Structure is the primary concern of the writer, how to order all the key emotional plot points to keep the reader turning pages.
A memoir is not an autobiography. Unfortunately, unless you are a sportsperson, politician, musician, or movie star, no one cares about where you were born or your ancestral history, how your parents met, and what you did in grade three. Unless, of course, this is of itself interesting enough to be a story. A memoir is a slice of your whole life, focused around a topic, an idea or theme, a specific time, or linked moments that resonate around a search or question of some kind.
Here are 6 STEPS to help you find your structure.
NARROW THE FOCUS
When shaping your memoir, it helps to narrow the focus as much as possible – not justMy Journey to Healing, butMy Struggle with Addiction from…
A wonderful weekend was had by all at the latest Relax and Write Retreat in Springbrook on the Gold Coast hinterland. From our retreat nestled in the rainforest, it was only a short walk to a spectacular lookout that made the rest of the busy world drop away.
A fascinating group of women, aged from 23 to 83, gathered together to write, do yoga, feast and have fun, sharing wisdom and kindness. I am always inspired and uplifted by the magic of women coming together. These retreats are only as special as the women who come along, and this one was very special indeed.
The highlight for me was our glorious Jacqui and her Exotic Dance performance. Jacqui performed in an international revue in the late 70s and in eh 80s performed with Joe Cocker onstage and even for the Harlem Globetrotters. She taught us all that sexy is sexy…
Almost everyone I’ve ever met has stories in their head that swirl around and around and won’t give them any peace, until they’re told.
Certainly, most of the people I met in my recent tour of Far North and Outback QLD had stories that they needed to get out of their heads and onto the page.
Writing these stories out and playing with them, using the techniques of fiction to transform the way we see them is a powerful way to get these stories out of our heads – for good! And BONUS we may even create something beautiful from all that pain. Because usually those stories that won’t let us rest are stories about the hard times.
But how to start?
Write a list of the stories on the top of your head – you know the ones.
What stories do you want to tell? Set the timer for 5 minutes and write down as many dot points or titles or other words that will remind you of these stories.
Write another list.What stories do you NEED to tell? Write for 5 minutes or until you’re done.
One more list. This is the scary one. What stories are you afraid to tell? If everyone was dead, if no one ever read it, what stories would you be brave enough to write?
Okay, now you have a list, your head should already feel a bit lighter. Lists are great for taking mountains and turning them back into molehills again.
Now take your list and a pile of index cards and write one of your story ideas on each card and put them in a box.
Set aside some time each day for writing. It doesn’t have to be long. Participants in my workshops know that it’s amazing how much you can write in five minutes. Start there. Pull out one of your story cards, set a timer and write. Five minutes, 10 minutes. Start small and grow the time gradually. We can all spare five minutes, right?
Write as fast as you can, don’t stop. We call this free-writing. Just write. Forget about sounding fancy or poetic or writerly, just get down the story as if you were telling a good friend all about what happened. Spelling and grammar and punctuation really don’t matter at this stage. Just write like a fury and get that story out of your head!
Write all the way to the end of that story. Chip away at your story a bit each day until you reach the end of that bit. If you find it’s taking a long time, then consider breaking that story idea up into smaller chunks. For instance, instead of writing “CHILDHOOD” on your story list, be more specific, eg: my first bedroom, time with grandma, the bad day, my favourite pet, the secret. Break it up into little manageable pieces.
Don’t look back! New writers (and more experienced writers too for that matter) often make the mistake of going back over the first bits they’ve written and spending ages trying to make it perfect. NO! Don’t do it! It’s a trap!! Just keep going forward.
Pick up a new card. Write a new story, and another and another, until your pile of cards is gone.
Writing is rewriting. Once you’ve got all your stories out of your head and onto a page, many pages, then you can go back and add specific sensory details, make sure you’re writing in scenes and order the pieces for narrative drive. But if all that doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry. Just get those stories written down. You’ll become better at writing just by doing it regularly. You may notice when you start putting your stories together that there are gaps. Fill them in. But not all the boring in between, day to day details, just the important things we need to know.
JUST START!YOU CAN DO IT!
If your literacy skills aren’t great, don’t worry – use the dictating feature on your device. Some of the best story tellers I know aren’t any good at spelling. It doesn’t mean they can’t spin a good yarn.
So, what are you waiting for? Get cracking on those lists and let me know how you go. I have lots more hints and tips for writing on the website. Or drop me a line and I’ll do what I can to help.
Well, what an adventure that was! From Cairns and the sugar cane fields and glorious mountains and rain of the wet tropics, to the harshness of the savannah country, to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria, to Cloncurry and Mt Isa and then across the wide open plains left by the ancient Eromanga Sea to the dinosaurs and roses of Richmond and lovely folk of Hughenden, to Charters Towers where my Nana met her hubby and married him, all the way back to the dry tropics and the bustle of Townsville. All in a little under three weeks.
Thank you, Queensland Writers Centre (QWC) for sending me on this epic tour through rain and storms and mountains and dust and plains so endless we could see the curve of the earth. Thank you most especially too to my dear friend Ivan who did all those long-distance drives, overtaking road trains up to 80 metres long, and grey nomads in their creeping caravans, with glee. He also took some stunning photos that will turn up in a future edition of the QWC magazine – Writing Queensland, featuring stories from the fabulous array of characters I met on my travels.
They say we are partly shaped by our environment, and these wild and beautiful places have moulded some unique and talented souls. It was a pleasure to meet a few of them and be a part of their writing lives.
I have been a member of QWC since 2002. Without them I would not have found a publisher for Thrill Seekers or have learnt so much about the craft of writing, and they continue to support me and other Queensland writers with fabulous opportunities such as this. They offer a range of services and support for writers at all stages of their writing lives. You can check them out and become a member here.
Highlights of the tour were many, but those that stand out now are the beautiful workshop room and big crowd in Atherton, the teeming rain and sugarcane fields of Innisfail – my ancestral home, lovely Tenielle in Georgetown who gave me a kinesiology treatment during our one on one workshop, meeting published author and Karumba local, Sylvia, who first arrived in this wild outstation in 1971 with three children in a caravan when the nearest drinking water was a three hour drive to Normanton, the unexpected beauty of the rock formations in Cloncurry, Porcupine Gorge, the warmth of my welcome in Hughenden (thank you to outstanding librarian and pillar of the community Mim), and coming full circle to familiar faces in Townsville.
In each workshop I wrote along with participants and now have a pile of scribbled stories about moments of joy, bad things that turned out to be good things, and hard times in my life transformed into fairy tales with satisfyingly magical endings. Here’s one of my favourites: a moment of joy in Normanton.
The Norman River, wide and milky green, swayed the pontoon under my feet. I spread my arms wide, the cool morning air tempering the heat of the sun rapidly rising, soft and warm on my skin. Across the way campers sat on the banks with cups up tea but I felt alone with this wild world, the scent of salt and grass, rich and clean.
I breathed deep filling my body with the energy of this place. I thanked the people of this land, who’d loved it and kept it holy for so long. Birds called and my breath drew deep.
Later, as I waited outside the hall, an old, very black man in a cowboy hat and nylon picture shirt walked by. I smiled and said, “Good morning.”
He smiled back, his teeth white-yellow in his shining face. “You are welcome here,” he said, and my heart swelled. I was welcome. Welcomed by someone whose home this was, who had roots deeper than the oldest trees, connected to place.
“Thank you, Uncle,” I said. And my day was already perfect.
With thanks and respect to all the traditional owners of the places we visited, the Indigenous nations of far north and far west Queensland.
If you like the photos here, check out my Instagram account for lots more (I went a bit snap happy).
A great big hello to my new writing friends from my travels.
Write like furies people! Set that timer and go go go!
Greetings from paradise! I’ve been having a wonderful time on Magnetic Island with my magical mermaid retreaters over the weekend.
Eight wonderful women writers in a beautiful location. Yoga in the mornings. Writing workshops through the day and lots of feasting and fun in between.
The sun came out for us, and we made the most of it with outdoor sessions and a picnic. Warm enough to swim.
Magda had us all entertained with tales from a life in shearing sheds, Kerstin shared parts of her memoir in process, young talents Bianca and Eliza wowed us with their writing, Julie rugged up and had a great time remembering she loved to write, Annie had us all laughing, and Sitara our tree-warrior made us think about how important our leafy friends are. Poor Antoinette came down with a dreadful tummy bug but luckily was back in action…
Put yourself in this picture! Escape the winter blues and join me and other like-minded women writers on beautiful Magnetic Island, off the coast from Townsville in North Queensland.
As the world continues to roll with the punches of Covid-19 (who else is feeling a little bruised?), there are still places of retreat and recovery where creativity is valued and time slows down to let you settle deeply into your writing, and yourself.
Come along and join the fun at RELAX AND WRITE IN PARADISE June 25 – 27 2021.
At Amaroo on Mandalay! Yes, a resort! No bunk beds here, but studio apartments with their own kitchenettes and bathrooms, singles, or bigger rooms for those who bring along a writing buddy.
Is your creative spirit crying out from some TLC? It’s been a crazy year, take some time out to cherish yourself and refill your tank.
Join a wonderful supportive group of women in a fun and safe environment discovering just how much some deep relaxation can ignite your imagination and get you writing again. Relax and unwind with gentle morning yoga sessions and get writing with innovative workshops that use yoga, and drama techniques to help move those stories out of your head and onto the page.
The program includes two yoga sessions, dance night and four creative writing workshops. Whether you’re writing memoir, fiction or screenplays, these sessions cover the basics of character, dialogue and story development, as well as advice on editing and submitting your work. Two nights comfortable, airconditioned accommodation plus delicious vegetarian breakfasts and dinners are all included in the cost.
PRICES START at only $550 twin share!
Come along and join the fun, make new writing buddies and renew your love of writing. Contact me for more info and bookings.
HURRY! Repeat retreaters – or mermaids as they’re better known – have already snapped up a lot of spaces. Places are limited to a maximum of 15, so you get plenty of attention for your projects.
Whether you’re researching historical details for your fiction, or using your own journals for a memoir, there’s a danger that your story will be swallowed by all the information that you’ve uncovered.
It’s exciting to discover or remember the world you’re writing about, but our job as writers is to figure out which of the multitudinous details we find are the perfect fit for our story.
Researching a place or a period of time can be fascinating, I know. I’ve fallen into that rabbit hole many a time. Hours, days, weeks of writing time can be lost as the lure of ever more information tempts us on until we have a mountain of facts that obscure the shape of our story.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to do this research (though maybe not quite to the extent I’ve done sometimes). We need to understand the world our characters live in. However, we really don’t need to include every little thing we’ve learnt about that world in the story.
Instead, the knowledge we’ve gathered acts as an informed backdrop to the actions and choices of our characters. If we fall too much in love with all the quirky facts, they can drown out the voices of our characters and kill our story.
The discovery of long forgotten diaries, either your own or a relative’s, is indeed a treasure trove for a writer. But again, fascinating as it all is, not all of those day-to-day details are worthy of being included in a memoir or fiction piece based on them. We really don’t need to know what time you woke up or what you had for breakfast or what you did at work. Unless that workday or breakfast includes a major event that has emotional import, most of this daily grind can be omitted without doing a disservice to your ancestor, or your previous self.
My best advice with managing research, whether personal, historical or geographical, is to spend a week or two reading everything you can get your hands on, immersing yourself in the world you want to write about. But then –
Put that research aside. You can make notes about big moments or life/historical events that will help to shape your story, but apart from that rely only upon your memory once you start writing. Your brain will have absorbed the world and the feeling of the story world, but not all those facts that are irrelevant. Focus on your plot and characters and write your heart out, all the way to the end.
If you hit a section where you just HAVE to check an historical detail, resist as much as you can. Highlight the sentence or make a note for yourself on the manuscript about the question but be strong and keep focused on the story. Otherwise, you run the risk of being sucked into the vortex of research and losing your momentum.
KEEP WRITING until you type “The End.” Then during your second draft you can check on all those bits you weren’t sure about and find interesting specific details that enhance your story perfectly without overwhelming the reader with an overload of unnecessary facts.
Research is there to provide a backdrop, not take centre stage. Don’t let it hijack your story!
Hope that helps! Have you been sucked into a vortex of research?
I’ve just finished reading Henry Handel (or as I like to call her Ettie) Richardson’s memoir, Myself When Young.
I’ve been a fussy reader lately, picking up the latest literary best sellers, then putting them down again, unfinished. This though, I read all the way to the end.
Even though H.H. died before she’d completed the manuscript, her notes and her husband’s jottings were used to flesh out the final section. I found it a fascinating read, not only because it gave us a woman’s perspective of Australia in the late 19th century, but also because her writing is such a pleasure to read. Clean and clear. Her voice carried me through, even without a plot driving the story forward. Even though she was writing almost one hundred years ago.
Her life wasn’t easy. Her father died young and the family struggled, despite their middle-class privilege. But she knew this:
“To a writer, experience was the only thing that really mattered. Hard and bitter as it might seem, it was to be welcomed rather than shrunk from, reckoned as a gain and not a loss.”
H. H. Richardson
I’ve been telling myself and my writing students the same thing for a long time now. As creative artists, all the shitty stuff that happens to us has value. It is the gold we mine for our stories. And a wonderful way to find a way to be grateful for the traumas in our life.
EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL!
Every experience is be relished. Treasured even, no matter how painful. Because it all increases our depth of understanding of the human experience and that is what writers need, more than any fancy turn of phrase, or fast-paced plot. Because we write to make sense of what it is to live in the world, of what is is to live a human life.
The more we live, in all the pain and muck and glory, the better our writing will be.
Thank you, dear Ettie, for your words and for your wisdom.
And rain it did! Over 500 mls overnight on the Saturday of our retreat in beautiful Springbrook. Rain thundered down and ran in small rivers through the camp, but we all stayed nice and dry, writing in our cosy nun rooms.
It was cold too! After sweltering in Brisbane for the past few weeks, hiding out in air-conditioning wherever we could find it, suddenly we were wearing our winter gear and I was loaning out jumpers and hoodies to people who didn’t believe it would really be that cold! What a treat it was to be somewhere cold and rainy at the start of our long hot sub-tropical summer. And as all writers know – nothing’s better than a rainy day for writing! And write we did.
Our biggest camp yet with a full house of fifteen writing women across all genres and stages of experience, bonding over a shared loved of words and making sense of life through story. Feedback groups were formed and new writing buddies found. The magic of retreats working again. It makes my heart sing every time, watching new friendships form and the wonderful collaborations and joy that comes from sharing your work and ideas. Everyone contributes a unique piece to the puzzle of what makes a retreat so much fun.
What a wonderful bunch! This time we self catered as well with our amazing chief cookie Gay Liddington (repeat retreater, memoir writer and poet) cooking up a storm with Bianca and Kathy both chipping in to make sure the starving hordes were well- fed. Choc-chia pudding anyone?
As usual we feasted, wrote heaps, learnt some new tricks, collaborated, did some yoga and danced our little hearts on on Saturday night. This camp was DISCO! And again my personal camp highlight was the dancing – splendid Sue leading us all in Nutbush City Limits!
I was too busy dancing my heart out to get any happy snaps of the dancing – let’s just say we all looked fabulous and not at all dishevelled or sweaty. One thing’s for sure — we all had smiles a mile wide.
The weather was really pretty extreme, we may have got our socks wet and had to run around a lot packing up (thank you everyone who chipped in and made it so much easier) and driving down from the mountain littered with forest debris was a bit scary, but we did it together and really, it just added to the fun.
All the best adventures involve an element of risk!
I love running these retreats. Sure I may come home and lie flat out on the rug for a few days recovering, but I wouldn’t swap the joy of bringing women together to share stories for anything.
Three retreats are planned for next year.
Relax and Write in Paradise – tropical MAGNETIC ISLAND – North Queensland, JUNE 25 – 27 2021 Character and Dialogue, narrative techniques focus
Relax and Write in the Mountains – HIGHFIELDS – near Toowoomba west of Brisbane OCTOBER 22 – 24 Life Writing – memoir/autobiographical fiction/ new writer focus
Relax and Write Feedback and Revision Retreat – SPRINGBROOK – Gold Coast Hinterland DATE TBC Structure, self-editing, redrafting and the business of writing focus
All camps are as affordable as I can make them to ensure everybody has a chance to come. $200 deposit will secure your spot at any retreat. Spaces are strictly limited to 15 so book in early to avoid disappointment.
Contact me for more info or to book a spot. Hurry – Magnetic Island is filling fast!
THANK YOU to all the wonderful women who make these retreats such a joy. And a special big thank you to Kathy Ewers for the fabulous photographs.