Thanks to Ron Trigg for this fabulous post about memoir writing! Check out my review of his book The Alluring Temptress in my Goodreads section. Obtain your copy at Amazon.com
“You really ought to write a book.”
I’d been hearing comments like that for years, but I tended to dismiss them. They usually came from people who didn’t really care much about my stories. I think they just wanted me to shut up.
Still, I’d always thought that my experiences in Africa were interesting enough to justify a memoir of some sort. It was mostly a legacy issue for me. I wasn’t interested in fame or making money, but I liked the idea of leaving a marker which said that Ron Trigg had once lived on this planet . . . and he did some pretty cool stuff.
I was confident of my writing skills. Practically every job I’d ever held had required me to produce copy or edit the work of others. And I had a fair number of freelance writing credits, more than thirty articles that had appeared in a variety of publications.
I decided early on that my book wouldn’t be a thick chunk of text going into boring detail about everything I’d ever done. I wanted to focus on specific incidents and present them in easily readable tales, as if they were fictional short stories. They needed to be accurate and truthful, but also entertaining. I pictured a book that people would keep on their bedside tables or download to their Kindles for quick reads while commuting or traveling.
The first step was to gather together my resource materials. For years I’d kept journals during my travels, and I held on to old letters, calendars, maps, documents, photos, artifacts. This wealth of information became the basis for my stories, and it made up for the limitations of my memory. On several occasions, my mind told me that an event had occurred in a particular place at a specific time, but my journals revealed that it had actually happened elsewhere and under totally different circumstances.
Getting started was the hardest part. After identifying three experiences that seemed like they would make good stories, I began writing. Over the course of many months, I put words onto my computer screen but never fully devoted myself to the task. Occasionally, when I thought a story might be nearing completion, I sent a copy to friends for their reaction. I can almost picture them rolling their eyes as they opened my stories. There was no useful feedback; most never even bothered to reply.
To make the project succeed I needed some encouragement and critiquing from serious writers. I joined a memoirs group at the local library. The people there were very kind, but they didn’t make my writing better, and they didn’t seem much interested in improving their own. After an Internet search, I located the Write-on Hoosiers group and decided to give them a try.
For my first reading, I brought my best Africa story, the one that seemed to me most complete. I remember very well the first comment after I read my piece to the group: “I almost feel like I’m inside the scene that you’ve painted. Your descriptive passages are terrific.” Others around the table nodded in agreement. This was music to my ears, but what came next was far more important.
One of my fellow writers noted that all my paragraphs were of the same size, and there was little variation in sentence length. Another suggested places where it “would be good to insert some dialogue.” Someone pointed out unnecessary words and redundancies that I “might want to delete.” Not a single negative remark was uttered, but I learned very quickly how I could improve my writing. I’d never even heard the words “show, don’t tell” before that evening.
That session was the turning point for my memoir project. I was determined to produce a new story for each meeting – two every month. I accepted critiques with pleasure and incorporated them into my revisions when it made sense to do so. Later I joined a second writing group that was smaller and even more serious about critiquing. Now I had to produce fresh copy four times a month. That was plenty incentive to keep the project rolling forward.
After two and a half years, I found myself with thirty-six stories comprising 70,000 words. That seemed to me enough for a book. With the help of friends from my writing groups, I put together a formal book proposal. I began sending queries to publishers and agents. I was determined not to go the self-publishing route; that seemed to me too much like “vanity printing.” I wanted my book to go through peer review and have professional editing and design.
I had a hit from the very first agent I contacted. She asked to see the first seventy pages of my book. But two weeks later, her agency reported back that my work “was not compelling enough for us to feel truly invested in your story, and we cannot offer representation.” None of my other queries produced a positive response; many went unanswered.
After three years of work, it looked like my memoir was going to end up as just another unfinished project. That’s when I put aside my concerns about self-publishing and signed on with Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. Within a few weeks, I had professional-looking printed copies of my book in hand, and they were available for sale on the web. I’ve probably given away as many copies as I’ve sold, but I’ve been gratified by the positive response from those who’ve read my book and the generous reviews that have appeared online.
And now, with my Africa book published, I have time to work on my next writing project!
Ron Trigg is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who now lives in the Indiana Dunes. He’s a freelance writer and nature photographer, and he spends much of his time volunteering for conservation organizations and other nonprofits. His work has appeared in Travel Holiday, Foreign Service Journal, Chicago Wilderness, Indiana Alumni Magazine, Outdoor Indiana, The World Book Encyclopedia, and other publications. More than fifty of his nature photos were selected for inclusion in Kenneth Schoon’s Dreams of Duneland, which was published by Indiana University Press in 2013.