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Jan. 25 2010 - 9:08 am | 163 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...

A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.

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  1. collapse expand

    I always liked Henry Miller on memory: “I remember too much. I remember everything. But like a dummy, sitting on a ventriloquist’s lap.”

  2. collapse expand

    Caitlln, I just hope that when you write about our relationship, you’ll be kind.

  3. collapse expand

    It’s the best one, Lewis…as yet un-begun!

  4. collapse expand

    I just finished taking a class on mastering Point of View, which among many other things, determines the “voice” of a piece. One of the most useful things our teacher told us was to think about who the narrator is telling the story to.

    For instance, in memoir, the narrator (who, as you note, is not exactly you, but a kind of character) might be telling the story as she would to a good girl friend. This is the kind of intimate and friendly tone that Elizabeth Gilbert takes. Or maybe you might imagine telling the story to an old professor that you love and respect, or whomever might be appropriate to receive the story you want to tell.

    I’ve found this helps me to maintain a consistent and engaging voice, and not to sound too portentous or like I’m writing for posterity.

  5. collapse expand

    becklyy, the challenge for me — quite different from blogging and from writing for magazines and newspapers is that with blogging, I can just be me; with print, I speak to the audience I know the publication has already; i.e. the NYT isn’t Glamour isn’t Smithsonian. With a book, your reader could be anyone, and you hope to attract thousands of them.

    I agree, though, that portentous is dull and not the way to go. I typically write in a conversational tone and that’s how I’m writing the book. My voice is my voice No point trying to be(come) someone I’m not.

    The challenge, for any writer, is to find the confidence your story is worth telling and your voice one people want to listen to.

  6. collapse expand

    Caitlin, have you ever read “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative ” by VIvian Gornick? It’s an excellent primer on the personal essay, and deals with a lot of issues similar to the ones you bring up here.

  7. collapse expand

    I haven’t. I’ve written, and published, many personal essays, so that isn’t the challenge as much as an extended narrative. But I like her writing and will look for it. Thanks!

  8. collapse expand

    Thanks, Joseph. Each memoir is so different, and that’s also part of the challenge.

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    About Me

    Former reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor) about -- what else -- my divorce. I've been writing frequently for The New York Times since 1990 on almost any subject you can think of -- yup, I'm a generalist. Author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books 2004). Canadian born, raised and formally educated, I've lived in New York since 1989.

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    I’m writing my second book, a memoir for Portfolio/Penguin, of working retail in a suburban mall for more than two years. My 11 Reporting Tips from daily newspaper veterans appears in the May issue of The Writer magazine.

    I also coach fellow writers and edit their work.