A smart approach to memoir
A writer who's been there offers some tips and key questions to ask yourself at the start
Published: May 3, 2011
|“Memoir is your memory telling you about your past,” Tobias Wolff once wrote. As writers who have a story, who pay attention to the details of memory, we may desire to chronicle our past in a way that grabs readers by the throat. But how? Where do we start? |
For step 1, I’ll rely on an excellent guest post on my publishing blog by Larry Wilson, former editorial director for Wesleyan Publishing House. Over the years hundreds of people wanting to publish a memoir have queried him. His typical response? Memoir is hard to sell. Although writers could counter with titles that had sold well—Eat, Pray, Love for one, and even Startling Beauty, the bestselling memoir by Larry’s wife, Heather Gemmen Wilson—personal stories face an uphill battle in finding a publishing home. So Wilson urges writers to ask themselves five questions before embarking on a memoir.
1. Grab a pen and jot down your answers to these questions.
How famous are you? You don’t need to write down how many Facebook friends you have. But what is your circle of influence? If you’re famous, your memoir automatically has a foot in the door. If not, it’ll be the uniqueness of your story that must pull the weight.
How unique is your personal experience? “Tragic and unique are not the same thing,” Wilson writes. “A great many people have been divorced, lost a mom to cancer, or survived sexual abuse. Those experiences alone are not sufficient to make a memoir successful.”
Your job is to look at your past, or an experience, and see how it is different. What was unique about my memoir Thin Places was the scope of my experience as a neglected, sexually abused young girl, and the memories it left me.
How page-turning is your story? Many writers make the mistake of stringing stories together, the memories unlinked, as they recount the past. While this is terrific if you’d like to provide your loved ones a chronicle of your life, it makes poor memoir writing. Put your novelist’s hat on. A great story has an inciting incident, rising action, conflict, obstacles, a climax, a denouement.
Have others told you you’re a gifted writer? What will stand out to an editor across the email transom is your ability to communicate in the written word. Have people in the industry noticed your ability to tell a good story? Besides your mother and your best friend, have others commented on your writing prowess? If not, it may be time to hone your skills or apprentice yourself in a critique group.
Another option: Hire a skilled writer to tell your story. I had the privilege of ghostwriting Someone’s Son, by Brenda Rhodes, a compelling story about a mother and her journey alongside her AIDS-afflicted, drug-addicted son.
What’s the why behind the book? Are you writing it simply for catharsis? Or to punish those who have wronged you? To help others? To chronicle your experience for loved ones? To illuminate the human condition? The why must be answered before you go any further.
2. Give yourself permission to write the truth. I love what Anne Lamott says in her writing classic, Bird by Bird: “Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act. Truth is always subversive.” But so many of us are afraid to tell the truth. Why?
When I teach writers about memoir writing, inevitably someone raises a hand and says, “I’ll write my memoir, but only after so-and-so is dead.” While it is necessary to weigh how our words will affect our family and friends, it’s also important to consider the benefit you may be providing your readers with your honesty. You must weigh the risks of each. Sometimes that involves talking to those who may be affected. Or bouncing your ideas off a trusted friend. Ultimately, this is your book, and it’s your decision to write your story.
If you’re writing scared, as if someone is standing over your shoulder with a frown saying “tsk, tsk, tsk,” your memoir will suffer. Great memoirs are full of details, emotions, sensory experience. If you’re afraid, that fear will produce anemic, one-dimensional prose. Reading a memoir like that is like listening to a speaker you want desperately to be eloquent, but is not. It’s awkward, painful.
So Step 2 involves a simple declaration. Put it by your computer if you must: I hereby give myself permission to write it all—the sweetness, the darkness, the struggle, the victory. It is my story, and I will tell it as honestly as I can.
Realize that your story can’t be 100 percent accurate, because your perceptions may differ from another’s. That’s OK. Write what you know to be true without fear of others’ opinions. You can always pull back the reins later in the editing process.
3. Write from a position of healing. Don’t view your memoir as your personal-catharsis exercise, miring the reader in your issues. When writers approach me with memoir ideas, usually they’re simply too close to their situations to have proper editorial distance.
Once, a woman who had experienced a devastating divorce only six months before approached me. “I’ve learned so much, and I know I need to tell others what I’ve learned. I want to write a memoir,” she said. Her heart’s wish to help others was admirable, but I knew she was still enmeshed in the situation. Her emotions bled raw. Even if she wanted to be objective and possibly instructive, she could not be.
You must let the past percolate. For your sake and readers’, find a way to heal before you write your book. Part of healing may involve writing. And, perhaps, that verbal catharsis may help in the future as you frame your book. But see it for what it is: words on the page whose purpose is to help you process.
How will you know if your words represent health and healing? Through others. Your assignment: Take three pages from your memoir (or future memoir) and give them to an acquaintance (not a close friend or relative; it must be someone fairly objective). Don’t ask for editorial direction; simply ask him or her to read your words. When finished, dare to ask three questions:
• How do you feel after reading this?
• What is the tone of the piece? Anger? Sadness? Settledness? Peace?
• Does this compel you to want to read more? Why or why not?
Writing a memoir is a highly personal experience. You bring yourself to the work—your soul, your hopes, your failures. Be sure as you pen your story that you allow for setbacks, writer’s block and rest. Realize that your story may help another person in life’s journey. As the literary critic Alfred Kazin observed, “One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, and in others’ minds.” Take that task seriously.
• Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. She's a snarky, intelligent, witty, truth-telling memoirist who helps you think through your writing. Any Lamott memoir is instructive, but this one, focused on writing, is amazingly so.
• A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned by Editing My Own Life by Donald Miller. Miller's meandering, hilarious storytelling style is doubly fun because he expounds on story structure and the heroic journey.
• National Association for Memoir Writers (namw.org). Full of great tips, resources, teleseminars and blog posts.
Try departing from chronology: Most people tell their stories in chronological order. Why not brainstorm new ways to structure your memoir? Maybe make it present to past. Or use a memory that weaves its way through various episodes of your life. Or try a strategic leap from one memory to another. Or capture a memory related to a period of history. Answer this: How would trying something other than chronology change the face and feel of your memoir?
Write a letter to the person most affected by your memoir: Detail the contents of your memoir for the person it may affect the most. Share your fears about the person knowing your story is in print. Permit yourself to say what bothers you, how worried you may be. Vent, if you need to. Don’t send the letter; just write it.
Experiment with tense: If you’ve written your memoir in past tense, take one page and rewrite it in present tense. If you’ve written in present, rewrite a scene in past tense. Which tense tells the story better, or most engages the reader? Let your critique group decide.
Freewrite: If you’re having problems with a pesky memory you can’t seem to get just right, freewrite it. Give yourself five minutes only, reminding yourself to detail what you see, smell, taste, feel and hear. Don’t take your pen off the page (it’s better to write this than type it) until the five minutes are up.
Mary DeMuth is an author and book mentor who helps others turn trials into triumphs. The author of 10 books, including her memoir Thin Places, she lives with her husband and three children in Texas. Web: marydemuth.com.||