Joan Didion on Personal Narrative

A dark but beautiful take on “truth” in narrative from Joan Didion in The White Album:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.


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    How Much Should I Edit as I Write?

    In her recent piece on good confessional writing in Slate, Katie Roiphe included this note about Joan Didion’s writing process:

    Joan Didion, one of the most admired personal writers in American prose, said this extraordinary thing in a Paris Review interview: “When I am working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one.”

    My rule has always been to start a first-draft writing session with re-editing of the previous days work – but I’ve tried to institute a 5-page rule. (Maybe 10). I’ve always considered going back further than that during the first-draft period indulgent procrastination, even though on the way to proof I tend to line edit my pieces dozens of times, rewriting and writing sentences to get the timing right.

    For most writers, getting the full first draft down is the most important first threshold. That said, Didion is one of my favorite prose stylists–her exactitude sings on every page.

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      Good Confessional Writing Vs. Bad

      Katie Roiphe gives us her 5 top musts for good confessional writing. Go here to read the whole piece, but the points boil down to:

      1. Be fiercely self-critical.

      2. Be honest. Or at least try to be – honesty is as slippery a thing as truth.

      3. Be entertaining.

      4. Write well – get “beyond the generic, the cliché, which a surprising number of published personal writers never do.”

      5. “Expressing yourself” is not enough – pay careful attention to craft. (Self-serving aside: Or, pay someone to do that for you.)


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        Memoir Builder, 1.0

        Craig Leinoff, one of my favorite colleagues and PERHAPS the officiant of my future wedding, now works with the developers who built MemoirBuilder, the tool I created to get people inspired and started on writing the story of their lives. I finished it months ago but haven’t had the time to figure out what to do with it!

        He recently took the tool for a spin and immediately “rediscovered” this lovely memory, which he then gave me permission to reprint here:

        4th of July Sparklers from - beautiful photos!

        I was born in July on the 2nd. I associate far more with the Fall than with the summer, but one thing that was a special memory to me was that my birthday fell two days before Independence Day. We used to go to visit my grandparents in Neponsit and every 4th of July when I was a kid there would be hundreds and hundreds of fireworks going off all night on the beach.

        It was the most fantastic thing I can ever remember seeing. All civilian-operated. Fireworks were illegal of course, but no one cared and no one was stopped until middle school when the police started cracking down on it. Before that time, though, every birthday I had seemed to be lit with sparklers, shooting stars, and fiery weeping willows. In my memory, there were even these fireworks that I’ve never seen before, life-sized, that looked like they “walked,” right down the sandy street, dancing to the wails of whizzers and screamers along the beach. I don’t think these could possibly have been real.

        A guy used to stand and just give out sparklers to little kids, and he’d light them for you. And all the kids — or at least I would — would be a little scared to hold that fire. But he’d just say, “OK, now hold on there. Careful! It’s all right! There you go!”

        Please, check out the tool! I really could use honest feedback: It’s very, very basic right now, and I need to decide whether it’s worth developing further.

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          Create a Time Capsule

          I saw this on Healthy Tipping Point and loved the idea:

          Create a time capsule of your POV on a number of life’s big issues. Then check in on it every few years to see how your mindsets have changed with new experiences. Considering including (as Caitlin did) your thoughts on:

          • politics
          • money
          • technology
          • motherhood
          • marriage
          • friendship
          • food
          • and childbirth.

          With Thanksgiving coming up, this seems like a great group activity – and together everyone could revisit their answers a year or five years later.


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            Autobiography = Personal and Professional Development

            David Pottruck, the former CEO of Charles Schwab, was celebrated for his leadership and powerful effect on the company’s culture (despite being tumped out on his rear end after the dot-com crash). But he wasn’t a successful leader right out of the gates. An early company review found him, according to, “tone deaf to the nuances of building trust, modeling sensitivity, and constructing interdependence,” according  His leadership education came from management coach Terry Pearce, and it started with the writing of his own autobiography.

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            Pottruck decided he needed to rethink his assumptions about leadership—a management makeover, if you will. He hired Terry Pearce, a former IBM executive turned management coach and communications consultant to executives. Pearce offered to guide Pottruck through a complete reexamination of what Pot-truck knew about leadership, competition, and every other aspect of dealing with people. Pearce started by asking Pottruck to write an autobiography. Pottruck delivered more than 300 pages. “Terry said he wanted to learn the ‘defining moments’ of my life, to help him discover my values,” Pottruck recalls. What Pearce wanted, of course, were the stories that we all tell about ourselves and use as an excuse to limit our possibilities.

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              A NY Minute on Orchard

              I’ve been so head down lately, so wrapped up in my work endeavors, that I’ve felt like the city is happening all around me, and I’ve been ignoring it. In short, I’ve been too busy, a state of being that’s recently been called out and properly scrutinized in the NY Times. I want presence, not busy-ness, to be my way of life.

              Well, last night, I had a great New York minute. We sang until late in the night with some brilliantly flagrant friends. Then I left alone to walk home, spent, and stumbled into the impromptu dance scene on Orchard photographed above.

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                Why Write a Memoir?

                The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently asked people over 70 to write “life reports.” Analyzing those reports, he found that those who “divided life into chapters” – or in other words, took charge of their own narrative – were the happiest old people around. They “divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points.”

                More reason to write: Descriptive writing sets fire crackers off in your brain. Another recent NY Times piece described “your brain on fiction”: “Researchers have long known that the ‘classical’ language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap,’ for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

                If that’s how your brain reacts when it reads imagistic, emotional stories, imagine how it reacts when it writes them. And imagine how family members will react to and live your story. You can share emotions and strengthen connection through your writing.

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