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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Glen Retief

Categories: 7 Things I've Learned So Far, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Memoir, Memoir Writing & Memoir Examples.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Glen Retief, author of THE JACK BANK) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. 

Glen is excited to give away a free copy of his memoir to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (Update: Rahma won.)


Glen Retief is the author of The Jack Bank, a memoir
focusing on his experiences of violent whites-only hazing
rituals under apartheid. Kirkus Reviews called it “Visceral
and emotionally complexan impressive first book.” You
can read an excerpt, find out more about his work, or
follow him on Twitter or his website.


1. You can have your own private language, and eat it too. It’s not just immigrant writers who straddle multiple dialects. Anybody part of a subculture, or describing one—maximum-security prisoners, working-class drag queens, or Wall Street stockbrokers—faces the dilemma of what to do about specialized vocabulary. Yissus, oukies, but that can be a blind one, hey? This translates roughly, from South African English: Wow, folks, but that can be a tough business, can’t it? You don’t want to exclude your readers. But you also don’t want to have to dumb your work down, with clumsy explanations every time someone mentions an ETF or a chi-mo.
But the problem is fairly easily solved by providing the kinds of specific contextual details that make the meaning clear. Example: “On languid afternoons sitting together baking mud pies behind my cousins’ house, we regale each other with stories of boomslangs dropping out of trees and sinking their deadly fangs into passers-by.” Now you didn’t think a boomslang in that sentence was a pear or a ball bearing, did you?

2. Memoir isn’t “true” in the same way reportage is. Fact-checking my own book, I found sweet, telling errors. I’d misremembered that my best friend, shy and freckled, took the most glamorous and beautiful girl in high school to the prom. I recalled that Albie Sachs, a future judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, told my human rights activist group in 1990 that we’d won a sexual orientation nondiscrimination clause in the postapartheid constitution. Writing The Jack Bank, I found this recollection rather poignant, because Albie Sachs lost an arm and an eye to a car bomb planted by people connected to a childhood friend. The only problem with this schmaltz? The archived minutes revealed Sachs said he thought our chances of such a human rights victory were decent, but not certain. So he was not quite the triumphant survivor-liberator. I fixed these mistakes in my manuscript, but I’m sure there are many more like them. The moral: read even a memoir written in complete good faith like it’s a mix of truth and inadvertent fiction.

3. Send your family galleys, but not drafts. I e-mailed my aunt an early draft of a chapter which only marginally mentions her, and she flipped out.  I tried to accommodate her objections, but there was only so much I could do—what I was saying about her wasn’t blatantly harmful to her reputation, and I certainly felt it was on target. So unless you really are willing to make major changes to your story to protect your loved ones’ sensitivities—even if those requests are unreasonable—wait till later in the process.  You know what they say about permission and forgiveness.

4. Embrace your niche audiences. When reviewers first started talking about my book as being perfect for Africa-philes, LGBT people, and social historians, I bristled. Who’d say Shakespeare wrote fine plays only of interest to white male aristocrats and merchants? But so far, my niche groups have proved loyal audiences. Complete universality is a myth.  Authors have to start somewhere.

5. Write in the most beautiful place you can find. Writing requires just about more concentration than any other activity I can think of, and there’s nobody to cheer you on. Bookshelves groan under the weight of self-help volumes designed to help people put pen to paper. So be as kind to yourself as you can when you set up your work space.

6. Read your words aloud.
For years, during public readings, I would make mental notes: “Boy, this sentence is kind of wordy.  These whole two pages could probably be left out!” I joked to a friend, “I should edit in front of the audience.” Then I heard about Flaubert, who shouted his sentences to test their rhythm. Now, I read anything aloud several times before I decide it’s ready for public consumption.

7. Exercise regularly. Recently, an interviewer asked me why so many famous writers struggled with mental illness and depression. I had a bunch of theories about this, having been clinically depressed myself, once, while struggling with a novel, a romantic relationship, and an immigration-related legal quandary. But the fact remains: digging deep into your emotions, by yourself, and then being rejected by a world that doesn’t need any our masterpieces isn’t the most obvious recipe for joy and good cheer. So get out. Run, swim, and walk. Dance in the basement to Lady Gaga on your iPod. Cultivate love and friendship. Writing seriously is a Himalaya climb, an ultra-marathon. You’ll need to be in good mental and physical shape to undertake it.


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15 Responses to 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Glen Retief

  1. Rahma Krambo says:

    Thanks for the book! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. Steph says:

    I appreciate your thoughts – I am currently considering publishing a memoir series that has proven successful via online video short. I hear you LOUD and CLEAR on #3!

  3. Thank you for the down-home, practical advice – exercise and reading your words out loud. I do the exercise part but I haven’t started the "reading out loud" part yet. Gotta start that. I liked the explanation about language – funny.

  4. Beth LaMie says:

    Thanks for the great ideas, especially #6.

  5. Thanks for the tip/reminder on exercise. I need all the encouragement I can get to do it.

  6. Stacy says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this point: The moral: read even a memoir written in complete good faith like it’s a mix of truth and inadvertent fiction. In light of recent controversies, you say it perfectly. Best wishes with your book.

  7. Rick Lipman says:

    It is very weird to open my Google Reader and see an article by a professor from my alma mater!

    Great read, Dr. Retief. And what a small (digital) world!

  8. Laurie Outlaw says:

    This is my favorite "7 Things" so far. I love reading memoirs-other people’s lives are so fascinating. I tend to put alot of "myself" and people I know into characters i create just to pay homage to those experiences in my life that are special to me. I have also suffered from depression for most of my life and getting out and walking in the fresh air, really taking notice of trees, architecture, clouds passing by…..better than any pill on the market. Thanks for your advice!!

  9. Maria says:

    I really loved the 5th one. I think I forget about the importance of that a lot of the time. Thanks for reminding me of it. Also, the last one is something that I need to start doing myself more often. Will definitely keep an eye out for your book. Best of luck!

  10. patrice says:

    I think you’re 100% right about getting enough exercise!

  11. Susan Moger says:

    Having skipped my walk this evening, your #7 seemed aimed directly at me. I also like all seven points as I write fiction but teach Memoir. Emotional truth vs. fact is an interesting dilemma for memoir. Reading this I felt I had met an interesting friend.

  12. Annette Lyon says:

    As one of many writers who battle depression, I have to say a hearty AMEN to #7–exercise keeps me mentally even and emotionally in a much better place, two things essential for the creative life!

  13. "Memoir isn’t "true" in the same way reportage is." I think I should forward this to Greg Mortenson.

    Loved your "7 Things," Glen. Your book sounds fascinating, and I shall look out for it.

  14. Rahma Krambo says:

    I enjoyed reading your ‘seven things’.
    Especially about not being concerned about your niche market. I think you have to write about what you know and/or love if you’re going to go the distance with it.
    Also, about being kind to yourself. For the first time ever, I have my own beautiful space with a door to open or close as I like.
    Reading aloud has become a very important aspect of my editing process. I even purchased a nice British/English voice for my text-to-speech reader. She has found innumerable mistakes my eyes missed.

  15. Glenn says:

    I’m intrigued by the idea to exercise regularly. I have found for myself I just sit there for hours on end and write while listening to music and it helps me work through long complex drawn out plot structures. But I do find that my writing becomes stale sometimes, so I think I may begin to start working out more often throughout the writing process.

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