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 […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
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 […]
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 finalize a solid draft relating personal experience that is filled with universal truth and which tells a story.
Others whip something out in five or ten.
The trouble with memoir is that it’s written from personal experience, and our understanding of the things that have happened in our lives shifts over time as we grow and try to find meaning, and this meaning making shifts, too, with each new tool acquired with age—the tools of writing, self understanding, life experience, and deeper understanding of the people who have path with us. All these new tools and awarenesses influence the story we compose, and as the months and years pass, the story wiggles into a new form.
Writers with experience have a shorter time of it. They’re not fighting against all the basics of composition that a new writer must hurdle to get a draft on the page, and they are better at revision, but everyone struggles for long months to figure out what material to include, how to make it meaningful, and how to keep the pace moving so that a stranger would want to read the tale.
Very practiced writers could knock out a good first draft in a year if they had already thought about what they wanted to say—and stuck with it—and had little else to do in their life. (A rare situation!) And then they might spend months in revision and editing.
But this would be the rare writer who understood that the passage of time does shift understanding of events and yet she must commit to a vision and hold with it until the manuscript is complete. You might call this laying out a story plan and then following through with it even though some new major understanding might have arisen along the way. (These rare writers see that they may incorporate some small part of this new major understanding, but they will not allow it to completely shift the plan for the story.)
For most writers, though, the experience of writing a memoir goes more like this: you spend years figuring out what to include. Then you spend some more years figuring out what that chosen part of your your life means, and then more months carving an arc from it—creating a story line that shows the narrator changing (in some big or small way)—and then more time lining up the events in such a way that they have momentum and make the reader keep turning the pages. And that’s just a first draft!
So, what I suggest, if you really want to write a memoir, is plan on spending a handful of years on it, and if you really want to write a memoir that sells, plan on spending two handfuls of years on it—and getting some help along the way from an editor, teacher, or educational program with whatever aspects of the compositional process that are testing you, be it the basics of punctuation or your understanding of how to develop character or build a story line that goes some where.
Think of it as the apprenticeship. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t serve one.
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 […]
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 another era, radio, perhaps for the aspiring writer. Name your poison. There’s always some vice vying for your attention. Now, it’s the smart phone and social media—the constant distraction and ability of that combo to lead you away from fine writing and original thinking.
In basic writing terms, we’re talking about the ever-present snarky tone of voice rampant throughout the internet, which can lead memoirists, and all writers for that matter, to think that snark is a catchy/cool, sustainable voice with which to garner an audience. I beg to differ, especially in memoir where it is essential that the voice of the narrator be authentic—and snark, while funny for one second, gets old quickly, and doesn’t convince readers they are in the presence of a thoughtful writer plumbing his or her personal depths for universal meaning—which is what readers of memoir, at root, are seeking.
But on top of that, there’s the challenge to overcome the appalling use of grammar, syntax, language, spelling—the
plethora of invented styles of writing on the internet that may include incorrect spellings, interminable run-on sentences, a complete lack of understanding of the role and use of punctuation. Really, if you want to be a serious memoirist today, you can’t write like that. You must learn the craft of writing—how vocabulary, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, and the art of story telling work. And you must practice these skills, so that you might manipulate them like a master. In a world of fast news, rampant opinion, and sloppy writing, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are actually traditions in writing and communication that exist for the simple idea of mass comprehension. These traditions must be learned by any aspiring memoirist.
In terms of message—your content—the challenge for the memoirist today is that you must disconnect long enough to figure out something original to say. Yes, knowing the trends and passions of the reading public can be helpful, but as a writer who wants to be published, you have to be centered in your singular truth. Copying the last retweeted idea isn’t going to cut it.
You, dear memoirist, have to find your ideas. Disconnect. Think independently. Feel your way into your thoughts. Figure out what things mean to you. Read widely. Be quiet. Allow the gift of alone time to teach you what is original. You can’t be quiet and thinking deeply with an electronic device in your pocket, hand, purse, car—you name it—pinging and ringing. Original thought does not come out of a smart phone.
Original thought for the memoirist comes out of a place of self reflection about complicated personal experience, and you can’t hear that original thought if you are in constant relationship with a device loaded with applications, the bulk of which exist to distract you from—for some—the frightening prospect of being alone with yourself.
The challenge is big for the memoirist today—everyone out there can write a memoir, and many of them are, and because of the shifts in publishing, everyone out there can publish that memoir. That doesn’t mean the memoir will be read. For the memoirist who actually wants an audience—outside family and friends—the task is to spurn distraction, listen for original thought, and having mastered the craft of writing, record that which is wholly your own.
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 […]
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 revelations in a lot of personal writing of deep and unconscious pain.
Memoir is not, however, therapy—although there are plenty of writers who segue from journaling for self-understanding into the belief that they are writing memoir. And while it’s true that the insights and feelings recorded in such pages might contain a seed of a memoir, it is most likely that the writing is not memoir.
All good memoir contains authentic truths about private experience and emotion. That’s why we read it—for the secrets. In these secrets, we find keys to our own locked doors. But all good memoir also does more than just reveal inner turmoil.
Whether you are writing about traveling the globe, healing a broken heart, or planting a garden of heirloom tomatoes and the joy associated with that loving task, you can build a memoir around this central activity and the emotions, insights, and personal questioning the activity elicits in you. But you can also teach the reader new information and new ways to see the world through your experience.
Anything you have done and felt passionately can be translated into prose with beauty of language and depth of meaning, but those memories will not necessarily be compelling memoir for today’s marketplace if there isn’t some trouble that develops in the tale, and this is where we encounter the bugaboo of deep and unconscious pain that can give memoir a bad reputation as the dumping ground for amorphous whining.
What I mean by trouble is conflict. Trouble is the heart of story. Without conflict there is no story. Story is the action of characters caught up in conflict and the process of overcoming that conflict.
In the current market, memoir is expected to present problems and show the narrator coming to terms with those problems. Quiet stories, as agents and editors will call them, about planting that garden of heirloom tomatoes and keeping rare species alive can be quite interesting, but unless such a narrative includes some trouble—an unexpected blight that threatens the plants and the livelihood of the grower—the story could be so quiet as to be unmarketable as a memoir.
The fact is: most contemporary readers are drawn to stories where there are problems and solutions, the more flamboyant, the more appealing for some. No matter the genre, it is drama—trouble, and what people do with that trouble—that piques readers’ interest and keeps them turning pages, and so with memoir we have the revelation of private experiences full of trouble in the pursuit of transformation.
If well written, this process of transforming personal trouble can translate into a universal experience for readers. Witness books like Wild, or Eat, Pray, Love, or farther back: Angela’s Ashes and The Liars’ Club. With memoir books like these, readers experience a convergence; they attain self-understanding through the personal revelations of the writer and that writer’s coming to terms—yes, with often deeply held unconscious pain. That is why outsiders can be heard lamenting the form: Sheesh! Is that all it’s about—deep and unconscious pain?
Well, no . . . but yes. Perhaps it would be more apt to say: Memoir is always about someone’s trouble and what they did with it.
You are in good company if you’re battling mid-story sag. Nearly all memoir writers hit a point where they ask: What is this thing about? Where did I think I was going with this story? The rush of insight and excitement that drove their […]