The Alan Zweibel Writing Exercise

Put the ‘me’ in memoir  It seems like right now almost everybody has a story to tell. This is like the Age of Memoirs.

My theory is that post-Watergate we realized we can’t trust the government. Post-911 we feel like we can’t really trust the media to know (or tell us) what’s really going on either. So who can you trust? Only the personal testimony of credible individuals. To me that explains the rise of the written memoir.

So what about your memoir? If you’re interested, I’ve worked with a number of first-time writers to plan, write and re-write their stories and have developed a simple 5-step plan (which I also think would work for any book project). Here it is:

1 – BULLET POINTS: Start generating ideas (just nubbit of the story or character or rant). Notate these in shorthand phrases which might only be comprehensible to you (“green shoes”, “party pad”). Do not edit anything out. Go for quantity.

2 – BASKETS: In the course of generating your bullet points you probably noticed the ideas clustering, either around chronology (“my summer in hell”, “5 minutes in heaven”, “my mis-spent youth”) or concept (“mom”, “food”, “fantasy”). We often default to chronology but stay open to themes and topics. Each basket gets it’s own file, then just toss the related bullet points in. The basket titles can change, combine or sub-divide. They are probably the chapters or sections of your book. It probably needs a serious edit, but that’s a rough outline.

3 – BENCHMARKS: You need deadlines to give you a sense of momentum, to see things adding up  because otherwise you just won’t get anything done. It’s great to have a teacher, coach or writing buddy, writers group or class to answer to and to give you assignments if/when your momentum flags, but you can do it yourself.

Pick one bullet point that seems essential to the book and write a draft of it this week. If you find yourself avoiding it when the week deadline is up, at the last second pick a different bullet point that seems fun and easy and draft that. The point is to expand one bullet point into a written draft every week, no matter how crappy that draft is.

4 – BEAT YOUR HEAD AGAINST A BRICK WALL: Any brick wall will do. Your insecurity that you don’t know what you’re doing. Your fear of being judged a fool and incompetent. Your revulsion at how bad your writing really is and how far short it falls of the book you imagined. Your inability to say what you really mean.

5 – ABANDON SHIP: After a heroic struggle you finally give up in frustration, admit you can’t do it and abandon the project for today (or for good). Then, in the shower, on the treadmill or eating that lunch, you suddenly see it, now more clearly than ever. You remember the detail that unlocks the scene or realize the point of the whole book!

Apparently, this is a known dynamic of the creative process and each step is important. Maybe to wear down your conscious filters? You beat your head against the wall first, then get frustrated and give up. No wonder so many artists are alcoholic!

Now go back to Step 3 and write some more, or Step 1 and generate more bullet points, this time getting more specific, and repeat the cycle.


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