Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of memoir writing, is brought to you by non-fiction and thriller writer Jeff Rasley.
Memoir Writing with a Purpose
Most writers have kept a journal or diary during some period in their lives. I started a diary when I was sixteen. After two weeks I quit and burned the document out of fear my parents might find it. There was too much incriminating evidence, and my strict Midwestern, Presbyterian parents would not have allowed me to take the Fifth to avoid self-incrimination. I didn’t take up journal writing again until I became a serious adventure traveler. (Serious in the sense that it was a favorite avocation since age 18.)
Some of my travel experiences seemed worth recording in photographs and in writing. In some cases there was meaning to be interpreted from the experiences beyond the immediacy of the moment. So, I began to try to turn some of my travel journaling into publishable articles. Eventually I had enough material to write books, which were travel memoirs with a purpose. In the journal I would record the facts of the experience and my reaction to it. To turn the journal writing into a worthy article or book there had to be meaning beyond the experience. There had to be an insight, lesson or wisdom which I could interpret from the experience and offer to others. The next challenge was, of course, finding a publisher.
Creating an article worthy of publication meant going beyond mere biographical journaling. If one is a person of historical or cultural interest, then autobiographical writing may be worthy of publication. (No matter how poorly written the Paris Hiltons of our celebrity-obsessed culture will find a publisher.) But, fortunately or unfortunately that eliminates ninety nine percent of the rest of us. Journaling for one’s own pleasure, or to pass on to family and heirs, of course has value. And social media has created the opportunity to bore the hell out of friends by posting the quotidian details of one’s life. [“Here I am enjoying my first copy of coffee of the day looking out my window and a blue bird landed on the sill, blah, blah, etc.”]
The personal essays, or memoirs with a purpose, I have been inspired to write are mostly about extreme experiences such as Himalayan mountain climbing or solo sea-kayaking. I have learned, or had reinforced, great lessons about life from these adventures. For example, I was inspired to write about the strength and beauty of the human spirit and the willingness to be self-sacrificial after witnessing a Nepalese guide and porter risk their lives to save and care for others who had been trapped by an avalanche.
Other writers have found meaning worthy of publication in more mundane experiences. My sister-in-law, Cherri Megasko, writes for the Yahoo Contributor Network. She uses personal experiences to write about topics of interest to homeowners, parents and a general readership. For example, her article entitled “Groundhog Wars” is a delightfully humorous essay about the different approaches her and a neighbor applied to dealing with a resident groundhog. Its wider application for animal lovers is how to deal with what some consider pests and others consider lovable critters.
Essential to making a memoir interesting and worthy of publication is to have a central theme that carries the narrative forward. Without a thematic narrative, we are back to mere observation or a random collection of insights without a guiding light. [And I know from hard won experience it is best to have a guide in uncharted territory and a light to see in the darkness.] In other words, the piece should make a point.
The narrative must include factual details to make it interesting. Without interesting, quirky or astonishing factual details, a personal essay gets placed in the folder labeled BORING. Even hard core academic writing must include the important facts on which an argument is based. A point made in the abstract is likely to be forgotten as soon as the magazine or book is closed or the reading device turned off.
The last point I cover when teaching a class about memoir writing is to consider carefully whether to identify or to change the identity of individuals, organizations or companies referred to in the piece. Friendships can be damaged and libel / defamation suits can be filed. It is easy enough to disguise an identity with a fake name and to attribute some intentionally misleading characteristics to protect the privacy or reputation of a person or organization. Consider the consequences and choose wisely.
As to publication, well, much has changed in the last decade or so. When I first began writing for publication in the 1980s, I would go to my neighborhood library and page through Writers’ Market looking for the magazines or journals interested in publishing the type of article I had written. Now, the neighborhood library has probably closed. Information about publishers is online, but many of the print publications have ceased to exist or been downsized. The advent of the digital age and online publishing has created vastly more opportunities for publication than ever before. And I don’t subscribe to the view that quantity has reduced quality. Great writing still happens and is more accessible. But there are fewer traditional publishers of successful magazines and books.
One significant consequence for writers of the traditional publishing industry’s decrepitude is that pay is harder to come by. For several decades a writer could expect to be paid from $100 to $2,500, depending on the newspaper’s / magazine’s / journal’s prestige and circulation, for a feature length article. And there were multiple publication possibilities for many different categories of articles. While the multiplicity of online publications (especially blogs) has vastly increased the possibility of publication, the possibilities for remuneration seem to be much reduced. Writing for “content farms” or guest blogging (thanks Morgen!) did not exist as opportunities in pre-digital history. Unfortunately, the writing is often done gratis (damn!).
You’re very welcome… thank you for offering, Jeff, and for gratis! 🙂
Jeff Rasley is author of Light in the Mountains — A Hoosier Quaker finds Communal Enlightenment in Nepal, Islands in My Dreams, Nepal Himalayas — in the Moment, False Prophet?, Bringing Progress to Paradise and Monsters Of The Midway: The Worst Team in College Football.
He practiced law for thirty years in Indianapolis, Indiana and was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. He has an outstanding academic record: graduate of the University of Chicago, A.B. magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, All-Academic All-State Football Team and letter winner in swimming and football; Indiana University School of Law, J.D. cum laude, Moot Court and Indiana Law Review; Christian Theological Seminary, M.Div. magna cum laude, co-valedictorian and Faculty Award Scholar. Jeff is currently President of the Basa Village Foundation USA Inc. and U.S. liaison for the Nepal-based Himalayan expedition company, Adventure GeoTreks, Ltd. He teaches classes for IUPUI Continuing Ed. Program and Indiana Writers Center.
For chairing the Indiana-Tennessee Civic Memorial Commission, Jeff received Proclamations of Salutation from the Governors of Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania and he was made an honorary Lieutenant Colonel Aide-de-Camp of the Alabama State Militia, a Kentucky Colonel and honorary Citizen of Tennessee. He was given a Key to the City of Indianapolis for his report on the safety conditions of Indy Parks. Jeff received the Man of the Year award from the Arthur Jordan YMCA.
Jeff has published numerous articles and photos in academic and mainstream periodicals, including Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, ABA Journal, Family Law Review, Pacific Magazine, Indy’s Child, The Journal of Communal Societies, The Chrysalis Reader, Faith & Fitness Magazine, Friends Journal and Real Travel Adventures International Magazine. He gives programs about adventure travel and philanthropy to service clubs, community organizations and churches. He is an avid outdoorsman and recreational athlete. He leads trekking-mountaineering expeditions in Nepal and has solo-kayaked around several Pacific island groups. Jeff also loves to read and considers completing Marcel Proust’s 3600-page Remembrance of Things Past as one of his most enjoyable accomplishments.
Married to Alicia Rasley, Jeff is a multi-published author, RITA Award winner, and University professor. He has kindly provided the following from ‘Chapter 1: Home is a Resting Place’…
The first time I came home from Nepal I knew where my home was. It was in Indianapolis, Indiana where I lived with my wife Alicia and our two boys. I had not been sure of that before I left.
We were going through a rough patch in our marriage. I felt trapped with a wife, kids, mortgage, and law office to run. The American dream had come to feel like an Edgar Allen Poe nightmare. Financial pressures and family responsibilities felt like walls closing in on me.
Work and responsibilities beat and fashion the adult American into a tool of production and consumption. At the systemic level our society and economy value the acquisition of material wealth over all other values. In succumbing to this cultural imperative we are conditioned to believe that our meaning and purpose is determined by job and profession rather than by love, family and enjoyment of life. For example, after being introduced to a new acquaintance, the first question is, “What do you do?” Materialism reduces our identity and humanity to a name and a job. And our consumer culture determines our value by what we consume.
My high school history teacher in Goshen, Indiana, Mr. Slavens, liked to say, “The average American male, dead at thirty, buried at sixty.” I don’t remember who he was quoting, but it haunted me. At forty I was definitely feeling lost, if not dead. I did not want to lose my humanity, but I felt life being sucked out of me as I measured out my days in six minute billing units at the office.
Alicia wisely and firmly told me to go traveling, to do what I loved. Not just a weekend or week-long road trip; she told me I should go to the other side of the planet. I should go trekking in the Nepal Himalayas.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about.
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