stage- adventure begins narrator has some success, frustration stage- confrontation with the enemy; illusion of invincibility lost, nightmare stage-climax of plot, resolution stage-narrator defies the odds.
The greatest challenge I see is when it comes to character development, how do we make the character, and in a memoir that is self, seem interesting without becoming a whining and complaining bore. Again, Stacy gave us four basic questions: What did I want from them? What did they want from me? What did I not know at the time? How did they change me? Once we begin to flesh out the characters and begin to answer those questions then comes the time for dialogue, how we communicated, spoke with one another. Here the danger is having dialogue that sounds too formal, with no contractions and all sounding alike. Stacy suggested that we eavesdrop on conversations around us, listen to how people speak to one another and again, develop a voice that is true and real. So much goes into our speech, emotions, relationships, environment, culture, geography, education language proficiency, even ones own physical state.
Yep, there sure is a lot to this writing stuff and lots to consider. No wonder it took our teacher, Stacy, over nine years to get her memoir written and then out into the world. It’s work, but I believe it is good work and even if I never get published at least I will have accomplished something that my grandkids will be able to read and hopefully read to their own children and grandchildren long after I am gone.

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