Valerie Ihsan is a lover of many things: including old dogs, Costa Rica, and writing and editing memoir.
Read what she has to say about most of these things as well as what she struggles to write the most.
Have you ever struggled to write something, or are there certain genres or forms of writing you just don’t like or feel confident in?
I would love to write short stories, and I’ve wanted to for over a decade, but I just can’t make one come out.
Last year, I was selected to write a short piece for an upcoming anthology from Tsunami Press. I talked with a few authors I respect that are amazing short story writers to get some advice, and I decided to write a short story about a woman with agoraphobia making it to a bookstore in a foreign country to buy a book. The farthest scenario from her comfort zone that I could think of.
I outlined it. I dabbled a bit. I thought about it. I tinkered some more … for four months. Nothing was coming out, and I was starting to get worried. The deadline for the entry was fast approaching, but I couldn’t seem to get to the page.
I thought the premise was cool, but the thought of writing a great story that would make a difference in a reader’s life in the tiny vessel of 2000-5000 words seemed completely daunting. I think that’s what was stopping me. The small size.
I only write long. That was the story I told myself. But, while journaling one day, I corrected myself. I used to write essays all the time. And right there, in my journal, I wrote an essay for the anthology in four hours.
I’d still like to try short stories someday, but for some reason I can’t wrap my head around how to convey character, emotional arc, tone, pacing, and dialogue in under 70K words.
Conversely, are there certain genres or forms of writing you excel at or are drawn to?
I like to think I specialize in memoir. I’m working on my third one (published two), and love to read the genre.
I help writers find the core message of their memoirs so they can create an authentic, thoughtful book that doesn’t drift into episodic vignettes that don’t connect to a common thread or theme. (Those types of memoirs end with the reader wondering why they read it in the first place because there didn’t seem to be a point to the book—and we definitely don’t want that.)
How do you deal with writers’ block and/or the urge to do anything else but sit down and write?
I end up cleaning a lot. One time I organized my coat closet.
Eventually, I get sick of my own procrastinating and just sit down with a small task. Fifteen minutes on the timer; open the Scrivener document and look at it; write one subheading; write one paragraph. Just something.
Then, the next time I sit down, it’s not quite as hard. And the time after that is easier, too.
Can you share an example of how your experience shapes the way you teach?
Because I’ve spent over a decade receiving feedback on my writing, I know how to give a constructive, objective report on an author’s manuscript when I do story diagnostic work with a client. I think communicating while teaching is similar.
Plus, I raised two special-needs kids (now in their twenties), which makes me hyper-vigilant in noticing when folks need a different teaching style to accommodate a learning preference or need specific physical accommodations in a classroom setting (even if it is virtual). For instance, maybe they need to sit in the back of the room so they can get up and move while they are learning. Maybe they need frequent sensory breaks. Maybe they need closed captions on a personal screen in a physical classroom. (This is actually easy to do now with the latest update on Zoom.)
The bottom line is I want a student’s learning experience to be a safe and inclusive one, and one that is hopefully comfortable for them. I want to be approachable, so they feel okay asking for what they need.
How do you describe your teaching style?
Two parts Nurturing Healer (#2 Empathy, #6 Connectedness*), one part Cheerleader (#4 Positivity*), and a generous dash of Clipboard-in-Hand Project Manager (#7 Discipline, #8 Maximizer, #10 Consistency, #11 Strategic, #13 Responsibility, #15 Developer, #16 Focus*) *on the Clifton Strengths test from Gallup, Inc.
What do you believe is the key to fostering a creative and inclusive classroom environment?
If you can imagine what a person might need in that classroom in order to thrive, and how they might feel not getting it, and how that would impact their health, safety, and learning, then you’ll go a long way in connecting with that student and providing a sacred space for them to share and grow.
What kind of support or resources do you provide your students?
I provide weekly free content on the Writer Craft Podcast I co-host with author Erick Mertz. We have conversations about creativity and craft each Wednesday.
I offer several pricing tiers for life coaching for authors (which includes book, business, publishing, and accountability coaching) on my website and through Patreon; a story analysis service, and host an all-inclusive annual writing retreat in Marcola, Oregon each summer.
What first drew you to memoir writing?
Being able to connect with people right away about a certain topic.
I tried fictionalizing my first memoir when the memoir writing got hard, but stopped because my purpose in writing that memoir was to give other young widows a chance to search and find a book about a real person living through the same thing she was. And sometimes that doesn’t happen as easily with fiction.
How do you distinguish between a mere recollection and a memoir-worthy moment?
My first thought was that the recollection wouldn’t have enough to it to make it a scene, but with my first memoir, I remembered in snapshots. Little snippets. So that’s how I wrote it.
There were a couple of chapters in that book (Smell the Blue Sky: Young, Pregnant, and Widowed) that took on an almost scrapbook quality because some of the memories were just a blip of an image—but, as a whole, they coalesced into a complete portrait. I think that both are memoir worthy if the content fits the qualifications of what stays in a story. Does it carry the plot forward? Does it develop character?
What’s the most common challenge faced by memoir writers and how can they overcome it?
There are a few.
Like, caring about hurting the people you are writing about. For that, you’ll need to decide who gets veto power. My husband is the only one that gets to say, “No. Don’t put that in. I’m super uncomfortable with it.” I would have a conversation with my sister and talk about her discomfort and explain why it needs to be in the book, and maybe brainstorm other examples of memories I could put in instead. But extended family don’t even get to read it before I publish. That’s my hierarchy. What’s yours?
Another big difficulty is writing in scene. Often, memoirs are heavy on the reflection (which is genre appropriate), but when you need to show an example of when your ex-husband neglected you (instead of just saying he was that way), and you can’t remember one, you can make it up like you can in fiction.
Also, receiving feedback can be difficult for any writer, but when your memoir is getting critiqued, it can be harder to not feel defensive. As if they were critiquing your life, and not the story. The best things to do for that are remembering to distance yourself from the story by speaking about the character and using third-person pronouns instead of I when referencing your manuscript.
Are there any memoirs that deeply influenced your approach to the genre?
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch was a game-changer for me because she wrote out of order, with fragmented sentences, and with a gritty rawness that I’d not read before.
Also, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos because she reminded me that our stories need to be told and to not resort to “telling the story of the story you told yourself.”
Upcoming classes you might enjoy
Starts Dec 2 | Learn to write immersive stories intuitively in this 9-month online intensive fiction writing program.
March 7 | Join multi-genre author, chef, and Registered Nurse, Mia Bowman for Reading Like A Writer–The BIG Read Edition– at Wordcrafters in Eugene!
Starts May 15 | Learn the secrets to making your nonfiction narratives vibrant and compelling with Valerie Ihsan