Monday, February 21, 2011

To Bare All -- or Not

La Jolla Cove, California - photo by Carol Newman


My first writing teacher said that a writer had to be willing to bare all on paper. My young self was shocked. After all, I was still writing in my head, afraid even to put words on paper. Later, I asked Hilary Masters, writer in residence for a year at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, how he could reveal so much about himself and his family in his writing. He gave me a look that said, get over it; and then he essentially said, get over it. By then I was actually putting words on paper, but, as Sarah White wrote in her guest blog here last week, the thought of my mother reading what I might write gave me instant writer's brick wall (that's writer's block magnified). 

Although I think Sarah already knows the answer, she posed the question of how to write about living people. It's a question in every life story writing class. Maybe the answer is in the photo above. At first glance, the swimmers appear bare; but they aren't. It's just the arrangement of elements that makes them appear so. When we get past the double-take, do we even want to see suitless swimmers -- of all ages, all degrees of fitness or un-fitness? Probably not.

Same with our writing. We want the reader to take a good look, and look again, closer. That's what the reader wants too -- something attention grabbing. But the reader doesn't want so much grimy detail that she is forced to look away. Even Joyce Carol Oates' new memoir, A Widow's Story, has received some criticism for having too much detail. Friends and I groaned about Paula Deen's memoir, Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin' in which she revealed that at a particularly low point in her life, her home had contained bird filth. While we sympathized with her depression, it was TMI -- too much information.

Susan Sanders, author of Quicksand, A Love Story, her self-published memoir, told me she was immobilized as she thought about how to shape her life events chronicled in dozens of journals into one book. She said that the advice in Write Your Life Story in Eight Weeks Workbook got her unstuck. The workbook advises to Imagine yourself having a conversation with an long-time acquaintance who asks over coffee, "How did you become the person you are today?" This acquaintance is not an intimate, not a family member or mate. Begin with how you would answer that question and add or subtract from that explanation.

In deciding how "bare" to get as you write, clarify your purpose. Are you writing for personal growth, posterity (family), or publication. If you're writing for yourself for personal growth and no one else will see it, spill your guts. If you're writing for posterity, don't avoid topics or fabricate, but couch events in tactful summary. If you're writing for publication, then you will have to take Hilary Masters' implied advice: get over it as Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown did in his memoir, Against All Odds: My Life of Hardship, Fast Breaks, and Second Chances. In a Feb. 21, 2011 front-page story in USA Today, he says he had no intention of revealing as much as he did, but that he found he couldn't keep it hidden. Family and friends have been supportive he says, and family members he wrote about are still on good terms with him.

I haven't had a chance to read the book, but I definitely plan to. I'll be interested to see how he handles potentially uncomfortable details. Maybe reading his book will help you decide how much detail to include.

So just tell what the story needs. A little shock is a good thing, but we don't want to know about the bird poop under your bed.

And last, remember that writing is a three-step process. When you sit down to write the first draft, don't be afraid to strip everything bare. In the re-writing you can always "re-dress" the issues.


Write your life story in six paragraphs. Just average-length paragraphs. We're not talking six-paragraph book here.(Yes, I got this idea from the popular six-word life stories.) So -- in six paragraphs, what would you include? Yes, you can do it. Think of your purpose. Think of the three-step writing process. Think of a chat over coffee with an acquaintance. There you have it.


Who doesn't love waffles? Who doesn't love chocolate? You see where this is headed, right? Chocolate Waffles,  courtesy of the Hershey website.


1/2 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, melted 3/4 cup sugar 2 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk* 1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)


1 Stir cocoa and butter in bowl until smooth; stir in sugar. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt; add alternately with buttermilk to cocoa mixture. Stir in nuts, if desired.
2 Bake in waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions. Carefully remove waffle from iron. Serve warm with HOT FUDGE SAUCE. About ten 4-inch waffles.

* To sour milk: Use 1-1/2 teaspoons white vinegar plus milk to equal 1/2 cup.

NOTE: Leftover waffles can be frozen; thaw in toaster on low heat.

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