Are you writing memoir or a bunch of memories?
May 27, 2016
Caleb Pirtle III
EVERYONE, IT SEEMS, wants to write a memoir. I don’t know why, but that’s what I find everywhere I look.
I attend a lot of writer’s conferences. I show up at a lot of writer’s workshops. I sit through a lot of critique groups. And I love them all.
I admire writers. I appreciate beginning writers. I fully support writers who are committed to streamlining and perfecting their craft, if, of course, writing can ever be streamlined or perfected. I’m right there in the mix with them.
I was at a writer’s workshop not long ago and heard a woman explain that she had been writing memoirs for three years. Not one memoir, mind you, but eight or ten a year.
I was flabbergasted. I get that way a lot.
Most people have one great memoir in them. Some may have two. But who has three years worth of memoirs rolling around inside of them?
Here’s what I think. These writers aren’t producing memoirs at all.
They are writing memories, and memories are wonderful. It’s a chance to collect and hold on to those memorable and often magical moments of our lives. It’s a chance to share stories of our lives with family. It’s a great way to pass on those stories to our children and grandchildren. Collectively, these stories are our legacy. We should never let them be tossed aside or forgotten.
These stories, more than anything else, define who we were and who we have become. Besides, some day they can be woven into great eulogies that won’t leave a dry eye in the church.
But make no mistake about it. I don’t believe these are memoirs.
Not long ago, I heard Maurice Monette speak at the Puerto Vallarta Writers Conference. He is an excellent writer who had penned one of the hottest memoirs of the year: Confessions of a Gay Married Priest.
And these are the critical points I remember Maurice making.
He said, “Don’t start from the moment you’re born, progress through childhood, and continue until the moment you put the final period in place on your manuscript.
“That’s not a memoir.
“That’s an autobiography.”
Here, he said, are some things to remember when writing a memoir.
Narrow your focus.
The story does not follow your whole life.
It is little more than a snapshot in time.
A memoir is a particular moment or a series of moments built around a single theme or a major incident in your life.
Maurice was gay his whole life, and he tried to write a memoir that encompassed his whole life.
It didn’t work.
He wrote it once.
He wrote it again.
Still it didn’t work.
Then he said, “I woke up one day and realized my story did not begin during my years of confusion and frustration as a boy. Those years are important and became part of my backstory. But my memoir began the day I suddenly realized that I was banging my head against the wall. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was at the end of my rope. Forget the past. What happens now?”
A review on Amazon explained the heart and soul of his memoir better than I can.
It said: Maurice’s themes are universal. Virtues, values, meaning, and facing his hard-fought reality: LOVE. How he got past the dark recesses of childhood rejection and bucked authority to reach for the stars. It was a joy to read how he faced his own love truths head on. How he answered the question, “Am I worthy?” will stop you dead in your tracks. You will want to re-read some of his magic moment insights. If you are like me, you will write them down. Maurice got it right. He looked into the mirror and courageously faced his identity. His life. His love. Raw truth and gut-retching honesty.
And that is what a memoir is all about.
Face the truth.
The truth is not always pretty.
The truth in fact can be pretty ugly.
But be brutally honest whether you want to or not.
Look in the mirror.
What do you see?
Who do you see?
The writer is not always the hero of his or her own memoir.
Don’t fabricate the truth.
Don’t embellish it.
After all, this is memoir.
It is not a work of fiction.
And, yet, it should be written with a strong, narrative style, using those critical elements of fiction to bring your story to life. It needs characters, a plot, several subplots, powerful dialogue, a few twists, and a lot of turns.
A great memoir pulls the reader into the middle of your life.
The reader faces your struggles right along with you.
The reader grieves for your sadness.
The reader hurts when you are disappointed.
The reader cries when you shed a tear or two.
The reader laughs when you do.
The reader feels that electric moment of triumph when you succeed.
A memoir is an emotional journey. As author Adair Lara explained, “Memoir allows you to tell the stories that would seem to convenient or sentimental or jarring in a novel. By its very nature, memoir says, This can happen. This did happen.
“Tom Grimes, author of the memoir, Mentor, says that if he’d included a story like that of his sister’s suicide attempt in a novel, it may have seemed heavy –handed. But in his memoir, readers were moved by the passage. He says: I think that’s because they reacting to something true.”
If you want to write memories, that’s a rewarding mission.
But if you want to write a memoir, you have to dig deep and venture into places you haven’t gone in a long time and may not want to go at all.
Down in the deep, dark places of their soul and their psyche is where great memoirs reside, just waiting for writers to tell them.