Putting one’s life on the lines . . . of ruled notebook paper
The seed for this highly effective guide to memoir writing, at once practical and motivational, is a course the author gave at the Renaissance Academy (continuing education division) of Florida Gulf Coast University.
The author approaches the project as first of all an exercise in self-discovery, a process without which the finished product would be of little use to readers — even if those readers are primarily family and friends.
Penny Lauer breaks the seemingly overwhelming task into a series of manageable steps, explaining the necessity of each step and offering, with examples, a preferred way of managing that step. Anticipating the inexperience and insecurity of her reader-students, she reaches out in a sympathetic, supportive voice with detailed advice on how to develop a flow of memories unblocked by self-censorship.
Memoir writers have to seek the emotional truths in the experiences they recall, then explore and fashion those experiences for their readers.
The steps in the book organize the novice writer’s working life. The author insists on handwritten manuscripts (pardon the redundancy) on ruled paper in notebooks from which the pages can be removed and rearranged.
And says how and why this method works, and she also explains the need for a protected place for the writing to get done.
I agree that her system can work and produce exceptional results. I also feel that as people mature as writers, they need to explore a variety of processes. Changing your habits is a good way of waking up your perceptions and your writing.
But I worry a bit about the space Ms. Lauer gives over to distinguishing memoir from autobiography.
After discussing how to bring forth the raw material and give it a workable shape, she gets into the nitty-gritty of enhancing the product.
She explains with economy and clarity the fiction techniques that can lend vitality to a work that is essentially nonfiction.
She gives examples of how sensory images work. She considers voice in narration and dialogue.
These areas of concern are often the topics of book-length explorations, but this dedicated teacher gets her students started and, hopefully, makes them willing to look further into these and other writerly concerns.
She also discusses the importance of book and page design and what to consider in choosing a printer-publisher.
Memoir writing asks authors to think through a host of ethical questions. Does every assertion need to be factual? Should one make every effort to avoid bringing embarrassment or pain to people treated in the memoir?
Ms. Lauer handles these issues with aplomb.
Throughout their journey through this book, readers will learn how and why to value what they are sharing with others.
The teacher asks her would-be memoirists to trust in her and to value their own uniqueness, the perception of which will emerge more fully once they leap into the process she has designed for them. She provides them with confidence, tools and her special brand of irresistible cheerleading.
A part-time resident of Naples, Ms. Lauer is the author of two novels: “Skipping Stones” and “Bottled Butterfly.” She has been a high school English teacher, a sales and marketing trainer, a Pan Am flight attendant and a fundraiser for various arts and community organizations. ¦
— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.