Not Fade Away: The Memoirist at Center Stage

My wife and I just got back from the Southern Kentucky Book Festival in Bowling Green, where we got to spend time with friends we haven’t seen for quite some time. At dinner last night, stories were abundant and laughs were plentiful. At times, though, we talked about serious matters, and empathy and understanding were widespread. This is what I look for in the people I think of as friends, this willingness to accept me for who I am, this refusal to judge. I want my friends to laugh with me, yes, but I also want them to be willing to be vulnerable and to let me be vulnerable, too. It strikes me that these qualities are what I look for in a good writer of memoir: humor, gravity, compassion, vulnerability, and the attempt to understand without judging.

I come from working class Midwestern people who are often stoic, particularly at those moments that challenge them. We have a tendency to never admit that things are as good, or as bad, as they seem. We practice modesty and restraint, and we know the good times never last, and to complain about the bad times is bad form. Consequently, we have a tendency to be unassuming, willing to let others have center stage.

If we’re writing memoir, this can be a good thing because it allows our readers to make sense of the other people on our pages without our interference. We have to recede to the periphery from time to time so our readers hear our characters speak and see them act. If we craft vivid scenes, our readers will form impressions of our characters just as we did when we interacted with those who had some sort of significance for us. What we can’t forget, though, is that everyone we’ve put into a memoir is there because their presence has something to say about our own life journey. We can’t fade completely away. Ultimately, we have to have that center stage position because the actions and words of others have affected us in profound ways. It’s one thing for me to tell you about a conversation I had with a stranger; it’s quite another to make clear to you why that conversation mattered.

So this is my brief post, at the end of a long and tiring travel day, to remind those who write memoirs to accept the fact that they’re telling their stories because of their significant connection to the events and the people from their life experiences. Ultimately, the writers are the interpretative guides through the scenes that make up a memoir. The writers have to make clear to the reader why the events matter, and to do that, the writers have to be willing to make themselves vulnerable. From those positions of vulnerability, memoirists narrate not only a sequence of events, but also an arc through their own interior lives. The result is one that tells a reader why the writer has paid close attention to those particular people and events. By the end of a good memoir, we’ve gone on a journey through time and one through character. When we’re telling other people’s stories, we’re also telling our own, and we shouldn’t be hesitant to speak plainly and clearly about the way those other people mattered to us. Stoicism and restraint can be admirable traits, but they can also be prohibitive for the writer of memoir. When we tell our stories, we open our hearts. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Quite to the contrary, such revelation is something to be admired.

5 Comments

  1. Mary J. Breen on April 24, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Hi Lee:
    I think this is very important advice. I also teach memoir writing, and I find that my students, esp the women and esp the older ones, are unaccustomed to making themselves the focus of things, including their writing. It seems that they almost need to change their personalities in order to come to believe firstly that their thoughts and feelings are important, and then that they have a right to put them on display.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts and ideas about this.
    Best,
    Mary

    • Lee Martin on April 25, 2017 at 11:42 am

      Mary, I was also thinking of how we tap into a certain part of our personality each time we write memoir. We adopt a persona that helps create the writer/reader relationship we want for any particular piece. We may exaggerate, even, certain aspects of our personality. Maybe that would help folks who are reticent to be the stars of their own memoirs. Maybe we should invite them to exaggerate something about their own personalities just so they’ll feel the power that comes when a writer comes center stage and “sings out!”

      • Mary J. Breen on April 26, 2017 at 9:40 am

        That’s a very interesting idea—to get them to exaggerate some aspect to explore it further, even as an exercise. I find that I’m always having to remind people that they are the most important person in their memoir; they often think it’s everyone but themselves.
        Thanks again for your helpful thoughts on this and many other topics you’ve written about here.

  2. Susan Cole on May 2, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I love this post and the above discussion. The writing is so much better and more satisfying when I embrace myself rather than receding. The exaggeration idea is excellent; for those of us who are more reticent, our idea of exaggerating will probably seem on a normal level to others. Thanks so much, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on May 3, 2017 at 11:43 am

      Thanks, Susan!

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