REVIEW: The Art of Memoir

I heard Ms Karr interviewed on the most wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and was so intrigued ordered it.

At first I loved the voice in this book on writing memoir. So authentic, honest, gritty and modern. But soon the book became all about that voice. In some cases, the nuggets she attempts to deliver are so much in “her voice” that it’s hard to understand what she means. This book is supposed to help someone write memoir, but there are times when the message is so opaque, it’s unclear.

That’s not to say there aren’t bits of value.

I agree on how writers need to learn how to include the “carnal” in their writing to capture readers. And yet I disagree with the use of the word “carnal.” She is talking about the senses: Visual, auditory, sensory (touch), olfactory, taste. Many a memoir midwife will tell you, the doorway into writing about the past is through the senses. Recalling the smells, tastes, touches brings a writer into the moment, which leads to other memories. But to me, the word carnal implies sex. Of course, a memoirist can dive in between the sheets, but there are so many more planes to sensual experiences. So it’s a quibble, and she very likely has her reasons.

Karr has great points and bits of advice on finding voice, integrating back story, including some excellent examples. I’m normally not keen on authors who use their own books as examples, but she is wise in how she uses them here.

A great bonus is the last section with a list of memoirs and books on writing memoir. Very useful.

I recommend this book for people who are currently working on a memoir, but not just starting one. My reason: This is sold as a synthesis of her great experience in teaching memoir and writing memoir. But it is not a step-by-step how-to. Half of it is skippable. But the nuggets are so valuable, to a writer who has dug in and going would find some great ideas to reflect on and lenses to review their work.

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REVIEW: On Missing Out

Are you missing the joke of life? Are you ever satisfied? Do you seem to always live the life you don’t have? Do fantasies seem more real than the world around you?

Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst who also spends his Wednesdays writing. Originally standing firmly in the Freudian camp, from essay to essay and book to book he has drifted into the world of philosophy. In this book he looks at:

  • How we can never understand what we really want until we can recognize the nature of our frustration.
  • How knowing what we don’t want — what we are running from — may show us more about ourselves than what we think we want.
  • How (in my view) our world has shifted from one where morality meant something to one where morality is a game, where the Good Person is replaced by the Impressive Person, and being caught lying is now the crime as opposed to lying itself.
  • We always want to be somewhere other than now, and we spend our time searching for the escape. To paraphrase Anna Freud, fantasies are the one area of our life where we can have our eggs any way we want them but we cannot eat them.
  • How our yearning, our striving, our continual hope for satisfaction is a game we play with ourselves to deal with the shifting sands of life. That frequently, our search for satisfaction is about revenge.
  • Some thoughts on why we get pleasure watching the mad attempt to get what they want. About how the mad are actually those who are filled with the certainty of their view of the world, and how seeing them in character form helps us to face the madness of the world around us.

Whew! Heady stuff.

And not written for the pleasure reader, either. Phillips has this annoying habit of using clauses within clauses within em dashes and brackets. This style makes some of his passages difficult going. For example:

But one of the strange things about satisfaction is that its anticipation precedes its realization; that it happens twice — not quite the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy — but first wishfully (in fantasy) and then in reality if one is lucky.

Each sentence is itself a Russian doll, then each paragraph enters the realm of thought tornado, with so many ideas flying about it makes you dizzy. Luckily they are all thoughts packed with insight.

He is a fan and student of literature, particularly Shakespeare, and uses the verbal arts as a launching pad for many of his thoughts.

The back flap of the book promises that Phillips will explain how, “if we accept frustration as a means to finding out what we really want, satisfaction becomes possible.” But I must admit, these plot points are made only through the subtextual connections in this book. Leaps of thought are required.

One can fault this book for its optimistic marketers who wanted to sell it to a mass audience, the inability of the editor to help refine the focus and for the copy editor letting Phillips get away with dense prose. But it does have immense value.

As a writer with a background in theatre and a keen interest in the origins and purposes of story, I found this book eminently thought-provoking.

I would recommend it to those who love Shakespeare, theatre, writers interested in delving into the depths of their characters and anyone who has looked at the world and wondered why they are not driven made by its workings.

On Missing Out by Adam Phillips

REVIEW: The Comic Toolbox

This little book is jam-packed with tools that will help any and every writer, regardless of genre. With down-to-earth language, and brief explanations, Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks.

From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty).

As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

His explanation of plot structure is a 9-point list:

* Who is the hero?
* What does the hero want?
* The door opens
* Hero takes control
* A monkey wrench is thrown
* Things fall apart
* Hero hits bottoms
* Hero risks all
* What does the hero get?

If you include all of these points in your story (as he explains one by one), then it will work as any kind of story. This list parallels and expands slightly on the 3-act structure of commercial feature films (inciting incident, Climax 1, 2, 3). The only thing I’d add to his list is that when the door opens, the character walks through it. Because until the character acts in a way that reveals character, the story engine doesn’t get in gear.

What’s really useful about a tool like this is you can fit the answers to the questions on a single page, so it serves as your pencil sketch, thinking tool, your briefest of outlines, to help you manage the narrative arc of your story. Great stuff.

Since it’s a comic toolbox, it covers the comic premise, comic story types, joke types, situation comedy, sketch comedy and more using oodles of easy to understand examples. After introducing each simple tool he encourages you to try them out.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its title and sub-title, The Comic Toolbox: How to be funny even if you’re not.

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write.

Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective.

How are we going to get out of this?

Dragon Smaug by Tim Kane“The best stories don’t come from good vs bad, but good vs good.” – Tolstoy

If you’re a plot geek like me, this quote is both interesting and instructive. It’s been pinging at me lately, because I think it holds an interesting nugget about the challenges of our times. And it speaks to so many things; Terrorism, Trump, Brexit, Egypt, Palestine, weight gain and tweets.

In stories that are good vs good the conflicts are more internal. Everyone is both a good and a bad guy in a way. It’s about how each of us has our reasons for doing what we do. These are the hard stories to write, because they’re about moving targets we all deal with every day. At their best, they are metaphorical or philosophical.

Plot lines that involve bad vs good feature a clear black hat vs white hat. Detective vs murderer. Superhero vs Dark Menace. FBI vs Terrifying Terrorists (or choose from a broad assortment of racial delineations).

I’m starting to wonder if the predominance of such clearly delineated conflicts has impacted how we all think. That perhaps, by scarfing down simplistic stories, our brains no longer recognize that moral lines are usually complicated and confusing. We yearn for simplicity in a complicated world, so we reach for what’s easy. There are bad people. Here are good people. There’s no in-between. Period. End of sentence.

Life is about change. Stories help us to rehearse for the emotional aspects of life’s challenges. At their best, they show us how to look beneath the easy surface answers. To recognize that a bully bullies because he was bullied himself. How one blow leads to so many more. How we are all human, we all need food and shelter and love and acceptance. That really, there is no “us vs them”. And when there is an “us vs them” (aka duality) we end up in dangerous places. And I think we’re in one of those places now.

In these conflicts, the black hat-wearing dame has a huge ego. She wants to rule or destroy the world and take all of the riches and keep them to herself. She is the dragon hiding in the mountain, sitting on her pile of gold.

But ya know what? The white hat is just as egotistical as his black hat wearing sister. Because although he doesn’t want to destroy the world or rule the world, or keep all of its riches to himself, he is adamantly certain of where to draw the line between good and evil.

It’s all about judgement: Above the line, below the line. Good enough, not good enough. In this climate, negotiation isn’t possible, because that would involve giving in to evil. Life is about competition not collaboration. Rules apply to everyone else, not me. In fact, they’re for dupes and need to be broken. The other side is always entirely wrong. Lock them up, they’re crazy.

Plus, because everyone is delineated as entirely good or entirely evil, none of us are allowed to make a mistake. One false slip and you’ve “gone to the dark side.” You’re garbage. Go away and hide.

A desire for simplicity, for clarity, has got us here. But it’s a mental habit that has obvious down sides. So, how can we get out?

The only answer I’ve found is to look for what is common between us. To find ways to stop thinking in judgemental ways.

What do you think? Do the stories we tell have an influence on our society? Has the predominance of stories featuring good vs evil as opposed to good vs good made us expect the same in real life?  Share below.

FYI: Comments involving partisan politics will not be published. This blog isn’t about that. We need some safe zones, right?

Observational stretching

Writers create worlds for an audience to slip into.  Through craft alone, they can take us on a flight to Mars, on an elevator to the other side of the world, or convince us that trees can talk.

It is the finer details that convince; the ability to show the world clearly through description. Here are some exercises that help you to heighten your perception. They are designed to adjust your perspective so you can see things… differently.

At some point over the next day, when you’re stuck in traffic, riding an elevator or waiting in a line, stop the DJ in your head and notice where you are. Don’t think about that power struggle at work, or what you need to do tomorrow or what you should have done yesterday. While you’re at it, toss out judgement. Try to see what is, not what should or could be.

This kind of exercise is called noticing. When you notice the world around you in detail, you’re seeing with fresh eyes. The more you work at seeing in this way, the more accurately you’ll be able to capture it in your writing.

Start by just noticing aspects of your own experience:

  • As you’re getting ready for your day, stop for a moment and look around you. Notice the room, the light, the taste of your coffee (or tea or whatever).
  • Feel the water of the shower, your hands on your scalp as you apply shampoo. Smell the fragrance of the soaps you use. Hear the sound of the water.
  • As you walk, notice how the light falls on the buildings, hear the traffic flow.
  • If you’re racing somewhere or your thoughts are running wild, stop them. Step back. Take a breath. Look where you are. Notice your breath. What’s going on? What is that like?

Here are suggestions to broaden your noticing:

  • You’re waiting in line. Look at the other people standing there with you.
    • Ask yourself, what’s the primary emotion of each person I notice?
    • What is it about their expression, stance or activities that send an emotional message?
    • What one aspect reveals their character?
  • You’re on a bus. Move your attention from one person to another. For each:
    • What is their dominant emotion?
    • What do you think they do for a living?
    • Where are they going? Where are they coming from?
    • What are the thoughts spinning through their brains?
    • Imagine what they were like as a 5-year-old child. What about as a baby?
    • What did their mother love about them? What was the secret fear she had about their life but never told them?
    • What is the one thing they hunger for more than anything else?

And last, suggestions for fine-tuning your noticing:

  • Focus on what you see around you. The faces, colours, light, shadows. When something pings at you, try to describe it in words. What emotion does each visual evoke?
  • Focus on sound. Can you differentiate sounds? Is one sound irritating? How is it irritating? Is another sound soothing? What makes it soothing?
  • Focus on smell. Can you connect a smell to an emotion?
  • Focus on relationship. When you look at a table of people talking over coffee, or a couple walking down the street, can you tell the nature of the relationship? The quality of that relationship? Can you imagine what they’re saying?
  • Focus on conversations. Can you hear what people around you are saying to each other?

Noticing is like a muscle. The more you develop the ability, the stronger it becomes. And since it is a form of meditation, it will also help you to find calm and distance in your day-to-day life.

How do you use this in your writing?

If you’re asking this question, you probably haven’t tried it yet. So go ahead!

When you do try, even if just for a moment, you’ll create a sense memory that you can call on when you need it.

10 books every writer needs to read

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The nature of every craft is that it is never static. As you grow and shift, so should your writer’s resources.

The 10 books every writer needs to read are not dictated by someone like me. They’re dictated by you and where you are as a writer.

I use my go-to resources by:

  • Underlining poignant bits. If a sentence sings to me, I highlight it.
  • Writing key words in margins so I can find themes or plot points later. This is useful for connecting story lines, timelines or characters.
  • Creating my own index on the inside back pages.
  • For my current fave book, creating a cheat sheet with the structure, plot points, and more. Some of this I do in the book itself. I write notes on transitions between chapters, highlight key plot points, the mechanics of the craft so I can learn from it. But I also will write a one or two page plot structure outline which I staple in the back page of the book.

What are your go-to writing resources? List them in the comments.


Colleen’s current top ten

Gone GirlRight now the book I’m a bit geeky about is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The craftsmanship in this book is impeccable. Flynn establishes her antagonist as the good guy, the protagonist as the bad guy, which keeps you guessing and turning pages. Adept at using all senses, she places us in the world of the characters, and has readers loving (and hating) each and every one of them. In addition to being a thriller, this novel is an exploration of love and marriage. Should we just let love ‘happen’ or should boundaries be set? What should those be? Where do the lumps in a relationship begin to form, how do they stretch into gaping holes we can’t jump across? Is there any transgression that cannot be forgiven? Flynn plays with time, and through Amy’s journals, turns back story into an involving and eerie ride. There’s lots to think about in this book.


Steven King On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King. For King, the stories don’t come from within him. They are not things he created. They are more like fossils he uncovers by listening in the right way. What I like about this philosophy is it takes writing out of egomania and makes the writer beholden to the story. As writer you are a vessel for the story, not a god.

In no-bullshit prose, King puts down, “briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.” Incredibly readable, at times difficult (what would a Stephen King book be without some weirdly challenging passages?), and chock full of great advice.


Birb by BirdBird by Bird by Anne Lamott. My huge take-aways from this book:

  1. Write shitty first drafts. Get it down, do it fast, don’t care about making sense. Just follow your muse, have as much fun as you can, and knock the critic off your shoulder.
  2. When writing, you only need to think of the words that will fit in a 2″ picture frame. That is, concentrate on the now, not then or when.
  3. Every climax is either a killing, a healing or domination.

A down-to-earth and fun to read.


Comic ToolboxThe Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. Vorhaus explains comic principles extremely well. He also explains story structure in a simple, easy-to-understand way.

Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks. From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty). As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write. Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective. 


writing toolsWriting Tools byRoy Peter Clark. Have trouble editing your work and punching up your prose? Here’s a book for you. Roy Peter Clarke’s focus is on providing a writer a box of tools. From copy editing to point of view and project management of writing projects, his insights and common sense approach make this the most useful writing book I’ve seen in years. His background is in journalism, but the lessons can be applied to all writing styles. My personal favourite is the chapter on generating a story question. Here, he talks about the “story engine” — a concept I first learned about from Sol Stein. Mr. Clarke refines this concept and shows how a question can help a writer to tame those sub-plots.


Sol SteinStein on Writing by Sol Stein. Looking for an editorial process for your work? Here’s the best one I’ve found in any advice book on writing. Sol Stein is a master editor and a writer himself, so he gets it.

From cutting the flab from your prose, to substantive editing of your book as a whole so you DON’T get sick of it from reading it over and over and over, Stein has some great advice. My fave: While reading your paper manuscript, write a V at the top of each page that has a visual. When done, go back and for every page that does not paint an image for the reader in words, create a visual or tap another sense.


7 basic plotsThe Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This book is so big and thick you could use it as a murder weapon. But it also has some thought-provoking thinking on the reason for storytelling and story types.

According to Booker there are seven basic plots: 1) Overcoming the Monster; 2) Rags to riches; 3) The quest; 4) Voyage & return; 5) Comedy; 6) Tragedy; 7) Rebirth.

Each story type has its own requirements. If your story does not contain what that type of story needs, then it won’t resonate with your audience.

In addition to discussing story types, he proposes that all stories are about how to overcome our egos and become better humans.


Books on Art and Life

To till the soil of my craft I need more than books about how to write. I need art to experience other senses, philosophy to consider what it means to be deep, and psychology to learn how humans work. These are my current go-to books for inspiration.

How Music WorksHow Music Works by David Byrne. This most readable book on the creative process, it considers the medium of music from multiple angles and asks a whack of intriguing questions. In conversational style that makes you feel like you’re sitting together sharing a coffee, Byrne discusses the academic research — medical, artistic, psychological — and personal experience as a lover of music, a maker of music, and an observer of music. He then twists this object we know as music upside down, backwards and forwards again. This book is about art, about who has the ‘right’ to create it (in his view, everyone.) That music making or art making are useful to us all, as a release, as an exploration, as a means to making us all better people. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in music, art, or music making.


Going SaneGoing Sane by Adam Phillips. What an intoxicating marvel! Poetry mixed with psychology and language, explore the world of madness and sanity. Phillips argues that there are more definitions for madness in our culture than there are for sanity. We both love and fear those ‘eccentrics’ in our midst, fearing that we are heading down the same slope, while also somewhat jealous of their freedom. He begins with a dive into literature, with Hamlet a central figure. This is followed by a look at our relationship to our sanity from a range of views. Sane sex, sane greed. He ends with an attempt at a definition for sanity.

Critics have assailed him for his lacklustre exploration of the literature. I personally found his insights and the poetry of his language… well, as I said, intoxicating. He does, on occasion write in a very dense style, where his love for spinning ideas seems to outweigh his desire to communicate. (Was his editor intimidated by this man’s ability?) But overall the book is a must for anyone interested in exploring the human psyche and most definitely, writers.


FamiliesFamilies & How to Survive Them by John Cleese & Robin Skynner. This is an oldie but a goodie. And yes, this is the John Cleese of Monty Python fame, but the book is written as a serious study with humourous overtones. With the help of the Skynner, an eminent psychotherapist, they delve into human development, relationships and all things fascinating about human behaviour. In ordinary language, they go through day-to-day interactions and challenges, from change and depression, the terrible twos and many other aspects of humanity.

There is one area where this book is somewhat dated and I disagree with: How people “become” gay. I suggest you just skip past those pages, because it… well… let’s just say these two straight guys reveal a bit of fear in this area.

Is all feedback useful?

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In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.