Last week, I posted ten random thoughts about writing a novel. To give equal time to my other genre, I offer these ten random thoughts about writing a memoir.
1. If you want revenge, don’t write a memoir. Start nasty rumors instead. When we write about people, we want to be fair to them even if they weren’t fair with us. We need to look at them, and ourselves, from as many different angles as possible in an attempt to understand the sources of the behavior. Writing a memoir is a search for understanding.
2. If you want to lie, don’t write a memoir. Perhaps my ten thoughts about writing a novel might prove useful. Writing a memoir requires a faithful allegiance to facts. If your grandmother is still living, please don’t kill her off for the sake of the narrative in your memoir. Stay true to the facts of your life unless you can establish a reason for invention and imagination and can cue the reader that you’re taking liberties with what actually happened.
3. If you expect to have an infallible memory, don’t write a memoir. Go on Jeopardy instead and make a boat-load of money. Memory is imperfect, and we have to accept that. The act of remembering becomes a story itself. Do you think you have a memory of something but aren’t sure? Admit that to the reader and then speculate on why you think this thing might have happened. The speculation will take you more fully into your material.
4. If you don’t want to think, don’t write a memoir. Watch mindless television programs instead. Memoirs allow us to dramatize, but they also ask us to observe, question, speculate, and attempt answers.
5. If you want to be certain, don’t write a memoir. Practice elementary arithmetic instead. 1+1= 2. Writing a memoir is a way of thinking aloud on the page. We usually start from a place of not knowing. Something about our experience haunts us and demands our attention because it’s in some way unresolved.
6. If you want to tie things up in a neat bow, don’t write a memoir. Take a gift-wrapping class instead. Our lives are messy and not necessarily driven by cause and effect. We can’t invent things to give our lives a more symmetrical structure. A memoir may not have a resolution, but it may derive its power from a deepening of the occasion for writing. What is it that first brings the writer to the page? How does the act of inquiry develop the character of the writer? What does he or she come to know?
7. If you want everyone to love you, don’t write a memoir. Start handing out free cash instead. All that truth telling I’ve been talking about? Well, it usually requires that you say some very hard things about yourself and about others. Some people will be angry because they don’t like the way you portrayed them. Others will be angry because they don’t have enough space in your book. Still others will be mad because they’re not in the book at all. Make peace with the fact that after your memoir is published some people will be upset with you. All you can do, as I’ve said above, is to treat everyone fairly.
8. If you want to include everything, don’t write a memoir. Sample everything at the Hometown Buffet instead. When we write a memoir, it’s impossible to include everything from our lives, even the smaller slices of them. We have to choose only the telling moments that are central to the material we’ve come to the page to explore.
9. If you resist making a scene, don’t write a memoir. Sit quietly in a church instead. Memoirs are made up of particulars and scenes, in which people speak and act. We need to find the moments from our lives that affected us in some way, and we need to dramatize them on the page. This scenic writing allows readers to feel as if they’re participating in your life rather than merely watching from the audience.
10. If you don’t want to change, don’t write a memoir. Write a manifesto instead. Writing a memoir will change you. I promise. It will change you in ways you couldn’t have predicted. It will change you because you’ll have to watch yourself live through the significant moments from your life, but this time you’ll have the perspective offered by distance and time. It’s a perspective that will offer you the chance for discovery and insight. When I reached the end of the first draft of my first memoir, From Our House, I wept, and I felt the anger that I’d inherited from a life lived in the midst of my father’s anger, begin to ebb. Writing that book gave me control over my own anger. I looked at my father’s life in a way I never had until I started to shape it on the page. I looked at the life we had together with new eyes. I saw and felt things I never could have imagined, and I wasn’t quite the same person at the end of that draft as I was at the beginning. That’s the power of memoir. It sweeps you through the past and into the future.