Posted by Donnell Ann Bell FiveScribes .blogspot.com/share/label/sisters in crime
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Labels: Danielle A. Dahl, Memoir Writing,
Five authors, five perspectives, one blog.
Unleash the Past Do you have a memoir in you?
Five Scribe Readers, I met some fascinating people on my trip to Georgia, South and North Carolina last September. One stop included a visit to Sisters in Crime/South Carolina Chapter. One of my fellow SINC members is Danielle Dahl, author of SIROCCO, A Girl Comes Of Age In War-Torn Algeria. She mentioned at our meeting that she was writing a memoir. Impressed, I wanted to know more.
Please welcome Danielle Dahl as she talks about how she wrote her memoir.
How do you write a memoir?
My eyebrows shot up and I glared at my critique partners. “Write a memoir? Why would strangers be interested in childhood memories I’m writing as a legacy to my nephews and nieces?”
Howard said, “If you added a little-known piece of world history to your stories about family dynamics and your descriptions of war-torn Algeria, your memoir would not only interest, but resonate with your readers. Especially since this fifty-year-old historical issue mirrors modern global problems."
“Nah! I don’t want to go there. Couldn’t bear the hurt.”
“Perhaps the telling will exorcise the hurt. Besides, isn’t it part of what made you the person you are now?”
I brushed the question aside and interjected one of my own, “And how do you think my family will feel having our personal history made public?”
“You don’t need to tell all. Be tactful. More important, do not seek their blessings as their memories might be different, if not opposite, to yours. Just tell your story, your truth, as you remember it.”
My two other critique partners nodded, causing me to wonder. Do I have a memoir in me?
“Really? A memoir?”
“Yes, a memoir. Your memoir.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to write a fiction, which would give me the latitude to manipulate, create or recreate facts to fit the story?” I took a breath then went on. “I understand that memoirs do not allow such artistic license. They require faithful representation of facts. In brief, a memoir writer must subject the story to the facts—”
“Ah, but consider this,” Howard cut in. “The best feature of memoir versus fiction writing is that in the former, your plot, your era, are already set. Your characters are drawn. The sensations, emotions, tastes, sounds colors have already been experienced. They are there waiting for you to bring them back to life.”
So, I gave in to the idea of writing my memoir, but would I have enough stories to make up a book? I worried, twisting the ring on my finger. My grandmother’s ring. My mother had presented it to me the day I left home… That moment unfolded before me. Maman’s tearful smile. The auburn frame of her curls. The afternoon sunlight slanting through the open French doors. The light breeze cooling my face. The squeals of kids playing ball in the street. The rich aroma of roasting chicken…
I started as if waking up from a catnap. Heart pounding. Thrilled. I had just come up with the topic for a new story.
SO, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS! An object, perhaps a photo, a sound, the feel of a touch, a taste—very much like Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time where he describes tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea that jump-starts a chain reaction recall of nostalgic memories.
Five senses, five windows to reach into the past, unleash the flow.
In my excitement, I hurried to my computer, sat down, hand hovering above the keyboard and…blank. The white page as uninspiring as a virgin canvas. I panicked. Where did the flash of memory inspired by the ring go? RING. Ah, Yes!
I typed, ‘Ring’ then ‘Mother’ then ‘The day Maman gave me her mother’s ring…’
My fingers started flying over the keyboard, propelling words onto the screen.
That day, I learned that, as is true for almost everything in life, story writing starts with one step at a time—one word.
Writing snapshots of the fun childhood episodes I shared with my brothers and sisters had always been a joy—not that I didn’t remember the other times. It’s just that I only chose to keep alive the feel-good moments. Keep the less tasteful ones locked inside the deeper folds of my brain.
I reluctantly committed to retrieve the bad, relive it for the sake of the story, the truth. During the fact-checking research process, I tore at scabs I hadn’t realized were still festering. I sobbed uncontrollably. Couldn’t sleep. Had nightmares when I did. The anguish lasted days at a time during which I was unable to write—like hitting a stone wall. Then, with great effort, I’d sit at my computer, scale the wall or walk around it, pick up the thread until the story slid back into the fun times. Back into sunlight.
I read books and blogs on writing, attended conferences, lectures. Learned that rather than following the linear thread of a story, as happens in diaries, memoir writing, as in fiction, needs to pick up the thread of a story any place other than at its beginning, thus arousing the readers’ interest. Cajoling them into finding out what comes next.
I learned that in memoir writing, just as in fiction, the first concern should be to put down the raw story, keep the inspiration juices flow. Speak from the heart. Let my voice sing. Leave the task of the various edits and polishing to further drafts.
When I had exhausted my critique partners and beta readers’ feedbacks and believed my fourth draft was IT, I submitted it to a professional editor who suggested my memoir would be better served saving parts of my story for my next memoir. Several anguished soul-searching days later I cut out twenty-five thousand words. Painful, but wise as the sacrifice ended in a tighter story, teaching me in the process a valuable lesson in humility: not to fall in love with my writing.
Humility, a great quality for fiction writers to develop, must become a virtue for memoir writers to cultivate as they expose their most inner selves. Their strengths and weaknesses. Their virtues and dark sides. They must learn not to take constructive criticisms from critique partners, beta readers, and editors as personal offenses, but as a team effort toward the good of their story.
A story—we all have one to tell, but will it resonate with our readers? I discovered that mine did. What about yours?
DO YOU HAVE A MEMOIR IN YOU?
BLOG BY SNOW FLAKE IN A BLIZZARD
THE BOOK: Sirocco.
PUBLISHED IN: 2014.
THE AUTHOR: Danielle A. Dahl.
THE EDITOR: Critique Partners; Beta Readers; my agent, Amanda Wells; Mary Buckam, USA Today bestselling author; my publisher, Coffeetown Press.
THE PUBLISHER: Coffeetown Press, ://www.coffeetownpress.com
SUMMARY: The Algerian War of Independence begins in 1954, forever changing the lives of the French colonials, including 10-year-old Nanna and her family. The conflict lasts for 8 years, but despite the constant threat of terrorist attacks, Nanna confronts the usual challenges of growing up—helping to raise her spirited siblings, struggling with math, and defying her harsh father by falling in love.
THE BACK STORY: Writing Sirocco was not an idea that suddenly popped out of nowhere, but a growing need to tell the stories of my growing up with my brothers and sisters, of our adventures and misadventures. A need to paint the breathtaking vistas of the land of my birth, share the uniqueness of its people, and recount the life of a French girl coming of age in a country torn by a war of independence
WHY THIS TITLE? Sirocco is the searing wind that, in season, blows howling sand from the Sahara desert, scouring the landscapes of North Africa. It is presaged by grandiose fiery sunsets. Fire
that reflects the convictions, spirit, and pride of the men and women who struggled to keep the land their ancestors won through sacrifices and hard work.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT: Sirocco brings to its readers a view of a little-known part of world history and political environment, which presents so many parallels to our modern world of fear, repression and terrorism.
“Sirocco is the riveting account of the author’s youth during the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962), and it is the first English-language novel from the Pied-Noir community. Dahl paints a loving and nostalgic image of Algeria but does not spare the reader from the confusion, chaos and violence of war. The beauty of the text comes from the gradual shift in perspective from child to young adult as Nana begins to understand the complexity of the conflict in Constantine. Her cohesive story is smattered with French and Pied-Noir expressions, authentic scenes, and vivid descriptions of the characters in her life. She transports us to a traumatic period that has long been silenced in France and that has only begun to be uncovered in the last decade.” — Amy L. Hubbell, Lecturer in French, The University of Queensland
“Mesmerizing. Poignant. Bittersweet. Richly evocative writing that places you deep in the world of war-torn Algeria. A stunning debut author to watch.” — Amy L. Hubbell, Lecturer in French, The University of Queensland
“Mesmerizing. Poignant. Bittersweet. Richly evocative writing that places you deep in the world of war-torn Algeria. A stunning debut author to watch.” — Mary Buckham, USA Today bestselling author
“With brilliant storytelling, we are drawn into the world of a French-Algerian family during the civil war. Lush language and skillful rendering of this world create a story you won’t be able to put down. Dahl’s memoir Sirocco teaches us about another culture and the history of a time and a place—and most of all, you will meet a family you will never forget.” — Linda Joy Myers, author of Power of Memoir and Don’t Call Me Mother
REVIEW COMMENTS SAMPLES (See many more on
“Sirocco is a true gem. The story is original, different from so much out there now, and finely crafted as a good storyteller would. I learned about a part of the world I knew nothing about through the eyes of a child growing up in a world of conflict and beauty. A joy to read.”
“This book engaged my heart, my mind and made me think about things outside my own, comfortable little world. Somehow, Mrs. Dahl captures your attention and writes the novel in a very fluid manner, despite the unpredictability and instability, which was her childhood. Compelling and palpable.”
AUTHOR PROFILE: A fourth generation French settler in Algeria, Danielle A. Dahl was born and raised in Constantine, where she came of age during the Algerian War of Independence. A week before Algeria celebrated self-rule and just before Danielle turned eighteen, she and her family fled their home and took refuge in France. Eight years later, she moved to the United States, where she studied commercial art. She and her husband lived in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Illinois before retiring to South Carolina.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Hopefully, Sirocco will help readers understand that, unlike the hardcore, uncompromising extremists whose weapon of choice, is terror, the majority of people indigenous to a culture like that of Algeria are hard-working, peaceful, humble beings who only wish to feed their families and practice their faith without coercion and in harmony with each other and the world at large.
LOCAL OUTLETS: The Booksmith, in Seneca, SC.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Available online at Amazon.com, BN.com, and in multiple eBook formats from most major retailers. Also at,
PRICE: $14.95 for books, $4.95 for Ebooks.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOOK REVIEW By Dean Robertson
WAR AND GROWING UP Danielle A. Dahl: SIROCCO
In the nineteenth chapter of Sirocco, titled “My Story,” Danielle A. Dahl writes:
“By age twelve, I desperately wished composition were more important than calculus. If so, I’d really shine. I enjoyed writing short paragraphs on topics the teacher assigned in class and often wondered how authors came to spin whole stories. How they managed to whisk me away to unknown places, introduce me to extraordinary characters, and coax me into becoming one of them. By what sleight of words did they move me to laugh, cry, hope, and despair?”
On the homepage of her website, Danielle A. Dahl has this note:
How to write a great memoir?
Dig deep. Resign yourself to guilt of things done and regrets of things left undone.
Know that anguish and sleepless nights will go away. In time. And, above all, don’t spare the laughter.
About herself, she writes:
I was born and brought up in Constantine, Algeria, where I came of age during the war of independence of that country from France. On the eve of Algeria’s independence, a week before I turned eighteen, my family and I left our home, place of work, and life as we knew it until then. Destitute, facing a bleak future, we took refuge in France. Eight years later, hoping the soil of “L’Amerique” would be better suited to a happier life and proud owner of a single suitcase, I moved to the United States. There, I studied commercial art at the Art Institute of Boston and worked in Filene’s art department.
Later, I met my husband. Together, we lived in Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Illinois (where I studied sculpting at The Art Institute of Chicago) and finally retired to South Carolina where I recently completed my memoir, SIROCCO.
On her facebook site, two portraits of the same vintage as the official author portrait suggest that there are more Danielle Dahls than the woman in that rather dour photograph.
Danielle Dahl grew up in and grew away from the war-torn Algeria of the 1950’s.
The great strength of this moving, often frightening, memoir is in its careful weaving of the details of the daily life of a family with those of the Algerian war going on around them. As they try to maintain something resembling normalcy in this dramatically abnormal situation, we are reminded again that what matters, after all, are those individual lives, those family relationships, even those clashes that often seem unimportant against the backdrop of nations clashing and lives being lost.
Sirocco: A French Girl Comes of Age in War-Torn Algeria–a story all too real with the details of a family living in and, ultimately, escaping a nation at war– moves toward its finish with a dream from which Danielle wakes, sensing herself as “unfathomable silence lost in a petrified abyss of primary colors ….”
That dream, so seemingly out of place in this terrible landscape of reality, is the embodiment of a reality that has become, for the author, both “dream” and “nightmare” as the family makes final, surreal preparations for their “journey into exile.”
“In spite of the previous month’s spring cleaning, Ma decided we must give our home the proverbial “coup de balai”—the sweeping one gives to a house, which also referred to the resolution of pending matters before starting anew.
We moaned and groaned but picked up brooms and rags.
‘But Ma,’ Zizou argued, ‘We already cleaned the house. Why do it again, when we are not going to live here anymore?’
‘Oui,’ Yves said, ‘why should we clean for the guys who are going to steal our house from us?’
‘We don’t want strangers to see our dirt.’
I almost laughed at my mother’s absurd assertion, but her dignified stance sealed my lips.”
At the end, she watches a reality pared down to fragments, waiting for the writer that young girl has become to “spin a whole story” from them. We no longer wonder, with her,
“How they managed to whisk me away to unknown places, introduce me to extraordinary characters, and coax me into becoming one of them. By what sleight of words did they move me to laugh, cry, hope, and despair?”
Danielle Dahl has beyond any doubt become “one of them.”
“My brain snapped shots of inconsequential details—a couple holding hands, an old man’s careful steps, a suckling newborn, children chasing each other in a game of catch ….
In a daze, I lost all sense of time as family groups gathered on the hot tarmac—piles of sand waiting for Sirocco to scatter them across the globe.”
283 Market St, Seneca, SC
Also available online at Amazon.com
BN.com and in multiple eBook formats
from most major retailers
Contact Danielle A. Dahl through
dadahl.com-The Official Website