Contrary to popular belief, good memoirists don’t just sit down one day, record their life chronologically, and immediately have a publishable (and readable) book on the best seller list. Since few of us lead perfectly linear lives, writing about your own experience requires a little more than that.
Those of you who read my blog may already know how much I’ve come to value the writing exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. They provide a great way to excavate old memories-some of which you will be delighted to rediscover, others which you will probably be tempted to immediately stuff back where they came from. But don’t. As random as some of Goldberg’s exercises may seem, they are designed to submerge you in both meaningful writing practice and what she calls “a sideways approach to writing memoir”.
Another invaluable book that I just discovered is Why we Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (edited by Meredith Maran). Maran opens by asking what makes people write, and read, memoir which has been an undeniably popular genre for centuries. But writing about yourself can also be extremely risky, resulting in the loss of family and friends who may not share your passion for disclosure and bad reviews that feel more personal because the main character is you, not some fictitious figment of your imagination. This type of writing can also be very draining, even for an experienced writer.
Many of the books essayists are writers I have read and learned from (Cheryl Strayed, Pat Conroy, James McBride, and Dani Shapiro to name a few). Others are now on my Christmas gift list.
A few takeaway points that I found particularly helpful were:
- Memoir is not opening a vein and bleeding on the page. That’s a diary and isn’t necessarily good writing (Ayelet Waldman).
- Don’t write a memoir to prove you’re right (Pearl Cleage).
- Trust yourself. If you remember something there’s a reason. Keep writing until you figure out the significance (Kelly Corrigan).
- Write the first draft of your memoir in third, rather than first person. This makes it easier when you are writing about things you might not be particularly proud of (Darin Strauss).
- Don’t take writing a memoir lightly. Take your time (David Sheff)
- And of course-reading the memoirs of authors, or other people you admire, is key to the process. Well-written and insightful memoirs can inspire you to begin thinking about what your life experiences may be able to offer others.
Do you have a favorite memoir? Please share!