Turning “Fact” into “Faction” – on writing a memoir

Business man walking on a high tightrope Memoir writing is increasingly popular as a storytelling genre, but there are pitfalls even to what you might think is the easiest thing to write — adventures based on the story of your life. Someone once said it’s the closest thing to writing poetry a prose writer can do. Whether that’s true or not, what is true is that writing a good memoir is like walking a tightrope — the details of the narrative have to be compelling, but the details in the end aren’t what makes the memoir work, it’s the universality of what you’re saying that is important.

Susan Faludi’s recent book In the Darkroom is a good case in point. Faludi is arguably one of the most important feminist writers of the last 30 years. In the summer of 2004 she received an email from her 76-year-old father, a man she had barely spoken to in nearly 25 years. When her mother divorced her father Faludi was 16, and her father responded to the news with what Faludi describes as “a season of escalating violence.” His unexpected 2004 email said, “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man . . .” and announced he had recently had sex reassignment surgery and was now Stefánie Faludi.

Would you want to read more? I think the odds are strong the answer is yes. The fact that this really happened makes it compelling, but the fact that it is also in part an exploration of gender roles and expectations, and the way Faludi writes her memoir defies obvious conclusions and explanations, also makes it universal.

Whether you have Macmillan publish your memoir or you do it yourself, publishing a memoir about outrageous events (which is why we read them) and turning them into edge-of-the-seat adventures can be seriously problematic if you can’t validate what you are saying actually happened. These things will return boomerang-like if not handled professionally. That’s why it’s always useful to hire a company like Lincoln Square and it’s editors and copyeditors who are trained to spot the unintended sinkholes in the road before you actually reach them. (We can’t do anything about fabrication however. We accept what you say is true and may be able to point out where things may start setting off some bells.)

Fictionalizing nonfiction is like walking a tightrope — deliberate deception clearly crosses a line that, for instance, Lorrenzo Carcaterra’s bestselling book Sleepers frankly hugged. He at least warns you that while the book is true, names and details have been changed to “protect” characters in the story. In other words, while it’s true it’s also not exactly true either. It’s up to the reader to figure out exactly how far Carcaterra went in stretching the truth in the drama.  (E.L. Doctorow once famously said that all novelists are professional liars, but because they are forced to admit they are lying, they end up telling the truth.)

Another well known deception that clearly crossed the line was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, his 2003 memoir of being a 23-year-old alcoholic drug abuser in a Twelve Steps-oriented rehab center. Margaret B. Jones’ (aka Margaret Seltzer) Love and Consequences,  was a “memoir” of her life as a white foster child raised by a black single mom in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles. Once the book was out and gaining some attention her older sister “outed” her by saying it was all made up.

We live in a “gotcha” culture, and the more a book becomes successful (which is surely one of the reasons we publish in the first place), the more scrutiny the book and its author get. The real shame of it is that the writers mentioned above (and others who fell victim to the same problem) are usually pretty talented.

Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead who worked with Ms. Seltzer for three years on the book, told the New York Times she was “stunned” to discover that the author had lied.  “There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said. Meanwhile, Cyndi Hoffman, 47, the older sister who “outed” Margaret, commented about the publisher: “I would think that protocol would have them doing fact-checking.”

But as Geoffrey Kloske, then publisher of Riverhead Books said, “The fact is that the author went to extraordinary lengths: she provided people who acted as her foster siblings. There was a professor who vouched for her work, and a writer who had written about her that seemed to corroborate her story.” He might have added that she also signed a contract with a warranties clause agreeing to tell the truth.

The whole point being, whether you are published through a mainstream company, or create your own company to publish your book, you should go to great lengths to make sure your dramatic story is verifiably true.

Mimi Read, the freelance reporter who wrote the profile of Ms. Seltzer that brought down her house of cards summed it up: “The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store — you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission. . . .  She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise.”

We are all prone to exaggeration. But beware telling people that instead of walking past the gorilla cage in the zoo, it became a life and death struggle with that gorilla as you tried to rescue a hapless child from its grasp. Almost certainly, the more successful your book, the more likely it is that someone somewhere will check out the truth of what you say and call you on it if you’ve gone too far.


Top 10 Writing Tips for Lawyers (as well as everyone else).

writing-in-the-dark-1497115-1599x1200Many writers confuse putting words down on the page, which is really a form of coal mining, with editing and shaping those words, which is really where writing gets done. Writing is about thinking, and the question that should always be uppermost in your mind when you write (indeed, it’s a great idea to have it on your computer monitor or in a note on the wall that you see every time you look up from the screen) is: What am I trying to say?

Simple right? But don’t confuse simple with easy.

As you contemplate writing THAT BOOK, you know, the one you’ve threatened to sit down and write for years now but somehow haven’t yet started, here are 10 tips to make getting into the water a lot easier. That’s what Lincoln Square Books does best: we help you get out of your own way, so you can finish what you’ve always wanted to start.

  1. Legal writing asks of the author that they are familiar with the “language” of the law. Words have very specific meanings that don’t always apply in the “civilian” world most of us occupy. (“Alien” is a good example.) So while it feels like you spend your time writing “jargonese,” the strength of practicing legal writing is that it forces you to look at every word you use and be aware that it has a specific job to do in the context of your project. In your own writing, whether for business or pleasure, let each word carry its own weight, and don’t be afraid to get rid of those that don’t.
  2. Real writers are first and foremost readers. Keep up your own reading for pleasure. If all you read is serious books, treat yourself to a “pot boiler” once in a while. If you read a lot of genre fiction, try something a little more intellectually challenging. One of the signs that you are improving as a writer is noticing that your taste in reading is becoming more challenging.
  3. It takes both confidence and humility to write well. Don’t be afraid to take advice on whether or not you are saying EXACTLY what you intend to say. (It’s easy to rail against the idiots that don’t get what you are trying to say, but, just maybe, you’re not saying it as clearly or as well as you could.) Too often we assume because we know what it is we’re trying to say, others will know it as well. Don’t assume your readers know what you mean, and be clear and concise, and ELEGANT in your language. Understand grammar and punctuation and use it correctly. Hunt those errant commas! Keep your paragraphs short, if you can. Long paragraphs exhaust readers.
  4. I know you probably read it in high school, but go back and read Strunk&White again [White, E.B., and William Strunk, Jr. The Elements of Style (Macmillan Company, 1959)]. You’ll be amazed what a wonderfully example of the very thing it is trying to teach you, that little book is.  Make sure you have  good reference books nearby, like dictionaries and thesauruses (or thesauri, if you’re picky). If you’re writing narrative nonfiction check out LSB founding partner Peter Rubie’s, The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write the Novel of True Events (Linden Publishing)
  5. Know what makes good writing. This is more than just noting and being able to follow the rules. Good writing is like good art, most people know it when they see it but they can’t always exactly say why. Good writing is organized, with thoughts flowing naturally from one paragraph to another. It is clear and unambiguous. It is concise. It uses good grammar and capitalization in a natural way. It is free of typos because you proofread it. It does not assume your readers know much about your subject. ALWAYS make sure your citations are clear and THERE. If you’re working on a book you can put your cites in the back to keep the flow of the narrative humming along but support your arguments as best you can.
  6. Practice “writing” every day if you can, don’t just churn out stuff. Know the rules of writing and try to use them, even when you’re just composing emails and letters. Your job may force you to use a legal tone, but it’s worth remembering one of the most quoted people in modern U.S. Supreme Court Opinions is Bob Dylan. If you can, say it like it is and don’t be deliberately ambiguous. Try not to sound, on the page, like an opera singer who’s decided to “slum” by singing rock n’roll.
  7. Keep in mind that your writing is the best way to put over your ideas, and may well be the only chance you get to really connect with others. Remember rule #1: writing is about thinking. Know what it is you want to say, and then say it clearly and with organization, and hopefully with some poetry (even if it isn’t Bob Dylan.)
  8. Leave plenty of time to REWRITE your piece. Let it sit, like a good wine or piece of meat, so the sediment sinks to the bottom and the juices settle back into the meat.
  9. Use an active voice — the one we speak in most of the time. (I did this, you did that.) The power of the active voice can’t be underestimated. It is immediate, it is engaging, and it avoids passivity which in turn implies an aloofness or distancing of the narrator, which can be off-putting to many readers. Think about the rhythm and length of your sentences. Don’t. Make. Them. All. The. Same.
  10. Write in Anglo Saxon, it is the heart of transparent English. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible. Try not to “Frenchify” your vocabulary with long, somewhat ornate words, for which there are perfectly good and much shorter Anglo Saxon alternatives. (Hide things, don’t adumbrate them, or salt them away.) Don’t use two words when one will do. Just make sure it’s the right word.