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On Writing Memoir

Memoir is a subset of autobiography. Where an autobiography usually discusses the broader scope of an entire life, a memoir examines one portion of a life, often in a fairly specific context (i.e. the years spent as a young Marine in the Korean War, or life as a young upper-middle class mother in Reagan’s America).

William Zissner calls memoir, “A careful act of literary reconstruction.” What does this mean? It means that you are not simply recounting an experience. You are shaping the story you tell, crafting it, deciding what to tell and how.

Memoir is reductive.

The writer has to be discerning about the most potent things to include and ruthless about the many things to exclude. One of the hardest things to do is remove the details you recall, to which you are emotionally attached, but which don’t serve the arc of your memoir.

William Zinsser says to think small. “Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.”

In other words, look for those telling moments which somehow, almost magically, crystallize the meaning of the larger life.

In order to write memoir, you have to set aside the assumption or belief that you understand your own life. The process of writing memoir is about your own discovery of new ways to see old experiences. It’s about slowly recognizing a thread or pattern in events or behaviors that you didn’t see before. It’s about understanding the symbolism of your own life.

Know in advance that this is going to hurt. If you are opening up your own heart and mind and searching for the most authentic experiences, you have to remain honest. You have to examine your own areas of avoidance, your own areas of denial. Otherwise, the writing will reek of what Tennessee Williams called “mendacity” – a dishonesty that will render your effort worth very little.

Memoir is not journalism. The tone cannot be objective or removed. There can be no distance between the voice and the experience, but here is where things can get confusing. Neither can there be a telling of an experience too immediate, too raw, too fresh. Why? Because it doesn’t allow time for reflection, for introspection, for the kind of synthesis of experience and understanding that only comes with time. So the melding of voice and experience has to come through the wisdom gained in the passage of time.

What about “privacy,” either your own or that of others you include in your memoir? Worries about offending others can cloud your ability to write truthfully. The best thing to do is to put that concern aside and write as honestly as you possibly can. Write as if no one but you will ever see the manuscript. Then, when it is in finished form, if you intend to publish the manuscript and offer the memoir to a wider public, you might want to consider showing those mentioned the pages in which they appear, as a courtesy. But be prepared. They might ask you to remove or change certain passages; it is your decision alone whether to do so or not. It’s your story, after all. The thing about memoir is that it’s based on your best possible memory; but there are many possible versions of “truth” in a shared past. Be true to your own most honest memories. This is especially important if you are writing about those who are no longer alive.  People sometimes feel guilty, struggle with a sense of betrayal about the story they tell.  Sometimes there is a kind of tribal prohibition against revealing certain dysfunctional parts of family’s history.  Be honest with yourself about these obstacles. If you aren’t strong enough to do write memoir honestly, don’t write memoir.

Another challenge is for you to write with your senses. Drawing from your memories, it is sometimes a bit difficult to remember fully through what Sanford Meisner would call “sense memory”. For instance, you might remember a particular moment in your childhood – let’s say a terrible family argument when you were only eight years old. You might remember the people involved, where they were in the room, the words they screamed at each other. But you may not remember the color of the blouse your mother wore, or the smells of dinner burning in the kitchen. You might not remember that there was a television playing in the next room, or that the sound of rain on the roof thundered as loudly as your grandfather’s voice.

It’s your job, when writing memoir, to keep digging and searching your sense memory until some of those more deeply buried recollections are unearthed. Why do they matter? Because the more fully recreate the scene you are describing. The reader will be able to smell the burning meatloaf, or hear the static of an old radio, feel the crack of lightning outside as the family thunders at each other indoors. Sensory detail enriches the story being told, and serves to create a more memorable experience for the reader.

Memoir is all about retrieval and discernment. It is about revisiting a specific time and seeing it again, through new eyes, seeing yourself through new eyes. It’s a journey of discovery, and often one of healing. It takes willingness, bravery and the desire to mine for your deepest truths.

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4 comments on “On Writing Memoir

  1. I workshopped a couple of my memoir chapters two summers ago and was told I needed to write more of “me.” For me, this has been the most challenging aspect as I continue to write it. Lots of good advice in this post, especially the requsite distance between the experience and the writing of it. Jane

    • You’re right, Jane, that finding yourself in the experience is the most difficult part. By that I mean, finding the deepest part of you in the experience — what it meant on the deepest level. That takes distance and perspective, which is most easily reached through time and patience. It’s great practice, though, for life in general, isn’t it?

  2. I think authenticity and vulnerability draw readers. As a reader of memoir, an author who is expressing his/her unique voice without barriers is what draws me. As a memoir writer, I’ve found that memoir can’t be rushed. It takes time to work through the emotions and to define the lesson learned, to find my voice and to stand proud of who I am with the hopes of empowering my readers. Great post!

    • Thanks, Grace. Memoir is a great kind of mindfulness practice, I think. If we can gently move the small “self” aside, and try to see the bigger picture of what we are writing, it develops that kind of mindfulness in daily life. Hidden River is an inter-disciplinary arts organization, and we have an independent small press. One of our most recent titles is a memoir by DeWitt Henry, the Founding Editor of Ploughshares in Boston, called SWEET DREAMS: A Family History. I worked with DeWitt on the final edit of the book, and was so aware of the kind of vision that it required, not only to write this book, but to edit it. Memoir is so personal, and so fragile a genre.

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