8 writing tips for memoir and biography

A sunset I captured with my camera in Sydney.

A sunset I captured with my camera in Sydney.

I saw the most awesome documentary last week about healers all over the world. Within 2 minutes, I had tears leaking out because of what a good story a healing makes. Before, broken and hurting and helpless to do anything about it; afterwards, healed and whole and grateful to God. The best part is that the story is true.

This post – and my free ebook you can download below – is for the life writers of true stories who want some “back to basics” reminders for how to get your story on paper. Whether you’re writing memoir, autobiography, or biography, a few simple principles hold true. And most of them are fairly easy to spot in your own writing, so you can save a lot of time by referring back to these principles as you write.

Memoirs and biographies need to feel real for the reader. They need real drama.

Yes, it’s your story, but it’s still a story. Your story – or the story of the person whose life you’re chronicling – has already captured your attention and imagination and heart. It needs to be written in a way that also captures the reader’s attention and their heart.

Here’s my 8 basic tips – one for every day of the week, plus an extra.

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Cultivate your curiosity

Me hard at work in the new Canstar office in Brisbane CBD. I took this photo using my new Windows phone.

Me hard at work in the new Canstar office in Brisbane CBD. I took this photo using my new Windows phone.

I’ve been thrashing out the articles for my current contract employer, Canstar Blue. You can view all of my articles at this link, and I’ve compiled a ‘Best Of’ compilation at the bottom of this post…

Have I mentioned lately how amazing it is to be writing for a living? I am thoroughly enjoying every day. And thankfully they like me, too, so I get to stay on for another 6 month contract. So thankful! Praise God.

So here’s two of the things I’ve been thinking about this Friday…

Every morning at 9am we start our day with an editorial team Brainstorm Meeting. Depending on what day it is, 3 to 7 of us get together in one of the meeting rooms and say, “Tomorrow’s product releases are 4WDs and pharmacies. What are some articles we can write today about that?” Then we chat about it and get a list of 5 to 10 ideas, divide them among us, and report on where we’re up to with our other article lists that we’re each responsible for.

I love these meetings because writing is largely a solitary task, but for 15 minutes every day, we’re all part of a team working together. We’re all having our work and our ideas acknowledged and validated. Team managers, take note of the first thing I’ve been realising:

Short, positive team meetings more often make for happier staff.

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Go where you find inspiration: Part 3: The airport and times of transition

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often.

Alain de Botton writing in the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. Image source: Zocalo Public Square

Alain de Botton writing in the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport
Image source: Zocalo Public Square

I’ve driven to the airport too many times recently, saying goodbye to people I love.

But it’s gotten me thinking.

How about visiting an airport to inspire new creativity for a “stuck” story?

Airports have always inspired me, with their excitement and anticipation of new adventures and fond reunions. I love starting new adventures and seeing people saying their “goodbyes” and “welcomes homes”. What does it mean symbolically if a character is at the airport? And where could your character end up?

'A week at the airport' book cover. Image source: Profile Books

Image source: Profile Books

I started thinking about this when I read an article about Alain de Botton, who did a one-week writers residency at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. You can read about his experience and the book he wrote about it in his book, A Week at the Airport.

For this project, he stayed in the airport and the hotel for 24 hours a day for one week. That was his only venue – and he said the confinement to one setting was great inspiration.

He was inspired by the terminal itself – its technology, the design, and its sheer size and scale. He said he likes airports so much he often longs to be delayed in them.

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Bible stories you should read if you want to be a great storyteller

No matter what genre you’re writing in, you’ll want to be reading other stories in your genre.

Something I’ve wanted to write about for some time is what a writer can learn about writing in their genre from reading one of the oldest books ever written – the Bible.

The truth is, it has so much to teach storytellers like us.

Yes, I know, reading the Bible isn’t terribly easy going. But if you treat it as one big collection of short stories, then you can read a little chunk at a time and not be overwhelmed by trying to read it as a single epic tale.

One of my esteemed friends, Josh Bartlett has a wonderful YouTube channel, Storytime with Josh, where he features regular videos of dramatically-narrated Bible stories. This guy has a real flair for bringing out the real life drama of these stories – some that you might have heard many times, and some that even well-versed Bible readers will find surprising.

Storytellers should always be looking for the human side in stories. Many characters in stories never get their side of the story heard, or their point of view is always sidelined because the main hero’s actions are seen as more important. But the truth is that every character has an interesting story, even if it’s only about how the hero’s actions affected them and how they responded to that.

A guide to where you can find all the genres in the Bible:

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The Dreaded Influenza

I was so excited last week (Brisbane Writers’ Festival!) and honestly had grand plans to post something every day about all the wonderful, inspiring talks I’d heard.

Then I caught the dreaded influenza that’s been roaming the halls of my fair city, and I’ve spent all this week in bed. (Look at me, sitting upright on the couch! Typing on my laptop! Small achievements!)

But even this is an opportunity, folks. Even this has been useful.

It’s been a long time since I was in high school, and I had an illness that produced chronic, endless fatigue that stretched into my uni degree. Sometime during those years, I wrote many story scenes and scribbles whingeing about my illness and imagining how it could be worse (deathbed scenes, etc.). Lots of these scribbles recently wound up in a novel where I cruelly give my main character a made-up alien illness so that she’ll have to make friends and rely on other people instead of just heroically “doing it tough”.

And this week – ugh! this week! – I’ve been rethinking lots of those scenes and checking against the facts of how I feel now. Did I feel this sick then? Is this how I would write that part now? How do I describe her head “swimming” without it sounding like a cliche?

It’s a good reminder of an old trope – to “write what you know”. Use every experience you’ve ever had to make your characters’ sufferings and joys more real.

Famous authors who were sick or dying when they wrote some of their most famous works (yes, I’m very melodramatic when I’m sick):

– Jane Austen worked until her death from a long mystery illness (possible culprits include (most recently) bovine tuberculosis, Brill-Zinsser disease following her child episode of typhus, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or (according to her 1964 biographer) Addison’s disease);

– Ernest Hemingway gave himself liver disease, then was in two plane crashes that left him in pain and ill health for the rest of his life;

– Even John Green of The Fault in Our Stars says he wrote a book about different types of cancer because he suffers from that most terrible of illnesses, hypochondria.

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)

Portrait of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810)

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

Go where you find inspiration: Part 2: Real live animals that should be in fantasy novels

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often

 

My previous post was about the Art Gallery Museum and the intriguing characters I uncovered in the old portrait paintings there. Now let me tell you about the incredible animals I discovered, many for the first time, at the South Australian Museum.

The Mouflon, found in the Caucasus, northern and eastern Iraq, and northwestern Iran

The Mouflon, found in the Caucasus, northern and eastern Iraq, and northwestern Iran

Some of these guys really look like they should be in a fantasy or sci-fi novel, not in the real world. For that reason, I found these animals awakened in me again the desire to write fantasy, a genre I’ve spent many years in but often abandon for “more grown-up” genres like science fiction (haha) or drama.

I spent a few hours over three days walking through the ‘Mammals of the World’ taxidermy exhibit, because I just loved it the first day, but there was so much that I just felt I hadn’t taken it all in, needed another hit.

I was pacing back and forth behind the glass, getting a bit upset that these gorgeous things were dead, just carcasses posed for my viewing pleasure, and most of the living versions were endangered anyway, when it hit me. I wanted to write fantasy animals based on these real animals. Think about it – if I describe an animal to you just using the description, not labelling it by the name we know it, it would be harder for you to imagine, wouldn’t it? You might even think I was making it up.

My first mammal looks like some medieval fantasy writer got really tired of writing ad nauseum about wolves howling at the moon and running in packs and chasing our heroes through the woods, so he elongated the nose and tale of a fox and gave it giant ears, then shrunk it to cat size, and…

The Fennec Fox, found in the Sahara of North Africa

The Fennec Fox, found in the Sahara of North Africa

BAM! Fennec Fox. (Seriously, what’s with these adorable little guys? They’re so darn cute!)

Here are some of the other animals that inspired me:

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Go where you find inspiration: Part 1: Intriguing characters found in portrait paintings

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often

 

I’m in Adelaide this week, and while I’ll save my excessive raving about how beautiful it is for later, I have to tell you about where I went yesterday.

I went to the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery.

Sounds a little boring, maybe, if you hate animals or history or art. But I have to tell you, I found myself absolutely, 100% inspired there – the most inspired, in fact, that I’ve felt in months.

This first post will be about the South Australian Art Gallery and the beautiful portraits I admired there; my second post will illuminate the incredible animals that I discovered at the Museum.

Ever just see someone on the street and their face just tells you a story that you want to write instantly? They’re such a clear picture of a character that you can imagine. Maybe they look like a character you’ve already begun writing, or maybe they’re one that you’ve never considered before. You can almost hear their voice in dialogue before they speak.

That’s what the art gallery was like for me. I wandered the halls snapping shots of nearly every portrait – faces old and young, faces wise and bewildered, faces engaged and closed-off.

Because of the age of the paintings, and the gorgeous fashions on display, I couldn’t help myself – suddenly I wanted to write a history novel again! Someone asked me just last week to look over their historical romance novel (fun!), so it’s been on my mind. I also wished I could have taken my dress-maker friend through the halls of the gallery, just to gaze at the fabrics and dream of ways to make modern dresses based on these opulent draperies.

Here are some of the faces that inspired me…

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Sting: overcoming years of writer’s block

StingIn March, Sting gave a TED talk called ‘How I started writing songs again’ (http://www.ted.com/talks/sting_how_i_started_writing_songs_again).

As a youth, he lived by a shipyard, and constantly thought of getting free. As we all know, he did, selling more than 100 million albums and earning 16 Grammy Awards.

But something changed – he got writer’s block, stretching on for years. To overcome this, he recently found himself writing new songs by returning to the stories of the shipyard workers he knew as a boy.

I found his talk incredibly moving, as a creator and as someone who remembers a difficult childhood. In his talk, Sting sings songs from his upcoming musical, as well as my favourite of his songs, ‘Message in a Bottle’.

This ties back to my posts about incubation and writer’s block. I’ve written about how incubation of years has helped me to rewrite stories that I first imagined in high school now, as an adult. In Sting’s case, an unwanted incubation period that stretched for years (the writer’s block preventing creation) was solved by returning to childhood stories that had been incubating from even longer ago, bringing new creation.

Have you ever struggled with writer’s block? How did you get past it?

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.