Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Space Between: Giving Voice to Real Life Stories

Janine Harrison

What is your story?  Do you want to give it voice?  If so, how?  As a memoir?  As an autobiography?  Does your story include that of an ancestor or mentor?  Perhaps the influential someone accomplished a feat that defied expectations set for his or her gender, race, or social class?  Or contributed to the betterment of humankind in a notable way?  If so, maybe a biography is in order.  No matter the answers to these questions, it is essential for anyone interested in writing a form of creative nonfiction (CN), such as memoir, autobiography, or biography, to understand the differences between the sub-genres and the conventions therein. 

For the uninitiated, a book that I have used to introduce creative nonfiction to college undergraduates is Writing True:  The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz.  The work explains CN in a clear and concise manner; discusses various facets from prewriting and voice to research and ethics; and then introduces various sub-genres, providing examples of each in the form of essays and excerpts.  

Even though in many bookstores today all long-form CN sub-genres are still lumped under the category, “Biography,” distinctions need to be made between the three types.  Usually in school, we are taught that “autobiography” refers to one’s own story and “biography” refers to someone else’s story.  What about “memoir,” though?  Some people consider autobiography and memoir to be synonymous, when actually, they are quite different. 

Whereas an autobiography records a person’s life from birth to death in a chronological manner, a memoir may be organized in any number of ways.  A memoirist may choose to cover a large span in time or he or she may ­­­concentrate on a particular time period instead.  Memoir may be organized thematically or spatially.  It may be in collage form or as quilted patches of vignettes.  The form, in fact, has considerably more “elbow room” in relation to structure.  In addition, while autobiography contains a voice that primarily tells the author’s story, in memoir, showing is the primary mode. 

A book that I highly recommend reading prior to committing pen to paper in draft form is Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction:  Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life.  Although it is not exclusive to memoir, the author provides an in-depth look at the characteristics that distinguish CN from fiction as well as at the research and crafting processes that are appropriate for long-form work.   

A more recently published resource that is memoir specific is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which, according to memoirist Cheryl Strayed, “Will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come.”  The guide, which is written in a straight forward and entertaining manner, shows writers how to overcome writers’ block, understand voice and ethics, and appreciate the craft stage of writing; it even includes a list of recommended reads.

As for me, I recommend reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild for excellent examples of voices that work in memoir writing.  Both women writers’ stories are depicted with a good balance of factual and emotional truth; each one faces her dragons (ranging from substance abuse to family dysfunction to grief), and, at the same time, uses humor to help the medicine of reality go down smoothly. 

Happy reading!


Janine Harrison, M.A., M.F.A. poet, fiction writer, and nonfictionist, teaches creative writing at Purdue University Northwest and is a former Indiana Writers’ Consortium president.  Her work has appeared in Veils, Halos, & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, A&U, Not Like the Rest of Us:  An Anthology of Contemporary Indiana Writers, and other publications. Former Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras included Janine in his The Wabash Watershed “Six Indiana Women Poets” feature.  For additional information, please visit her website:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Preserving a Family Oral History

This week we reach back into the archives again. The post that follows was originally published on July 9, 2014. It was written by Julie Demoff-Larson and is titled “Preserving a Family Oral History.”


My father has this knack of storytelling that I wish I had inherited. Yes, I can spin a tale on paper, but his talent resides in the oral tradition. Many holidays and late night discussions around the dining table end with Dad captivating us with stories of his youth and that of my grandfather. As an adult, it is those stories of my grandfather that peek my interest the most. I often think of how much of his story has already been lost through the version my father tells. And there certainly are many facts that I cannot relate to my children. It becomes necessary to write down as much as is remembered, and as early as possible to carry on these stories.

So, how do we preserve a family’s history without having our ancestors here to fill in the missing information that is vital to the retelling of the story? Through research?  Well, that all depends on what kind of research we are talking about. A writer can look to community archives to see how people lived during a specific era, but that doesn’t quite represent what has happened within an individual family. This reminds me of Jeanette Walls first two books. The first, The Glass Castle, is a memoir of her childhood looking back at her parent’s dysfunction and mental illness. Nothing is lost because it is her story. In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls labels it as a “true-life novel” based on her grandmother. Walls initially intended it to be a biography, but soon realized there were too many gaps to fill in the story. So, the question becomes is it better to write a family oral history as fiction, or maybe as a hybrid between fiction and nonfiction?

A biography can be restricting because the audience expects the reading to be based on fact, including time and setting. This is extremely hard to accomplish because it is speculative. Capturing emotion, personalities, and drama on the page requires flexibility. We all know there is some give in creative non-fiction when it comes to enhancing language to create depth, but it does not allow for grand embellishment that creates new scenarios within the story — that would be fiction.

Advice to those wanting to record the oral history of your family: write down what you know, what you can find out, and research community archives for customs and norms, and then combine with your imagination. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Research & Memoir Writing

October is going to be a busy month for the blogmaster and other regular contributors as we prepare for the 2016 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on November 12. So we will take advantage of the blog archives and reprint several previous posts about writing memoirs and preserving family memories.

We start with the May 1, 2013 post by Sandra J. Nantais titled “Research & Memoir Writing.”


A common misconception about writing a memoir or life essay is that the writer must write expressly from memory.  If that were so, that would make for a fairly flat and boring snippet of life tale.

Example 1: Summer!  Yea! It’s summer!  It’s the late 60s and summer means shorter pants, bare feet, Kool-Aid and the dunes!  The weekend arrives, sandwiches are made, Kool-Aid is in the metal jug and, with towels over our shoulders, we run out the door to the silver car.   

Upon opening the car’s back door, we all turn and run to the porch yelling Eeeeeuuuuu!

Example 2:  Summer!  Yea! It’s summer in the late 1960s and this means plaid knee-knockers, bare feet, sandwiches and the dunes!  It means waking to the sun shining and Mom packing sandwiches into a brown paper grocery bag (peanut butter or bologna on Wonder Bread of course).  The cherry Kool-Aid was already in the red and white metal picnic jug waiting for two trays of ice to be dumped in before having the lid screwed on.

Us kids would bound out of the house with a towel over our shoulder towards the shiny silver 1966 Dodge Coronet 440.  Whoever was quickest would open the back door, only to release the strong smell of spoiled milk.  Eeeeeuuuuu!! We’d yell and run back to the house and gather on the steps pinching our noses closed.

By adding a few vivid and specific details from that era, the reader is there along with the writer, in that moment.

Other then the memory of the car being silver with four doors and a black interior, I have no idea of the make or model.  My eldest brother is twelve years older and a lifelong car buff, so I asked him about the silver car, which is how we all still refer to it.

Why not just write it that way?  Just describing the car as ‘the silver car’?  Because by adding the make, year and model of the car, I can create more emotion or familiarity within a reader.

The same is true with the drink cooler.

I vividly remember the drink cooler and that it was metal.  Yet, I still researched vintage 1960 water coolers to keep with the time frame introduced.  If by the 1960’s the metal were replaced with plastic I would have left that detail out.

Is this wrong?  Does it make the memoir fiction?  Does it change a memoir from being my memory?  Not at all.   It is just facts about objects that were present.

With memoir writing the author is endeavoring to restore a memory as truthfully as possible.  Memories are deficient, and checking minor facts for accuracy shows that the author cares.  Verifying with someone what color something actually was or which beach you were at doesn’t change what you felt.

So go ahead and ask a sibling or research details.  It will only help immerse the reader into the moment right alongside of you as if they had experienced the same sadness or joy or laughter with you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dueling Memories

Kathryn Page Camp
One of the first things I learned in law school is that if ten people witness a crime, they will have ten different versions of what happened. Everyday life works that way, too.
Memoirs tell what happened to the writer through the writer’s eyes. But memoirs are not fiction, so they must also tell the truth about the actual events. How do you balance and reconcile these two concerns?
Take an example from my life.
My family lived in Jordan when I was six. We didn’t own a car, but we hitchhiked and took buses all over the Holy Land. It was mountainous country with narrow shoulders and no guard rails along the roads. So whenever the bus or car I was riding in went up a mountain, I closed my eyes and asked, “Are we on the falling off side?” If the answer was “no”—meaning we were on the side of the road near the mountain, I would open my eyes and look around with interest. If the answer was “yes,” they stayed tightly shut.
My entire family agrees on that much of the story.
On the day before Christmas, we were on a bus headed up a mountain on the way to Bethlehem. It was raining, and the roads were slippery, but we weren’t on the falling off side so I wasn’t worried. Then, without warning, the bus slid across the road. Again, we agree on that much. But from there, our memories differ.
I swear that one wheel slid off the mountain and left the bus hanging over the side. That’s what my terrified six-year-old mind saw as we scrambled out and huddled in the rain. My mother had a different memory—she said the bus slid sideways until it blocked both lanes but it never left the road.
With help from the male passengers and other men from the cars that couldn’t get past, the driver got the bus back on the right side of the road, loaded the passengers who were brave enough to chance it, and continued on to Bethlehem. Make that the passengers who were brave enough to chance it and one terrified six-year-old who had to be bribed by her parents.
Mama and I have different memories about where the bus landed after sliding across the road. Mama was probably frightened, too, but she was older and more rational. And the fact that the men managed to get the bus back on the road with no special equipment and without sending it over the edge strengthens the argument that her memory is probably the correct one.
But my memory was my reality, and that’s part of the truth, too.
So how should I handle this incident if I were writing a memoir about my childhood in Jordan? It is among my strongest memories and one of the most dramatic things that happened while I was there, so I couldn’t leave it out. But should I tell the story as I remember it or as it really happened?
I would treat it the way I have treated it in this blog post. I would start by giving you my reality and then describe why the external facts were probably different than I remembered them.
In my case, the evidence indicates that Mama’s version is the correct one. But sometimes people have dueling memories and the fight ends in a draw. When I am sure that my version is correct, I go with it. But if there is any chance that the other person’s memories are more accurate, I will at least acknowledge them.
A memoir has to be true to the world as the writer saw it at the time. But it isn’t fiction, so it also has to be true to the actual events. Or as true as you can be when people have dueling memories. Sometimes that means qualifying your memories by adding someone else’s.
But your memories are your reality, and that carries its own truth.
The photograph at the top of this post shows the road descending from Wadi al-Mujib in Jordan. My husband took the photo on a family trip in 1998.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at