Some Pearls…

turning life into fiction hemley

Yes- I am reading some novels right now but I’m heavily submerged in craft, since I’m teaching it. My biggest gem lately emerged: Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction. Why is this text such a big deal? It doesn’t only apply to fiction. In fact, I applied its exercises to Memoir.

The “M” word. It’s fiction backwards. It’s reconstruction of a story given only half of the painter’s palette.  So why do we continue to write memoir? I believe for the same reason we write fiction: to send a message to the souls who need it.

Hemley is practical in his direction. He describes the focus in your writing as the “handle.” In fact, “Anything can be a handle. What we’re ultimately after is focus. Your handle is simply your focusing element.” But besides the handle,  Sue Silverman (of Fearless Confessions – More of this in a later post) calls this authenticity  “writing along the bone.” The story of our lives emerges from our bones. Both Hemley and Silverman refer to that focus but also that it might not emerge “organically” until after you have written the entire memoir.

I always direct students to go to the emotion and exploit it until drained. Go to the bone. Or it doesn’t have to be dark. Go to what you remember. Hemley champions mining the childhood “places” of our past. He writes, “Lift your grandmother’s teapot off the mantle – you know, the teapot that played ‘Tea for Two’ when you lifted it. Notice the aromas. What’s your grandmother cooking? Take a peek outside. It’s a fair day, take a walk. Go through the neighborhood. Wave to your friends and acquaintances. It’s been a long time.”

This might seem like memoir 101, but go and do it. You’ll be surprised at what you get by remembering one room in particular.

Robin Hemley is at LitFest Lighthouse this week. If you can get a chance to see him, please do.


10 responses to “Some Pearls…

  1. “writing along the bone.” “exploit it until drained.”
    I like that. This is the kind of writing that attracts me…makes me stay.
    Great post. Always!
    btw. where do you teach?

  2. “Go to the emotion and exploit it until drained.” I love this. It makes so much sense. A writer can get a lot of mileage out of all that emerges from doing this, both in terms of a well developed memoir and also possibly several poems and shorter pieces as offshoots.

  3. I like the way you phrased that — ‘the story of our lives emerges from our bones.’ It’s really about authenticity on a deep deep level — isn’t it?

  4. Thank you, Kim! I love your blog, too. I teach at Regis University.

  5. Thanks, Michele. It’s true – there are so many avenues the memory can bring to us.

  6. Yes, Deborah. It’s that authenticity that we can all relate to!

  7. I love that image too–“Writing along the bone,” the hard inner truth of the thing you have to say.

  8. Deborah,
    Thanks! I think it’s a perfect analogy. Nice: hard inner truths.

  9. I find that photos can be helpful in “writing along the bone,” as well. It’s easy to forget the teapot, but seeing it in vintage 1970s color photos assists the mind in filling in the blanks – and reminds us of the matching Scottie salt and pepper shakers, the mismatched harvest gold fridge and avocado stove, the ever present spiral bound notebook, a sharpened pencil slid between the metal coils, resting on a table next to the bed. All of those images help recall the emotions that surrounded them. I’m curious how many people find the need to emotionally relive a moment in order to write about it. Anyone?

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Miss Snark! I like your version of the kitchen. You state a very important aspect which is hard to teach: images help recall emotions. As for your “reliving” question – I wonder, too. I would lean towards reliving until editing. Reliving to regurgitate but then editing to make the scene count.

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