Writing from Life

Memoir has been the next new thing for at least twenty years, gobbling up the pie-share of sales that used to go to literary fiction. Speculation abounds as to the reason for the shift. Compared to a literary novel riddled with symbolism and ambiguity, maybe nonfiction seems to offer a clear, reality-based take-away. Memoir is the more practical choice, and we live in a practical age. Maybe memoir triggers our inner voyeur. Maybe readers have been hooked by the same packaging gimmick that draws viewers to the hyper-contrived worlds of “reality” TV.

And maybe, considering that the two genres are so close in appearance they could pass for each other in dim light, the change isn’t that big a deal. Everyone knows that fiction is rooted in remembered fact, however twisted or thin the tendril. And no one assumes that every person, place, and event in a memoir exactly mirrors the author’s lived experience.

Whatever. Having decided three years ago to write a memoir myself, I am pretty up on what motivates the author. I don’t think it’s exhibitionism or an inflated self-esteem that makes us choose to expose our private lives rather than hide behind fictional camouflage. In my own case, I wanted to document a situation that needed to be changed. I also wanted to memorialize real people. But maybe most to the point, I took refuge in memoir because real life had become so bizarre that only the rubric of nonfiction could handle it. Fiction, even magical realism, has standards of credibility and coherence after all.

No matter how valid, even noble the motivation, the writer of memoir faces two overlapping sets of challenges. There’s the technical issue of how to tell a story that will carry a reader on an irresistible journey. Successful memoir should lay down a strong story line (the famous arc), conjure well-rounded, embodied characters, and get them interacting in intense, richly detailed scenes. (Just like fiction.)

About scenes: they are crucial to memoir, and it’s OK if you don’t really remember exact dialogue years after the fact. Readers won’t expect you to. With your deep knowledge of the people in your past, you can trust yourself to recreate the sort of language they might have used and craft scenes of emotional truth, if not verbatim records.

To get past the fear that the real people in your life may object to their portraits in your memoir, examine why you are writing. Flattery or revenge or just proving a point? Motives like these will backfire. You’ll wind up with flat characters, one-dimensional stories, and lonely holidays. If your goal is to recreate a portion of your past in all its fullness and complexity, you will do your characters justice. You won’t need to apologize to anyone.

So every technical trick you’ve learned about storytelling is available for deployment in crafting memoir. Theoretically. The trouble is, your personal stuff is always getting in the way. The sense that a friend or family member is looking over your shoulder and gasping is only the tip of the iceberg. The psychological challenges of writing memoir lurk around every bend in the process.

Memoir is not autobiography. Unless you’re a celebrity, readers need more incentive to engage with your life than simply a blow-by-blow chronology that begins in childhood and tapers off somewhere near your present point in time. Memoir needs a sharp focus, a specific topic; it pulls a single thread from your life and lets go of any characters and incidents that don’t pertain to that one particular thread.

Where the fiction-writer brainstorms, building up layers of invention, the reporter of so-called real life paradoxically falsifies it through simplification, leaving things out—and they’ll be some of your favorite things—memorable or funny or traumatic moments. My memoir Entering the Blue Stone focuses on the experience of steering my parents through the final decade of their lives. Countless important events during that period had to be let go of, tossed on the cutting-room floor: the publication of my first novel, my brother’s bi-polar exploits, my daughter’s near-disastrous wedding, the death after a long illness of my nephew.

To identify the thread you want to pull, remember that strong narrative begins with a disturbance to a pattern. In a mystery, it’s the dead body in the conservatory; in a western, a stranger lopes into Dodge. Note that the pattern to be disturbed is probably weird in itself, humming with tension and peopled with oddballs. But it’s important not to mistake the quirks of the pattern for the initiating disturbance. Try to locate the point of entry into your story that will highlight this Big Bang, the event that will generate enough energy to recreate an entire world and drive it forward.

You the author are the hero of your memoir. You may be writing about a family member or mentor whom you revere as a role model, but the “I” of the narrative is the real protagonist. Your inclination may be to hide behind the easier role of witness—she who simply documents a time, a place, a person. But it’s critical that you examine your own active role in events, your needs and hopes, and most important, your flaws.

You really need a flaw, or rather the “I” of the memoir does. It’s a matter of form, not moral judgment. The “I” can’t be the unadulterated, indomitable good guy. Narrative is about change, after all. If the “I” is perfect, she has nowhere to go. No change, no arc, no point, no structure. This flaw doesn’t have to be exotic. It can be some form of selfishness, a fear, an intolerance. Perfectionism. Developing perspective on yourself and your choices is probably the most complicated part of writing memoir—digging past the anecdotes for the deeper truths, uncovering your own complicity in what happened, exposing flaws.

Chances are you’ve been moved to write about a difficult life passage. The creative process will involve going back and reliving it through multiple drafts. After an early draft gets the important scenes down on paper, the memoirist looks at them critically, in an interrogative mood. Were events really as inevitable as they felt at the time? Were you really as innocent as you felt? What were you thinking? What were you choosing not to see?

You’ll know you’re on the right path when the epiphanies begin to spark, when you find your writing accompanied by helpless laughter, or flaring rage, or tears.

Molly would be happy to answer more specific questions from readers about writing memoir.

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