23 Mar Three top-notch books about writing memoir
I started writing memoir almost by accident.
A few years ago I attended a one-day retreat that offered a mix of writing and meditation. I enjoyed the approach of one of the teachers, Roger Housden, so I decided to take another class with him. He was offering a six week online course about memoir writing. I wasn’t thrilled with the topic, but I enrolled to keep the momentum.
To my surprise, I loved it. Up to then I had only written fiction, but here I was, writing with marvelous ease. “This is a piece of cake,” I thought. “I already have the characters and the plot, so writers’ block will never be an issue.”
I’ve since realized that writing memoir well is just as hard, if not harder, as writing fiction. You need to learn the ropes, as you do for any other kind of writing.
Here are three books about the craft of writing memoir that I have found useful.
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington
This book is a comprehensive guide for beginners. Barrington goes from the very basic —What is memoir?— to all the other questions that will keep a memoirist up at night.
- How can I say the truth? My family will hate me.
- What is an appropriate structure for memoir?
- What are the key elements of a memoir?
- What do I do if I don’t remember how the dialogue went?
- Can the people I write about sue me?
Her clear explanations gave me the tools I needed when I started and pushed me to keep writing. For example:
- She differentiates between memoirs, where you tell everything, and the literary memoir, where you choose one theme and leave a lot out.
- She talks about scene, summary and musing and clarifies that musing is essential in memoir. This was an important learning for me. I wanted the story to “show” everything but, in memoir, a retrospective voice that “tells” to illuminate the meaning of your life is a must.
- She talks about your responsibility to tell the truth. You should not participate in the pact of silence, the myths and the lies that shroud your family secrets, for example.
Barrington’s book is a great starting point for any budding memoirist.
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr
If you enjoy Karr’s memoirs you will love this book. She uses the same straight-shooter, vigorous voice, full of sensual images and strong opinions that jolt you out of your comfort zone. It’s worth a read just for that.
Karr also analyzes the same memoirs she teaches in her live classes, so reading the book is a good substitute for taking a “master class” with her. Let’s not forget that Mary Karr has been credited with launching the current memoir rage thanks to her excellent first memoir, The Liars’ Club. She followed that smashing book with Cherry and Lit, acclaimed memoirs as well, so she’s an expert on the genre.
Karr highlights the need to go deep in your truth-revealing mission. Memoir is supposed to “wrench at your insides” and “disclose your soft underbelly.” She’s ruthless. Where other teachers say that filling your memory gaps is ok as far as you express the emotional truth, Karr proclaims that you should either leave out your vague memories, label them as dubious, or clearly explain where you have taken liberties. It’s what she calls “the truth contract between the writer and the reader.”
Other aspects of memoir that she discusses at length are voice —and how you “can write your way into it”— and the “sacred carnality” that needs to enliven the story.
Several of her chapters are organized in lists of DO’s or DONT’s, including the many errors that make for a crappy memoir.
Karr illustrates her points with examples of her own and others’ memoirs. She also dedicates full chapters to analyzing a particular memoirist in detail, such as Maxine Hong Kinston or Michael Kerr. In the appendix she gives you a highly subjective list of required reading for any aspiring memoirist.
Mary Karr is not for the faint of heart, but her lively style and deep knowledge of the form make for an entertaining and enlightening read.
The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith
The author of this slim book doesn’t believe in writing prompts, morning pages and the other usual ways to encourage writing. She asserts they are a sure formula to finding yourself with pages and pages of practice writing that don’t take you anywhere.
What you need to do, she claims, is write with purpose. She proposes that you use the following algorithm: “This is about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z.”
X= What your story is about (the theme)
Y= The actual story that illustrates the theme
Z= Where the story will be published. Is it a blog post, a short personal essay, a podcast, a long memoir? Each has different requirements.
Roach refers to most of the same topics that we saw in the previous two books —voice, structure, leaving things out, digging out the truth—in a succinct way. She encourages us to find the small moment that defines the big theme, and tell the whole story through that small moment.
What makes her book interesting is that she illustrates this algorithm and the small moments theory over and over through her own micro stories. For example, she explains that she had to write a column for a magazine (Z) about patriotism (X) and she was stumped. Then she remembered a time when she rode a float with her husband during a parade in Troy, New York, honoring Uncle Sam. They had to toss candy to the crowd (Y.) That day she learned that parade-goers behaved in many different ways, and she was able to tie this observation to the theory that there are also many kinds of patriotism.
As you read Roach’s book, you may feel puzzled by a micro story that seems to come out of nowhere, but in the end, she dots all the i’s and lets you know how and why it illustrates her points.
Roach also suggests tools that can provide inspiration to a writer, from a calendar of significant holidays that gives you ideas for stories to pitch, to a rhyming dictionary.
This book is a quick read that illustrates the key memoir elements in a different way. It also helps you think about how to pitch and write for any type of outlet, from popular magazines to radio programs.
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned memoirist, one or all of these three books should help you move forward in your path.