From the Publisher
“In Shimmering Images Lisa Dale Norton traces a clear stimulating path to writing a memoir. Norton starts with the ideas behind the process, how story transforms experience on the page. She then gives the step-by-step process that she has been teaching for decadesfinding Shimmering Images (memory pictures) and weaving them into a whole. In the third part Norton looks at some of the tools to craft the process. In writing bighearted, compassionate stories, we contribute to changing the world. Norton’s book is bighearted and compassionate. It is a gift to the reader.” Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life
“This book shimmers with thought-provoking insights and truth, and Lisa Dale Norton's elegantly spare formula is a valuable addition to the literature on the topic. Even though she specifically addresses only the memoir form, her system of memory retrieval and organization will be useful to any life writer.” Sharon Lippincott, author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing
“You can read this book in an hour -- but the impact could well last a lifetime. It’s simple, smart and inspiring.” Jennie Nash, author of The Last Beach Bungalow
“Lisa Dale Norton's practical and lively guide to writing memoir is like having your very own writing coach holding your hand and guiding you through your story with patience and humor. Her clear, good advice covers everything you'll need to start writing: the difference between memoir and autobiography, claiming your own voice, finding the heart of your story, and finally crafting it into a piece of work to send out into the world.” Barbara Abercrombie, author of Courage and Craft and Writing out the Storm
“Shimmering Images is an encouraging, smart, and surprisingly funny guide, full of well-tested exercises and approaches. Lisa Dale Norton teaches memoir writers how to get beyond blame and self-pity, how to find the compassion that leads to new insights, how to be “bone honest” with themselves. She is a very wise coach who understands that the writing process is the way to truth, that truth is complex and deep. This “handy little guide” will transform the lives of those who need to understand their pasts in order to change their futuresthat is to say, all of us. Trust me, she says: and we do, we do.” Meg Files, author of Meridian 144, Home Is the Hunter, and Write from Life, Director, Pima Writers' Workshop
“Shimmering Images" is how Lisa Norton describes those flashes of memory that haunt us on the brightest of days or in the darkest of tunnels when least expected. Indeed they are, fleeting moments in time we can not forget because we responded emotionally and our lives were forever changed. Moved to great heights of joy, we want to share our feelings with the world. Scarred by fear, anger or loss we want to dig deeper and recapture and share the hope and love that healed. Memoirists feel compelled to take this journey, and in her book Lisa Norton provides a map to show us where to begin, which way to turn, and most important, how to dig up and unlock the truths that were always there, waiting to be told. Anyone who has ever wanted to write memoir needs this precious little handbook to find out where and how to start, and better still, how to keep going in the right direction.” Penny Porter, author of Heartstrings and Tail-Tuggers, and Adobe Secrets, Past-President and Membership Chair, Society of Southwestern Authors
“Never has there been a more compassionate gift to those who write. Shimmering Images is a clear-eyed, authentic vision of the art of storytelling. Norton gathers the inspirational winds in her sails, and gently propels the writer toward a place of knowing--that place where one can, at last, trust in the creative self. Awesome. Simply awesome.” Doris Booth, Editor-in-Chief, Authorlink.com
“Honest, taut, funny, useful, stimulating, graceful, and all those other lovely words, but best of all this book will make you sit your skinny butt in the chair and actually start typing, which is the point. A terrific book of operating instructions for giving birth to stories.” Brian Doyle, editor, Portland Magazine
“Shimmering Images has what it takes to be an outstanding how-to book for aspiring writers. It is sound, fertile, imaginative; it guides the aspiring writer around the pitfalls and into the delights of turning memories into memoir. It inspires and grounds the writer with a combination of practical, easy-to-follow steps, a rationale for engaging in this challenging process in the first place and ways to sustain the effort for the long haul. I would recommend this book to teachers as well as to adults who are working on this genre individually.” Muriel Dance, Ph.D., Director, Center for Continuing Education; Antioch University Seattle
“SHIMMERING IMAGES is a practical, simple, and wonderfully concise guide for memoirists seeking to improve their craft as well as those who are just getting started.” Debra Ginsberg, author of Waiting, Raising Blaze, About My Sisters, and Blind Submission
“In Shimmering Images, Lisa Dale Norton gently takes you by the hand and leads you through the process of getting down the story of your life. You learn how to access your “shimmering images” -- the people, places, and events that are the source of your most powerful stories. You discover how to connect these images to the key turning points in your personal journey, and weave them into the rich tapestry that is your life. Practical and inspiring, Shimmering Images is a must have for anyone contemplating writing a memoir.” Carol Franco, co-author of The Legacy Guide: Capturing the Facts, Memories, and Meaning of Your Life
“Like a smart friend in whom you can confide, Lisa Dale Norton leads you not only through the issues of craft you'll need in order to form your life stories into art, but--perhaps more importantly--through the emotional landscape such work requires. A thoughtful, helpful tool for anyone facing the challenge of memoir.” Samantha Dunn, author of Faith in Carlos Gomez
“Shimmering Images is the quintessential book on memoir writing and should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about crafting a memoir.” Jennifer McCord, past president of Pacific Northwest Writers Association
“Shimmering Images is every memoir writer's ideal guide. With eloquent Simplicity borne of decades of teaching writing, Lisa Dale Norton has given us a map and a method that soars above all others.” Elizabeth Lyon, author of Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write and A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction
“Lisa Dale Norton’s little book is a big-hearted treasure. She gives writers specific guidance, her voice one of passionate encouragement. Norton’s message is that when getting going on a memoir, process means more than productonly through a disciplined and creative process can a writer experience the hard-won satisfaction that leads to a book. This spirited guide will be a deskside companion to memoirists old and new for years to come.” Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and the Memoirist
Here are two writing guides that, despite divergent themes, both offer informal, conversational texts that prove hard to put down. In their book, novelists Mittelmark (Age of Consent) and Newman (The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done) define and illustrate nearly every way to write a lousy novel, the idea being that if you read these examples (which they themselves devised for the purpose of instruction) you'll avoid the same pitfalls-a surprisingly distinctive approach within the crowded category of novel-writing guides. The authors cover mistakes within each major writing element (plot, characters, style, and setting) and then give brief attention to a few areas truly ripe for trouble: sex scenes, joke telling, postmodernism, and-the final hurdle-selling your novel to a publisher. Each of the 200 mistakes covered is humorously named, given a funny tagline, and then clarified with samples of horrible writing, followed by slightly more serious passages explaining and offering solutions to the problem. This writing how-to should carry a warning: it's the kind of book one reads at the expense of other responsibilities. With a useful index; recommended for most public libraries and for academic collections serving aspiring fiction writers.
Norton (founding director, Santa Fe Writing Inst.; Hawk Flies Above) offers a similarly speedy and approachable read. Only slightly over 100 pages, it gets right to the point about the process of crafting a memoir. Norton's goal is to teach lay writers her own method of writing compassionate and arresting personal memoir. Her instruction focuses on the titular concept of "shimmering images"-memories of blazing detail, manyonly a moment or two in real time, which are imbedded in the mind from childhood forward. Norton first outlines the steps for conjuring these images and capturing them on paper. She then follows with simple instruction for selecting, organizing, and unifying the images. Norton's writing is friendly and refreshingly spare, with most chapters only a few pages long. Though she assures readers perhaps too many times of her years of experience teaching these methods, her book should serve writing novices especially well. Recommended for public libraries.
Stacey Rae Brownlie
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 - Memoir Versus Autobiography
Writing stories about your life is like plying the waters of some familiar yet exotic sea. It is the act of casting your sails for adventure.
Imagine it: The sun melts in a thousand shades of orange on a long horizon as your tiny craft cuts through swells, undaunted by the gathering challenge, because out in the haze awaits—you can see it—the dream of your story, the possibility of immortalizing your life experience, of speaking the truth of what you have seen, and heard, and felt.
This can be a long voyage, full of tempest, but I know of no other that can net such riches, for when you write a memoir you change your life. When you set down a truth about the past, a new future dawns.
Yet, before you begin this process, you need to understand what a memoir really is. We can’t set sail on this adventure unless we’re in the same boat, so let’s get clear: Life stories fall into two big clumps. There’s memoir and there’s autobiography.
What’s the difference?
Memoir involves the whittling away of a whole lot of stuff that you have lived and a focusing on one slim section, full of power, that demands to be told. This section may be told chronologically, but it does not necessarily have to be, if the story itself would best be served by some different approach. (You’ll learn about structure in part 2 of this book.)
Autobiography is an overview of your entire life told chronologically from the “I was born” stage to the “and here I am now” stage.
For the purposes of this book, I am dealing with the slice-of-life memoir in which you identify one potent period and you explore it through vivid imagery, honest voice, stunning compassion, and a deep awareness of the larger issues at play that guide your story in a subliminal way—myth, metaphor, and current issues of the day. In this book we are not working with the autobiography.
In the process I will lead you through in this book, I encourage you to work with childhood stories, because they are ripe with material. Certainly you can apply this same process to any other segment of your life. It’s simply an approach you are learning. It can be used again and again.
That said, I do believe the most successful memoir is written about periods of our life that are further away in the mists of memory.
Because you have some distance from the time period you are exploring. You need that depth of perspective to make sense of the events. Distance gives you wisdom, alternative views, and the possibility of compassion, all elements central to emotionally moving and exciting stories about your life.
Setting sail on this voyage of writing stories about your life, or stories that I call memoir, puts you squarely in the territory of what people in the publishing industry call narrative nonfiction. And it’s good to know a little bit about that body of water.
Why do they call it narrative nonfiction?
Because in this form of writing you narrate (tell a story) about something that actually happened (nonfiction).
Narrative nonfiction has a gazillion other shapes besides memoir and autobiography, and you might hear about them in a conversation or read about them in an article. Here are some of them, with brief definitions:
• Literary nonfiction: A name given to writing that narrates a story using many of the devices of literature to make the writing poetic
• Creative nonfiction: A term referring to the use of creative writing techniques mixed in with a nonfiction story, often making the result seem like a novel
• Essay: A name given to a piece of personal writing in which the voice of the writer is prominent and which makes some kind of big, or subtle, point
• Literary journalism: A term used if the written story includes a kind of journalistic reporting about the world
Whatever the mix of writing techniques used, we have to agree on a term we will use here, together, on this journey, and because I teach a variety of techniques for writing your story—techniques that incorporate literary devices, creative writing skills, the logic of the essay writer, and the reporting of the journalist—and because I insist on teaching a slice-of-life story format, I use the term “memoir.”
Memoir comes in many sizes and shapes. What I urge you toward in Shimmering Images is a kind of writing that
• Drives the reader forward to find out what happens
• Sings with the honesty of your individual voice
• Reads like a novel in places
• Offers reflective wisdom, in your authentic voice, that touches hearts and taps into the larger world out there, offering opportunities of interest for many readers
Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to do these things. One step at a time.
Chapter 2 - Claiming Your Voice
To write compelling memoir, you must first believe you have the right to speak, the right to tell your story, to be heard. You have to believe the story you are telling is important, key to your understanding of life and key to others’. For some, this is the highest wall to climb in writing stories about your lives, because too often you have been told that what you think, feel, and have experienced doesn’t matter. You may spend a good part of the first few chapters of Shimmering Images battling—both inside yourself and in discussions with family and friends. It may come up again and again, stopping you as you progress. That’s okay. I expect it. You should expect it, too.
I can imagine you right now, holding this book and thinking: Who am I to tell my story? Who cares? Who will listen?
Yep, that’s part of the process. We deal with it and move on.
In my classes and workshops this is always the first order of business. Expect insidious doubt to rear its head as you scratch away the layers of convention that keep you from telling the truth of your life. Expect it to keep coming back. Greet it. And then get on with the next chapter. That’s what you must do, because of course your life does matter, and the stories you write about your life are some of the most important work you can do in the world, because once you have written those stories, you will have changed your life.
So, expect that nasty little naysayer to show up. Refuse to let it silence the storyteller in you. Push forward. Keep reading these chapters. You will get a story written by the end of this book.
First you must claim your life. You must believe in every fiber of your being that you have the right to your reality: the way you interpret how things happened, the way you remember them. It doesn’t matter in the world of this book, in the world of art and creativity, in the world we are creating right here, how other members of your family remember the year you were twelve, or how an old lover says that day on the lake unfolded, or how friends report that last evening at the dinner table.
In another place and time, those interpretations might be of importance (and maybe you will even work some of those conflicting views into your final written story). But right here and right now, what is central is that you know your truth—the version that resonates in your bones, electrifies the very skin of your being—is the one truth that will make your writing soar, that will grab readers by the throat and keep them coming back again and again to hear your voice tell them how it was.
Chapter 3 - Truth Versus Fact
Let’s talk about truth. This subject will pop up again and again as you work on your stories. It’s a valid discussion for the writing of life stories. Just remember: Every time it appears and you begin to question yourself and what you are writing, come back and read this chapter.
So okay... there you are working along, writing your stories, and you hear yourself saying, “But if my sister doesn’t remember it the way I do, then what’s the truth?” Or your lament may go like this: “If I make up conversation, it can’t be factual, right? I kind of remember what happened that day, but do I have the words right? Am I writing memoir?” At this point you spiral into confusion, self-doubt, and get lost in worry and dread. I’ve watched this happen over and over with writers.
Let me say simply: There is the small truth of fact, and there is the larger truth you create when you make art.
Storytelling is art.
Making a story from life experience reflects a serious investigation of the human condition. When you use all the skills of the storyteller to write a story that seeks universal connections, that links your life to the lives of other humans, you take your experience beyond the act of simply reporting facts.
When you make a truth with story, you use the timeless skills of the storyteller to give the reader an experience that will change his life. That is why we write stories, to take ourselves and the reader into a new realm where the spirit can be repaired. That’s what story does: It addresses the soul in some elemental way far beyond the lining up of minuscule details.
Story, the essence of narrative, is art. Writing life stories borders on the mystical because you, the writer, become the master of reality. You make sense of chaos. You bring order to life events through narrative; you attach meaning to events. That act is more than reporting facts; it is an act of creation. Art is creation. Memoir is art.
Get this clear: Writers of life stories are not journalists. The key reason for your work is not to report facts. Your responsibility does not lie in getting the facts right at the expense of truth—some deeper reality accessed and presented through the craft tools of the discipline of writing, tools that give you the power to create universal connections.
Facts over emotional truth is not the point.
Writers of memoir are storytellers, and the point of a personal story is to make a truth that resonates for you, that closes the experience around a narrative and brings it to completion. Narrative (story) that has a beginning, a middle, and an inevitable close (an end) is a kind of art that soothes the soul. That is what we are doing here. That is what I am teaching you to do.
Certainly you do whatever you can to get the facts as correct as possible: What was the name of the town? How many years did Peter live across the street? Was it a Buick Electra? What did your grandmother say that day? You do the research necessary to fill in the factual gaps: You talk with participants, weighing their feedback with your own; you look it up online or in a book; you plumb your memory.
After all the confirmation of facts, remember that in the end it is your truth created from your memory and your experience.
Your memory serves up the past in the way it does for a complex set of reasons that have to do with who you are and what you value. So, yes, you do everything humanly possible to get the facts right, according to you, and then get on with it, remembering that what you are really doing here by writing your life stories is recording the deep resonant, honest, compassionate truth that resides inside your heart, that links your experience to the experiences of hundreds of other humans on this planet. And you have the right to do that. You have the right to be heard.
Copyright © 2008 by Lisa Dale Norton. All rights reserved.