Memoirs, Writing Fiction, and the Difference

Memoir is really very similar to fiction in how it’s written. They both follow the same structure. Events are organized in the framework of a story. The flow isn’t interrupted to preserve the totality of events. Things that pertain to the story being told are included. Everything else is left out. Fiction is an additive method. Memoir is subtractive. You take a subset of everything you remember and from that into a cohesive story. Events are picked from a multitude of things that actually happened.

This selection of events is apparent in movies based on true events or a dramatization of the truth. Take for example, Steve Jobs. I’ve watched three versions of Jobs’ life. First, the biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, Jobs. Then the factual documentary Man in the Machine. Finally, Steve Jobs directed by Arron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender.

Each movie had a different angle. Jobs was about Jobs getting ideas and using them to be the best. Man in the Machine is trying to be as unbiased as possible. It was the most balanced but tried to talk about the relatively unknown things about Jobs. Steve Jobs was controversial in its directorial and writing direction. It omitted his accomplishments for the most part and focused on his relationship with his daughter, Lisa.

All in all, the based on true story movies tried to make Jobs relatable. And the perception of Jobs was he wasn’t approachable. He was a strict, straight to business type of guy. He had stringent expectations and expected them to be met. He was thought to be the driving force behind Apple’s success. Each movie took a different approach to humanize and create a connection with the audience. Sorkin focused on Jobs’ personal life and matched it to Apple’s performance/Jobs’ fortunes. Jobs started us with Jobs as a student that couldn’t really connect with anyone except when he started Apple. Man in the Machine used his relationship with the mother of his daughter.

 

Memoir and fiction follow the same pattern. First, we see the character before anything starts. Then, something happens they have to react to. Then, they try fixing the problem different ways and fail successive times. Then, something starts working. Finally, the character succeeds, finds something that changes their life forever, and the story ends. This matches the character arc of a fictional story. Fiction adds an external conflict. When the character arc is the main conflict, it’s a literary story.

gone girl

Some recent stories have a strong character arc and conflict arc that are nearly equivalent in importance. Take The Girl on the Train as an example. The character arc of Rachel’s drinking and the central conflict of finding Megan’s killer. Or Gone Girl. The internal conflict is how Amy feels about Nick and the external conflict is Amy’s murder. Adding a strong character arc to a compelling plot brings a story up by an arm and a leg.

girl on the train

I recently read Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara. She is a prolific writer of memoirs and personal essays. She pointed out some key points. You have to be a hero, not a victim. It’s easy in this society and time to feel like a victim. You need a time in your life where you take action. A bad thing comes your way, and you fix it. Getting your car stolen is bad luck. Bad stuff happens. But if you track down the thieves, steal your car back, and you learn how to overcome a debilitating fear of confrontation. Then, it becomes a story that works in a memoir.

ndw

You need to be done with the problem. If you haven’t found a way out, there’s nothing really there. Struggling and still struggling with the issue you want to write about, it is too soon. The writer needs perspective to make a memoir. You need to know the lesson and be detached enough to know what really happened. People read a memoir to gain a new understanding of the human condition. Something that can help figure out life, a little better.

 

A few things are in the way of me writing personal essays. When I write about myself, the writing comes out snobbish and stand-offish. I have allows been a little showoff. For years, I never knew why I wanted to prove my intelligence. Recently, I found the reason behind it. I have always felt less than everyone else because of my physical limitations. I always felt a little trapped by my condition. My way out and to feel better about being “less”, I try to feel equal by proving my intelligence more than balances out my physical weakness. That realization changed a lot, but I still worry about falling back into old habits.

 

When I have in-depth conversations about my intense emotional states and the inner workings of my mind, the person on the other end doesn’t understand me. That’s because I’ve never tried telling people even a percentage of that stuff. I have trouble relating to other people. I’ve been anti-social for that long. I’m slowly improving there.

 

This is an example of a recent conversation where I try to get better at explaining something.

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Recently saw Collateral Beauty. It’s about a father that recently lost his 6-year-old daughter to cancer. He writes letters to Death, Time, and Love and they reply. Towards the end, there was a really emotional scene where he admits his daughter is dead. I actually had tears forming a well in my eyes but didn’t allow any out. I pulled away emotionally.

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Why didn’t you let your tears come? Don’t you think you’re cutting out emotion unnecessarily?

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Whenever I describe something in too much detail, it doesn’t make sense. I need to fix that before writing a memoir. I’ll try my usual description first.

 

Emotional history: Started as a person with normal reactions to my emotions. Feeling them and becoming numb when some emotion became too much. Everyone does that except it isn’t going to happen frequently for most people. For example losing a close loved one. That might happen a few times. Simple sadness was enough to make me numb after a little while.

 

Then I started to decrease the threshold before I became numb. It worked for a time, and I reached my goal to fit as a male in American society. At one point, I was unable to feel anything.

 

Then, I slowly reduced the threshold when numbness happened. Through that still ongoing process, I thought I was rediscovering something I lost. That moment, watching that movie, I was in a struggle to stay there and feel. Becoming numb would have been slightly easier. There was a standstill and anything could tip the balance. Something did.

 

A better image. Everyone has three parts to their psyche. We’ll ignore the superego. There are various names that work for superego like conscience, mother’s voice, God, and hindsight. We’ll ignore that.

 

There’s a childish side or you at your weakest, id, baby, or the person you would be without an external influence. Then the protector, ego, or what the world made you into. The protector usually acts in small ways. Like covering your face, when you cry. Hiding you away, when you’re boiling mad. Putting on a brave face, when you’re really scared. It basically reacts to what the baby wants and finds a socially acceptable way to meet those needs.

 

What happens with normal emotions? The protector does those little things. When something too much happens, like the death of a close loved one, the protector says, “Baby, you need some time in your quite room. I’ll be with you the whole time. Too much is going on out here.” You become numb while the baby has some time away from life.

 

For someone like me, the baby cries bloody murder when something sad happens. Everything is exaggerated beyond the average. A baby like that spends too much time in the quite room. That baby never gets to experience a lot, because a lot of things are too much.

 

I increased the sensitivity of my protector to the baby by showing the protector more emotional states. Like an abused child, the protector grew more attuned to the tormentor, the whiny baby. Then the baby spends less time out and then none at all.

 

Right now, I’m dismantling the safe room. If an external threat appears, the deconstruction stops or reverses temporarily. Very similar to the process of growing up.

 

That’s still a little confusing.

 

The other part is sharing too much. The vulnerability of it. We’re all scared to sharing too much. That allows the possibility of getting hurt. The more you share, the greater the rejection. I feel like I should share my life’s lessons. I’ve been through a lot. Moving to a different country at five and never going back. My medical experiences that vastly over date my time to 28 years of age. Then the lessons meditation taught me. Finally finding meaning in my life. There is a lot I could share. There might be a memoir in my future. We’ll see.

 

Going Back: High School

This previous summer, I went to my ten-year high school reunion. I think the best thing is to describe how I was during High School. I was shy and more anti-social than anyone I knew. A lot of things that could have broken my shyness came my way, but I’d always been too stubborn to let it take. I made a few loose friends during school hours, and that was everything I knew about being social. And I was satisfied with that. Frequently, I was lonely and my imagination grew to fill the space. That’s how I coped.

 

Anyway, that was over ten years ago. It’s kind of embarrassing that I’ve been looking forward to the reunion for around five years at the point it was announced. I had developed a few ideas about reunions that likely fit with my emotional state through a vast number of years after high school. I had misconceptions about the whole thing. I thought two kinds of people went to reunions. First, those that had their best years in High School. That fit with the jealousy I had for people that could navigate the social landscape way better than I ever could. Then, the people that wanted to show everyone how they had changed since High School. I put myself into that group even though I hadn’t changed a ton until two-three years ago. I credit meditation and writing with those changes. Being ignorant in social matters doesn’t work for a writer, writing, and marketing. I was wrong. Popular media is way off.

 

I went as a test for myself and to see people from years ago. There were a few things I needed to know about myself. A personal test motivates me the most. I needed to check if I wanted to talk to people and could overcome my anxiety/insecurity/shyness. Basically, if everything I’d worked on was good enough. Also, I wanted to test if I could use my new communication device in a social setting with real world conditions. And if I could network and hand out business cards. And if having someone driving my chair worked good enough.

 

bulkan-evcimen lced tea table
Photo by Bulkan Evcimen on Unsplash. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

 

I went in with my nurse, a wheelchair driver, and the medical supplies I always have with me. I meet one of the people I’d wanted to see. We had a nice conversation, and I gave a business card. Success! And somehow I engaged in a conversation with someone new I never remembered meeting before. That has never happened in my entire life, if you can believe that. The device wasn’t loud enough in the ambient noise of the reunion. Using the device was much harder with the distraction of the people around but still manageable. A few people called my name and I smiled at them. I had no idea they wanted to talk to me until near the end. Communicating that to my driver was near impossible. I couldn’t think at my best in the slight crowd. I could’ve typed it on my device but it never occurred to me. At that point, I decided to go out to the patio for something different.

 

I meet the other person I’d wanted to see out there. The device didn’t work outside. I tried for a solid 30 minutes it seemed like. Then I figured out having the device up was sending the same message as if I was using my phone. I put the device down and returned to the person I was in High School. I silently nodded and smiled while other people talked in front of me and other people spoke for me. I wanted to talk the whole time though. It was two hours into the reunion by then.

 

I returned to the main reunion room. I would have to leave within thirty minutes to make it into bed sometime before eleven. By eight thirty, I had to leave. A have a ton of medical stuff to do before going to sleep. By the time I was back inside, people were beginning to get drunk. The late arrivals were sober still. I don’t drink and rarely eat anything through my mouth. A few people looked stunned to see me. Another test passed. I could finally read facial expressions.

 

I was disconnected from my emotions, facial expressions, and physical manifestations for so long that determining facial expressions in others was impossible. I always had intense emotions and during high school everything was buried for some degree of normalcy. That hid a large part of the social learning most people were going through in the teen years. That reunion night, I read facial expressions and responded with my own instinctually. I got the expression of stunned then surprise. I hurriedly looked away as she looked into my eyes. Accidentally, they moved up in an eye roll. If anything, I was too honest. You’re surprised I showed up? Well, I don’t care. I’m here, deal with it. At that point, I didn’t have anyone else I’d wanted to see.

 

I wanted to talk to people that used be unapproachable. I could use the device indoors. Typing up phrase before hand is a must at parties and crowded places. Sometimes reading the communication device is easier than hearing what it says sometimes. The backup system is abysmal in comparison, allowing people to speak for me. I need to drive my chair around. Body language is a huge part of social interaction. It’s not something that can be delegated.

 

It was a learning experience, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll fix all the mistakes I made. I rarely make a mistake more than once these days. I’ll figure out this social stuff like I figured out everything else. Nothing can stop me. Hard work can get you anything. Here are a few words about change from Tony Robbins.

 

“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”

— Tony Robbins

 

jon-tyson we work motivation poster
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash. Enhancements by Graham Kar.

 

 

Book Cover Contest

Recently, I ran into an advertisement for a book cover contest. I don’t usually try entering contests. The need for structured competition feels a tad bit ridiculous to me. I have nothing against people that enjoy competition. It’s just not for me. I prefer keeping an internal tally of my improvement over what I’ve done before. Competing with people I believe are my betters in my mind, can sometimes motivate me.

 

Keeping up motivation through a competition is the hard part. The way it’s supposed to work, doesn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I followed the traditional structure. First, I amped myself up with the thought that I would win. Every time I wanted to stop, I braced on that mantra, I’m going to win. And there was always fear. If I didn’t win, I would be crushed, and I’d never want to do something like that again.

contest web

Anyway, I had to design a special edition book cover for Dan Brown’s next book, Origin. The rules were simple. Include some text and make it the right size. Choosing what cover design to make was the difficult thing. If I supremely made a cover of something they didn’t want, it wouldn’t matter how good it looked. I could design anything I wanted. Making something they wanted as the cover was the hardest part. I needed details on the book. Those were sparse. Origin is the sequel to Inferno. Origin was about modern art. That was everything we got.

Day 1

In addition to entering the contest, I wanted to learn Adobe Illustrator. I had two months to submit a book cover. I choose what to make. I decided Origin was about something Biblical like the other books in the series. I knew the protagonist would be Robert Langdon. And modern art. I wanted to make a cubist picture of a guy for the cover. Then add the text and block out behind it, like a reversed redaction.

Day 2

I started. First, I made a reference image from stock I found on Unsplash.

day-4

I drew shapes.

day 5

I merged and divided shapes so everything was at a depth of one layer.

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I colored the squares.

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I made shadows.

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Finally, I blocked out the text.

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I combined all the layers.

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Ultimately, I didn’t become a finalist. I learned a lot and probably won’t enter another book cover design contest again. My cover was over-designed. I frequently over-complicate things. The focus wasn’t the legibility of the text. I focused too much of the cover picture. If I make another book cover, I’ll fix all that stuff. And my design wasn’t what they wanted.

 

These are the finalists.

finalists 2finalists 1

Thank for reading.

Walking Through the Forest of Night to a House so Bright

 

A story of transformation, finding something unreal, and seeing things in a new way.

 


 

Walking through the black forest shakes trepidation through this vessel. I just walk from some unknown location to the warm comfort of my home, each step concluding in pain, as branches thick and dense scratch up every square inch of open flesh. The continual movement through this underbrush offers a constant reminder of what hides just out of sight in the utter darkness all around. The unavoidable trip over an up-turned root or impact with a hearty low hanging branch adds punishment to my circuitous, wandering journey. I need some way to escape this blind torment — a slight reprieve from this suffering — just something, anything to change this sightless wandering.

 

A deep thumping moves through the forest floor and into my very bones. The need to brace myself to the strength of a behemoth tree possesses my deliberate action. My touch turns into a hug that becomes a death grip with another mighty, ground shaking vibration. A light reflecting back onto the trees — showing their full depth and complexity — grows with the intensity of a dozen suns in the utter darkness of this endless night. A menacing, throaty, animalistic roar from the omnidirectional distant wood sends a shiver down my spine, raising hair as if preceding electromagnetic discharge. An unwitting glance in the general direction blinds and reveals. I will and force my body to unleash the hold upon this mighty protector, this sentinel of a tree. I reluctantly gaze at the source of bright emanations floating ahead of this feeble body. The illumination acts as a giant obfuscation of my true savior, whatever form of creature may yet it be? I approach with a heart halting terror and unbridled curiosity, unhindered by neither. This encroachment continues until the ultimate conclusion of facing this thing.

 

The light fades to a faint glimmer of the once magnificent beacon, facing me with the stuff of nightmares — a monstrous feline form waiting to tear meat from bone. The shiny salivating mouth, at the ready, takes no action except to show itself. I feel this undeniable need to touch the top of its slick, black hair covered head, so much so that I just do it. Combing my fingers through the thick, luxurious fur that encompasses this unearthly beast coaxes purrs of the cat’s pleasure. The agape mouth recedes to that of a happy kitten with no interest in ingesting my delicate flesh. Another one of pure white enters the clearing, looking for some unknown treasure. The newcomer requests the same tender moment, displaying its gentle face near that of the other. I indulge the arrival with the same strokes to receive the much needed safety and security. With each stroke, the wild and feral nature of these beasts transforms into the kinder, gentler forms of pet cats with diminutive size.

 

The two cats pull back as if something calls their attention away from this. They move past me deeper into the overly dense growth. I follow as they are now my acolytes in the unfamiliar terrain, giving myself over to their animalistic instinct with no other recourse than belief in their prerogative. I trust them implicitly as sheep lend themselves to the whim of the herder. They move from branch to branch with a graceful ease, occasionally leaping to ground without faltering. The white lioness, the feline is bombarded with distraction meant to disrupt — wandering thoughts of something unknown. She flees at some indiscernible input abandoning him and me. I follow the member of our party devoted to our mutual interest, getting me out of these accursed woods. We approach a house of black smoking chimney and yellow glow through window. He makes himself comfortable here, a sign for me to enter the hidden, secret chambers within. He swiftly climbs an overhanging tree, drops down upon the lowest eaves, and curls up onto a ball. A peaceful slumber is the lofty goal of this lowly, once majestic creature.

 

Entering the bleak, sterile innards of this home leaves something to be desired besides modernity. The organic, although dark forms outside provide more of a comfort than this… barren cold. I go through the myriad of metallic cabinets and bins, looking at everything and searching for nothing. The white floor offers the only change from this… storage on every side. I pantomime my way around the room, searching the cold walls for the misplaced door, failing at a hidden compartment or any other such thing. The cold leaches into my hands, trying to rip my very essence away. I stop in futility. A noise startles me into looking one way. The cold at my back melts away to nothingness. A look back offers nothing, except black air surrounding this body. The limited surroundings are no more. Trying to escape the whiteness below, running into the dark proves this space inescapable.

 

Somethings come out of the black void and surround me in tight ring after ring. The objects flicker into life showing him to me, the black feline lounging above in various states — anything from growling to purring, eating to sleeping, back arching to scratching, and hunting for some elusive prey. The images send me through waves of reflected emotion. The scratching comes to gradual focus. The images look too real for my own good, the scratches too close. The hot searing pain cries out from every part of my outsides. The resulting outflow of blood provides a limited relief. I just want and need this perpetual torment to cease! This unavoidable pain must come to an end. I just have to get out! I welcome the sweet slumber of sleep that is death alone.

 

GK

Jailed

 

A fictional construct of the mind.

 


 

I hang, suspended by this ball of cast iron bars, high up in some leafy mammoth. A firm, swift tug on the rope holding the cage — through some form of pulley — sends me down from whatever method of comfort I have necessarily employed. I land with the grace of land-bound seal or walrus upon the welt-inducing corrugation of metal bars and air. The descent into the light penetrating fog — beautifully hiding the goings-on at the surface — perpetrates an animalistic, lizard-brain originating rage through me.

 

The moment of release lies near as through thickening fog a group emerges. The usual screams and yells of fear, anger, and hatred fill the air accompanied by a single wail of deep longing and hurt. From within the heart of the assembly, two people, my parents come forth, tear soaked and still streaming. I extend one arm by the cage, out to them, which they hang to with desperate and strong hands. At this, my ascent to prison and isolation begin as every other day, my endless cycles of suffering continual. Grabbing the bars (seen as fitting) is the recourse of choice. I shake my cage wildly, issuing a guttural sound from deep down. An abrupt drop of this cell knocks me out.

 

GK

The Schizophrenic or (The Pessimistic Voice that Says No.)

I liked Birdman in general.

 

The casting added something that felt real to me, Michael Keaton (Riggan). I remember him well from that 90’s Batman franchise directed by Tim Burton, That was the only time I remembered who he was apart from the character. I recognized Naomi Watts (Lesley) from somewhere, probably King Kong. The character that really got me in the story was Sam (Emma Stone). I found the problems in her attractive, probably because I wrote a similar character a few months ago.

birdman-walking

The cinematography drew me in. It was a window into the normal world, walking and how everything looks from that angle. I sit or lay down throughout my day. Every rarely am I looking from eye level of someone standing. The camera shifted in and out of third person to different character perspectives. I liked the closeness to the characters talking. The frustration of Sam when spoke about how outdated her father was became visceral in a way that movies almost never have for me. I sit all the time. People are either right next to me or in front 4 feet away. Imagine never directly facing someone when you talk or being 4 feet away. Looking over railing is impossible for me. I have to parallel park my chair or look at the railing from feet away. This was shown once in Birdman.

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The rooftop scenes were scary. Heights are down right scary if you can’t stop yourself falling. I can’t. Truth or dare seems so unrealistic and overused. Do people actually play that game in situations of hidden attraction or friendship? That part where Mike (Edward Norton) describes Sam as special, “burning the candle at both ends”, sounds written. The options there are either call it out or change that part into something else. I would have described it differently. Still good.

birdman-flying

The superpowers were interesting even if we couldn’t be sure they actually existed. Levitation, telekinesis, and flight. Everything the fictional Birdman could do. Riggan became so invested in the character, it became a part of him as a voice that degraded him. We all have a little voice in the back of heads, telling us everything that could go wrong. It was an interesting plot piece that severed as an easy source of motivation.

 

A great movie.

 

GK

How to Scare People with Writing

 

The scariest moments of my life are when I can’t breathe because of coughing or ventilator/tracheotomy issues. Reading an article about that woman without fear (i.e. lesions of amygdala, the fear center) revealed that increased carbon dioxide level trigger such a deeply ingrained that even she wasn’t immune. Throughout my reading experience, not one writer did the choking strangling experience justice. They failed mentioning the mind-numbing cold, relentless sweating, and floating above the body (the literal out of body sensation). The farthest book experiences end with the protagonist choking another person and the throat soreness.

 

Now the subject of this post, how to scare someone through writing? The art of frightening someone ends up a deeply seated manipulation no matter how you approach it. The following methods below differ only slightly in that. First you need the reader vested in the character that you plan on scaring senseless. Try watching a horror movie halfway through on mute. The scary stuff should seem completely fake or even funny because you are detached, an outside viewer. Second you need a relatable situation, anything from a single family home to a poker game. This may not sound scary, but it allows the audience to feel a little comfortable before the terror begins. Last you need contrast, something between the adrenaline rushes.  Non-stop action works for an action film, but what you want is contrast. A comfortable picnic before the zombie apocalypse, then a weapons depot before the next attack, this makes the fear that much greater.

 

 People read and watch horror for a couple of reasons. For me it is that jolt of joy after the heart-stopping fear. Then some people go for something all consuming, pure emotional experience, because apart from laughter and sadness, fear is an almost inescapable feeling. Maybe also to prove something to themselves.

 

The easiest method of freaking someone out doesn’t work that well (most easy things don’t), set up a scary situation or event the reader sees a mile ahead and force them through it. Here’s an example. Show an ax murderer waiting in a broken into home, because this is ax murderer the movie we know what’s going to happen. The family returns to slaughter. Having the murder kill another before makes the next death more frightening somehow (no escape, no one coming to the rescue). This works well for widely held fears: thanatopobia (fear of death), capture/arrest, and algopobia (pain).

 

Less democratic fears like claustrophobia or arachnophobia need something different for translation across the page. With claustrophobia transition it to thanatopobia by describing the inability to breathe, because fear sometimes causes breath holding. Maybe add the perception of the walls closing in. For arachnophobia extrapolate the spider out to unnatural proportions, 3 feet tall, etcetera. Try making it more visceral by adding the feeling of spiders crawling all over the person after just seeing the thing. These things all happen under the condition of fear. I should know. I was a scared little kid. Lygopobia, aquapobia, acropobia, arachnophobia, and possibly agoraphobia all long past abandoned but not forgotten.

 

Now the esoteric fears like fear of elevators and flight pobia need a more explanatory identifier. Try the rational approach of explaining why the fear came fo be. Take elevators. Maybe the character got stuck in an elevator alone as a child for a couple of hours. Or experienced very bad air turbulence with a few seconds drop that triggered the oxygen masks. What defining moment solidified that fear? The anxiety thought mechanism should prove effective otherwise. Lists for the audience what could possibly go wrong. Dying from extended time trapped onboard. Choking to death if a fire starts downstairs. An extreme utilization of this ends with pretending one of these situations is happening, then “realizing” it actually isn’t. These methods should handle any fear situation you need to write.

 

There is going to be change in the direction of this blog. From now on, it’ll be mostly autobiographical and short stories with my writing slant. Feel free to contact me with any opinions.

 

GK