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Goodreads asked Pamela Richards:

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

Pamela Richards What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

If you haven't started writing yet, do it now. And keep it up.

There are those among the wise who tell us to write what we know. For those writing in the non-fiction genre of memoir, I believe the antithesis also applies: don't write what you don't know.

The memoirist's challenge is to write from the first person. This leaves a narrow margin of subject matter for the writer, but there is the point: memoir can be approached as a discipline which confronts us with ourselves at at every turn. Honest self-examination is the touchstone of human development.

If you want to write a memoir, be guided by your life. You know your life, your point of view, your experiences. As in life, you cannot be authentic when you attempt to tell someone else's life, someone else's point of view, someone else's experiences. For example, it would be inappropriate for me as an outsider to assume I knew what someone's relationship with someone else was like. As in any matter where only two are present, I must admit I was not there. God knows what happened, but anyone else who claims to know the inside of another person's relationship is falsely claiming to be omniscient. An omniscient point of view from an ordinary human is unnecessary, unkind, unbelievable--and naive.

If you choose to let your imagination into your writing, be careful to cite your sources. "I wondered what his response would be. . ." "I dreamed of a time when the darkness would end. . ." "I drifted into a daydream about. . . " would all be appropriate. It's also a good idea to mark your return to reality so the reader does not become confused. ". . . but today it was raining, so there would be no picnic on the hillside. I picked up my Art History textbook and flipped through the pages."

Even when offering suggestions about what I think may have motivated someone else's behavior, I am better off providing clear reasons for any deductions or guesses I have made and claiming them as guesses, not facts. I can explain my thought processes, but to describe my opinions as though they were irrefutable facts leaves me open to valid criticism.

It would be incredible for me to claim to know every moment of another person's life, or everything they thought or felt, no matter how well I believe I know them.

I could state with integrity, "She claimed their relationship was on hold, but I did not believe it." This statement may reveal the writer as callous, suspicious or lacking in empathy, but it isn't speculation; I am speaking for myself and no one else. It's a statement I can genuinely own.

If the writer went on to give her reasons for doubting the relationship was as described, she could recount the couple's actions that led her to her conclusions. At this point, the honest writer may grapple with the issue of whether she feels inclined to overstate her case because she is biased: is she jealous of this couple? Is her assessment based on intuition, information, or involvement? After all, she was not present during the couple's decision-making process. Writing with discipline and integrity forces us to examine ourselves as we write. As an honest memoirist, I can admit to my fears. "I was reluctant to be caught up in this couple's mess," is a frank admission which flatters or favors no one, but at least it earns the writer credibility for confessing to human limitations.

What if this event is a turning point in my story? If my former misjudgment of this couple's status has now become a matter of critical importance to me, I can use this incident to demonstrate falling on grace as an example of a weakness of mine which ultimately reveals God's strength. If this is the hinge your story turns on, it needs to be given more focus than other minor incidents in your work. Prepare to involve these individuals in your writing process if you plan to publish. Privacy laws, which protect the rights of private individuals to be left alone, vary from state to state.

Journalists may make exceptions to the rule when in their writing when they claim "the public has a right to know," a story, but few memoirists are members of the press.

On the other hand, if I recognize that I have deliberately distanced myself from this couple's sticky situation and I believe I was right to do so, I may begin to question why I need to include their story in my account at all. Is there a reason why I feel the urgency to address an issue that does not directly involve me? Are the events of my life in some way contingent on my understanding of their story? Is their presence in my book important to its theme? If not, am I muddying the waters for my own amusement at the expense of others? If I can eliminate this material entirely without losing the focus of my work, perhaps it would be wise to do so.

One example of specific behavior can tell us more about the people in your non-fiction work than a thousand speculations. Make sure these incidents are ones you witnessed, not rumors based on second-hand stories or gossip. These anecdotes will become as subject to the readers' interpretation as they are to your own. Vulnerability happens. Just remember you own your point of view. You were there. Know your truth. Claim it. Stand on it.

If you need to tone your claims down, do it boldly, as in, "I can never know the truth behind the rumors that circulated about their relationship status." A statement that acknowledges limitations rings true to human experience and declares respect for humanity at large. Know your truth: even when integrity insists you temper your statements, the truth will not let you down.

Writing with integrity reflects the greater challenge of living with integrity. That alone is a very good reason to write.

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