A review of Writing True Stories by Patti Miller

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Writing True Stories
By Patti Miller
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760293086, July 2017, Paperback, 352 pages

Though always a popular literary form, the memoir continues to increase in popularity. Perhaps its just that modern life is lived at an accelerated pace, and memoir is one way to not only take stock and capture our own unique experiences, but also to universalise and find/create meaning in them – to slow down and reflect. Miller, the “writing whisperer” as Jessica Rowe puts it, has created a vital guide to memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction. Though there are many how-to guides on the market, this one is special, both for its depth of wisdom – Miller has over 26 years of experience in teaching others how to write creative nonfiction, as well as her own experience as a nonfiction author/memoirist – and for the simplicity and practicality of its approach. Though the book provides exercises and tips for all forms of creative nonfiction, the focus here is definitely life writing – that is, writing about personal experiences in one form or another.

Miller’s own prose is accessible, clear and easy to read, and the enthusiasm she clearly has for the genre comes through immediately. It’s hard to read this book in a detached way as an ‘armchair writer’. Right from the start, Miller has the reader doing exercises, and presents a convincing case that everyone’s story is worth writing, unique and valuable, and provides encouragement throughout for the inevitable insecurities, pitfalls and indecision points that come with writing memoir.

The book is divided into two parts. The first one helps readers develop their material through exercises or “workshops” as Miller calls them, which are designed to work with the material of each chapter, taking the reader through such things as stimulating the memory, teasing out detail, setting, narrative voice, structure and style. Each of the chapters provides an overview of the topic, an example reading which is taken from workshops that Miller has conducted, from well-known published books, or from her own writing, and a series of writing exercises – at least four in each chapter, with a suggested timeframe for doing the exercise. It isn’t necessary to do every single exercise, but they are there to stimulate ideas, and teach through application – the reader learns by applying the principals, and creating significant work. At no point does Miller ever become didactic about the way a memoir should be written or about how to apply the many tools she provides. Instead, she offers a range of possibilities and provides exercises to help the reader towards a bespoke discovery of story. For example, in the “Structure” chapter, one of the exercises says to:

Choose a set of photographs or songs from throughout your life—arrange them either chronologically or according to topics or themes—then use each one as a springboard for writing about people, events, relationships, yourself. (102)

This may seem like a simple exercise, but one of the hardest parts of writing a memoir is structuring it. If you do this one hour or so (ten minutes each) exercise, you’ll end up with a pretty neat skeleton that can work as an organising principle for a book. It’s not just an exercise to get the ideas flowing – it’s a very targeted hour designed to get a useable result.  Exercises like this run all throughout the book, each one a stimulus to writing that builds up to a full work.

The second part of the book goes deeper, presenting a wider range of styles including biography, the personal essay, and travel memoir, as well as working cross-genre. This section looks at creating sensory detail (cultivating the “Proustian memory”), different ways to incorporate and utilise research, utilising multiple narratives and personae, exploring a variety of forms, dealing with the inevitable ethical issues that memoir raises, how to avoid self-indulgence and other common traps, travel essays, working in what Miller calls Borderlands or in the space between memoir and fiction, and creative nonfiction. Miller doesn’t try to contain these often overlapping genres with labels or formulas to restrict.  Instead she opens doors – offering a whole spectrum of ideas to stimulate possibilities. These advanced exercises are mind expanding – providing ideas for finding subjects that are really effective, particularly because of the way Miller ties the universal/political to the personal. I tried several of the creative nonfiction exercises and by the end of a few hours, had four book outlines ready for further exploration:

Take an environmental issue that interests you, do some online research on the topic, then, beginning with a story from your own childhood, connect it to the issue you have researched. This of course can be used for any other area of interest, historical, political or psychological. (286)

The book concludes with a chapter on publication and a reading list. Writing True Stories is as intelligent and well-written a guide as you’ll find. The book is full of anecdotes, a huge number of very valuable exercises, lots of illustrative stories, and enough guidance to take you through many true stories of your own. Miller has created one of the best resources for would-be nonfiction writers that I’ve yet to find. The book is like an ongoing course, complete with readings, exercises, expert guidance and inspiration.