a day in the liife of a writer

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How to excavate a story from your past: Memoir ideas


Telling a story from one’s childhood is not the same as excavating it.  One may think that simply writing out a vignette from one’s childhood addresses issues plainly, but it ain’t so.

Here’s the thing:

First you have to write out the memory exactly as it has been playing in your head for the past umpteen years.
Then you have to go back and fill in the sensory details: Was Mama’s apron black? Or red?  Janey insists it was black, but you know it was red.  Mental note: dig up old pictures, if possible.

Was music on the stereo?  What color were the curtains?
Was the TV on?  Were there toys on the floor?
How many people were in the room?
Dinner on the stove?
(Even if you’re in your bedroom, you can smell dinner, right?)

You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the dialogue right.  You have to write that down to the best of your recollection before you can feel around the edges of the words for sharpness, or hidden meanings.   And you can’t just go groping around smashing the dirt this way and that.  You have to tread gingerly. And you have to use the right tools:


these don’t serve the same function….


That flat shovel can lift an unbelievably thin layer of soil. The round point one is the tester–you know something’s down there, so you cut into the soil with it.  (If you click on the picture it’ll take to to a right proper archaeology site :))

The flat shovel is what you use to lift each layer of the memory.
First layer: remember where you are in the memory. Where are you physically, where are you relative to the story, where are you in time?
Second layer: who else is there?
Third: What happened?
Fourth: What was said, and who said what?
Then you start digging with the other shovel and see what you over-turn.

There are some memories I’ve had to sneak up on, just like I would a wispy dream.  I tell my brain that my fingers are just fiddling around on the keyboard, and I ignore any possible typos at this point because I’m typing like Stevie Wonder–my eyes are closed, and I’m leaning a little to the left because maybe that’s the way the car was going, and I’m swaying because I know Daddy’s got Johnny Cash on the radio and I’m trying to remember that empty lot on the corner that I liked to play in because I liked the texture of the greasy dirt on the bottoms of my feet.

After you write the bare-boned scene, ask yourself why it is so important.  What holds the meaning for you?  Why does it hurt to remember it?  Or why does it make your heart burst with joy?  Maybe you’re standing on the front seat of your daddy’s old white Pontiac, your small hand tucked into the collar of his shirt, and your face is snugged up under his chin where you can smell Old Spice and tobacco, and the memory holds both deep delight and terror, because you’re next to your favorite person, and you know he’s driving drunk…..





Regurgitation: It’s what’s for breakfast

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. … This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.” —Natalie Goldberg

This idea is repulsive.

I’d prefer not to envision myself as a cow in any way. Furthermore, throwing up what I just ate?  And pawing through it to find the good chunks to chow down again? Just thinking about it makes my stomach heave a little.

But I have done this in my writing.
I’ve ingested life through all my pores and then vomited the experiences onto the page.
It’s a matter of having taken in too much too fast and then needing to put all of it into one place so I can pick through it and draw out meaning.
I don’t have the words for anything unless I write it out.  If it stays inside, it stays unnamed and unclaimed.

I ingest indiscriminately the first time. The second time I’m far choosier, and those are the things that stick to my bones.

I so wish this didn’t sound like a promotion for bulimia.

first recognize your fear

“First recognize that you’re afraid and slowly build your tolerance for fear…You may still feel it, but you become willing to bear it as you write. You keep your hand moving, you stay there, you move closer and closer to the edge of what scares you.” – Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

You’d think it’d be easy, recognizing when you’re afraid.  It’s not.  Fear disguises itself in churchy clothes, prim white gloves and veiled hats that set just so on your hair.  In slutty clothes, see-through tops and tight jeans.  In tough clothes, leather jackets and shit-kicking boots.

Fear hides in mashed potatoes, and Hagen Daz ice cream, in peanut butter and bananas, and carne asada burritos.

It skulks in Farmville, and poker, porn, shopping, smoking, and reading.

I’ve skated past fear in my thoughts, come back and circled around and finally skidded to a stop so I could scuff at it with my toe.  Slowly I’ve been eliminating places it can hide, and the result is clarity.  I can see and breathe now that I am facing my fears.  Now I’m not just feeling for the edge with my feet–I can see the edge from here, and yes, the drop is steep.  But the other side isn’t as far away as I thought.

All the mixed metaphors in this post make me grin.

Naming characters

I just discovered this on Facebook, and I think that may be the only place you can use this technique.  If you’re stumped about what to name your characters, try this meme-y thing:

Did you know your CELL PHONE has a name? Try this:

1st step: From your mobile number, take the last 3 numbers. Example- 780-496-9684 , take “684”only

2nd step: Write this @*[684:0] in the comment box below, replacing the 3 numbers with your own. … …

3rd step: Remove the * sign and press enter in the comment box!

For the naming of characters, just make up numbers. NOTE: I’ve been informed that if the 1st of your last 3 digits is a ‘0’ it won’t work.

927= Travis M. LaVoi
647=Azzura Cox
123=Morgan Grice
456=Becky Wald
789=Matt Kozlov
233=Michael Blickstead
999=Peter Saldarriaga


cut off your head–it’s getting in your way

“Writer’s block results from too much head. Cut off your head.
Pegasus, poetry, was born of Medusa when her head was cut off. You have to be reckless when writing. Be as crazy as your conscience allows.” – A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

I do it all the time. :/


A Day in the Life of a Writer: Metaphors and Character Development

I don’t see much online on the subject of using metaphors in character development, so I’m sharing my process.

I’ve got this homeless character  in the opening scene of my novel and she did something that surprised me.  I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but she pulled a .357 on a Beemer guy who was going to dump oil in a dumpster she’d climbed into to retrieve a book.   When I started the scene, I didn’t know anything but the fact that she was in a dumpster. By the time I was through writing the scene, I discovered that she can take care of herself, that she’s got a soft spot for strays, and she’ll dig through trash to get to good reading material.

I know why she’s on the streets–she’s trying to find a teenaged girl who ran away, but –that’s all I know.  So I’m studying metaphors. Once I figure out what her life metaphor is, I’ll have a better handle on her character.

One way to look at it is to call it her paradigm.  It’s a deeply held, unconscious belief  which dictates how a person responds to life’s events.  We all have this internal set of beliefs which guide us in our choices every day.  Is the world a good or a bad place? Is life an uphill struggle, or a joyride? Is it a classroom, a confessional, a sacrificial altar, or a den of thieves? People growing up in the same household can emerge with different paradigms because each experiences things differently.

I know that Maggie (the homeless woman) has a positive paradigm; I also know that for her to be a compelling character she needs to grow, so there’s room for her metaphor to be altered by her experiences in the story.  The metaphor that life is a classroom fits what I know of her character so far so I’m adopting that for now, although I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.

The girl she wants to find (Emily) is a different matter. The world’s been a dangerous place for her, so many of her decisions will be driven by a need for certainty.  I’m basing this on what I’ve read by Tony Robbins, who asserts that we have six basic needs. The two core needs are certainty and significance, and according to my life coach, most people live their whole lives making sure these two needs are met, many times to the detriment of the other four needs: variety, connection, growth, and contribution.  Maggie, I’ve just realized, is driven by her need to live a life that makes a difference.  I want her character arc to move toward the other needs, so I’ll be planning my plot with that in mind since she’s my central character.

Emily has no thought for anything but survival.  Right now she views life as a cross between a battlefield and a war game, like chess, in which she is a dispensable pawn. My goal for her character is for her to grow toward connection and significance, which she will find as she develops her art.