When I teach memoir workshops, one of the topics we discuss is the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing. When we write memoir, writers tend to approach the writing with a stiff spine and a list of facts to impart upon the reader, and that can lead to factual, though lifeless writing. Unfortunately, one of our first inclinations as memoir writers is to turn off the reader with dull, encyclopedia factual accounts of events.
If you have ever read a school biography project, these tend to start with the facts: date of birth, place of birth, and parent’s names. Invariably, the writer has lost the reader by the end of the first paragraph because the writing, although factual, functions as a better sleep tonic than engaging piece of writing.
For whatever reason, many writers fall into this pattern when we write nonfiction, especially memoir. We tend to think of life as a series of facts rather than a series of stories with full sensory details and depth of emotion and thought. All too often, the result is writing that fails to inspire the reader.
So, how do we fix this situation? Memoirists, like writers in every genre, can use fiction-writing techniques to capture and keep their reader’s attention. We can use our fiction story-writing skills when we write nonfiction to bring our personal stories to life. Though they are factual, they need not be boring.
If you have not yet read Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith, I recommend that you pick it up. He documents not just his life stories as a Newfoundlander fisherman turned sea farmer but lays out his philosophy around providing highly-nutritious food during climate change and restoring the ocean’s plant and animal diversity.
I picked up the book because I wanted to learn about his ideas on sea farming, but when I found was a crisp, lively writing style that engaged me from the book’s beginning. Smith had me hooked from the first page to the last, as he took me along the journey of his life from Canada to New England to Alaska and beyond.
What tools did he use to pull me into his memoir? First, he used sensory details and deep descriptions in his writing. He gives the reader a sense of the images, sounds, and tastes in the events that he experienced, and that brings us into the story right away. When I read his narratives, I’m there watching the scene and taking it all in. He’s showing me what is happening rather than telling me what the facts are.
Second, Smith focuses on the story not on the facts. Of course, he includes the facts of his life in the stories, but the focus is always on the story itself. As a Newfoundlander, he has an unfair advantage over the rest of us mere mortals. Newfoundlanders are famous for their storytelling abilities and lovely ways of reorganizing language from a dull series of words into lyric poetry. When you read the examples I cited below, you’ll see what I mean. The man can write a story!
Let’s take a peek into the book Eat like a Fish and see how he does it. Below I included two quotes from the book. What I want to point out here is that he pulls the reader into the situation with just a few words and with just one paragraph leaves us with a vivid sense of the story. We didn’t need a laundry list of facts and figures to get a sense of what was happening, what the tone was, or how Smith felt in this time of life. He is able to tell a story in just a paragraph. Take a look at the examples below.
Bren Smith’ Eat Like a Fish
The ER nurses wouldn’t let me be. The first day I pushed my cart into their domain, they swarmed, demanding to know my story. They were all ages and sizes, but all shared a mix of warmth, strength, and irreverence. They made fun of my teenage silence and anger, forcing me to unfurl. I’d join them at the nurse’s station, listening to gossip about new patients, shitty boyfriends and husbands, grim tales of bad sex, frustration with sloppy and arrogant doctors. They were great storytellers, able to slide from ridicule to compassion mid-sentence. During that time in my life, they were my ballast. No wonder I later married a nurse. Page 28
I had been welcomed by the new urban class of “foodies,” a strange, ritualized culture marked by the trancelike state they’d go into after the first bite of a new dish. A slight smile curled onto their faces as the oyster liquor hit their taste buds. Their eyes would close. A moment of silence. Then a practiced attempt at poetry, as they detailed the swirls of flavor. Never one to fetishize food—I still ate at the gas station most nights—I found this new and, at first, alienating. But, God, how they loved my oysters, my pea crabs, my slipper shells. I’d quickly become proud of the food I grew, and adopted their culinary dialect. Page 107
I love this book, and I loved reading it. It filled me with fog and mist and green leaves and salty sea and cold sand. As I was reading it, I had a clear sense of the place in life where he was, the ideas he was wrestling with, and the life questions he had. Those types of stories and types of storytelling give the reader a glimpse into one’s life, and that’s one of the most powerful effects that we can have. When we pull the reader into our little corners of the universe and give them a peek behind the curtains, we create a level of intimacy and clarity that readers seek. A memoir reader wants to know about you, wants to know your stories, and wants that revelation of self. When you tell a story for the sake of the story, you can give them what they want without boring them.
Smith, Bren. Eat Like a Fish. Knopf, 2019.
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Yes, Writers Need to Read
Every once in a while I run across a non-reading writer. Some part of me is fascinated by the non-reader for a zillion reasons. Why would anyone write without reading? Why would a writer refuse to read what others are writing? How can a writer engage in the process of sharing information without reading? How are the non-reader’s messages so valuable that they won’t read from anyone else? How on earth would the non-reading writer become a better writer if they don’t read?
I don’t understand it, but I’m fascinated by it. And, I want non-reading writers to know it's OK to start reading, because reading supports our writing.
Maybe it’s connected to our couch-potato culture. Maybe the idea comes from the idea that a person is athletic if they watch football. Or that someone is a film critic if they have seen the last dozen Marvel movies. Or is it that we have a hopeful, positive spirit as a people and envision that any of us can grow up to be anything we want? Isn’t that part of what drives us to keep buying lottery tickets on Saturday mornings?
Unlike football or watching movies, writing is not a spectator sport. Writers may be hiding in the back of the café with their noses pointed into a laptop screen, but they aren’t separated from society; rather they are closer to it.
I think most writers read and love to read. For many writers, the writing process is a cyclical flow of how we live our lives. We read, we interact, we observe, and we write. These steps flow together in a sort of creative pattern that engages us with the pulse of what’s happening around us and allows us to process life into stories.
Reading provides tangible benefits for writers. It keeps writers abreast of new writing in the world. It provides constant connection to the writing world. Every writer I know asks, “Have you read this book?” as part of their everyday conversation. Reading gives us connection to each other and to the writing world. And finally, reading hones the writing muscles. Although writing is a different process from reading, the act of reading hones our sense of language, structure, and flow. We have a better sense of what our writing should look and feel like when we read.
So, what should writers reach for? I mean, bookstores are big places after all. What kinds of books provide the most fuel for the writer’s tank?
Read in your genre
What is your genre (or your genres) that you are writing? Are you a novelist focused on writing science fiction, horror, or post-modernist fiction? Is your current project a memoir that is taking on a life of its own? Or are you intent on writing a nonfiction series to share what you learned in your career with newbies to the field?
Regardless of which genre you’re writing in, you should be reading other writers in that genre. Every once in a while I hear someone say they don’t want to read in their own genre, because they’re afraid of accidentally stealing other people's ideas or allowing another writer’s style to rub off on them. Honestly, that’s just silly. If you run across a good idea, use it. If someone else has a smoother style, learn from it. Whatever you write will be your own and will continue to develop over time. Reading in your genre will clean up your own writing, will inform your practice, and will help you hone your space within the genre.
Read out of your genre
Not only is it a good idea to read in your genre, I’d also recommend that you read outside of your genre. There is so much to be gained by reading across the bookstore’s aisles. For example, I recently recommended Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith. It’s a nonfiction account of his experiences as a fisherman and later sea farmer. The writing is exquisite and highly engaging. It doesn’t feel like nonfiction, although every word is true.
When I recommended the book, it was to a group of novelists. I think there is a lot that fiction writers can learn by reading good-quality nonfiction. Smith is a master at telling a whole story in a single paragraph. His narrative style pulls the reader straight into the book and makes you care about the depth and complexity of the issues. And guess what? That is exactly what novelists are seeking to do. Read outside your genre and seek out the gems hidden in the pages of those books. It can go far in informing your writing style.
Read about writing
There are at least a hundred books about writing. As you peruse the bookstore’s shelves, you’ll find books on how to be a better writer, memoirs on writer’s lives, and guide books on everything from the business of writing to the challenges of editing your own work. Read these books. Every one of them doesn’t have to speak to you, so lean toward the ones that stand out, but read them. I find that most writers have a few of these books they love and tend to return to time and again to re-read.
Three of my favorites are On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. They’re spectacular in that every time I read these books, I’m reading a new book and learning something different. By reading about writing, you can better understand both the art and business of writing and where your work fits into the puzzle. Too, you can sharpen your own practice and work out the details so that your writing process fits your lifestyle and needs. By reading about writing, we become better writers.
So, if you aren’t a reader/writer, it’s OK. You can change your ways and start reading today. And if you are reading already, you may want to take a look at what you’re reading and how well that genre guides your practice and supports your craft. Are you getting everything you need from your current process or do you need to update your choices to include more options? I tend to read in one genre too often, so the reminder to read in multiple genres helps me to branch out and read more broadly, and that reading pushes me to consider a broader audience when I write. You may be similar.
If you aren’t sure where to start, look at the genre you’re writing in now. Hit your local bookstore (or library if you don’t have one). Start with one genre and grab what interests you. If you’re writing horror and you want to start out reading in your genre, grab something that jumps off the shelf at you and make that your starting point. After you read that book, branch out and read a book about writing or in another genre.
Read. Rinse. Repeat. With every book you read, you will be a better writer.
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I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about reading purposes until I had to teach it. When I sat down with my students, I quickly realized that I naturally shifted from one type of text to the next without thinking about it, but they needed explicit instruction around how to do this.
Reading for Pleasure
For whatever reason, I have always read upside down. I have no idea why this is, but I absolutely love, and I mean love, to read with my feet in the air while lying on the couch. Ever since I was a little kid, I remember throwing myself down, my feet on the couch’s back, and settling in for an afternoon of reading.
Reading for pleasure should be a pleasurable activity. When you look back on your life and think about the loveliest moments, some folks may include their pleasure reading. This is the type of reading that we do while drinking coffee, hot tea, or wine. This is the type of reading when we fall asleep and feel like a mid-chapter nap is just part of the process.
For pleasure reading, the book is one element of the experience. When we read for pleasure, the whole action should be pleasureable: dozing off mid-chapter, drinking a favorite drink, snacking on delicate morsels, snuggling with the cat, and wrapping up in grandma’s homemade afghan. The reading is part of the whole experience.
Reading for Information
When we read for information, we are there to learn. We come to the textbook to prepare for an exam. We read a series of articles to figure out a solution for a problem. And we read nonfiction books so that we can be better informed.
Everything about this type of reading is different than reading for pleasure, although certainly we experience a kind of pleasure while learning. While reading for information, I read upright and likely have a notepad nearby to take notes. The research supports taking notes while reading to increase memory, and I have found it to be true for myself.
I have a few different ways of taking notes while I read for information. I use sticky notes to mark passages in the book where I need to jot down an idea related to a specific passage. I also use the smaller sticky notes that allow me to mark an important page so that I know where to reread after I finish the first read-through on the book. And, if I’m reading something detailed then I pull out a notepad and take notes by hand while I’m reading. While reading for information, I’m upright, prepared to take notes, and focused. No naps and cat cuddles here.
Reading for Inspiration
When we read for inspiration, we can find the middle space between reading for pleasure and for information. Some say that we read to know that we are not alone. Some say we read to connect to the collective intelligence of the universe. And others say we read to take the next step on our personal journeys. I would agree that all of these are true.
Each of us comes to the printed page for a different reason, but many of us come to it to be inspired. In many ways, life can be a challenge, especially for those with health, money, or professional problems. But when we come to reading, books don’t judge us. In fact, many dozens of authors are solely dedicated to writing pieces intended to inspire.
The reasons that we need inspiration are endless. Have you been thinking about remodeling the house and need ideas on upgrades you can afford? Has earning your PhD been a lifelong dream that you’ve yet to fulfill and you need to know what programs are out there? Is the alluring call to visit Paris finally got its hold on you and you are curious about which restaurants serve gluten-free menus?
While reading for inspiration, you may not need to take notes, but nodding off mid chapter would likely defeat the point of finding inspiration. Reading for inspiration is reading to reconnect a frayed connection, and you have to pay attention to make that happen.
Reading to Share
I will admit that I lack consistency when it comes to reading aloud to my kids, though when we read together, I love it. Believe it or not, reading was a group activity until very recently. If you go back before people wrote stories on paper, all information was passed on verbally from one person to another or from one person to many.
Not until the 17th century did humans even consider reading silently to themselves. We are group-minded creatures and have always shared information aloud: stories, poetry, songs, histories, and government edicts. In fact, until the 17th century, people would expect that if you pulled out a book you would share the information and read it aloud to everyone present. To read silently would have been rude.
If you happen to have a person under the age of ten sitting around, then you likely read aloud quite a bit, even if inconsistently like me. Reading aloud changes the relationship between people. When we read in a group, the reader takes the attention from all other activities. If you spend any time with a toddler, you know that it is impossible for a small child to ignore a book. When my kids were little, we would pull out a book and they would instantly race over to see the pictures and hear the story.
Reading aloud gives power to the reader, which is why many teachers have kids read aloud in groups. The reader can perform, be in charge, and lead without coming up with their own stories. It allows for a kind of power for the reader. Some elementary schools bring in therapy dogs for reluctant readers to build their confidence. The act of reading aloud brings the reading alive. It changes the relationship between people when reading. And it encourages conversation and discussion during the reading process.
When we read, we have to set our mindset for the purpose. What do we want to achieve? What do we want to gain from the reading? How much attention and dedication will the reading require? Do we need to take notes, be super-alert, or access other resources while reading?
When I first encountered the idea of using different techniques for different reading purposes, what I realized is that my students were trying to read for pleasure all the time. They weren’t learning while reading for information because they weren’t focusing, taking notes, or dedicating their time to the text. Instead, they were petting the cat, drinking tea, and putting their feet up: all the things I would tell them to do while reading for pleasure.
As I started working with them on this, we identified that our bodies can look different when we read different books. Our minds need to be in a different mindset to tackle different books. And we need access to different resources when we read different books.
When we identify what we need from a book, we can show up ready to read, and that leads us to meeting our purposes.
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What do you think about, focus on, and look for when you’re reading? I think when most of us read, we seek out entertainment and information. We want to fall into a story and let it take us away from our personal dramas for a little while, and we seek to improve ourselves by expanding what we understand about the world.
When readers approach a book, they should identify why they are reading. What is the purpose that brings them to the page? I know, of course, that many of us grab a book at the library and automatically dig into it like it’s chocolate cake because we have an inkling of what to expect. But if we take a moment to identify our needs first, our reading process can be more targeted. We can develop a writer’s mindset while we read.
As a writer, we tend to read differently than other people. Whereas many people takeaway a love of language, an appreciation of the depth of narrative, and an acknowledgment of the writer’s talents, we look for the how, what, and why of what went into the writing.
While we are reading as writers, we tend to ask more questions of the piece like:
When we read as a writer, we look not only at how entertaining the narrative is or how instructional the piece, but we look at how did the writer go through the process of coming up with an idea, researching the idea, then writing, editing, and revising the piece until it landed in the publishable form.
When we read as a writer, we have the get into the mindset of being the reader and the writer simultaneously. As the reader, we want to be entertained or guided. We want the book to make us better people, better informed professionals, or happily entertained readers. We know how it feels to have a book take over our thoughts so that when we aren’t reading, we’re thinking about the book. It’s a bit like being in love.
As a writer, the complications of writing a book become clearer. We have to think about how to take an idea from its infancy into a fully-developed piece. We have to think about the language and the wording we use to make sure that everything not just makes sense but connects with readers so that people get the most out of the reading that they can.
When I read like a writer, I ask how the writer constructs a book-length piece, but I also ask about what and why:
As we read with the writer’s mindset, we are digging into the writing: how it was constructed, what the writer meant by information they included, and why the book had a particular effect.
What a writer does when they read is to analyze the piece while reading. We have to think not just in the way that a reader does but think about what was this like for the writer to create this piece. By getting into that mindset, every book we read becomes a roadmap for writing. Every book is a manual and if we can pull it apart then we can get a peek behind the curtain and understand the writer’s life a little better.
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My son has the amazingly-annoying habit of looking over my shoulder while I read, and since we get the newspaper on Sundays, he always reads over my shoulder. Today, he asked, “Who is Kamala Harris and what’s going on with her?”
I looked at the column on the right and there was an announcement that she’s running for President. I relayed the message and his response surprised me.
“Yes! Finally a woman and not just another man.”
What prompted his excitement about a politician, I really don’t know. Maybe it was watching Captain Marvel last weekend. Maybe it was that he sees women in most leadership roles in his life since all of his teachers and doctors have been women; even his martial arts teachers have been women. Or maybe he has deep thoughts about gender in politics that go beyond our dining room.
What struck me is that his viewpoint is so different than what I expected from him; he is nine after all. The article in the newspaper jumped out at him, whereas I glanced over it without taking notice. The whole idea struck me as interesting that we would have different reactions to the same article.
Why does this matter to writers?
Well, have you ever worried that spending time writing your book about the history of African-American aviators would go nowhere? Have you considered picking up a different hobby worried that no one wants to read a book about driving Land Rovers off road? Or what about the fantasy book series that has elements of history and science? Have you been concerned that publishers will laugh at the idea?
Guess what? New and interesting ideas sell and they have the potential to sell well.
Before JK Rowling was picked up for her Harry Potter series, publishers didn’t see a market for her books and thought of young adult fantasy as a money-losing genre. Before Ray Bradbury released Fahrenheit 451, the interest level in dystopian fiction was dried up. And before Stephen King published Carrie, no one could have predicted that the horror genre would be taken over by a Maine English teacher and become a best-selling sensation.
Is this true only of novels? No, not at all.
Do you remember 2010? This was the time when films made it to the box office because they were written, produced, and directed by men. And their protagonists needed to be men, especially though white men. But then Frozen came along, and suddenly Disney broke their formula by offering a story about sisters saving each other and the love story was secondary. Then we got Hidden Figures, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Wonder Woman. It seemed like out of nowhere people were excited to see films made by and about women.
About two weeks ago, a writer who had attended one of my memoir workshops reached out to me. He asked if his book idea was worth pursuing. Did it have any possibility of being picked up by a publisher? Was there any kind of market for his ideas? Would anyone want to read about his life?
And you know what? The answer is yes. Definitely yes.
You see, when you have an idea that is different, there may not be an open market in that first moment you have the thought. You may not have the easiest time finding an agent or a publisher who is ready to take on that project and run with it. But that doesn’t mean the story won’t find its audience.
Because if you have an idea that people want to read, then you have a market waiting to be tapped. Just as my son surprised me that he wants to have a female President, new ideas can be refreshing, interesting, and liberating. Sometimes we get wrapped up in what we think is true that we don’t always open ourselves up to what could become true.
Same thing for screenplays. Who knew ten years ago that female-centered films would take over Hollywood? I don’t know that anyone predicted the change in the industry, but when it happened, the whole field shifted.
The same can happen with your book idea. Just because your book doesn’t have a clear market or audience today doesn’t mean that it won’t have an audience when you are ready to publish.
People are on the lookout for new ideas, and when something appealing comes along, people tend to jump on it.
So, keep your pen at the paper. Keep working on your book and stick with your stories, even if the ideas seem unusual or unpopular. We can’t predict today what people will want to read tomorrow, so give your ideas the time and energy to develop.
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