Back Up The Truck

The other day I posted about submitting work to literary journals.  Today I’m backing way the hell up …. do you hear the beep beep beep? …. and sharing some of the best advice I received this summer about writing.

Have I heard some of it before?  Sure.  But I’ve got a hard hard head and sometimes it takes 47 times for me to hear what I need to hear.


1.  What is your central question? 

2.  Show and tell.  Memoir requires the right mix of SCENES (dialogue, gestures, action), EXPOSITION (summarizing time and space, information delivery, backstory), and MEDITATION (thinking on the page, reflection, letting the reader into your head).

3.  Follow your obsessions.  The most ridiculous connections are often the most significant.

4.  You need to have a ridiculous amount of faith in yourself to write a book.  People know a lot about telling stories until the minute they see that blank page.

5.  Imagine sitting next to a stranger on the bus, telling your story.  Do they care?  Are they bored?

6.  What is (or should be) hardest to write is not what was done to you, but what you did.  If this is not the case, you may not be ready to write the story.

7.  Beware of the word “it.”  Every word in a sentence should be a real word.  (This sounds so simple, but I don’t even want to count how many times I’ve used “it” in this blog post.)

8.  Real suspense comes from what we already know.  Tell the reader upfront what to look for, what’s at stake.

9.  Stuck?  Maybe it’s one of your judges.  We have so many:  mother, friend, teacher, editor, child, mentor.  And one we don’t often admit to:  other writers.

10.  Memoir is shared discovery.  If you write your memoir and don’t really discover anything, don’t publish it.


See. Even Charlie rolls his eyes.

Agree.  Disagree.  Say so fucking what, you’ve heard it all before.  Wad this post into a tight crunchy ball and hurl it at the waste-bin in the corner.  Spit on it first if you need to.

Do whatever it takes, whatever works — then share what works with the rest of us.

What’s the best advice you’ve received lately?

30 thoughts on “Back Up The Truck

    1. Teri Post author

      I always think I don’t want any advice. Until I get some. Then I go away thinking, “Where has that been all this time?!”

  1. Averil Dean

    Number 8 is the best advice I’ve heard in a while: Suspense comes from what we already know. I fucking love that, I’m going to tape it on my monitor right now.

    1. Teri Post author

      I loved this one too. I always feel like I need to hold back information, when really it’s the opposite. Readers are smart. We’re readers, too, right? And god knows I hate to feel manipulated like this.

      One of my favorite sayings of the summer is, “Memory is a slithering, slippery eel.” Not advice, but good to remember.

    2. Sarah W

      I agree! It’s not what happens, it’s what we think will happen.

      It’s why you see a whole theater of people hide behind their hands at the same time when the heroine touches . . . that . . . attic . . . doorknob.

    1. Teri Post author

      It doesn’t even matter what I’ve heard before. I still read through my manuscript and go, aha!, I know better than that! Still do it though, and still need to fix it.

      It it it it it !!!

  2. Lyra

    9! How did I miss that?? Having other writers read my work is terrifying. Are we really as judgmental as I fear or is it just an excuse mechanism?

    1. Teri Post author

      So true. Sometimes I wonder which fear is really worse. My family reading my memoir, or other writers (writers I respect) reading it.

      Either way, fear is fear, and fear keeps us from doing what we need to do.

  3. girl in the hat

    I’ve never even thought about writing memoir, but your list makes it sound very exciting. Actually, now that I think about it, memoir scares me. Not others’ but mine. I image you must be a real grown-up to write memoir.

    1. Teri Post author

      I don’t know about the grown-up part, but I do think you need a certain amount of something to lock yourself into events that have already happened and try to make a story out of them. It’s like locking yourself in a tiny prison cell and all you have to work with is what you really do see around you.

      I’m soooooo looking forward to writing more fiction when I finish this memoir.

  4. macdougalstreetbaby

    I had some difficult moments with a girlfriend of mine this summer and the whole time I kept coming across this quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain: That which we manifest is before us. Just knowing I could change my own direction helped lift me out of my own negativity.

    I’m on to The Descendants (per you) and The Rules of Civility. Both are amazing.

    1. Teri Post author

      Oh, good luck with that girlfriend thing. I’m very serious when I say this: when I consider the most difficult and painful breakups of my life, 2 of my female friends hurt way way worse than anything romantic.

      The Descendants —- even my husband (tough reading/writing critic) said it was just great storytelling. Love that book.

  5. Erika Marks

    I crave advice, I really do. I wonder if that fact, more than my lack of knowledge of GaGa’s latest song, proves that I really am old. Ah, well. So be it.

    Number 7 will be haunting me as I hit the revisions hard today, I just know it. (Ack! I see what you mean!)

    1. Teri Post author

      It is downright shocking to go through a manuscript and find all of the non-words. The its. The things. Yikes!!!

      Congratulations again, Erika. What hard work you’re doing, and what great news!!

  6. LauraMaylene

    The “telling your story to a stranger on a bus” advice is a good reminder to be interesting, damn it. But now I’m horrified just imagining all the bored looks on people’s faces as I explain my story. Not good!

    1. Teri Post author

      This is such a test, isn’t it. It’s one thing to tell a friend or family member ….. but reading a paragraph or 3 to a complete stranger? Gut check.

  7. Catherine

    Best advice? From a respected whose third book has been complimented endlessly: Don’t Obsess With Sales of Your First Book.

    And: Go home and edit your next!!

    1. Teri Post author

      That is damned good advice. But how?!?! This must be so hard. I heard Tom Perrotta say this back in June, as well. Something about how the previous book now has a life of its own, that you’ve lost control of it anyway. Whatever is said about it no longer has anything to do with you, so you may as well get back to work.

      Easier said than done, no?

  8. Josephine

    I know I’m so late to this party that it is already over, but I’m going to transcribe some advice I read not so long ago and am still trying to GET–get down to the core so that it blends with the marrow in my bones.

    (it’s from Franzen, of course.)

    But what I’ve learned is that there’s potential value, not only for your writing, but also for your relationships, in taking autobiographical risks: that you may, in fact, be doing your brother or your mother or your best friend a favor by giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion of being written about–by trusting them to love the whole you, including the writer part. What turns out to matter the most is that you write as truthfully as possible. If you really love the person whose material you’re writing about, the writing has to reflect that love. There’s still always the risk that the person won’t be able to see the love, and that your relationship may suffer, but you’ve done what all writers finally reach the point of having to do, which is to be loyal to themselves.

    I swear–every time I read this, I think, “…but your brother, mother, friends are probably way more enlightened, Jonathan, and what if the love doesn’t show through? dear lord, do i risk having to find if what i thought was love all this time wasn’t?” but then i get to the last sentence and it knocks me on the side of the head like he’s hitting me with a copy of the corrections (or would Freedom be a better metaphorical fit here??)

    1. Teri Post author

      I fucking LOVE that Franzen quote and think of it often. When I get to the last line I satisfy myself with this: they’ve already broken the family contract, and if I’m not true to myself, what kind of fake life am I living?

      Sent from my iPad

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