22 May, 2015

11 Tips for Memoir Writing and Other Lonely Pursuits

There were several lessons learned in writing my first novel, Quixote in Ramadi.  While many of those lessons were learned the hard way, and through the solitary pursuits of researching literary agents late into the night or tearing through Writer's Digest, those concepts that were so alien to me years ago are now coming in handy for writing my second book, The Desert Warrior.

Let me tell you that memoir writing can feel like quite the lonely process - but it doesn't have to be.  The following is a list of tips for those who are beginning the memoir writing process or are merely contemplating the arduous task of documented introspection.

1.  It's a memoir, not an autobiography.  Unless you're an internationally-known public figure or celebrity, you are probably writing a memoir, not an autobiography.  While you may wail and grind your teeth over not sharing your detailed ancestral history and everything you've done since birth through the present, take comfort in the fact that memoirs can cover specific periods of your life.  This means that you can write more than one memoir, and in accordance with a different period of your life.  In short, autobiographies cover detailed background information and historical accounts in addition to a person's life from beginning to the present, and a memoir is a snapshot of a period of your life.  You can choose to narrate from beginning to end but, through a literary agent's eyes, you will still be writing a memoir.   What aspects of your life do you find extraordinary or unique?  How do you think your memoir will help or entertain others?

2.  The quality of your writing is directly related to your reading list.  Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite authors, said, “Read. Read 1000 pages for every 1 page that you write.”  While that may seem like an impossible task - and no one is expecting you to tally that many pages each day in order to be published - you can accomplish quite a bit of reading through literary journals, blogs, and articles in addition to a pile of books.  What's on your reading list?  Do you think your reading list is conducive to the subjects addressed within your memoir?

3. Read other memoirs.  Considering that The Desert Warrior is laced with delicious morsels of insight on intersectionality, I not only had to compile a diverse reading list on race, gender, and socioeconomic status, but I also had to find memoirs that covered the contemporary female veteran perspective of the post-war homecoming process.  Say that ten times, fast.  For that, I chose Kayla Williams' Plenty of Time When We Get Home.   While our experiences were different, even as women veterans who served in Iraq, it also gave me insight as to what readers may want to know as well as how I personally connected with the story.  What do you want your readers to know?  What makes your story unique, and why?  Were there any memoirs in which you felt a connection, and how?

4. Read books on how to craft your memoir.  While I found that Stephen King's On Writing provided exceptional insight into the writing process in any genreI found a few other books that assisted me in understanding how I should structure my memoir (see Additional Resources below) and what mattered in the storytelling process.   One of the memoir how-to books that stood out to me above all else was Paula Balzer's Writing & Selling Your Memoir.  She explains the memoir writing process from start to finish while providing fantastic examples of successful works and why they were successful.  Which memoir writing books have you read?  What did you learn?

5.  Take a memoir writing class.  In my home city of Las Vegas, Nevada, the pickings for memoir writing classes are pretty slim.  One in which I took through the College of Southern Nevada was not what I expected.  While there were a few decent writing exercises, there was a lot more pontificating from two authors who wrote one book each in the spans of their lives, one in which was self-published - and it was painfully obvious as to why.  If you can't find a class in your vicinity, read as much as possible on the genre and try to attend writers' meetups or related workshops to sharpen your skills.  Are there memoir classes or writers' meetups in your area?  Is there anything about the memoir writing process that leaves you with many more questions that have yet to be answered?

6. Create your hook.  According to Writing & Selling Your Memoir, a hook is defined as a "certain something that makes your book marketable."  The hook is not only designed to capture the interest of a literary agent - you'll need one if you want your manuscript to be published through a traditional publisher like Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, etc. - but to capture the interest of your audience as well.  You don't have to be an extraordinary hero of epic proportions, but your story should have a unique angle.  What is your unique angle?  Why is it important to you that your story is read by the general public or a specific audience?

7.  Don't get too caught up in ritual, but be disciplined.  There are writers who have their specific rituals before they begin writing.  Whether it's an OCD pattern of behavior or a set of steps to perfectly set the scene for writing the next great memoir, I would argue against taking too much time to prepare yourself for actual writing.  Some of my best writing is done on my phone through Evernote - and between the hours of 1-3am when I'm in bed with DVR humming in the background.  Sometimes I make an espresso and have it on my nightstand to indulge the insomnia and my chatterbox of a muse - but I do NOT recommend this for anyone else.  The more time you take to prep for writing is time spent not writing.  Figure out when and where you do your best writing, and stick to it.  Make deadlines for yourself and be disciplined. Write something, anything, every day.  But don't create too much of a fuss over pageantry and rituals that you cut into valuable writing time.  Where and which times of the day or night do you do your best writing?  Do you write every day, and if not, why?

8.  The first draft is for you.  The second draft is for your readers.  In Stephen King's On Writing, King says he discovered the differences between the first and second draft from his first newspaper editor, who said, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In Quixote in Ramadi, I realized long after I released it that it was really for me, not for potential readers.  It was a collection of excerpts from my journal, painful details of different periods of my life, but I could have pared it down a bit.  It's easy to get caught up in your own content before realizing someone else will need to be able to understand it too.  What's important to you in your memoir?  What is important for your readers to know?  Is there anything in your first draft that might be considered trivial to your potential readers?

9.  Find a good editor.  On a similar thread in On Writing, King mentions a response from an editor he received regarding his fiction: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”  I had a tough time finding an editor - one that I felt comfortable working with and didn't cost me a kidney - for the second draft of The Desert Warrior.  I didn't have one for Quixote in Ramadi, but for War Trauma and Its Wake, I worked with a team of editors that collaborated with Routledge.  However, I was lucky enough to find one for my current manuscript who not only has the credentials to edit, but also comprehends the subject matter.  Rates may vary, but don't be too afraid to dish out between $35-$60 per hour for their time.  It may seem like a lot, but consider it as an investment in your success.  Have you looked into copy or content editors - or both?  Are you aware of the differences between copy and content editing?

10.  Research literary agents.  It might seem like a daunting task, but there are a few decent databases in which you can find an agent that represents authors in the memoir genre.  AgentQuery, Poets & Writers, Publishers Marketplace, and Writers Digest are just a few that may assist you in finding representation.  However, bear in mind that agents can receive hundred of queries per day, so take your time in writing your query letter.  Know the difference between a query and a book proposal.  Also, do a bit of research on the literary agent and the agency. Background knowledge on the agent and agency can go a long way and help you in not only crafting your query, but helping you decide if this is who you might best represent you.  Create a list of agents you would like to approach and learn more about the query letter writing process.  Which agents did you find?  Were there any that you felt could adequately represent your work?

11. Overcome fear and insecurity.  So you're not Hemingway.  Big deal!  He's dead and you're alive reading and writing today, so get to it!  Sure, you might not be a celebrity or some other public figure, but you might have an important story to tell.  Don't get caught up in who you are now; focus on where you want to be and plan accordingly.  While writing Quixote in Ramadi, I was a bit concerned about being misunderstood as well as potential backlash.  After numerous rejections from literary agents, one agent finally had the stones to tell me what was wrong - but after I had already self-published.  The story, which was critical of the Iraq war, was one that would most likely scare off agents who don't want to deal with any potential PR fallout that might be construed as unpatriotic.  Additionally, it needed to be edited, edited, edited.  It was, as Stephen King was told by his editor, "too puffy".  There was a different way to tell the story without losing substance or straying from the facts.  He also recommended I publish it as a novel to avoid specific types of backlash, something in which I was able to change quickly via Amazon.  While I watched other veterans share their story and gain representation over the years, I felt muted.  Yet I didn't give up - and neither should you.   Is there anything stopping you from writing or publishing your story, and if so, what is it?  What are your fears or anxieties in the writing process?  Are you writing for yourself, or to tell the world a story?

After regrouping and gaining further insight into the memoir genre, I did receive more responses from agents as well as even better news that I'll share as soon as a few more details are finalized.  All the information above was acquired over the years and not though a single source.  So make note of what lessons you learn and which resources you acquire throughout your memoir-writing journey.  In the meantime, keep writing, keep reading, don't stop believing in yourself or the value of your story, and most of all, don't give up!

Additional Resources:

The Desert Warrior, my art site and book list

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser

On Writing by Stephen King

Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Writing your first draft from Standout Books

04 May, 2015

Haunting Habbaniyah & Patient Profile Case # 17 Reported Sexual Assault at Corregidor

This story is part of a series called "Counseling on the Battlefield" where real-life excerpts of counseling sessions  that were conducted during the Iraq war in 2004-2005 were documented in my travel journal, with actual clients remaining anonymous through random, unrelated patient numbers to protect confidentiality.  While serving in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, in addition to serving on Team Lioness, I was also the Camp Ar Ramadi Combat Stress Control Non-Commissioned Officer In-Charge - which translates into be being the clinic supervisor while the staff psych nurse disappeared for most of the day. To read all the patient profiles and the adventures (and really terrible misadventures), pick up a copy of my book, "Quixote in Ramadi" this summer to truly dive into the bizarre world of military mental health and combat stress control. Enjoy.

Eucalyptus trees in Habbaniyah, Iraq
That makes a man go mad for all his goodness of reason, a rage that rises within and swirls like smoke in the heart and becomes in our madness a thing more sweet than the dripping of honey. -Homer, Book XVIII of the Iliad 

In a 7-ton high-back I was on my way to counsel a female in a reported sexual assault case in Al Taqaddum (TQ). I had gone against the wishes of COL Abigail and snuck off anyway. I knew if LTC Platoni was there, she would have gladly sanctioned it and told her of it as well. I slept in a mouse-infested tent with the laziest cat I had ever seen and did my duty. I returned in early September after no commo with Ramadi since Arnold had shut off the ringer (although he denied ever doing so and the witless MAJ who was with him didn’t even know how to use a DNVT). 

Following the directions of the Brigade Commander back in Ramadi, I met up with a chaplain in TQ who could help me find the Soldier who survived a recent incident involving sexual assault. The Soldier was apparently outside the wire for a few hours according to an officer in her company so the chaplain and I wandered around Habbaniyah until it was time to meet her.

Habbaniyah, Iraq
If there is anything that transports me back to Al Anbar Province, it's eucalyptus trees.  The smell of the leaves and how my sinus problems went away upon our arrival into this troubled, chaotic region provided a sense of relief, an ability to breathe.

The chaplain, a kind and enthusiastic officer, proved to be quite the history buff with an extensive knowledge of Iraq history, particularly with events that occurred in the early part of the 20th century.   Details that are often omitted from war plans, history repeating itself time and again.

Overlooking Habbaniyah from the top of one of the few multi-level buildings, he spoke about how German and British troops fought each other here in the 1930’s which echoed the fight over oil that we so often hear today.

Abandoned Theater in Habbaniyah
We then walked to an old abandoned theater adorned with murals and film ads across the floors caked in sand and mouse droppings.  On the other side of the theater was a mural painted after the Iran-Iraq war, depicting the Ayatollah of Iran as decapitated with a Star of David on his turban.  Apparently, anyone considered an enemy in Iraq, was also accused of being a Zionist, one who poses a threat to Arabs.   Considering Iran's history with Israel, I found this mural to be odd, yet I had to take a photo.  Otherwise, who would believe the irony or scapegoating?

 All around us were old movie reels featuring Egyptian, French and American films and rows upon rows of beautiful white leather seating that were caked with even more dirt, sand, and dust. Frozen, forgotten by time.

Abandoned Theater
Iran-Iraq War Mural
You could close your eyes and just imagine how beautiful this place must’ve been in its heyday, but when you open them back up, you see the ever-present in Iraq: beauty that’s been thoroughly dismembered, punched in the eyes, and left for dead.

As I looked around the theater, I thought of how the deployment had been thus far.  I contemplated on the repeated assaults upon Iraq and beauty that kept getting buried with trauma after trauma, without mercy, without end.

Forget the beautiful architecture or the morale and welfare material, stepping outside provided a breath of history that was now muted, struggling to maintain circulation, a pulse.  Wandering inside these ruins around the country made me wonder where the mercy, benevolence, and forgiveness wandered.  Iraq was, indeed, beautiful, but she was being crushed to death.

So many back home have this narrow view of Iraq as being an enabler of terrorism, but these groups didn't exist in-country during Saddam Hussein's rule.  Many of these radical, Salafist groups hailed from its neighbor to the south: Saudi Arabia.  After all, Saudi Arabia couldn't see predominantly Shia Iraq succumb to a partnership with predominantly Shia Iran.  You'll never hear of Saudi Arabia's atrocities in Iraq.  Not so long as we're buying oil from them and that they have a significant percentage of our nation's assets in their grasp.  This war felt like a well-orchestrated dog fight, with Saudi royalty and US politicians profiting big off of the turmoil of a destabilized Iraq.

Empty Pool Near Church
Afterwards we walked to another location that was on the edge of this small FOB supposedly where Winston Churchill once met with other world leaders when this place used to be a Royal British Air Force base.  We ended up reaching  an old Anglican church and a place surrounded with pomegranate trees that led to an emptied Olympic-size swimming pool. Empty, abandoned, and previously brutalized.  These deteriorating buildings served as a constant reminder around this province that hope was scarce, and the people praying here long ago have since fled for their lives.

Empty Anglican Church
The acoustics inside the Anglican church were incredible though.  The chaplain and I stood inside for a few minutes and sang, anything and everything, experimenting with the echoes and melodies drifting through the empty room, a place that both time and God seemed to have left behind.

Throughout this impromptu stroll, I couldn't help but feel that persistent presence, the energy of events and people who've passed through these buildings and landscapes from another time.  Ghosts of Habbaniyah and the Anbar Province are things many of us only talk about in whispers and vague references to avoid addressing the discomfort of some of these locations.  Death, destruction, and hopelessness was everywhere.  There was no escape, and the dying beauty before you appears beyond help and there is nothing you feel you can do to stop the pain.

Bombed Schoolhouse
We walked through a bombed out and deserted Iraqi elementary school. Bullet holes, mortar damage, and old school material in Arabic adorned this former place of learning accompanied with that extra sense of unavoidable despair.

Classrooms were filled with homework, blueprints of former British buildings dating back to the 1930’s, and visual aids for children. We live in a strange world.

Next to one of the buildings at the school was a miniature cemetery, neglected. I knelt down and touched the ground, wondering what or who lies beneath.

When the time arrived, I asked around where the Lioness from Corregidor might be, the one who had reported the sexual assault.

According to a few other Soldiers, she was at the chow hall on the other side of Habbaniyah eating with a few of her battle buddies. I had her name written on a piece of scratch paper which I immediately folded and put in my pocket as I neared the mess hall. I had a physical description of her and I didn’t want to alarm anyone around her that someone from combat stress was looking for her.

Defense Contractors in Habbaniyah

We spoke only briefly and she informed me that everything was fine.  She apparently thwarted the attack by, reportedly, an Iraqi soldier, and beat him with her rifle.  Others intervened and that soldier was later "disappeared" by his comrades.  I left my contact information with her, stating that she could reach out if she ever needed anything. She agreed.

En Route to Iraq: Memories of Kuwait 2004

This story is from the book "Quixote in Ramadi" which is scheduled for re-release this summer. In the book, real-life excerpts of counseling sessions that were conducted during the Iraq war in 2004-2005 were documented in my travel journal, with actual clients remaining anonymous through random, unrelated patient numbers to protect confidentiality.  While serving in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, in addition to serving on Team Lioness, I was also the Camp Ar Ramadi Combat Stress Control Non-Commissioned Officer In-Charge - which translates into be being the clinic supervisor while the staff psych nurse disappeared for most of the day. To read all the patient profiles and the adventures (and really terrible misadventures), pick up a copy of my book, "Quixote in Ramadi" to truly dive into the bizarre world of military mental health and combat stress control. Enjoy.


As I woke to see the flight map taking us past Turkey and into Iraq, I sat up in my seat and opened the window shade to complete darkness as we crossed into the country where we’d stay for a year. I stared out the window for hours at this point, turning on my iPod and listening to Arabic music tracks, getting in the mindset that I wasn’t anywhere near home anymore and this is the language I’d hear throughout the deployment.

The plane was dark, littered with a few reading lights still on throughout the cabin. As we flew over Baghdad, the lights were so brilliant as this sprawling desert city shone like thousands of stars on a clear night.

Oil fields of Iraq as seen from our airplane
While we flew over what looked like Babil on the map in my Iraqi history book, Oswald stopped by my aisle and asked what I was looking at. I pulled out my ear buds and told him what location we should be flying over, and then he said, “We’re flying over ancient Mesopotamia.”

The sun was coming up, turning the sky a combination of pink, purple, and orange.

“I know, it’s all so surreal, isn’t it?” I said, still looking out the window in wonder.

“Yeah. Friggin’ amazing.”

As we approached Kuwait, I began taking pictures as I caught sight of the Gulf as Natacha Atlas songs were streaming through ears. As we began to descend, the song Ashwa began playing while I took a video of the landing, this all seemed like a movie to me that I was simply observing and not participating. Perhaps this was a way of detaching from the harsher realities about to set in.

Natacha Atlas - Ashwa (Lyrics Translation):

I'm building a body from balsam and ash 
I'm building a body with no god attached 
I'm building a body from blueprints in Braille 
I'm building a body where our design had failed 
There's a book full of plans at the feet of poor Atlas 
Titled "For Man" But the architects only drew blanks 
Now there's nowhere to go 
But go back, go back, go back, go back. 

Flying into Kuwait
We flew over white tents in the desert as well as expansive highways as we drew nearer to the skyline of Kuwait City. Suddenly the wheels of the aircraft touched ground and we were finally in the Middle East. Upon exiting the aircraft, the chilly air embraced us we walked toward two curtained Mercedes Benz buses which drove us toward the next stop: an ammunition site.

We pulled up to the site where several other units were unloading ammo cans from larger containers and carrying them to their buses and a sergeant soon came aboard our bus and asked for volunteers. Before anyone could say anything, Chaplain Parris who was sitting in the middle at the very back of the bus, grasping his personal bag for dear life quickly interjected, “Get Brookfield!”

I took one quick look at him wondering what the hell inspired him to volunteer me before I could even say anything. “Alright, well would you mind watching my bag for me, Sir?” I asked as I got up to walk out of the bus.

He nodded in agreement before I turned to carry the unit’s ammunition with SSG Corey and a few other Soldiers, still clutching his bag. You would think a religious man would, oh I don’t know, have more faith in God and be far less afraid?

We drove for what seemed like hours across a barren desert landscape with cars speeding by us honking horns, a few cars full of men showing our bus the middle finger. As one of the twenty-something Kuwaiti men screamed what could only be sweet obscenities while showing our bus the finger, I stared at him for a while until he saw me looking back. I then showed him buck-teeth and crossed my eyes, wagging my head back and forth, but before I knew it they took off like lightning down the highway.

SSG Moran looked at me and shook her head laughing, “You dork!”

We both laughed before COL Abigail suddenly screamed in a panic, “SHUT ALL THE CURTAINS!” from the back where Chaplain Parris sat.

We arrived at a place called Camp Virginia where a sea of white tents covered flat cold sand spanning for what looked like an endless, chilly plane. There were all sorts of units and international military personnel there, playing volleyball, eating at the fast food pizza stand, walking to and from various spots of the camp. Our tents were side by side and our unit had the front of one of the tents furthest in the back of the camp. We settled onto various vacant cots in a really cramped large tent and were ready to get the show on the road.

Camp Virginia, Kuwait
With crowding and freezing temperatures when the sun would go down in the desert, I huddled in my sleeping bag like a nervous Chihuahua and shivered myself to sleep as I slept closest to the entrance. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. I remember one of the 3ID guys saying when he was in Kuwait; he was the coldest he had ever been in his life. There was something resembling an A/C unit in each corner of the tent but all were fairly weak and I wouldn’t have known if the heating element really worked or not. But I was still very eager to get to Iraq as this was just another step toward our destination: Camp Ramadi.