Most of the time, I stick to writing tips about fiction. But since I’m giving a talk about memoir writing this week, it’s what’s on my mind. Writing about your life is popular but even if you don’t plan on doing any memoir writing, its techniques can be useful to fiction and nonfiction writers alike.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some writing tips for memoir writers?
As in fiction, memoirs tend to fall into a few basic categories. There’s the SURVIVAL memoir story—the writer either overcomes something difficult or survives against the odds. Examples are Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Surviving or overcoming serious illnesses like cancer; surviving abuse, war or slavery; overcoming disability or persecution defines this type of story. A second type is the SIGFNICANCE story, where an unknown writer brings a fresh perspective, a unique point of view or eloquently describes a mundane event in a poetic or metaphorical way. A Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr all tell of events that many people live, but tell them in such an insightful way that we see those events as never before. Last, there’s the TALENT memoir—where celebrities of the arts, politics or other arenas tell their stories and readers clamor to know the inner workings of accomplished, notorious or fascinating public figures. Examples: Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Stephen King’s On Writing and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. All these types can cross boundaries within the categories, but provide a general contract with readers as to what kind of story they’re getting.
Telling the Truth
No matter what you write, truth is important. Even if you make up stories for novels, what you write must ring true to readers. If your story is about going to China, you had better not do a little online or library research and pass off your experience as physically traveling to China. Faking it might fool some readers, but most will have a sense that something’s not right. In memoir, the endless debates on what constitutes truth continues, but in general if you change minor details or dialogue that doesn’t matter to the story as a whole, you’ll probably be OK. But if you fabricate the entire experience, you’ll be in trouble. I’ve often put it this way: If you write that you went to Woodstock with your boyfriend and you threw up on him during Country Joe’s song, but in truth you went with your kid brother and you threw up during Hendrix not Country Joe, you might get a mild rebuke. But If you write that stuff and you NEVER WENT TO WOODSTOCK AT ALL, you’ve crossed the line. If you are found out, readers won’t trust you anymore. In all writing, and especially memoir, be as truthful as possible, but don’t sweat stuff that doesn’t change the story much. Be relentless about locating the best facts and evidence as possible, but in memoir you’re allowed to say, “This is how I remember it.”
Facing Inner Enemies
Many of my memoir students come to class and want to write about events that are sensational. They survived cancer, car wrecks, all kinds of calamities. Generally, these students believe that they must have lived through a disaster, a fire, an earthquake, the Holocaust, to gain the right to write of their life. To a certain extent it’s true—if you’re nobody, it might take a calamitous event to give you 15 minutes of fame on the news. Yet if you hone your craft and find your writer’s voice, a “nobody” can write the most compelling memoir. If your ordinary life is highlighted by original, poetic or honest writing about the inner demons we all face, readers can and will identify. Yes, you will need refined writing skills. You will be forced to examine your life in ways and emotions that go far beyond the facile or accepted explanation. You will be required to rewrite, rethink, even re-live parts of your life that you’d rather ignore. This will probably be painful and difficult, and you may face countless revisions, rejections and resistance from family members to agents to editors. Yet if you are up to the challenge, a memoir about an ordinary person doing the extraordinary work of self-examination—without veering off into bitterness or self-pity—can be one of the most rewarding efforts of all. So even if you’d rather stick to fiction, keep it real, tell the truth and don’t be afraid of scrutinizing your life. It’ll make you a better writer, and with any luck, readers will connect with you in a wonderful way.
If you’re in the Willamette Valley, come hear me talk about memoir on Thursday November 2, 2017 at Tsunami Books at 7PM.