Should I Write a Memoir?

memoir

memoir

Should I Write a Memoir?

So, we’ve dealt with Can I Write My Memoirs? Answer: Yes. Should you write a memoir? Completely different question. Obviously, only you can decide whether or not you should, but here are some thoughts you might factor into your decision.

Benefits of writing your memoir

Personal/family benefit: My older sister died not long ago and as I was going through her family pictures, I found one of my grandfather. For succeeding generations, it will be the picture of an old geezer who was related to them. And although I didn’t know a lot about him, I did know that he and my grandmother had come to Canada from Japan in 1917; that he was a lovely man but an alcoholic; that the family was very poor because of that. So, I could give the picture some meaning by recording my memories of him. I think a memoir does the same thing—it leaves behind a record of who you were and who others were for the benefit of those who come behind you.

Making sense of your life: I have repeatedly found that having to write something down forces me to think more deeply about it then when it is just swirling around in my head. I think you will find the same. Writing your story helps to focus the mind, allows you to make connections which might not have been evident before, and encourages you to reflect on the events.

When not to

Maybe that’s too strong. But there are times when you might want to pause.

When the primary reason is revenge. I realize that few of us like to admit this, but do thoughts like, “That’ll really show him,” or “She’ll never live it down,” flit through your mind as you think about doing it? If so, you might want to consider whether a memoir is the best way to accomplish this.

To tell your side of the story. Might seem a reasonable reason but, as in fiction, a good memoir allows the reader to come to her own conclusions about your story. If your primary reason for writing a memoir is the need to drive a point home or justify yourself, this can read as self-serving or even egotistical.

Frankly, I’m not putting these up as caveats from some moral high ground. I’m saying that either of these doesn’t bode well for a good memoir.  Think about a time when you were trapped listening to someone focused on revenge or self-justification. Besides being monologue-ish, the ‘conversation’ often ends up sounding whiny, repetitive, petty, self-absorbed and ultimately, boring. Same thing with memoirs. The fact that lots of famous people use memoirs this way doesn’t mean it creates a compelling and believable narrative.

Who is your audience?

Part of your decision whether to write a memoir should include your intended audience. If this is primarily for circulation in your family, it is probably less an issue than if you intend to publish it. I’m not saying that writing only for your family won’t stir up issues, because it well might, but publishing it throws it into the public arena. You need to decide whether your memoir needs to be widely or more narrowly circulated.

So, as I’ve said, only you can decide whether to write a memoir. I think it is a valuable contribution to your family but it also takes time and a little courage. More about the latter in an upcoming post.

Can I Write My Memoirs?

memoirs

memoirs

Can I Write My Memoirs?

Yes.

I suppose you’d like a little more meat on that bone.

Well, I think everyone can write a memoir.

You’ve got memories, you can write your memoirs. However, I accept that this bald statement, stirring though it is, might not be enough to attack the computer with zeal. There are often some lurking questions.

Do I have anything to say?

Every life is unique. Only you have had your experiences which you have coupled with your unique learnings which have culminated in a life nobody else has lived. For example, your first family was unique. You may think, “Nah, I had two other brothers—so they grew up the same way.” But not true.

Were you the oldest or the youngest? If the oldest, did you feel the pressure of being a model for your younger siblings? Are you the one your parents made all the mistakes on? Did you resent that they were more relaxed about discipline and expectations with the other two than they were with you? If you were the youngest, did you get babied? Was that good or bad for later life? Did you envy the attention your oldest brother always got? And middle children—don’t get me started. So even siblings in the same family environment experience it differently.

Another lurking issue might be ‘ah, it’s all been said and written before.’ True to some extent but as I mentioned in my post, Finding Your Distinctive Voice, the famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut believed that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

Do I have the talent to write my memoirs?

Well, if you think you need to be Shakespeare, then probably not. But if you are hoping for memoirs which are engaging and meaningful then, again and by and large, yes.

However, one thing contributes greatly to an evocative and real story. Honesty. Honesty with yourself and your audience. This means presenting things as they were, not as you would have wanted them to be or even how you want people to remember you. Your readers are smart cookies and they are likely to catch significant revisionist history. If they do, your memoirs don’t ring true and will therefore be less interesting.

Do I have the skill?

You may assume that if you are a fabulous story teller, you have the skills you need. Or conversely, if you’re not, then you can’t write your memoirs. Actually, neither is necessarily true.

Writing down who you are requires a different set of skills. When you tell a story in person, you have your voice, gestures, and physical presence to help. In writing, you have none of these and therefore have a find ways to nevertheless make your story appealing.

So, you need to acquire some writing craft. A bit of work but completely doable. Learning some writing practices is what this blog is all about. If you follow the blog, you will be able to develop the skills needed.

I am planning to do a series of posts on memoir writing which will appear sporadically. I think I will do one more. My next post is Should I Write a Memoir? Completely different issue.

Everything I Write Is Junk!

junk

Everything I Write is Junk!

I think writers come in two flavors: one assumes everything they write is worthy of publication and; the other is convinced that what they write is junk worthy only of being deleted.

The latter flavor is the subject of this post and the former is in a following post called Deathless Prose.

Destructive self-talk

I get it.  The voice in the back of your head is telling you, Why are you bothering to write? You really think you can turn out anything good? Who wants to read this anyhow? Been there, done that. What’s worse is that, in that moment, it feels like an eternal truth whose force will never diminish.

Worst of all, if you succumb to The Voice, it’s less likely you’ll continue to write. And a fresh and unique voice will be lost.  (I know your Voice is saying, Fresh? Unique? Who is she kidding? Ignore and keep reading.)

Well, good news. First, you’re not alone. Many, if not most, writers experience this at one time or another. Second, my observation is that this state tends to be more common with new writers. Not always, of course, since it can also be a manifestation of writer’s block, but often. And that’s good news because if you keep writing—which is what you want to do anyhow—the feeling will fade.

Having said that, however, it’s a difficult period and the following might help.

Strategies to combat believing your writing is junk

No money back guarantee but one or more of these might help.

Difference between craft and worthless. If Your Voice is like mine, it takes a pretty blanket approach. Not only will you never get better but it applies to all aspects of your writing.

But in fact, that isn’t true.  Writing consists of both creativity and craft (e.g. building tension, developing compelling characters, creating a continuous dream). So, especially if you are beginning, your ideas may be great but you need more practice on the craft side to get the ideas across effectively. All of which is learnable. Time-consuming but doable.

Launch many expendable pieces. You need to pour your heart and soul into this piece while holding the idea that it may or may not ever see the light of day. Not because it’s worthless, but because writing is about experimenting and not all experiments are going to work. So, be both committed to the writing and more relaxed about its eventual fate.

Reread later. If The Voice is being particularly insistent, put the piece aside for a bit—a week or so—and then read it again. Odds are, it’s got some real potential which you weren’t able to recognize because It was screaming in your head.

Ignore the evil demon. If all else fails, just ignore The Voice. Try a Scarlett O’Hara and promise to think about It another day. Just keep writing. And remember that it will probably go away eventually. Okay, may come back at some point as writer’s block, but at least it will stop being your constant companion. You can wait it out.

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

reading

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?

Yes

Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are you?

Quality Versus Quantity

quality

Quality Versus Quantity

Vey broadly, writers seem to fall into two categories in the initial creative process. Ones who emphasize quality in their first drafts and others quantity. Writers who aim for quality agonize over every word so it is perfect before they can write the next.

But me, I’m a quantity gal. Get a lot down as fast as you can and then fix it up later.

I’d like to discuss both approaches. However, since I am firmly in the quantity camp, you need to take my opinions with a grain of salt when required.

Quality first?

I think of writers who linger over every word to create are often focused on the beauty of the language or the completely apt word or phrase to capture the moment. Plot and even characters might take secondary place.

Not surprisingly, their output can be quite limited. But can work. A great example is Alistair MacLeod who wrote only one novel in his lifetime, No Great Mischief, and a series of very well-regarded long short stories. All of which were highly acclaimed.

I suppose another good thing is that you cut down on editing of the final draft. It is a jewel at the end rather that a hodgepodge of potential.

But I have to say, I find this approach (OPINION) a little constipating. I can imagine getting discouraged by the slow progress which can be plagued with disheartening doubts. And being thrown off by the lack of the right word so that advancement is impossible.

Quantity first

A quantity first approach can be useful for stories which are primarily plot or character driven. That is, you write what’s been burgeoning in your head—scenes, characters, bits of action—whatever comes up. If the right word doesn’t occur immediately, then stick in a synonym and search for the perfect one in the editing. If you have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve changed a key character’s name half-way through, ignore and continue writing.

I much prefer this approach as I think it frees up your mind to take you to unimagined nooks and crannies that might never have occurred with a more measured approach.

The downside is the editing phase can be as lengthy as the initial creation. It will require a lot of rewriting, rejiggering, remolding of plot lines or characters. And most importantly, you need to be able to toss a lot of the original work because a piece no longer works for the story, makes a duplicate point, or takes a twist that seems to move the novel in the wrong direction.

Not one or the other

Like all dichotomies, it’s not either/or. It is just a tendency you’ve developed. Mostly, however, I’d encourage you to try to lean your propensity to serve the type of novel you’re writing. A plot or character driven story written flawless word by flawless word is likely to lack the energy of one written as fast as it comes to you. A novel focused primarily on language probably isn’t going to be served by whatever—it’s the wrong word—but just keep going.

Whatever is in service of the novel.