By Joan Baril
We hung on every word. Joe spoke in parables, most taken from his own life. His tapestry of tales gave us information about writing memoir, along with a context to help remember it.
He spoke about his time in the arctic, his early days at Lakehead University, his loves, his heartbreaks, all so personal and revealing that we, the listeners, just sat there, forgetting to take notes, our mouths hanging open. Soon we understood we were learning about memoir from Joe’s spoken memoirs.
Joe related stories about his childhood in Westfort, his family, his early writing days, his column in the Toronto Star, his books, his first publisher.
Joe told us about the career criminal, Ricky Atkinson, the leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang. Atkinson’s rough memoir became a book with Joe as co-author.
Joe went round the circle asking the participants about their writing. Many were writers or poets or playwrights. Others planned to be. The woman who sat beside me was a painter with a good idea. She wanted to write the story of each painting. What a book that would make!
Joe used these introductions to set up questions to answer later. Joe speaks slowly, softly, thoughtfully and also bluntly. The Westfort kid is still as tough as ever. When it was my turn, I said I wrote a few short memoir pieces, but to do so, I had to open a vein. He agreed. For him, it felt like slashing open an old sore on his arm, over and over. Joe rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the place where the ghost sore festered.
Memoir is not for the faint of heart.
I cannot retell his stories here. Too personal. They remain in that room. But I did make a few notes that I’ve tried to put in some kind of order. Of course, each participant in a workshop picks up what is personally relevant to them. I admit I spent a lot of my time jotting down side ideas that related to stuff I’m working on now. No doubt, others have a quite different set of notes from mine.
Become an observer. Carry a notebook all the time. Go to places where people hang out and take notes. Go to the mall and watch. The patterns change over time. Annie Proulx hangs around her local bus station. You can too. There’s lots to see for a sharp observer. Hone your observation skills. Joe described spending an entire day on a Toronto street corner just observing. That day became a book, Rust is a Form of Fire.
As a child, Joe was the watcher. Luckily for him, he came from a family of storytellers and became a storyteller himself. I believe he was a story collector from a young age. As a columnist, he talked to people to tease out their stories. He reads the obituaries, hunting for those true-life vignettes that stand out from the banal sweetness and obvious flim-flam of many death notices. (My note. In my opinion, the Winnipeg Free Press has the best obituaries.) Certain obituaries capture one’s imagination. You wonder what it felt like to be that person. Analyze why you’re attracted. What details move you?
There is no such thing as writers’ block, says Joe. If you feel blocked go for a walk or go to the mall and observe deeply. Or write yourself a letter. Describe the problem. And most importantly, if you are blocked, you probably need more research.
Writing. Keep the sentences short, one thought per sentence. Use clear, simple language. It must have cadence. Read it out loud. Read it out loud with a finger in your ear. (Why this works, I have no idea, but try it anyway.). You can teach yourself to recognize cadence just as you can teach yourself many elements of the craft. Read the King James’ Bible, a book swimming in cadence. Read or write poetry. Poets are a step ahead here because they are well acquainted with the beat and pulse of language.
Start your piece with your best shot, the incident that you remember the strongest, the item that is the most memorable, that has the greatest punch.
Joe says the New Yorker magazine taught him to give information clearly. He also likes cooking memoirs. A recipe is a model of concise and accurate writing. His goal is always accuracy and precision with laser-sharp details.
Joe mentioned a technique called “squeeze and release.” You cannot keep the writing at a high pitch all the time. You must slow down, ease off, to give the reader a pause or a break. A reader can’t take too much power writing for long stretches.
The question of dialogue came up. If you can remember it, use it. If it is in your notebook, all the better. If you can’t remember it, don’t make it up. It’ll sound phony. Never put modern phrases into the mouth of a historical character. Dialogue must be authentic to the times.
Readers. What happens when we read? We follow the story by making pictures in our minds using out imagination. Therefore, as writers, we must aim to capture our reader’s imagination. Why do we read memoir specifically? Many reasons. Perhaps because we want a good story, or to learn something. Maybe to find out, “what it was like.”
But readers can be our enemy. They get bored easily. They’re faithless. They sense when the writer is holding back, fudging the truth, skipping over information. The writer has to be fearless. The reader expects a point to the memoir. Otherwise they say to themselves, “Who cares?” There has to be a purpose that is clear and a resolution.
Observation while reading. Everything you read, whether it be newspapers, advertising or books, is a teaching object. Be aware of how the piece affects you. Pause. Note your own reactions. Why did you get interested here, bored there? Mark the place where it happens. Analyze the section. Note the emotion or lack of emotion the writing evoked in you? Perhaps you sensed the author was faking it? If something works, try to figure out how it was done. If it doesn’t work, figure that out too and, as an exercise, rewrite it to make it better. Joe said he often rewrote the poems in the New Yorker to teach himself to be a poet.
Detail, precise detail, is important but you can’t overload your work. There has to be space for the reader to imagine.
By studying writing, you can become your own editor. It is hard to judge your own material but you can learn to do it. Do not surrender the task to anyone else. Do not give away your power.
Getting to the Truth. You have to use journalistic methods. You must know that one person’s experience of the past may be different from your experience. Nevertheless, that does not invalidate your experience. You can use old photographs, diaries, cards such as condolence cards, and family letters. You can interview those who were present at the time. You can learn about the historical period. You can go back to the old house or visit the cemetery. Go to the sources.
You are the Narrator. But who are you? You are the point of view in the story, the “I.” You are the focus. You have to be shameless, put yourself out there. The reader wants to connect with you. The reader will soon sense an inauthentic persona. You have to know yourself. Not always easy. You have to show your emotion. You cannot hide. When Joan Didion writes, she is the chief character in her book. Joe, as child and adult, is the main character in his award winning memoir, The Closer We are to Dying. He admits it was not an easy book to write.
Joe’s Suggested Reading
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. (in Brodie and Waverley libraries)
Toast by Nigel Slater.
Stet by Diana Athill. (in Waverley Library)
The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java by Ernest Hillen. (in Brodie Library)
Night of the Gun: a reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. (Brodie Library)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. (get the recent edition)
The New Yorker magazine. (available at Chapters and in the libraries)
Books by Joe Fiorito
The Closer We Are to Dying (memoir)
Rust is a Form of Fire
The Song Beneath the Ice (fiction)
Comfort Me with Apples: Considering the Pleasures of the Table.
Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto
The Life and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson; Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang by Ricky Atkinson and Joe Fiorito.
First published in Joan Baril's blog : literarythunderbay.blogspot.ca
Joan M. Baril, is a short story writer who has had fifty-three fiction and nonfiction pieces published in literary magazines including Prairie Fire, Room, Northword, Anitgonish Review, Other Voices, CanadianWomen's Studies, Canadian Forum, Herizons, Ten Stories High, The New Orphic Review.
She won several awards for her work including taking first place for short fiction in 2015 and 2016 in the North-western Ontario Writers annual contest. Her story, "The Yegg Boy' was nominated for the Journey Prize by the Antigonish Review. For several years, her columns on women's and immigrant issues appeared in the Thunder Bay Post and Northern Woman's Journal. In 1992 the Canadian government honoured her for her work with immigrants and for her column on immigrant issues. She has published articles in national magazines mainly Herizons and Canadian Forumn.