When I was trying to sell The Last Resort, I approached an agent at our local writers’ conference, asking if he would be willing to look at my memoir. “MEEmoir,” he said. “MEEmoir. Nobody wants to read MEEmoir anymore.” I decided not to tell him about the gob of cheese caught in his mustache.
That same week The New Yorker magazine arrived with an article called “But Enough About Me” by Daniel Mandelsohn. Here’s a little of what he said:
Memoir is the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives, spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends, with an overpowering need to be the center of attention.
Memoirists, he says, are lying narcissists, motivated by conceit or a desire for revenge, or a wish for justification. We need to get our shameful secrets off our chests—a kind of therapeutic purge—we seek cozy acceptance from other people who might share the same secret.
And on and on for many pages.
What is memoir?
Memoir is a piece of a life. It may be your own, though wonderful memoirs have been written about a parent, a child or a dog.
My motto is: You are the memory-keepers and you owe the future a story.
Think how many stories we wish we had from our parents or grandparents’ lives, but we never asked, or if you were like me, were too self-centered to listen. We never wrote their stories; they never wrote their stories, and now they are lost forever. A beloved local writer created a novel based on the diary of his wife’s great grandmother. She crossed from St. Louis to San Francisco in a covered wagon and kept a written record. The book is filled with astonishing details of that trek because she kept a diary.
Tell your stories, and it is stories we want, not who begat whom.
How to begin?
One good way is to list the moments, big and little, when things changed. Write the stories of those. Write as if you are telling this to a good friend. Put your account in scene so we see where you are. Describe the characters. Use dialogue.
Close your eyes and picture yourself there. Our minds contain memory maps; we can find our way back. The deeper you go, the more you will recall. As Proust said, “Time, which changes the world, does not change the image we have preserved of it.”
Memoir has much in common with fiction: we want good stories and strong characters. We want a beginning, middle and end. We want to see the main character change. We want conflict. We want dialogue and action. Don’t worry about the order of these stories, or how they tie together. Begin with pieces and worry about how to fit them together later.
As in fiction, memoir should have a narrative arc, which means once you have a draft, you can begin to look beneath the incidents to see a pattern and find a theme. This may not become apparent until you’ve written all your stories or until you’ve written them more times than you care to admit (People ask me if The Last Resort was influenced by The Help. I tell them I began writing my memoir before Kathryn Stockett was born.).
The theme in memoir is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.
Vivian Gornick says, “What happens to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
V.S. Pritchett says, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”
Mendelsohn, in the article I quoted earlier, accuses memoir writers of being mendacious. We lie, he says, we tell half-truths. And a few memoirists have been caught doing this.
But remember: No memoir is ever entirely true and no piece of fiction is ever entirely imagined.
This is your memoir and your truth.
Check facts when you can, but realize, if anyone else were writing the same story–your sister or your best friend, it would be a different story.
Robert Burton, author of “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not,” said: “flawed self-reflection is the result of an inherent defect in perception.” We are inside what we are trying to see from the outside, or, to quote another analogy: we are trying to cut butter with a knife made of butter.
Check your facts, but it’s your truth. It may be flawed, but it’s yours. If people complain, as they did to me in Mississippi—your father was far more kind and charming than you painted him; your cousin Doug was a lovely guy and no bully; we never drank that much–invite them to write their own memoirs.
Proust says that a certain ignorance is necessary for creativity. Erudition is one of the many ways we flee our own lives.
Mendelsohn claims memoirists are whiners? How do we not whine?
We want to write with feeling, but without sentimentality. Show the truth, but no self-pity allowed. One way to do this is to wait: get a little distance between the event and the telling. Distance allows us to see more, and a broader view is a better view. Whine to your diary; whine to your best friend, but not in your memoir.
In most memoirs, you are the hero, and in order not to sound like an egotistical, whining, self-justifier, you need to be a rounded character, which means—?
Heroes have flaws and villains have reasons. There should be no villains in your stories—show us their reasons. And show us your flaws, all your vain foolishness, but without whining. Humor helps.
As the narrator, you’re a step removed. The thing happened to you, but not to the you who’s doing the writing. The narrator stands back: observing, remembering, setting down, revising, cutting away as if life were a piece of marble, revising, always paring. With each revision, you remove yourself—the you who cringed and was ashamed and regretted. You become more objective and that objectivity is healing.
We write to answer questions. To find out what really happened and why. In my novel In Common, I wanted to know why Lillian relinquished her power to a man unable to love her, and why Velma exchanged her superb talent for watching afternoon TV. We write to understand ourselves and other people in the story. As we answer the questions and understand better, we forgive.
Remember, in memoir, as in fiction, no heroes and no villains. Look for the reasons behind bad actions or bad intentions. See clearly people you may once have thought of as gods. Look deeper, understand, and forgive. Create real characters—people we want to read about.
We want to read about the things that make your palms sweat and how you coped.
So, empathy without sentimentality. Truth without whining. Everything leavened with a nice dose of humor.
Here’s a secret I’ve actually tested. The more honest you are, the better we like you. If you can tell the truth without blame or whining, you’re the person we want to sit next to, and the person we want to read. If you can do that and make us laugh or cry, even better.
You owe the future a story. You are unique and irreplaceable. If you don’t tell your stories, when you’re gone, they’ll be lost.
Don’t worry about publishing. Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird: “Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”
Try Turning Truth into Fiction
One of the ways to make trouble bearable is by turning it into fiction. Take a character (from your past or someone else’s) and crawl into his or her skin. Tell us a story. You can become the character: “I began my honeymoon with no idea of how horribly it would end.” Or you can be the narrator: “We warned her not to marry him. We knew the man was odd.”
Begin with one, or none, of the following:
“In life you’ll meet a lot of jerks.”
“Suicide is a form of murder.”
“I’m often asked what I think about as I…”
“Each of us is a book waiting to be written.”
I surround myself with broken people.”
“No” is a complete sentence.”
“You have to get lost before you can be found.”
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Article by Norma Watkins
Raised in the South during the civil rights struggles, Norma Watkins is the author of In Common and two memoirs: The Last Resort, Taking the Mississippi Cure (2011), which won a gold medal for best nonfiction published in the South by an independent press; and That Woman from Mississippi (2017). She lives in northern California with her woodworker husband and three cats.