Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Learning the Craft

I’m doing everything I can to learn the craft of memoir writing, short of going back to college. I may have only one book in me, and I want to get it right. A couple of months ago, I found the perfect opportunity.

Monica Wood is a beloved Maine author, writing instructor, and now playwright. She has published seven books, and her eighth will be released in April of 2016. I devoured her memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, and became a fan. After I saw her play, Papermaker, this summer in Portland, my admiration grew all the more. When I learned that Monica would be teaching a two-day seminar on memoir writing at the 2015 Harvest Writers Retreat, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

Although I am in no way comparing myself to Monica, my memoir will have some similarities to hers.

Her memoir opens with a description of Mexico, Maine, the mill town where she was born and raised. Mine opens with a description of Lincoln, Maine, the mill town where I grew up. Her father worked at the Oxford Paper Company. My father worked at Lincoln Pulp and Paper. In her memoir, tragedy strikes the family during her childhood. In mine, yeah, tragedy strikes in childhood.

Another odd coincidence, which I don’t write about in my book, is that I worked for a time at the mill in Rumford, Maine, the same one Monica grew up near (I think it’s silly that Mexico and Rumford are considered two different towns). Of all the places in the country I could have interned at in 1984 and 1985 when I was a chemical engineering student at the University of Maine, I landed at the Rumford mill. So, for all of you card carrying members of the everything happens for a reason club, I was perhaps predestined to attend this seminar. I’m not a member of the club, yet I must admit these peculiar connections keep wriggling their way into my life.

The conference took place last weekend at a lovely old resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, called the Colony Hotel. It’s a lot of work for Kim and me to stay in a hotel. So, given that this was only a forty-five-minute drive from our house, Kim shuttled me down and back each day. Before the conference, I worked on accessibility issues with Josh Bodwell, Executive Director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, the organization that hosted the event. Because of Josh, Monica, the hotel staff, the other course participants, and most of all Kim, I didn’t encounter any significant access issues.

On Saturday morning, Monica taught us techniques for crafting prose that is unadorned yet compelling. I’m already in the process of combing through my manuscript, page by page, and applying these principles wherever I can.

On Saturday afternoon, I sat with Monica one-on-one and laid out the structure of my book for her: the basic story line, the order in which I present the material, the complicating event, the climax, etc. I wasn’t surprised when she suggested a change that would improve the readability of the manuscript. I made the modification that evening, and it worked beautifully. But we weren’t done.

On Sunday morning, we focused on structure, the same issue we had touched upon Saturday afternoon, but in more detail. Each of the twelve students identified twenty scenes from their book and wrote a name for the scene on a Post-it note. We then placed the Post-it notes on large sheets of paper in a way that identified the flow of our books, the structure. I was impressed with my classmates. Mine was not the only moving story in the group. One by one, Monica led us in a discussion and critique of each student’s memoir structure.

Yup, more changes for me, and I couldn’t be happier.

This conference provided just what I needed, just what my book needed. I can’t say enough about Monica’s teaching style. She possesses a rare combination of knowledge, enthusiasm, and the ability to connect with students. If I hadn’t attended this conference, I would have considered my book nearly complete. Now, because of what I’ve learned, I’ll be writing and revising for a bit longer. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.

Note: You can see by the cover sketch at the top of this post, I'm going with The Apple Didn't Fall… for now. I've changed up the subtitle, so it reads The True Story of a Mother and Son's Mutual Suffering and Shared Resilience, but I think there's still room for improvement. Please give me suggestions in the comments below or by emailing me here.


  1. The biggest room in the house is room for improvement. Great post. I am jealous. Everything seems great and I believe it will come off wonderful. Looking forward to reading the book.


  2. What a great opportunity to attend her writing seminar.
    (Of course in the olé days, you probably would have enjoyed an overnite stay at the hotel when there weren't the hassles this ms life brings - oh the joys)
    Glad to hear it wasn't too far away. Sounds like it was a very rewarding experience. I love the subtitle. It seems to fit perfectly.
    P.S. And I do think there was some Divine Providence in the way things worked out.

    1. so, you're a member of the "everything happens for a reason" club. There are worse organizations to belong to. What do you have to pay for dues?

  3. There is nothing like a really good writer who can also teach. Congrats on spotting the opportunity and taking advantage of it!

    1. Monica is indeed both of those things. I was so fortunate to find that workshop.

  4. Hey Mitch, sounds like a really great experience. It's testament to your character that you are going about this with such vigor and diligence. Writing a longform tone is a challenge under any circumstances, and I'm sure your work will be imbued with the grace and sheer humanity that you display in your every day life. Can't wait to read the finished product. I hope it will be available in electronic form, since I can't turn pages all that well anymore…

    1. That should say "longform tome", not "tone"… Stupid voice recognition function on the iPad! Stupid me for not proofreading…

    2. thanks for the kind words. Like you, I am no longer a page turner, so you can bet it will be available as an e-book!

  5. I've always enjoyed your writing style in this blog, and I'm looking forward to both the substance and writing style of your book -- sounds like you picked up some great pointers from Monica -- I'm anticipating it will be one of those books where I curl up and read it all in one shot!

  6. i hate that you used the word suffering in your subtitle; we (you) live with MS, and do it quite well. i commend you for taking on this project.