[Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) author of Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir recently gave a talk on how to self-publish your Peace Corps story at a local California library. Here is what he had to say.]
To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’ve been a writer for half my life and a jack ass my entire life. What I’ve learned is that we all have important stories to share and maybe it was when we reach down to lift our own child or maybe our grandchild that we are inspired.
You may flinch at the idea of writing a book. Don’t. First of all, many famous American writers did not even graduate from a university. Second, do you have any idea how many silly books are published each year? Your story is worth 1,000 diet books and 10,000 romance novels. Third, it is not as difficult as it sounds, especially for men and women of letters. Finally, the notion of a professional writer is a myth. Yes, some folks earn money writing for a few years but the vast majority has a day job: they teach, sell, even sheriff the bad guys. The majority of writers are just like you- struggling to survive. The only difference is that they manage a few hours each day, probably by moving to a room without a television. Even if you only type three pages per day, you could have the first draft of a 150 page book in less than three months.
Prose includes all sorts of books but the easiest to write is the personal experience essay, something we all have been doing since the fourth grade when teachers asked us to tell them in writing what we did over our summer vacation. This will be a very long personal experience essay called a memoir. Memoir is a French word meaning memory. Told in first person (I), past tense, it will contain a story about a portion of your life (Peace Corps). This is the distinguishing difference between an autobiography and a memoir. While the autobiography describes the author’s entire life, the memoir hones in on a significant period. It is like the difference between a home and a kitchen. Although we all live in a home, the interesting events all happen in the kitchen.
Historians have mixed feeling about memoirs. Some agree with the Great Depression American humorist Will Rogers: “When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do-well, that’s Memoirs.” (Will Rogers, 1949) Others believe that a well written memoir ”can be among our most beautifully written sources…a fine document containing both information and attitude.” (Carol Kammen, 1988)
The memoir is a selectively-told true story. This is very important. If you wish to change history, write a novel instead. If you want to tell the truth, a memoir is a great vehicle, but even a memoir must hold the reader’s interest. For that reason, the memoir reveals selective, discriminating details that succinctly describe people and places without wearing us down with minutia. Your book will have a tone and mood based upon your experience. It may be a very happy tone and mood if you spent two years working on a tan. It may be a terrifying tone and mood if you were kidnapped. Your book will be structured chronologically. A good memoir also employs other technical tricks used in fiction including: the use of the telling detail, the use of action to illuminate characters and foreshadowing. The telling detail is a description of something that simultaneously aids the tone and mood. If lonely is the tone and mood, maybe the description of a single swaying tree from which a raven takes flight is enough to give an impression. When writing about people, instead of telling us that Jose was brave, why not describe something that he did which was brave? Never even use the word. Let the reader figure it out. Foreshadowing involves laying out clues for what will happen. For instance, if a key point of your story involves you or a friend being bitten by a viper, you can foreshadow that with a training warning about snakes. Later, maybe your neighbors killed a snake, or you saw a snake carcass on the road, or all of your neighbors wear fancy snake skin belts.
Some memoirs even use cliff-hanger chapters. All memoirs involve descriptions that appeal to the five senses and the use of tension. The five senses are sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch. Why write “Karen grabbed her machete”? Instead, write something more graphic like “Karen squeezed the blood covered machete’s handle” which appeals to sight. “She licked the salty blade as the pig squealed” appeals to both the sense of taste and hearing. Tension is sometimes created by an unanswered question. The reader continues, hoping to find an answer (in literary lingo-resolution). Nearly 40 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut asked in a lecture hall how many of us had written a book. Hundreds of hands went up. Then, he asked how many of us could not find a publisher. The same number of hands went up and we all laughed aloud.
“The solution,” began Vonnegut, “is to throw away the first five pages. The reader will race through your book trying to figure out what they missed.”
As mentioned, your story structure is chronological. However, you may selectively describe events but before including it in your book ask, “Is this really related to my story?” Likewise, you met hundreds of people during your experience, do you include all their names? Not if you expect us to read past page five. You must whittle it down to an essence, a strange smelling and tasting exotic drink, for that is what intrigues your audience.
In creative writing classes, they discuss point of view and voice. In a memoir, the point of view is honest and the voice is yours. During your revisions however, be critical of your writing. Do you sound arrogant or even unforgiving? Try very hard not to spit tobacco juice on your host’s floor. For anyone who answers, “But it’s all true…” have you included all of your own bad habits?
To begin, you need:
1. Four to six feet of butcher paper
2. Three sharpened pencils
3 A ream of lined notebook paper
4. A three-ring binder
5. An eight-pack of crayons
6. A 12 inch ruler
7. Yellow, blue and pink highlight markers
8. Ball point pens- red, blue and black
9. Clear tape
10. A pair of scissors
11. The willingness to remember everything possible
To help you remember, pull out all of your faded photos, books, old passport, shot records, training materials, worn journals and any keepsakes. If you served after 1990, open those trunks and pull out computer discs. Some might even be larger than five inches in diameter!
If you sent letters, ask for copies. Hopefully those on paper bear dates but even if they do not, the envelope will bear a date stamp. If you sent electronic mail, hopefully it has some sort of date. Keep the copies and read them very carefully. In retrospect, you might remember everything as fun. The letters might tell a very different story. They might describe depression and illness. Please, do not bore your reader by quoting your own letters, but certainly use them as a tool. Good memoirs are truthful. Use all of the materials you have dug out of dust covered trunks in your garage, even if they made you sneeze. Read old documents and study old photos. If you practice yoga or even self-hypnosis, use those skills to relive the experience.
TALK TO PEERS
Also speak on the telephone or meet with your peers. Show them your notes and talk about service. They might remember things differently or even remember things that you had forgotten (or did not know). Take notes.
I have read more than one book where which the authors horribly mangled history because they claimed to have relied solely upon theirmemory. Successful Peace Corps memoirist Kris Holloway (Monique and the Mango Rains) not only studied her journal and souvenirs, but she returned to her Peace Corps post and interviewed people. Upon her return, she spent one year in libraries reading about Mali women, commenting afterwards that the research “brings depth to the book.” Do not assume that you know everything.
OUTLINE ON A TIMELINE
From your local grocery store, ask for four to six feet of butcher paper. At home, use pencils, pencils, markers (even crayons if you want) to create a giant calendar from left to right representing your experience. If you want to write a chapter about your family history followed by a chapter about your early life then you should consider an autobiography. For the techno-wizards, use an Excel spread sheet for the same thing. I really like low-tech but am old as dirt. Those crayons sure feel good in my hands. What did you expect? Everything urban planners know they learned in kindergarten.
Study all of your own materials and use the calendar to note important facts. You might even use colors. For instance, you might use blue ink to describe people: when you met them, what you did with them. You might use red ink to note those really strange adventures like the time the Peace Corps truck broke behind rebel lines during a civil war or, that clandestine rafting trip you took or, a crazy party you attended in another country. Maybe you will use standard black ink for the basic data: when you arrived in country, when you were sworn in, when you arrived at your first home, etc. Personally, I type all this up and cut and paste it on the calendar, using colored markers to circle them. Each color denotes something special to me. Remember: you do not have to affix exact dates.
If you expect anyone to read your entire book, it must be interesting and well written. When you take the time to create a color-coded timeline, some problems become obvious before you even start writing like missing details.
FIRST DRAFT: RUN!
To paraphrase Henry Miller, we can all sing. The thing is to fill your lungs and let loose, don’t you know. So it is with writing. Thumbtack your timeline on a wall facing the spot where you intend to write. Set up a reasonable writing schedule and then, write. Do not stop to edit. Do not show it to anyone. Write.
I write my first draft long-hand in pencil on lined notebook paper as a reminder that this is a crappy first draft. The problem with computers is that they make everything look so beautiful even if it is really bad writing. Once I have followed my timeline to the end, the first draft is done. I neatly number all the pages, put them into a three-ring binder and store it in a drawer for a while.
SECOND DRAFT: THE TELLING DETAIL
Some people give too much importance to data and not enough to simple observation, the telling detail. For instance, when describing the rainy season one could write, “Over the next four months we received 143 centimeters of precipitation.” It will mean more to the reader if you root your description in the everyday world: “For the next four months it rained everyday between three and seven in the evening. When it began, the river’s rush a quarter mile away was unheard. By the second month, the river had jumped its banks and flooded the streets and yards of homes a block away. By the third month, I stood in my second-story kitchen and from the window, watched crocodiles swim underneath.” If it was cold, why give a temperature reading? I can get that from a computer site. Paint a picture with words. “We got out of the back of the truck and carefully stepped on frozen earth. Billy Bob started horsing around and as I laughed aloud we both heard strange cracking noises. My front teeth had all shattered from the cold.” These have to be true, most naturally. The key is to remember those telling details.
So, you pull the three-ring binder from the drawer and re-read, adding telling details everywhere you can. Your text should be written in past tense because it already happened. If you are convinced that present or present continuous tenses are better, try an experimental novel. Take out silly philosophy or tinhorn political commentary. Give us observation and action. This is witness literature.
You are describing a people and place that will probably be very different fifty years hence. If a section sucks, snip it out with scissors. Write something else and tape it in. More important, what is this story about? Hopefully enough time has passed so that you have had a chance to consider your life and how this experience fits in- what it really meant to you. If you were caught in the middle of a civil war and witnessed your neighbor’s slaughter that is one kind of book. If you spent hours fishing off of a quiet tropical pier, that is another kind of story. Please do not equate violence with a “good story.” That is what writers do in Hollywood with formulated sex and violence film scripts. You are an artist, not a hack.
When writing, trust your reader. Do not tell us everything. If Joe or Jane Blow was a jerk, describe how and why you think so without using the word “jerk.” Describe action. The reader will figure it out. Also, appeal to the five senses with your descriptions. These are both stylistic tricks used in fiction but are quite effective in non-fiction. If you are a naturally funny person, use humor, but set jokes up. Usually, readers will accept self-depreciating humor and slapstick easier than intricate word associations. Keep in mind that jokes should never get in the way of your story but complement it. This is not meant to be a book of one-liners for a stand-up comedian but a story that moves.
Dialogue can be tricky. If you were wise enough to take accurate notes in the field, sound recordings, or even videos, feel free to use them in your book where appropriate. They may even be edited. When meeting with your peers, they may laughingly remember a favorite phrase of someone you noted. Use it if it fits. However, do not invent conversations. That is fiction. Many good memoirs have no dialogue.
When your manuscript bulges because of all the taped-on additions and it is difficult to read because of all of the multi-colored notes on front and back sides, your second draft is complete. Go through it slowly, noting insert numbers on each page and arrows to assist you later. Make sure the pages are all in order. Click the three-ring binder closed and return it to that secret drawer for a good, long while. Go out. Do different things. Forget the book and concentrate on life.
THIRD DRAFT: POLISH
When do you write numbers out and when do you use numerals? Which words do you capitalize? Get a style manual. There are quite a few to choose from. I suggest the Chicago Manual of Style.
How do I know if my writing is awkward? Buy a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Read this tiny paperback before returning to your own manuscript. Originally written nearly a century ago, it is still the Holy Grail of clear writing. Writing coaches also recommend Writing Well by William Zinsser.
Now you are ready to open that drawer. With a yellow highlight marker, circle all the clichés. Please do not describe your airplane trip and how a country looked from the air. This is worse than cliché: it is disgustingly trivial. With a pink highlight marker, circle all the jargon. Get rid of those bad boys! Be ruthless. Whatever it is, describe it succinctly in plain English. With a blue highlight marker circle all the sections where you describe a living person that you did not like. Use the internet to read about libel. Adjust your book accordingly. The real questions are “Is this necessary?” and if it is, “Could I change the name?” Yes, you can, but note in the title page verso (described in Chapter Four) that some names were changed. Assume that you will sell thousands of copies of your book and thanks to Amazon.com, it will be distributed worldwide (something that was not realistic a generation ago). Even a foreigner halfway across the world can sue in an American court for libel. Take out dates and times. They are superfluous (this is a memoir, not a technical document). You will eventually write a preface which will include important dates (your birthday is not an important date).
Your readers have no idea who you are or what motivates you. In this third draft, make changes so that you reveal yourself to the reader like a magician turning a card trick. In order to do this, reread your second draft and ask yourself questions. If you disliked something described, why? If you enjoyed something else described, why? Think about your experience in terms of what it meant to you.
It is time to type your manuscript. Most editors and contracting printers use Microsoft Word. If you have never used this program, get a copy of Word for Dummies which will explain many interesting tricks and short-cuts in easy steps. Begin with the easiest part, the structure. Type a title page, title page verso (where printing information goes) and leave a blank page for a preface. Also type a table of contents and leave it blank for now. As you type, you can add the parts in. While typing the text, reword any awkward phrases. Slash the obvious (”He nodded up and down.” How else do you nod?). Use your research where appropriate (”This was the first major flood since 1932.”).
While retyping, why not clean up? Do not start each sentence with “I.” Use active voice, not passive (”That night a decision was made.” becomes “That night I decided.”) Get rid of legal sounding gibberish (none the less, comparatively speaking, in relation to, etc.). Minimize the use of adverbs (lustfully, quietly, expertly, etc.). Use verbs that best describe the action (Instead of “He put the amber colored bottle on the table,” maybe “He slid the amber colored bottle across the table.”). It is no coincidence that poets are such great story tellers: they are masters of minimalism.
Although a good memoir will begin with a “hook,” please avoid putting that fast paced adventure first, out of context. Over the past several years professional editors have counseled to do this as if it were a fictional flashback. This is inappropriate for the memoir. You now know what kind of book you are writing and you have established a tone and mood. Lay a hint of that on the very first page. Then, sprinkle clues along the trail as if they were cookie crumbs.
Just as you expect a newspaper article to contain truth, readers expect a memoir to be truthful. Unfortunately, many internet sites and books confuse us with so many fictional terms (plot, theme, characters, scene, etc.). There are no scenes, characters, plot or theme, just real people, places and action described factually. A memoir filled with fiction is called a lie. Do not invent or distort anything.
Put all of your life experiences to work on this memoir, including wisdom. Describe everything as accurately as possible without derogatory conclusions. Let your reader draw his or her own conclusions.
At this moment, you are ready to seek the opinions of others.