Thursday, December 8, 2011

Want to Write a Memoir? Start Here

Okay, so the semester is winding down and I might finally have a chance to get back to real (read: writing) life.  Yay!  This semester has been a butt-kicker from start to finish, but the good news is that I think I actually learned a few things.

The writing class I'm just finishing is about memoir, a genre in which I'd never written before.  It scared the crap out of me. Still does.  Skeletons should just stay in the closet, right?  I mean, most of us don't really want all our friends, family members, and neighbors reading about our weakest, most vulnerable moments.  But, as I learned, that's only a part of writing memoir.

What I Knew:  Memoir is hard.  Why should the average joe be interested in my life?  What about my personal trauma from, say, high school would make someone else want to put off going to bed in order to read about it?  Even if they started reading it, why would they care if they get to the end?  What's the freaking point of it all?

What I Learned:  Memoir is hard.  There's still no getting around it.  But the point isn't to dig up the worst trauma or your most embarrassing moment.  The point is to describe a person, a place, or a moment that meant something to you in a way that shows your reader what you learned from it.  It's not your high school trauma that's important, in other words.  It's how you deal with it.  It's how you move on.  It's how your narrative voice has changed because of all the things and people you've come into contact with.  So you don't have to write about abuse or rape or abandonment or setting a kitten on fire.  You could write about a day you stayed home from school and did nothing but watch cartoons all day.  But you have to tell your reader why that particular day mattered.  What happened that makes you return to that day, now, in your mind?  What brings you back there?  If you can explain that, you can write memoir.

What I'm Doing about It:  At the urging of my professor, I sent off the first piece I wrote for the class to a creative non-fiction journal called The Sun.  It may be a few months before I hear back from them, but in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing a few short memoir pieces.  I have one more piece due on Tuesday, which I'm about to revise.  Memoir will never replace fiction--not for me, at least.  But I did learn that you can use most of the techniques you already know from writing fiction to craft riveting scenes--it's just that they have to have actually happened, and you have to actually be one of the characters.  (Small catch, there.)   That's actually one of the huge issues relative to memoir, which hopefully I'll have time to write about tomorrow.  How truthful should a memoir be?  Are you lying if you dramatize a conversation?  Can your ass get sued for doing it?  I have a few sources that will weigh in the meantime, think about how you'd approach writing a memoir.  What are the scenes in your life that move you?  When and where did you learn something important?  The memory that surfaces might be the one you least expect.