So you’ve always dreamed of writing a memoir. Where should you start, and how can you get a handle on the big and small turning points, traumas, and people that constitute your life?
Several subscribers to this blog are writing memoirs, and I want to help them get started (or finished).
Are You Confused?
Writing a memoir is not simple. The writing itself takes far longer than beginning writers think it will.
Let’s take a hypothetical. Imagine getting a letter with this message.
“You’re about to embark on the most intense four years of your life. Welcome to Med School!”–Best regards, Dean of the Medical College of Grenada
You would be taken aback. “Gosh, I don’t think I even applied!”
On the other hand, if you’ve had a secret hankering to become a doctor, you might welcome such a letter. You would swallow hard, adjust your expectations, and prepare for the long hours that developing medical competency will take.
Plowing through to the end of an 80,000- to 110,000-word manuscript can feel similarly daunting. It can take years to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. And, then, you’ll start on revisions. Before you produce a readable and engaging book, your manuscript may go through five, ten, twenty, or thirty revisions.
Writing A Memoir Takes Courage
The act of putting words on the page–words that are but a faint approximation of the lived experience–requires a huge amount of emotional investment on your part. You may have to live in a place of emotional pain every time you sit down at the computer. And, even when you give this story your best, you will believe you have failed to tell it as it should be told.
So much for the hors d’oeuvre. Now for the meat.
Here are five misconceptions about memoirs. Think about them when your work is in the formative stage, and you’ll save yourself some grief.
Myth #1: Recovering From Trauma
Can writing a memoir help you recover from trauma? Possibly, but not necessarily. I’m amazed when folks say, “Oh, you wrote about getting trapped in a mine shaft for 91 days. I guess writing about the experience helped you put it behind you.”
People, there is a huge, huge difference between journaling to “work through the problem” and writing a memoir. If you have stuff to work through, then write faithfully in your journal and hope you can expunge the trauma or loss.
However, ask any vet who has PTSD issues, and you’ll find that memories or experiences are not so easily expunged. From my reading in neuropsychology, I believe the best bet for recovery involves cognitive behavioral therapy, desensitization therapy (talking/reliving the experience until it has lost its power to wound), and hypnosis. (For more about PTSD, check out these resources at the Veterans Administration. Writing a memoir is not therapeutic.
What writing a memoir can do is help you find the deeper truths. It can give you the satisfaction of making art. As memoirist Annie Dillard wrote:
Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power?
Now, that’s a reason to write a memoir! Are you game?
Myth #2: Writing To Set The Record Straight
All of us feel aggrieved. We are disappointed that life hasn’t turned out the way we thought it would, that our good intentions go unrewarded, or that people who’ve done us an injustice get off scot free.
Those who have suffered childhood trauma–rape, incest, neglect, or abuse–may very well feel that the only way to sort out the lingering effects of that past is to wrestle it into submission via a memoir.
The problem is that any hint of victimhood will doom your book. If you come off as “someone to whom bad things happened,” readers will put the book down.
Life is hard enough for all of us. We want to know that it’s possible to survive, even in the direst circumstances. Readers want to be uplifted.
Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone, is an example of violence, trauma, and reinvention. The point is that Beah, though showing us the dark place, doesn’t leave us stranded.
Can your memoir show us the resilience that wells up from within the human spirit? Can it offer hope?
Myth #3: Having A Monopoly On The Truth
In geometry we might call Myth #3 a corollary to Myth #2.
One of the most fertile places to look for memoir material is childhood. That’s because children have greater access to their feelings. We haven’t yet learned to shut down or filter out what might be unacceptable if spoken aloud.
Another reason to tap into childhood is that our memories remain vivid with smells, sights, and “firsts” –dates, kisses, and defeats.
But the danger with using material from that portion of our pasts is that we may find ourselves mired in the “Little Matchgirl” (aka “The Poor Little Matchgirl”) syndrome. Read Hans Christian Andersen’s story here, and you’ll see what I mean.
Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, taps into a similar vein. It’s a tearjerker of a childhood in which humor leavens the pathos. What’s so wonderful about this book is that McCourt stands the cliche of victimization on its head. Here’s an excerpt:
When you write your memoir, you must set the bar high, both in terms of objective truth and of what I call “truth of intention.” Consider the other people in your story. Note that McCourt sees his alcoholic father and long-suffering mother as “characters” crushed by poverty, religion, colonialism, and tradition. He pities them.
Can you find it in your heart to forgive?
Myth #4: Writing the Whole Life, Not Just Part
The instant you embark on a memoir, you will discover one of its biggest myths–the illusion that the book must cover your whole life, not just part of it. You don’t have to emulate Frank McCourt, looking back on a long life. (If you’re young you haven’t lived it yet!) The easier path in this memoir-writing endeavor is to write about part of your life.
Pin the above visual above your writing desk. Narrow your focus. Find and read memoirs that start in medias res–in the middle of the action. Put readers there with you, and you’ll win their loyalty.
The excerpt below comes from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War. Wolff would rather show than tell. He allows us make up our own minds about Vietnam.
Myth #5: You Are Writing A Memoir Only For Family Members
My granddaughters are always bugging me to write about my life. “Grandma, you were a carpenter. That’s awesome!” Or “Grandma, you were a single mom. How did you do it?”
But, what they actually want, and what I would love to provide, is a document that will help them make up for the time we didn’t know each other. My young mommy years, when I made my kids eat five bites. And to take that back further, my teenage years, when the hormones raged and decades of either/or choices lay before me.
When we are young we have all the time in the world. And, yet, I know that if I penned even a short memoir about the days before cell phones and social media, my eager admirers would grow bored.
No one can bear to read a book that has no tension. A straight, chronological retelling of the past will bore readers and remind them of how they feel on a long plane flight with a seatmate who yammers in their ear.
If you want to write a memoir, learn from others who have written them.
Two Resources to Make Your Memoir a Success
Mary Karr has just published The Art of the Memoir. It’s a funny and thoughtful book that will give you the benefit of her wisdom. If you aspire to “become a writer,” read it. (Karr is the author of several bestselling memoirs, one of which is The Liar’s Club.)
Another resource you might explore is the National Association of Memoir Writers, founded by Linda Joy Myers, herself a memoirist and author of Don’t Call Me Mother. This site is especially good for beginning writers. NAMW’s podcasts contain a ton of information about writing memoirs and getting them published.
Writing a memoir can be a great way to share what life has taught you about the human condition. If you can find humor in the ordinary and compassion for those who’ve wronged you, you’re halfway to your goal.
I’d love to know whether you’ve attempted a memoir or whether you prefer fiction.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.