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Sharing personal stories can be a way to heal ourselves and also help others on a similar journey. In today's show, I talk to Rachael Herron about writing memoir.
In the introduction, I talk about the potential rise of Amazon Polly for text to speech and give an example of a reading done through www.Book2Pod.com.
On a personal note, The Dark Queen is now available as a stand-alone short story, and The Healthy Writer is now available as an audiobook.
Today's show is sponsored by my own How to Write a Novel course. One student, Holly, said “In six months, this course has taken my writing further than six years of self-teaching. Joanna's positive attitude and teaching style make learning how to write a novel enjoyable and feasible.” Check it out at www.TheCreativePenn.com/writenovel
Rachael Herron is the bestselling author of literary fiction, romantic comedy, and Memoir. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and Stanford. She's a podcaster and her latest book is Fast Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life Story in 45 Hours.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Rachael's definition of memoir
- How true does a memoir have to be?
- On how others define us when we write memoir
- What ‘room tone' has to do with writing a memoir
- Treating yourself as a character with an arc when writing memoir
- The two biggest mistakes writers make with memoir
- Overcoming the fears that come along with writing memoir
You can find Rachael Herron at RachaelHerron.com and on Twitter @RachaelHerron
Transcript of Interview with Rachel Herron
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm here with Rachael Herron. Hi, Rachael.
Rachael: Hi, Joanna. So, glad to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Rachael is the bestselling author of literary fiction, romantic comedy, and Memoir. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and Stanford. She's a podcaster and her latest book is “Fast Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life Story in 45 Hours” which is amazing. And I just want to start, Rachael, have I pronounced “Berkeley” and “draft” in the right way?
Rachael: Well, no, it would be “Berkeley”. That's so funny. And you pronounced “draft” exactly the right way because it sounds much more romantic when you said, “draft.”
Joanna: Draft. Yes. It's so funny.
Rachael: I'm going to say “fast draft.”
Joanna: I did with the “Berkeley,” “Berkeley,” “Barkley.” That's in Britain, “Berkeley” is pronounced “Barkley.” So, it's actually like an English thing. So, it's the Americans as usual who pronounce it wrong.
Rachael: It's true and I have to say, you know that I love your podcast and every once in a while, because I'm half New Zealander, I'm both New Zealander and American, every once in awhile I hear the tinge of a New Zealand accent in you. And I know that comes your husband and from living there. But just a few words, and it's so sweet when I hear that.
Joanna: Oh, there you go, it makes me feel at home.
Just before we get into the Memoir stuff, tell us a little bit more about you and how you got into writing, and publishing.
Rachael: Okay. Well, typical story. I wanted to be a writer my whole life.
I went to school for it, got my masters, Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. And then I proceeded to completely stop writing all together because I was super frustrated trying to write the great American novel and absolutely failing. I spent seven years writing three books which I never reach the end on. They just would go in the drawer at 500 pages long and they were horrible, because I didn't know what I was doing.
I hadn't really learned in my master's program how to write a book. And in 2006, I heard about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I thought it was a terrible idea, and no real writer would ever do such a thing. And the day after I heard about it I signed up for it because I had to challenge myself. And I realized in doing NaNoWriMo that my method is a fast, terrible draft.
I finished the book that year. I slapped the end at like 50,000 and two words or something like that. And it wasn't until the next year that I got it out and I was astonished to find that it was actually the best writing I'd ever done. I had assumed it was terrible while I was writing because it felt terrible, but it was revisable, and I revised it to the best of my ability.
I didn't really know what I was doing there either and sent it off, got an agent. She sold that in a three-book deal to Harper Collins and that's kind of where it all began. And, honestly, I have more books traditionally published, but not by many now. I'm up to about 20 or 23 books, I think 22 books. I was gonna count them.
But a few years ago I decided to try indie publishing and I took a pen name and I started a whole new romance line. And it was such an eye-opener, such a revelation.
It ended up doing well enough that one of my Australian publishers wanted me to write for them in that world, but under my own name, Rachel Herron. So, I brought all those books over. They're all under my name now.
So, I do have everything under my name, but I just have found the hybrid model is awesome for me because nobody wants to buy literary fiction indie published yet. It's gonna happen, it will happen. But until then I do literary fiction and or memoir with New York and most of my romances indie pub now.
Joanna: Well, it's so funny because I think in that answer, which was really interesting, you said two things that kind of blows the myths out the water.
I didn't learn to write a book doing an MFA.
And nobody wants to buy literary fiction.
But what's interesting, you teach writing at some of these very respected writing places. You are spanning multiple worlds as in like, you have this attitude about indie, as in you're very pro-indie, you are indie, you are hybrid, and then also you've got one foot in traditional publishing and academia.
How have you sort of welded those two together? And do you struggle to be Rachael when you're with the indies and then Rachael when you're with the MFA writing elite types?
Rachael: What an interesting question. I used to struggle with that because there was such a stigma about indie publishing, but it feels the same way with romance. Romance also has a stigma, right?
It took me a number of years to be able to hold my head up high and go into a room full of academics and say, “Yes, I write romance as well as these other things. Yes, it is incredibly feminist and amazing. And, yes, I believe in indie publishing and here's why.”
A few years ago it was hard to say that and now, I have to tell you that the tide has turned so much that even when I say this in academic circles, it used to be that people would recoil. And now, even there, which I think is probably the last bastion of holding out against indie publishing, they lean in and they say, “You know what, I've heard that. You can really do that?” So, it's super exciting. I think it's an exciting time to be there.
Joanna: Let's get into memoir because memoir is one of the many things that you write and do.
Rachael: It's truly my favorite thing to do.
Joanna: Oh, that's interesting.
Rachael: And my favorite thing to teach by far.
Joanna: What is your definition of memoir and why is it your favorite?
Rachael: There's something about crafting your own truth which is truly true. I know that sounds redundant, and it is. But there's something about crafting the truth and shaping your own narrative in a way that is pleasing and useful.
And to help people do this, to teach people to do this, and to do it myself, I find the ultimate satisfaction. It almost feels sometimes like writing fiction. I love writing fiction and I do more of it than I do memoir, obviously.
It sells better, but fiction is almost a cheat, you know. I know that I can craft this narrative to suit what I want, the emotions I want to elicit from a reader, whereas my life if I told you in order of what happened it's incredibly boring. And I'll tell you right now because everybody asks next, “What is the difference between autobiography and memoir?”
The simplest way to look at that is autobiography is the story of your life. You get one autobiography. Some people try to push it, but they shouldn't. I think it was Quentin Crisp who said something like, I'll butcher this, but she said, “Your autobiography is a book about your life with the last chapter missing.” Basically, you write it right before you die.
But memoir is a collection of stories or a story about either a specific a slice of time in one's life, say, two years you spent traveling in the Andes, so it's about the slice of time, or it's the story or stories on a specific theme in your own life.
My memoir that Chronicle bought is that one. It's a collection of essays about, don't laugh, but I'm a very big knitter as well. But it was a collection of essays about my life as seen through the sweaters that were on my needles at the time. So, basically, knitting was kind of the background music, but crafting a book, especially when it's these essays on a specific theme, you still want to look at the narrative arc and how to pull the reader in, and how to fulfill the storytelling promise to the reader even though you're telling them a true story.
Joanna: I actually think knitting is a bit like where romance used to be. It used to be that knitting was a kind of, “Oh, don't mention I'm a knitter.” Now, everyone's like, “I'm knitting. I'm a 22-year-old tattooed woman, whatever, Goth. And it's just like, knitting seems very cool now.
Rachael: Yes, yes. That's true.
Joanna: I think that's why a publisher bought it because knitting is in vogue. I mean, it really is.
Joanna: Back on the memoir. You mentioned ‘truly true' which I really like because as you say, autobiography has a level of truth like this happened here and this happened there. But memoir, to me, like you say, the truth is underlying, so the theme. There are ways where you might not necessarily tell the whole truth, what actually happened.
What do you mean by ‘truly true' and how true does a memoir have to be to still be called a memoir?
Rachael: I think this is the number one question that students have about writing memoir because the fact is the truth that lives in our memories is actually shifting.
Science has proven that every time we take a memory out of our brain and look at it, we're actually changing the memory a little bit. We're rewriting it and re-encoding it as we put it back in the drawer of our brain which freaks everyone out when they learned that.
Because there are people with very, very good memories who will swear, “No, I am the memory keeper of my family. I know what my uncle said that Christmas. I know it word per word per word.” And they may think that and they may be better than I am. I have a terrible memory and that's why I write everything down.
But the truth in the memory is changed every time you pull it out. That's how memory starts to shift and that's how I hold a memory that's different from my sister's memory even though we were in the same room at the same time.
But the point of memoir, there have been some memoirs that have been blown out of the water, and we all remember Oprah yelling at James Frey about his memoir where the truth was not adhered to. I believe that that is wrong.
There are people who will argue all kinds of things, but when I will read a memoir I expect it to be true to the best of the author's ability. I understand, as a human being, that she may be getting things wrong, she may be conflating incidents, she is recreating dialogues, that's a standard trope in memoir, but I want her to be telling her truest, truest truth.
And so, when I'm teaching this there's a couple of things I encourage my students to do. The first is to think about the room tone. And I call it room tone, it's something that people use in AV. It takes the kind of the ambient noise in the room so they can strip it away later.
It's the feeling, the emotion in the room. I know that when I look at a specific memory, if I look at the room tone and see, “And what was the emotion in the room that day?” That's something I can remember better than exactly what my mom said or exactly what my sister said, right?
So, if I look at the truth and try to examine that for what was emotionally going on in the room at the time, I can kind of grab a feeling of what happened.
And then I have a particular rule that I call it “Rachel's 80% Rule.” If you are 80% sure, if 80% or more sure that someone would have said or done something then you get to write it as if they did.
I remember one time when my father put a nail through his thumb while he was hammering. I do not remember exactly what he said, but I am like 97% sure he said, “God bless America.” Because he's always, “God bless America” when he hurts himself. So, when I write that down it's not coming from my memory, but I know it's true. Does that make sense?
Joanna: I guess it also depends on you have to edit the results of what you're writing.
Rachael: I guess.
Joanna: So, of course, as you say, who specifically said what, you'll just never going to get that. I did a degree in psychology and one of the things was witness testimony around stuff which, as we know, unfortunately, actually ends up being not great in many ways as the human brain changes things.
But also, it's good because that plasticity means people can recover from trauma as well.
I still want to stay on this true thing because, say, you have a theme which is around a certain topic. Not knitting, I mean, something deeper. Let's say physical recovery from a trauma of war or something. There might be ways that you can tell your truth about maybe a story or something that happened to somebody else, not you, that would give the point or that you're telling it from a different perspective.
Do you see what I mean?
How close can you get to that line or do you think the line is literally if it didn't happen to you in that way you can't write that?
Rachael: I believe it comes down to…and I know this is not an entirely satisfactory answer, but I believe it comes down to a gut check.
Mary Karr who wrote “Lit” and “Cherry,” and “The Art of Memoir” which is a great book, she has a quote that I actually wrote down here. She says, “The untruth is simple making up events with the intention to deceive.”
Rachael: So, if you go in and write a scene that didn't happen that you know didn't happen just to prove a point on your theme, I believe that is wrong and you shouldn't do it.
However, I really like what you asked about things that happened to other people and owning that. A lot of people will say, “Well, you can't write about what happened to me because that's my story.”
But Andre Dubus III wrote Townie, which is a story about how his brother was sexually abused by an older woman. And he wrote about that and he was asked about it, and he said, “Well, everything that happened to my brother on the other side of the door is his story, but what I could hear in the hallway, that's my story.”
Owning your own story and telling the truth as much as you can, I think, and always, always returning to that good check, “Is this what I know to be true?”
In “Fast Draft Your Memoir,” I told the memory about when I had heard about NaNoWriMo because I've told this story so many times. And then when I was about halfway through writing the book, I decided… because I've been blogging since 2002 and I thought, “Oh, did I write about learning about NaNoWriMo in 2006?”
So, I went back and part of my story was completely untrue, that it had happened two weeks before I'd always said it happened. And I didn't know that. My story is better if I tell it that I found out about NaNoWriMo on Halloween the night before it begins. So, I had to come up with it on the spot which is what I have believed for years, years.
Somehow I got that thing confused, but actually I found out about it on October 12. So, I can never tell that story, the really good story that gets people going, again, because now I know it's not true.
But I didn't take it out of the book. Halfway through the book I said, “Oh, my God, I just learned that I have fabricated that part of it.” So, here is the truth and I'm not ashamed of that because I believed that was true and I will go forward knowing the truth now.
Joanna: You mentioned your sister, your mom, your dad. What about if you want to protect people that you know and love? Something happened to you and they were part of that, but if you share the real truth, you are going to either hurt them and you don't want to hurt them, or you do want to hurt them but you might get sued or something like that.
How do we write authentically, write the truth, while still protecting those two angles?
Rachael: That is the number two most popular question for students. I think that's something that worries us tremendously and it should. Telling your truth really, really, really could hurt other people, but my answer to that is when you write your memoir in order to be able to trust your gut and have that truth come out onto the page, you have to write it as if no one will ever see it.
I like to think that I am a 98-year-old woman, everyone who has ever loved me, and everyone who's ever loved those people are all dead. There's been some kind of nuclear catastrophe. It's me in a tower writing my memoirs and I write that way first. And that's the way I think that everyone should write.
Mary Karr also said that your book is not going to jump out of your computer and land on bookshelves. It's impossible.
You cannot hurt the people by writing this memoir, but I do believe in password protecting your computer if you live with someone who might snoop. That has definitely happened.
But after you've written it and after you've cooled off, there are the sections that will upset your mother, you know them. At that point when the book is done and it's the best that you can do, then you get to think about how you will handle the people in your life.
There are several different ways to do it. I'm going to tell you my way, if you don't mind. There are a certain group of people in my life, my sisters, my wife, okay, that's it, that they get absolute veto power over anything I write about them.
I choose to give them that. I don't have to give them that, but their relationships to me are so intensely strong. They are the ones that truly matter and I would not break faith with them at all at.
When I'm done writing something I send it to them, just that section. I don't send them the whole book. I just send them the paragraphs with them in them or the chapter with them in them, and they get to read them. And they get line-editing veto power.
They can take out anything and it's only been used once by one of my sisters, who's the more private one, and those were very minor thing, it didn't matter. But if she'd said to take out the whole chapter, I would have. The other two don't care. They're always just like, “I don't want to read it, but that's fine. Say what you want to say.”
But when it comes to other family and other friends, I don't give them that. For example, if I write something about my friend, Sophie Littlefield, which I did recently, I send it to her when it's done and I say, “Are you okay with me using your name or do you want me to change your name and distinguishing characteristics?”
She gets to say that because you can disguise your friends a lot more easily than you can disguise your family. That's the hard part. If you're talking about an uncle who molested you, somebody's going to say, “Oh, my God, you're talking about Fred.” That's the danger in this.
Friends you can easily disguise, you change the names. You can also change names and distinguishing characteristics, which is acceptable to do in memoir. You can always change though you can actually straight up lie about what they look like, where they lived, what their names are in order to protect them. It is harder to do with family members.
There is an Anne Lamott really famous quote, that she said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” which is a great quote and it's said everywhere.
But a lot of memoirists take that to mean that, “I get to talk about whoever I want the way I want to do it and hurt them if I want to, and they should have acted better.”
But they don't know that Anne Lamott also went on to say, “I'm not going to publish anything that anyone I'm close to would be hurt by or would hate, and I know how much I'll end up taking out.” Telling the truth in memoir isn't telling all the truths, it's not spewing. Anything I'm writing will be completely crafted and edit it before it's published.
So, we can write this first draft in the white, hot heat of anger, fury, rage, pain, trauma, and then after it's done, and we've cooled off and looked at it, and decided how much uncle Fred is going to need to see of this or is everything gonna explode, we get to edit it at that point to our particulars. But the truth is a very real memoir could explode that part of a life. And writers do have to ask that about of themselves, “Am I willing to do this?”
Joanna: Anne Lamott and I've read quite a lot of her books. She writes about her faith, which I found interesting. She wrote a book about her son when he was not old enough to give permission.
Rachael: “Operating Instructions.”
Joanna: About being a new mom, right? And how tough it was for her and things.
Joanna: It's really good to look at the people who are writing these things.
Did you see the Joan Didion thing on Netflix?
Rachael: Yes. I think there was actually a Kickstarter for it.
Joanna: Yes. It was brilliant.
Rachael: It was.
Joanna: You mentioned your wife, she said she and her husband, who was also a writer, shared what they wrote, and even if they were writing nasty things about each other they still respected each other as writers, and actually just went ahead with that. I find that really interesting.
I have so many questions I wanna talk about. I'm trying to pick the right one.
Rachael: May I say one thing?
Joanna: Yeah, sure.
Rachael: While I'm thinking about it to that point, a really good check to remember in memoir, and it's not hard to pull off, is to always make yourself look the worst on the page, unless you're actually trying to send Uncle Fred to jail.
We are all fallible, we're all broken, we all have flaws. And when you highlight and illustrate your own flaws, when you write a book trying to do that to share your shame and to find empathy, and you put the spotlight on yourself and your flaws, it does help when other people are being looked at. Does that make sense?
Rachael: We're being the most true about ourselves and kind to others, I believe works really well.
Joanna: Elizabeth Gilbert. If you write a memoir that becomes as big as “Eat, Pray, Love” then, I mean, people think that's your life. I don't know if you've seen her relationship with that man. She left him for a woman who has subsequently died.
Rachael: Just a few weeks ago. Yeah.
Joanna: It's a tragic story, but what I think is so interesting about memoir is most people in the world see her trapped in “Eat, Pray, Love.” “Eat, Pray, Love” is who Elizabeth Gilbert is to those people.
As a writer who writes memoirs and your life moves on the moment you've submitted that manuscript, I mean, are you the same person?
How does it feel to look back on a memoir thinking, with the understanding that's how people see you?
Rachael: I think that that is why memoir is so addictive and the difference between an autobiography and memoir is that you can have as many memoirs as you want. And “Big Magic” which was Elizabeth Gilbert's second nonfiction that was a little bit memoir-ish.
I have wondered a few times if that was her reclaiming space again for herself in a different place from “Eat, Pray, Love.” And this is going to sound terrible, but I can't wait for her next memoir about this move.
Joanna: I completely understand.
Rachael: One of my favorite types of memoir is the love memoir and grief memoir. Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking is one of the best books ever.
I can imagine that she is very uncomfortable still being placed inside that box, and I am not the same person I was when I wrote my first memoir. My second memoir is actually being shopped right now. I am much more closer, I'm much more closer to that person now, but yeah, that is that is difficult. We do change.
Joanna: I remember reading “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and loving it. And then I was actually quite disappointed to realize that the experience was something like 13 years ago. And it almost made me feel like it wasn't true because it was written so far in the past.
How do you feel about that in terms of the distance? I think it felt like she just written it about last summer. Maybe you have to say this was this much time ago.
What do you think about that reflection on a time period?
Rachael: It's interesting that you say that because I remember having the exact same feeling. I gave her license in my mind to do that and I was comfortable with her doing that because she kept a journal on the way. And she kept a deliberate, very detailed journal along the way because she was alone, she had nothing else to do but read the one book she had with her at the time and write in the journal.
Many people need a distance of time from the point, especially if they're writing about a slice of time as she was, they need a distance from that too to process it.
There's a really interesting phenomenon in memoir that happens where we are two people as we're writing. We're basically three, we're the author of course. We're writing about a character and we have to treat ourselves as a character with a character arc, with motion and change in our lives.
We're writing about this character as we are at the same time the narrator. The narrator has way more information than the character did in that point, and you can write memoir from two places, and you can intermix them.
You can write this character as she was 15 years ago only knowing what she knew which is a fine way to write a memoir, or you can choose to sprinkle in the knowledge of the narrator as you go lightly.
Perhaps your reader will know that that shot gun is the one that shot Uncle Dave. I'm always beating up on uncles. My uncle is fine. But perhaps it will tell that that is going to happen even though our character at that point doesn't know what's going to happen. Does that make sense?
Joanna: It happens in fiction like all the time: “that was the last day he would ever go and do that”.
Joanna: Stephen King used to do that in “Sleeping Beauties” which I just finished reading and I actually don't know if I like that. I was like, “I didn't wanna know that. You've already told me that this person is gonna die or whatever.”
Our different reactions as readers. Obviously you read a lot of memoir.
Rachael: All of it.
Joanna: Yeah. Good and bad.
What are the worst mistakes or the most common mistakes that writers are making with memoirs?
Rachael: There are two large mistakes and they're very, very and really related.
First, they are not detailed enough in the exterior senses.
Second, they are not detailed enough in the interior visceral happenings within the body, which is exactly the same thing in fiction.
The truth of writing is the more specific we are, the more universal our experience becomes.
I've had so many students come to me and say, “Well, I don't want to. If I describe the lemon-yellow clock with the nightingale that popped out on the hour, that will alienate the person who's never had a cuckoo clock on the wall.” And it's absolutely the wrong response.
The more detailed we are, the more the reader is drawn in, and the more we believe it. We want those exterior sense details, the sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. But even more importantly we want to show our reader what's happening viscerally in our bodies.
Again, this goes back to Rachael's 80% Rule combined with the excellent tool which is “The Emotion Thesaurus.” Do you know that one?
Joanna: Yes. Becca was just on the show.
Rachael: I haven't heard that one. I have to go look that one up.
For people who might not know or who haven't listened to that episode yet, basically, she writes these amazing books. The one I love the most is “The Emotion Thesaurus” because it's basic and it's the first place to start, but she has more.
You look up the emotion anger, rage, hate, lust. And first you see the exterior clues that you could see on someone with having that reaction. So, if I remember that my father was incredibly angry at me, I can look at the anger list and pull out some things that I think on an 80% or better chance he probably was balling his fists and the thing on his temple.
Rachael: Yeah, frowning. But then, even better, is the next part of anger is what we feel internally. The reason we tell the reader what we're feeling internally is because if I say, “I felt ashamed,” there is meaning there, but it's very lightweight and it's easy to skim.
But if I actually say, “What happens in my body that I cannot prevent happening, people cannot prevent visceral responses from happening.” Even if they can't access where that emotion lives in their body, they still have the reaction, they still get the headache, they still get that the sweats, the tight spot.
Joanna: You get that flush in you.
Rachael: The flush. Yes. And because they've proven that words on the page, when we read words on the page, they've only recently proven this in the last 10 years or so, when we read out a scent-related like lavender, our olfactory cortex lights up.
If we read that someone's about to ride a bike, our motor cortex literally becomes ready to ride a bike; it starts to prep.
When I tell you the visceral reaction I'm having in my body, you automatically, on a lizard brain level, understand how I feel much better if I just said I felt ashamed which are just flat words.
Joanna: That is the definition of show don't tell.
You don't say, “I am ashamed,” you describe the flush and that type of thing. And that's what's so important.
Rachael: And it's interesting, in memoir people forget that. They don't think that they need to bring the same tools that we use in fiction.
The other thing about memoir is, and you might have some listeners on your show like this. They want to write memoir more than anything else. So they are not natural writers, they haven't been studying fiction for years, they don't know these techniques. They come in a little bit blind.
They just want to read their book, they're kind of baby writers. Teaching them these tricks automatically ramps up their believability and the strength in their writing immediately, and we can all use that. I need to add those things to all my writing always.
Joanna: Absolutely. Right now, I'm doing a screenplay adaptation and of course, you can't do interior.
Rachael: Oh, my God.
Joanna: So, I'm trying to look at my chapter. This is going from a whole chapter to like two lines on the page because it's all interior. And really all she did was walk into a room and all I can say in the screenplay is, “Rachael walked into the living room.” I can describe the cuckoo clock, but I can't say what's going on inside your body.
Rachael: That sounds awful. That sounds like hell.
Joanna: It's a really interesting challenge, but actually, I think one of the things that is in screenwriting that I think also is in memoir is symbolism.
I was reading someone's memoir and he had written this thing all about how much his children made him feel caged. He said that out loud, whereas or he could have shown him behind a closed door or some kind of symbol of being trapped that was not just telling it out loud.
That metaphor and symbolism is important in memoir, right?
Rachael: Absolutely. And to be able to look at our lives and pick touchstones, and carry them through into the memoir is actually much easier than we think. If I tell any student to pick the touchstone that they had with them at the time, they will find something, they will be able to find a physical metaphor in their lives that they can use in the book. It's super, super interesting and it's very effective.
Joanna: That's really cool.
What's interesting about your title, so “Fast Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life Story in 45 Hours” which is a new thing I think. And I wonder if you have, again, a bit of a backlash from some people who think their memoirs should take several years to write.
Why 45 hour and what are your productivity tips for getting it done like that?
Rachael: That's where the backlash is coming from. People read 45 hours and think 45 days, and it isn't that.
As I say in the book, I believe that even new writers, with some dedicated practice at writing fast and badly and getting out of the way of the inner editor, can write about 1,000 words an hour, if not a little bit more.
So, in the book I walk you through how to come up with your memoir, how to drill down, and pick a section of your life that you want to talk about. But I don't know if you have very much time for that, maybe four hours max, four or five hours.
A nice sized memoir for self-publishing would be anything from 40,000 up, you know. If you're going to go traditional you're probably going to go more around 60 or more not to exceed 100,000 words.
You can actually get those done in that 45 hours. But the only way you're going to do that is to go quickly and not go back and revise as you go. I really believe that writing an entire full manuscript badly is the best way to write a book unless you are editing as you go, you're revising as you go, and you're finishing books. The “and” has to be there.
I know so many writers who revise as they go and they don't finish books. If that happens to be you, try the dashing to the end. The tools that I always recommend are kind of the tools that maybe everyone has talked about; schedule it, put it on your calendar.
Even if it's just 30 minutes in the morning, that 45 hours is going to stretch out. There have been a couple of people who think that how many times does eight go into 45? I have no idea. Six? Six-ish?
Joanna: Like five, six.
Rachael: Yeah. Some people think, “Oh, that's six business days. I can write my memoir in six business days.” And I made it very clear in there, “No, this is 45 hours of writing time, this is thinking time, this is deeper work time.”
It is not possible to sit down and write for eight hours your memoir and be done in six days. It's absolutely not possible physically, but if you could only get 30 minutes a day, great.
Schedule it on your calendar, get it done. I like to get out of the house because in my house I get really distracted, there's always dogs to pet and dishes to do. I believe in taking yourself away from distraction.
I use the program called Freedom to boot me off the internet for 45-minute sessions. So if you're at the cafe, you're not talking to anybody, you have no internet, eventually you will get bored enough that you have to write.
And then I go back online for 15 minutes and nothing has changed even though I think the world must have changed in those 45 minutes I was offline. And then I go out and then I do it again.
I also really believe in Write or Die, the program.
Joanna: I used that in my first NaNoWriMo.
Rachael: I still use it when I'm stuck in books when I can't get word count done. Basically, Write or Die, you turn it on and it gives you certain punishments or rewards for writing. I use it on the very mild setting when I'm writing and if I slow down or stop the screen turns red which reminds me just to keep my fingers moving, just keep writing crap, you'll fix it later.
There is the kamikaze mode which if you stop writing it will eat your words backwards, there's no way to get them back. And as my friend Adrienne Bell says, she goes, “It's not called Write or Annoy, Rachael. It's called Write or Die for a reason.”
Joanna: And then they have this squeaky violin noise. It is very good.
Rachael: A bit sad.
Joanna: It's writeordie.com, I think. I think you can only use it free or you can get it like $10 or something. It's a good investment.
Rachael: It's pretty expensive. I have actually dedicated a couple books to it. I have no choice because they wouldn't have been done otherwise.
That's the most important is pushing yourself to a terrible draft so that you can revise it later. That's probably the best process for most people and I will die on this. I am convinced of this.
Joanna: I'm with you. I know I have to finish a draft before I edit.
Before we almost close up, people who listen the show will know. I've interviewed quite a lot of people on memoir and it's funny because I tiptoed towards it and then I back away.
Rachael: I know you do.
Joanna: I'm trying to understand why. I mean, “The Healthy Writer” which I've just put out has some real personal stuff in, and I have a successful lot of mindset. I feel like I'm stepping towards writing memoir in some way, but maybe I'm just scared of it.
So, let's address that.
If people want to write a memoir, but they feel scared in some way, what is that fear about? And why is it worth writing?
Rachael: I can tell you exactly what I think it's about. As human beings, especially in this society, there is a pressure to look perfect. Right? There's Instagram, Pinterest, all of those places, when we write authentically about our true selves it is embarrassing because I'm extremely flawed.
But I have heard you say this on your show, when you go deepest into yourself and share the things that scare you the most, those are the reactions that are huge to your show. When you have those shows where you lay your heart bare on the page.
It wasn't your journal, but it was something about the process in one of your books. You actually put in journal entries into a book.
Joanna: In the Mindset book.
Rachael: The Mindset book, that's what it is. And when we show ourselves authentically we are risking shame which is I believe the strongest human emotion. Brene Brown is always talking about shame.
But when we present our authentic selves and show our shame, it is met 98% of the time with understanding, compassion and empathy. And shame cannot survive empathy.
When you, Joanna, write something personal that is difficult for you about writing, you do not hear from your readers like, “Oh, I can't believe. Oh, you're supposed to be an expert. How dare you?”
What you hear is, “Thank you, God, you said what I feel in my heart. I really needed to hear that.” You get that empathy from all sides and it makes you braver.
I believe number one, you have got to write this memoir. I want to read it. Number two, I think you're doing it exactly right. You're doing it almost on a practice level. You sprinkle it in the books, you show your true heart in your books, you get a good reaction, you share it on your show, you get a good reaction, you're developing the tools of bravery.
It is harder for people who don't have that kind of resource, but I really recommend for any aspiring memoirists to join a class or a meetup somewhere locally with other memoirists because there is this incredible experience that happens in an actual sit-down class where you'll will be reading this person's work, maybe just a chapter from the book, and you'll see their hands shaking because they're telling you something incredibly, desperately, embarrassing or shameful or horrific and they're expecting to be yelled at.
And instead the class embraces them and lifts them up and says, “I've been there too and that's horrible. I'm sorry you had to go through that.” So if you can share your work with other writers, but I will be really clear here, when you're writing memoir do not share it with anybody that you know.
I talk a lot about that in the book. There's very good reasons for this. If these are very important stories we don't want to break them before they even get out of your body and onto the page.
Joanna: And also those are the people who we want to read them. And, unfortunately, the people we'd love the most are not our audience for any of our books. I'm mean, I'm constantly upset.
Rachael: It's true.
Joanna: People don't read my stuff and then I'm like, “No, they are not your audience. That's not who we're here for.”
Rachael: My wife stopped reading one of my books in the middle, I'm still mad at her. And in fact, she won't ever finish because I keep bringing it up.
Joanna: That was brilliant. Okay. So, we're pretty much out of time, but I want people to know that you have podcasts, plural.
Tell people about your podcast and where people can find them if they want to hear from you some more.
Rachael: I have one called “How Do You Write” which you have been on now twice. The most recent one talking about “The Healthy Writer.” So that's “How Do You Write.” I interview other writers about their process because I'm a process junkie. I'm always looking for the magic bullet which doesn't exist, but I want somebody to make writing easier for me someday. So that's why I have this podcast.
Once a year I go through and talk about what I made that year, where the money came from, how I work. That New Year's episode went up last month. So that's a fun podcast.
I also do a joint podcast with J. Thorn, your co-writer, which is called “The Petal to the Metal,” petal like a flower to the metal. On that we just talk about being working writers. We started it as we both made the jump to full-time writing.
I jumped about two years ago and he just jumped last year. And now, we just talk about all aspects of the writing life. So, that's fun. I'm also available all over the internets, Rachel Herron. I'm not Rachel Aaron.
Joanna: Oh, yes.
Rachael: I did not write “2k to 10k” which is a great book. We're constantly getting like mixed up. She's my name double even. Isn't that funny?
Joanna: She's been on the show too and I have never ever thought of you as the same person. So, don't you worry.
Rachael: That's good, that's good. So rachaelherron.com, on Twitter, I do have on patreon.com/Rachael.
I'm doing a memoir project right now on replenishing because I burned out last year and so I'm spending 12 months replenishing my creative life in all different aspects, music, and gardening, and physicality, and spirituality.
So, probably, about a buck a month you can get those essays as I'm writing them. I do a free e-mail to writers once a week just writing encouragement and that's at my website, you can sign up there. It's really fun. It's just for writers.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time, Rachael. That was great.
Rachael: Thanks, Jo.
Loved your questions on this podcast, Joanna, you were almost grilling Rachael! I have an additional question – I am thinking of investigating and then writing about something in my family history relating to my grandparents, but then impacting on my mother and I in some ways on me as well. Is that considered a memoir or would it be something else? I guess names don’t really matter but I am interested in your opinion on this. Is it a memoir only if I have a character arc throughout it – learn something about myself etc?
Rachael Herron says
Oh, good question! If it’s a strictly non-fiction investigation of your family, then it wouldn’t be memoir, if you’re keeping yourself out of it and reporting the dry facts. If YOU are in it, it’s memoir. You can absolutely write memoir without a character arc/change, but it won’t move the reader as much as if you notice and describe your change as you go through the investigation. Sounds fascinating!
Eliza Peake says
Really enjoyed this episode as I am a big fan of Rachael’s. I have thought about writing a memoir off and on but up until now, I have to say that I honestly didn’t know what made a memoir what it is. I thought I needed to wait until I did something big in my life. But while I may not have traveled all over (yet) or fulfilled my dreams (yet), I have had some interesting things go on in my life. And I’m just getting started (41 isn’t too old, right??).
Now the fun comes in figuring out what to write about, what part of my life, or the theme. It’s probably not something I will tackle for a bit, but it is percolating in my brain!
By the way, I found the emotional thesaurus collection a few years ago and whenever I write, I leave those e-books open to reference during editing. I love that collection! And Rachael’s further explanation on using them was perfect.
Thanks again for another GREAT show!
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 and I’m starting to think more and more that memoir doesn’t have to be something massive, just emotionally engaging.
Jim Kukral says
Great interview with Rachel. She’s a pro and people should listen to her. And thank you for mentioning Book2Pod on your show. As you mentioned, anyone can take a free test drive at book2pod.com/testdrive
Give it a shot! We had someone submit a cookbook this morning, and also a romance book. Any book content works! Thanks again.
Robin Lyons says
I don’t write memoir and don’t plan to so I’ll be honest and say I was on the fence about spending the time to listen to the entire podcast. But WOW! So much content was applicable to all genres. And I can’t not listen to your update and news. Love the podcast! Thank you for your time and effort to keep the podcast informative and relevant.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it, Robin! I actually think aspects of memoir are appropriate for non-fiction as well as fiction – bringing ourselves to the page is always relevant!
Bonnie Lacy says
Hi Joanna, I have listened to your podcasts for years and have learned so much. I even found my book cover designer through you!
This podcast hit home as I am in the rough draft of writing what I now know is a memoir- Rage Rising – My Walk Through the Dark Tunnel of Anger.
What you said at the end brought up emotion. It is a healing process but is terrifying and painful. I know it is the right time to do this as my fiction lead character is me. When I tell people that, they don’t believe me. Hard to let the world see what’s inside, so I identify with you in wanting to avoid this process. but I know I will be better because of writing it.
Thanks for all you do!
Fabulous program. I’ve published one short memoir and yet I’ve been stuck on the next one. Rachel is inspiring and encouraging. I appreciate her straightforward approach and her specific examples. Thanks, Joanna, for bringing memoir into the writing mix.