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.

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

history

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?

 

 

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

mailer

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.

Should I Publish My Memoirs?

publish

Should I Publish My Memoirs?

I won’t bother with a post about ‘Can I Publish My Memoirs’ because social media makes it possible for anyone to publish anything. Nope, it’s the ‘should’ that can be a sticking point.

It is completely understandable that having labored so prodigiously on writing your memoir, you want to share it. Makes perfect sense.

But whether to do so is still a question.

Who is your audience?

Is this memoir primarily a record of your part in your family’s history? That is, is the main intent to document a time or events you would like to pass on to family and friends? If so, then publishing to the wider world might not be imperative.

By all means put your memoir in a form that can be shared, but you may not need to publish on a wider platform.

If that still feels unsatisfying, ask yourself:

Why do I want to publish?

When I originally talked about whether you should write a memoir, I covered some of the reasons why you might or might not want to embark on this arduous journey. Now that you are on the other side of the mountain (yes, I know, mixed metaphors. I like them), they’re still useful to consider.

Reread the whole memoir from start to finish, as if you’ve never read it before. While doing so, ask yourself the following questions:

Does a sense of wanting revenge come across?

You probably didn’t start out that way, but think about whether the work has a tone of I’ve shown them or Take that! If there is a whiff here and there, I think you can rewrite those parts so they are more showing what happened than telling the reader how to feel about the events. However, if there is a strong odor of payback throughout, you might want to consider whether having written it down has gotten it out of your system, and just leave it on your hard drive.

Is there a feeling that you’ve gotten out your side of the story?

Of course, in some sense, that’s what a memoir is. You want to tell your story. I’m not really talking about that. It’s more the sense that you may have tilted the narrative so that you always come out on top. Little niggles that a certain event didn’t happen like that—a little revisionist history at play. I know the temptation is high, but actually readers don’t warm to protagonists who always win. First, because they sense the innate unbelievability but also because—well, do you really like someone who always presents himself as top dog?

These last two items are not entirely to try to save yourself from yourself but also because addressing them will make a better work.

Does your story communicate a larger story/learning?

In rereading the whole memoir, does it feel as if it is conveying a sense of some larger truth beyond the mere events? I know this is high bar, but if you want non-family to enjoy it, it is most helpful if readers can identify their own lives in your events.

Doesn’t have to be the world-is-a-better-place-if-we’re-all-nice, or crime-doesn’t-pay. It can be small but meaningful. I don’t want to give you examples because this is your memoir, but if you think readers will end by feeling they have learned something about themselves or their lives, then your memoir might well be something that needs to be enjoyed by a wider circle than friends and family.