UNCW’s Creative Writing Department holds an event each year called Writer’s Week. When I heard I would be required to attend at least 2 events, I groaned inwardly. The combination of my class schedule and work schedule do not allow for prolonged periods of free time during the day, and each event was almost 2 hours long. But I eventually found two that fit with my schedule, and I am so happy I went.
The one I went to this morning was really stellar. James Campbell, a nonfiction writer, spoke about nonfiction book craft. He was wonderful. He had many great tips for writers working on memoirs including:
-Do your research. Readers can tell when the details are fudged, and nonfiction is not the time nor the place.
-Specificity is key. Concrete and specific details help move a piece from good to great.
-Put in the work. Many writers rely on the Muse to write for them, but as he said many times, “the Muse is a fickle friend.” You have to be able to get through the grunt work even when you are not creatively inspired.
-Don’t leave your writing. You may need a break to get up, get inspired, change the scenery, etc. But don’t leave it for a long period of time, hoping the answer will come with time. It won’t.
-Develop creative habits to help you through writer’s block. Walk. Run. Bike. Clean the house. Listen to music. Record your own voice talking. Anything involving physical movement or distracting your mind will help get the creative juices flowing again because your mind is not so intensely pushing itself to write. Ideas will sneak up on your subconscious. Just be ready to get back to work in the case of sudden inspiration!
-The conclusion doesn’t have to be life-changing–and too much summary and not enough scene is definitely a bad thing. Campbell talked us through how he combined the seemingly random ideas of the teenage brain and an expedition to Alaska into one cohesive book. Often I struggle with the deeper meaning-the gritty conclusion is hard to coax out from a story, and it’s hard to introduce it without making it sound like “And this is the moral of the story!” But your reader is smart, and it doesn’t have to be obvious or huge. Simply, why does your writing matter?
-Don’t put in facts. Just because you spent hours researching the brain doesn’t mean the story is the place to show off your knowledge. The research is more so the author doesn’t make any glaring mistakes and can put themselves in the shoes of whoever/whatever they are researching. Nonfiction gets really boring and is hard to follow when large chunks of research are incorporated.
When he talked about his research for his books, I actually got strangely inspired to read historical books. And that’s weird for me, because normally I don’t enjoy history at all. But I would love to become an expert on time periods and subjects that interest me so that this expertise can show through my own writing in the future.
I’ve always been pretty sure that fiction is my forte, but I’m not sure about that anymore. I have a strong urge to write a memoir, only I don’t know what I would write about. My life is not that interesting…
But James Campbell talked extensively about his Alaska trip that is the subject of his own memoir, and that encouraged me that good stories don’t have to be about life-changing events or revolutions. They can be about anything in the world, as long as I believe in it.
I hope these tips were helpful! What are your experiences with memoir writing or nonfiction research?