Essay: On Writing a Memoir

Memoir Writing

By Dave Hood

For many years, those who wrote memoirs shared true stories about something noteworthy or an unusual experience. I am thinking of The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert discovered fame by writing about her adventures in Eat, Pray, Love, while Cheryl Strayed wrote the bestseller Wild, a book that was adapted into a film. They were memories written as literature using the fictional techniques of storytelling, as well as the poetic devices, such as alliteration and metaphor. These writers showed us what it was like to be human in extraordinary or unusual conditions.

But in recent years, thanks to e-publishing and the Internet, we have witnessed a flood of memoirs. We are in the midst of the memoir craze. Check out Amazon, the online bookseller of both printed and e-books, and you will discover thousands of books written as memoir. Like an archeologist, the writer of memoir digs up memories from a past life, dusts them off, scrutinizes these fragments of reality under a microscope, discovers their meaning, unearths a theme, writes a narrative that’s occurred in a space of time, not a lifetime. Writing a memoir is not autobiographical—writing about one’s entire life. It’s writing a true story of a slice of life, a piece of life’s pie.

Writers of memoir have penned all sorts of stories of slanted truth. Memoirs embodying the evilness of incest. The corrosive effects of drug addiction, pill popping, heroin addict. The horrific impact of environmental disaster  on the soul. Life with hedonistic playboy. The downfall of a centerfold model. Confessions of betrayal by a lover whose a sex addict. Detailed descriptions of a vacation to some paradise, where there are palm trees, a pristine ocean, sunshine, and a soul mate lying on the beach, like a sea shell, waiting to be picked up. A spiritual quest to discover God or become enlightened like Buddha. An eye witness account of a loved one dying a slow, torturous death from the scourge of cancer. The pain and suffering of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder.

These writers have been inspired by many things. Some desire to share their stories and use their writing skills after taking a course in memoir writing as part of a creative writing curriculum. Some dream of achieving fame and fortune, becoming the next Cheryl Strayed. For others, writing is catharsis, like sharing one’s troubles on the therapist’s couch. Many honestly believe they have a story that needs to be told, and seem blind to the fact that their story has already been shared with the literary world before.

The problem with the memoir craze is that the many new authors seem narcissistic, navel gazing into their own lives. Critics refer to it as self-absorbed writing. The page is littered with “ego” and “I.” Memoir writers often don’t know how to write literary prose. To do this, they must revise countless times, paying attention to poetic devices, such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, as well as the techniques of fiction, especially showing the reader what happened. The stories have been told before. Truth is sometimes embellished or fabricated. I think of James Frey who wrote “ A Million Little Pieces.” The problem with writing a memoir is that memories fade in time, and so writers must fill in the details from imagination, recreate dialogue, compress several events into a single event, sketch composite characters, and more.

The best memoirs take readers on a roller coaster ride, share dark secrets, eye witness accounts, sensory details, emotional truths, and one or more epiphanies. The best memoirs take these personal epiphanies and show readers how these personal realities are part of the larger human condition. The best memoirs avoid self-absorbed writing. Nor does the writer engage in character assassination. Instead, the writing is balanced.

Successful writers of memoir narrate their stories using literary prose. To achieve this effect, writers apply the poetic devices of metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.  They write compelling stories that begin, develop, reach a climax, and end with resolution. (Instructors of literature might refer to this as the narrative arc.) Successful writers don’t tell us but show us what happened using scenes. A scene includes dialogue, action, paricular details, and setting. Successful writers share stories embodying some theme of life, perhaps adventure, tragedy, death, grief. They share emotional truth—“how it felt”—with readers. Successful writers have learned the advice preached by writer William Zinsser. He tells those who wish to write memoirs to “write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga. ”

Despite the popularity of reading and writing memoirs, aspiring writers should think long and hard before writing a book-length memoir. It requires extensive time and herculean effort. It requires exhausting research and scrupulous fact checking. Most important, the writer must have a strong voice, embodying masterful command of the English language and a dazzling writing style. More often than not, the memoir, written by an aspiring writer, will not achieve the desired recognition. And so, it would be better to write a memoir essay, like the short prose you can read on Brevity, a web-based publication.

Each of us has a memoir of proud achievements, memorable adventures, harsh realities, regrettable episodes, awe-inspiring moments, death and grief waiting to be written. But do we wish to share these personal, sometimes painful, often embarrassing details of our lives? And does anyone, other than a few kindred spirits, or loyal members of family, really desire to know who we claim to be? Natalie Goldberg who wrote Old Friends from Far Away Places: The Practise of Writing Memoir, reminds us: “The things that make you a functional citizen in society – manners, discretion, cordiality – don’t necessarily make you a good writer. Writing needs raw truth, wants your suffering and darkness on the table, revels in a cutting mind that takes no prisoners…”

I believe that it’s often best to “let it be.” Learn from life experiences, but let them rest. You’ll be wiser and happier.


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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