Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer or more complex works.
By way of our Memoir Notebook, we want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Today, Wm. Anthony Connolly gathers advice for new memoir writers.
Recently, I asked two online nonfiction writers’ groups: What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give new memoir writers.
The following are their responses with brief introductory memoirs by me.
It was late spring when I walked through the thigh-high creek to elementary school when I was told expectedly not to by Mum. When I got home and she could see my pants were wet, I said “It was the snow.” Mum, hands on her hips, “In June?” I nodded. “It snowed near the school.”
Tell them the Truth
Allison Williams: Learn to use the best possible words in the best possible way, then use them to tell the truth.
Ned Stuckey-French: Full, absolute, brave, unflinching honesty, while remembering that you can’t remember everything and so imagination must supplement memory, though always in service of the truth of memory.
Susan Cushman: Don’t just report the facts. Reach your readers with emotional and universal truth.
Mel Luthy Henderson: Some of the best advice I’ve gotten–don’t remember where and I wish it were my own: Learn the difference between confessing to your reader and confiding in your reader. Readers like to feel trusted, not dumped on.
Cathee Howell Poulsen: Tell us the real story.
I wrote a three-hundred page memoir that challenges the reader: “Find yourself, find me.” I wrote that memoir a few years ago now and I have changed so much it will need a complete rewrite. After all, isn’t it true that every seven years we lose every cell in our body, which are replaced by new ones?
Remember to Lose Yourself
Lopa Banerjee: Although I just completed my first memoir, I can say I grew as a person every day while essaying the journey. The best I could do was to let the journey lead me and unfold mysteries of my own self on the way, rather than myself leading the journey and knowing beforehand which truth to arrive at, which secrets to tell. At the end of the journey, all I knew was that this fragility, this act of losing myself, this vulnerability was the most rewarding of things.
Writer Rodger Kamenetz told me when writing a memoir you must first begin with a question. I was writing my three-hundred page monster of a memoir then, and the only question I could come up with was: Where is this going?
Mind The Question
Dinty W Moore: The success of a memoir depends not on what conclusions you are presenting to the reader, but what questions you are honestly asking about your own life. The questions are the fuel that keeps the narrative engine churning, whether in the end they are answered or not.
On First Street, right at the end of the road, where the wheat fields begin, there is a pea-green house. Inside the house the stairwell leading up to the bedroom features textured paisley wallpaper that when you touch it you can feel the velvety relief of the curlicues. The wallpaper is black and gold. In one section, near the bottom of the stairs amidst the frenzied paisley is a small dash of blood, which came from my brother’s head when he fell down the stairs drunk at one of his enormous high school parties when Mum and Dad were away. I can still see him there. Still smell his acrid vomit. The reek of beer. I never told anyone about the bloodstain and sometimes—three decades later—I wonder if it’s still there hiding amongst the velvet flourishes.
Jennifer Lunden: Sensory details will help transform your personal story into a universal one.
Donna Zukaitis Falcone: If you don’t already, start adding lots of detail to your journaling. Impressions and noticings are great, but it’ll be hard to reconstruct context from reflections of what you observed. Write down what you ACTUALLY observed, too.
One of my first memories is of fog. The street was being sprayed to control the mosquitoes. I was at the window of my boyhood home watching the truck go by with the plume of blue-tinged smoke rising up and engulfing the neighborhood. I thought it was magical. I was told I could not go outside. Smoke drifted slowly and soon enough darkness fell.
Sue William Silverman: When you’re writing about your life, it’s important to look for the “story behind the story.” In other words, a memoir isn’t just a straight-forward narrative of what happened to you, as in “first this happened, then this next thing happened.” Rather, the goal of memoir writing is to discover why something happened to you. What does it mean? What are the metaphors that convey the experience? For me, writing memoir is like following a whisper into the depth of any given experience in order to convey a more universal meaning.
Jill Talbot: Even if only in drafts, alter the point of view from 1st to 2nd person and even 3rd in order to see yourself and your life from different vantage points as a way to open up not only your memory, but what you’re willing to see and say about your self.
Sandra Heska King: Reflect on your very first memory. How might its strands be woven through your life?
When I returned home dressed as a Drag Queen, my dog Digger didn’t recognize me and barked until I took off my wig, knelt down and extended my hand for him to sniff. I had been shooting a short documentary on transvestites for a television station.
Digger never barked at me when I wore my Scottish kilt, but people did, mistaking the traditional garb for a skirt. Sometimes I thought I should paint half my face blue and scream at them in my best brogue—We will fight for our freedom!
Nicola Waldron: Find something in your memories to laugh at…
Harrison Scott Key: Find a way to leaven gravity with levity and levity with gravity.
I wrote my first memoir, an essay, in one sitting with no intention of seeing it in print. I simply wanted to get it out of me and down onto the paper. It was unvarnished, and written in my own way. It took me 45 minutes. It was published in a journal within six months. To this day, it is the best piece of writing I have ever done.
Alyssa Mae Santos: Don’t be afraid.
All my memoirs are written in purple ink, typed up on one of my manual typewriters and then word-processed. I do this all without being connected to the World Wide Web of annoyance. This process slows me down, allows me time to think and wonder and wander. Memoir is seldom a straight look back, but something submerged that requires dredging and much diving before the surface. I take my diving and rising slow.
Mick Silva: Separate Internet and work computers. (Or be super cool like Anthony and work on a typewriter.)
What’s your advice?
Featured photo by Yuri Samoilov, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Memoir Notebook by Wm. Anthony Connolly, author of the forthcoming novel, The Smallest Universe.
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- Memoir Notebook: Voices (or, How to Write Spiritual Memoir) - October 10, 2014
- Memoir Notebook: Advice for New Memoir Writers - August 1, 2014
- Memoir Notebook: Double I/Eye - July 4, 2014
Sandra Heska King says
“After all, isn’t it true that every seven years we lose every cell in our body, which are replaced by new ones?”
This gives me hope that I still have time to finish my memoir. 😉
I remember I made a snow fort up by the road where I waited for the bus. Mom insisted I wear my snow pants. Snow pants weren’t cool. Jeans under a skirt were cool. I wore my snow pants out of the house and ditched them in my snow fort. But I can’t remember if I got caught. Maybe that was a memory I selectively forgot. 😉
I’ve often said snow is the color of memory — blank! 😉
Sandra Heska King says
William Bradley says
Remember that your most tragic memory is not necessarily the most interesting thing about you. Student writers in particular sometimes agonize over how to present their stories of abuse, addiction, or loss when they might be better off writing (and writing well) about a subject that doesn’t cause them pain to think about.
Anthony Connolly says
Yes couldn’t agree more. So true.
Kimberly Coyle says
I need to tuck some of these wise words away in my writer’s toolbox:) Along with them, I also hold tight to Emily Dickinson’s advice: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
I’m two years and one bellybutton deep into my memoir. Plus, I took a whiz-bang fantastic class through these fine Tweetspeakers; but, I cannot seem to get it together.
My advice: rent some cheerleaders if your in-real-life family and friends don’t “get” writing (and because your on-line writerly friends generally are too busy writing their own stuff to shake some pompoms your direction). When I have something on the line, like dollars, or a deadline, I get ‘er done – if not, well, that’s a deep, deep subject.
Seriously – thanks for this piece. I best like the bit about taking the “diving and rising slow.” It soothes me today.
Laura Brown says
I’m shaking pompoms in your direction.
I’ve never really thought about writing a memoir until very recently. A few weeks ago “the end is nigh” was announced to me regarding a family member. So as a family we are weaving in and out of remembrances and nostalgia. I’d never thought of my written snippets of memories as the possibility of a memoir…
A lot to mull over here.
The wonderful William Zinsser writes (somewhere) that when starting out, take it easy on yourself. Simply sit down and write out whatever memory comes to mind, file it away, either in an actual folder, or on your desktop in a folder and maybe as you accumulate memories you’ll begin to recognize topics or themes. You could begin by remembering, say, your childhood bedroom and writing down what you recall; or take out old family photos, should you have them, and try to recall your emotions at the time. The snippets begin to take a shape and you’ll know what your memoir is. As Faulkner once said, “I never know what i think about until I’ve read what I’ve written on it.” The important thing is not to worry about where you’re heading, as long as you go and enjoy the journey. Think process, not product. Let me know how it goes…
Diana Trautwein says
Great advice folded into this article. Thanks, all.
Marcy Terwilliger says
I appreciate all the good advise and believe me I’ve written it all down. I’ve started mine about two years ago, beginning with how my parents met, their first purchase of a home, then the birth of their first child, my brother. For some reason to me I wanted the reader to understand where I came from before I was born. Maybe this isn’t necessary but it plays such a huge part in who I am today.
Julie Kertesz says
Write a diary, from young age, to find some of how you did think, how you where and follow your journey. Then add stories later, that did not go in the diary.
Let finally out, the deepest ‘secrets’ I found that more you open up, more universal you got, and more resonance from the others.
Did not yet write memory, just published diaries and day to day personal blog, and told personal stories to live audience. Someone is out there, needing what you say.
Dana Aritonovich says
“Someone is out there, needing what you say.”
This is exactly what we need to remember for everything we write. Thank you.