Nearly twenty-five years ago, I happened upon a short blurb about a book in the Quality Paperback Book Club newsletter. That’s going to be a hit! I thought, so I ordered a copy, read it, and watched the world of story roll over in front […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
Many of you have begun your memoir. Many of you are almost done with your memoir. And some of you are still thinking about it and writing it in your head. Here are three strategies for the Return to School spirit you feel in September […]
We live in a time of intense political debate. Siloed in our separate value and belief systems we find it hard to talk with strangers because we do not know what they believe, so we side-step controversy and avoid topics that might upset them.
But should it be that way in a memoir? Should we skirt the issues of the day, or dive right in?
This itself may be a topic that sets readers’ teeth gnashing.
However, I wade right in.
I believe that memoir is one of the last bastions of artistic endeavor where you have the opportunity to speak truth—about your life, feelings, ideas, opinions, and wishes for the world—via personal experience. The art of memoir is learning to do that with grace. And yes, I know that even with grace you can (inadvertently) stomp on toes. You simply can’t please everyone, nor should you try.
Again, memoir is a place to find your truth and to trumpet it with as much honesty, balance, and compassion as you can muster.
So, my take on this thorny issue is: Speak up. Explain yourself. Own your heart and beliefs, but be able and willing to explore the complexity of the issues you include in your story. That means doing deep thinking and research. Arm yourself with facts to accompany your story of personal experience.
Perhaps you are writing about income inequality based on a series of jobs you have held that barely allow you to make ends meet; don’t just rail against those you believe are guilty of making your life the way it is, but back your experience with information about how economic conditions get to be the way they are. (For an example, see the now classic Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.)
Or, if your experience is one of the immigrant, and you are feeling frightened in these current times, and you want to detail your journey, then do that. And spend time looking into the complicated processes that lead countries and cultures to become the way they are—the country you have left and the country that is your new home. Paint your experiences, but educate people, too.
A memoir that pivots on a topic and weaves personal experience with facts is stronger than one that does not, and frankly, bridges into a cousin form of writing that can command more attention in the marketplace than memoir can, which is narrative nonfiction, a form in which you use personal experience to build the arc of your story, but you use research to compose a deeper tale that illuminates the facts of the issue at the heart of your story.
And, contrary to a lot of press these days, there are actually verifiable facts. Learning how to find them and use them adds weight to your story of personal experience in the cauldron of the today’s fiery social issues.
When you sit down to write a memoir you may wonder how long it’s going to take to finish the thing. The fact it, there’s no standard time frame. I have encountered several writers who say they worked for fifteen years to get it right—to […]
Sometimes the story we begin writing outgrows the boundaries of memoir and branches away from the task of reconstructing real people and lived events and leaps imaginatively into invention—first, invention of little this’s and that’s, and then (oops!) into the invention of bigger this’s and […]
Concerns about hurting family and friends are some of the most worrisome for memoirists. My advice? Quit obsessing about it and get on with the writing. Plenty of would-be memoirists have stopped themselves before even getting started, due to such concerns, and many who have made it past the starting line, never finish their memoir because they freak out part of the way through and quit.
Worrying about the impact of your memoir on family and friends before you even have a manuscript written is the most sophisticated procrastination technique writers of personal stories have ever come up with. It’s the magic ticket to inaction.
Now before you think I’m a heartless jerk for saying so, stop and think about it: if you can spend all your creative energy worrying about your words, you don’t have to actually write! Focusing on the possibility of how your theoretical assessments might affect others, keeps you from: 1) doing the demanding personal work of excavating those assessments (the truth of your life); and 2) doing the demanding work of learning how to write a memoir.
Instead, you can spend the rest of your days in the land of I’m-Thinking-About-Writing-A-Memoir, and many hopeful writers do just that. Or, you may go the route of sugarcoating everything, ensuring (you think) everyone’s feelings and hiding your own. Why even write a memoir then?
The fact is, people feel the way they choose to feel. You can’t do much about that. Even when writers do their darnedest to couch everything pleasantly—to paint Great Aunt Minnie as a world-class philanthropist (when she is actually a miserly elder)—your loved ones aren’t going to like your characterizations. They will find something to get their backs up about. This is the way people behave when they find themselves revealed in stories. Period.
You simply have to tell your story, remembering with each step of the process the art of balance—that technique of moderating strong emotions with a generous view of people and events—and let the future fall as it does.
As an editor, it’s the “Oh.” syndrome when I see writers of memoir place more importance on the feelings of family and friends than on the transformative process of digging in and getting to the meaning of their experiences, and finding compassionate ways to tell their truths—which is the real work of memoir.
Any kind of writing is hard work, and good writing is extremely hard work, which involves both art and craft. The writer’s focus should be on learning both, and for the memoirist also on the mining of meaning behind human experience and emotion, not on worrying about others’ unpredictable behavior.
Remember, if you are in the process of writing a memoir, or you haven’t even begun, and you are obsessing over the possible reactions of your family and friends, you are most likely:
1) procrastinating about the work of writing;
2) failing to understand the form of memoir and the craft involved;
3) ceding respect for yourself to the illusory power of controlling other people.
Don’t do it. Just dive in and write!
The biggest challenge facing today’s aspiring memoirist is little different than the biggest challenge facing the memoirist of twenty years ago when memoir underwent its contemporary resurgence: Distraction. The only thing that’s different is the form of distraction. Once it was television, videos, TiVO, DVDs—in […]
Once upon a time, people who loved stories read novels to find keys for living a good life, for answers to the thorny questions of being human, for understanding why people behave the way to do, or to gain greater awareness of the dark […]
Here we are in February, the time of year when we throw ourselves back into writing and asking fundamental questions: What is a memoir? How is it different from biography, and how are both related to that thing called narrative nonfiction?
Memoir is a story based on your life experience and what you have learned from it. It is a winnowing of all that has happened into a tight view of a slim section of experience: the coming of age years; the head-spinning start of a career; early motherhood. But always, it is a winnowing of the vast, complicated arc of events that has constituted your life. Narrow, narrow, narrow. Find one series of events that linked together explores some vulnerable and pressing universality of life.
Biography is all about you, too—and all is the correct word. This is where you get to write about where you were born, and what went on during your young years, leaving home, setting out to make your way in the world, love, relationship, work, loss—the whole canvas.
See how biography is different from memoir?
Of course we hope a biography will show us mistakes made and lessons learned—the vicissitudes that brought a woman to be who she is, pimples and all. We hope for some readers’ transformation as we witness the arc of that person’s life, but this is different from the expectations of the reader of memoir.
The reader of memoir dives in for the short version, the lens of the camera zooming in to show the close up of just the years from 6 to 18, or just that summer your husband died, or just the college years that led to a Rhodes Scholarship, or just the years when you, through sheer fortitude, worked your way out of poverty, of just those events that came together to make you the vocal activist you are today. Slim focus. And from that slim focus a nugget of wisdom.
Narrative nonfiction is a similar but slightly different beast. This is a form where you might write about yourself and your experience a good deal, but you will also be teaching us something about the world. Maybe it’s the world of a dwindling tribe of the last subsistence whalers in the world (“The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark, recently published by Little, Brown and Company), so that the story ends up being about the writer’s experience getting the story, and about the nonfiction information itself.
We could say narrative nonfiction is the wedding of journalism and memoir, and while you may not be a journalist, you can do the same thing with your story by finding a topic that is central to your manuscript and making it an equal and parallel part of the story you write about yourself. Here’s a book where a writer did just that: “Don’t Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip” (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which combined author Richard Ratay’s personal experiences with road trips, and the history of the American road trip from post-WWII to the 1970s.
See what I mean?
If you take the time to peruse the shelves of current nonfiction in your local book shop, you will see a lot of nonfiction with the author as player in the story. Why? Because we are a culture obsessed with the personal, the “I” of everything. Neither good, nor bad, just ‘tis. And so, many contemporary nonfiction books give us the writer as a character and that character’s experience. But, they also give us information: the biologist who writes about his early days in the Galapagos, and Charles Darwin; the violinist who writes about becoming first chair of an orchestra, and the violin; the dog lover who writes about her dogs, and the industry of dog shows—two parallel stories that dip into and weave around each other giving us something fresh.
The name narrative nonfiction tells you everything you need to know: narrative, which means a story, and nonfiction, which refers to a topic from our world.
Can you find your project in this spectrum? Doing so now in February will make your writing year more productive, and make you more savvy about the marketplace.
The answer is: No. No. And no. But some people do come to the process of writing to sort out life experience, and most people are less likely to do that when things are soaring than when they have hit a bump. Hence, the common […]