10 Reasons You Should Be Writing Memoir Right Now
Memoir is hot right now—and has been since, roughly, the rise of the Internet. What with folks posting and blogging and tweeting their biz all day, everybody’s everything is suddenly a story, and more readers than ever have discovered that it can be fascinating to read about real stuff that happened to real people (especially if those people actually know how to write).
So perhaps it has occurred to you, the dedicated writer of fictions, that you should try that. Maybe you’ve even edited for a journal or two and noted that the competition is generally just a bit less stiff in creative nonfiction (at least in terms of the depth of the slush) than in fiction.
But should you try your hand at memoir based on such crass commercial concerns?
You should try your hand at memoir because it will make you a better, more self-aware person, while teaching you tricky, advanced-level techniques you can put to work in your fiction.
Here are my top ten reasons you should be writing memoir right now.
1. Because there is a paradox at the center of your life of which you are perhaps only dimly aware
Start writing about something you’ve puzzled over—something that has disturbed, fascinated, or moved you—something to which you have returned in your life, over and over again, perhaps without even realizing it—and you will see that there is some sort of question or theme at the heart of it that you’ve never quite been able to resolve. I know this sounds like the sorts of shallow platitudes perpetuated by self-help gurus, but trust me on this: such questions are the black holes around which whole galaxies revolve.
Coming to understand these big questions and themes in your life can show you a whole lot about who you are, what you value, and why you see things the way you do. It can also be immensely helpful in creating fiction. Because if your past is the map of a territory that contains hidden treasure, writing memoir can show you where X marks the spot.
2. Because those who master the memoir master self-awareness
Memoirs, like novels, often involve trauma. Perhaps because—according to the emerging science around stories and storytelling—we read in part to prepare ourselves for challenges we’ve not yet faced. But because so many memoirs tackle bad daddies and cheating wives and various others of life’s villains, one of the chief tools writers of memoir are asked to master is the art of self-implication.
Basically, because it’s boring to read about people bitching about other people. And it always takes two to tango, right? So, as creative nonfiction workshops are fond of asking, where is the author implicated here?
This art of seeing your own faults—of seeing even highly traumatic events from your own life from more than one point of view—is not only a good practice in memoir, but in life. (It can also, according to at least one source, save your marriage.) It’s a high-level sort of emergent property that keeps pushing the human race forward, in fits and starts—compelling us to becoming less of a race of assholes, intent on waging war on every single entity on earth we feel has done us harm.
It’s also the sort of awareness that makes fictional characters come off as sympathetic, whether they’re villains who can see what they’re doing is wrong (and do it anyway) or victims who can see how they’re maybe not entirely blameless. High-contrast is all right for the sort of stories consumed exclusively on airplanes, but if you aim to create three-dimensional characters, it’s best to use some shades of gray.
3. Because those who write memoir know how to switch time frames
You can’t write a memoir by sticking to a single linear narrative. At least not a memoir anyone will want to read. Because the movement back and forth in time is part of what makes the stories of our lives meaningful—meaning being a quantity not in fact, puked up by those special unicorns that gallop past during the events of our lives, but generated in retrospect, in the light of their consequences and implications.
Writing memoir is an opportunity to travel in time, and in so doing, extract meaning from the things we've experienced. And if we happen to write fiction, it’s an opportunity to master the art of time—whether it’s switching back and forth between time frames, selecting the point in time from which a story is told for maximum effect, or using the lens of memory to distort the truth in ways that are artful and revealing.
4. Because science says use it or lose it (and you’ll lose it anyway)
According to Brain Rules by John Medina, our memories are sort of like the opposite of all those old VHS and cassette tapes from the eighties—the less we replay them, the fuzzier they get. That’s why it’s generally easier to call up memories of stories you’ve told before, or that are regularly triggered by such quantities as freshly mown grass, crickets chirping, or, say, sailing your bike down a giddy incline: the ones we remember best are the ones we’ve remembered most.
But here's the catch: every time we remember our memories, we alter them. So every time you call up one of the events of your life, you’re actually changing the way you’ll remember it next time. Sure, there’s a purported surge of recall when we hit the golden years, but why wait? By getting your memories down on paper now, you’ll be protecting them against future corruption, even as you’re corrupting them.
(Also, doing so through memoir is the preferred method. Because if you do so through fiction, as I have with many of my earliest memories, you will no longer be able to distinguish fact from fiction—literally.)
5. Because the truth has a veracity we can feel
In fiction, we’re often told to write what we know. It’s a piece of advice that has its limitations, but here’s the thing: we like the real. We recognize the real. Whether it’s what it felt like to be a kid growing up in Chicago in the seventies or the way your heavyset uncle drove the half block to the corner store to pick up a pack of smokes. Whether it’s about how a bad relationship can feel impossible to leave—right up until it doesn’t—or about how the high desert smells after it rains.
As people, our quality of life is tied, in part, to the degree to which we pay attention—that’s what meditation and breathing and active listening and gratitude journals and all that shit is all about. And while it may seem paradoxical that reviewing your past can help you get more in touch with the present, sometimes it really can. (Never mind the fact that the present is swiftly becoming the past, and if you aren’t paying attention now, you won’t have anything to write about later.)
6. Because memory and time stand as pillars at the gates of magic
Maybe you’ve always loved the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Amiee Bender, but never found a form of magic you could believe in. (As in, one not involving dragons and high elves and such.)
As fiction writers, sometimes we struggle to find something new, shiny, and weird to work into our stories. But our actual lives are generally full of such stuff if we delve deep enough into the past. For instance, a close friend of mine, in the course of therapy, recently realized that she remembered something from her childhood that never actually occurred: swallowing a stone.
How? What? Why? You can’t make this stuff up.
Bonus: you may come to understand some rather strange things about yourself.
7. Because when you write creative nonfiction, you sound like yourself
Read any blog in which editors and agents are asked what they’re looking for and you’re bound to come across the word voice. But really, what the hell is voice? I mean, doesn’t every story already have a voice, simply by virtue of speaking?
As an editor, please allow me to clarify: when we say we’re looking for voice, we’re saying that we’re looking for a piece that sounds like somebody in particular is telling it—a particular person with a particular background, history, point of view, sense of humor, etc. All of which you really cannot avoid in memoir, because you can’t just get out of the way and pretend all of this crazy crap just happened to someone else.
The great writer and legendary writing teaching Tom Spanbauer offers this as his chief piece of advice to young writers: Sound like yourself. If you’re curious as to what that sounds like, try writing memoir.
8. Because everyone has a personal mythology
You know the stories you tell when you’re falling in love, or when you make a new best friend? Those stories are part of your personal mythology. They’re the stories you tell to explain yourself to yourself. They’re always evolving. And guess what? They’re usually pretty good stories.
These stories are a powerful way to connect with readers. Getting them down on paper is also a powerful way to take control of the narrative of your own life—whatever hand circumstances or genetics or fickle, funky fate has dealt you. For folks who’ve come through a veritable shitstorm of trauma, writing about these experiences can in fact be the only way to take control of that narrative. But you don’t have to have endured such weather to benefit from doing the same.
And if you start to see your own life in terms of these narratives, you’re going to start to understand the stories in the lives of your fictional characters that define who they are too. Which, in turn, is going to help you understand how emotional events shape character.
You want stakes? Consequences? Characterization? Get clear on your personal mythology.
9. Because it will help you understand who you really are, where you come from, and what you really value
Writing memoir tends to show us things about ourselves that we did not know, or at least weren’t all that aware of, based on where we’re coming from. It also tends to suggest where the people who have affected our lives, for better or worse, may have been coming from as well.
Because you can just make anything up when you write fiction, you’re free to follow any shiny object that catches your attention. Which is fine, especially when you’re just starting out. But if you really want the earth to move for your readers, chances are, you will have to write fiction from the center of who you really are, where you’re coming from, and what you really value.
10. Because it’s fun
Writing memoir can be harrowing and heart wrenching, but it can also be a lovely romp through some of life’s greatest hits. A chance to recreate that golden summer at the beach house your parents rented when you were twelve. A chance to speak from the great beyond with the dearly departed (How did Grandpa actually talk? And what was that song he used to sing?). A chance to meet the love of your life all over again.
Writing prose of any kind can be crazy-making. But it’s good to remember that it can also be fun. Getting your actual life experiences down on paper can do that. It’s the sort of thing that can re-energize your whole process, bringing new life to your narratives.
And maybe even the narrative of your life.
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